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Symbol of the destruction of the Aztec empire by the Spanish Conquest

‘Conquest’: the impact - expert opinions (1)

We asked members of our Panel of Experts - all top scholars in their fields - to share their thoughts, briefly, on the impact of the Spanish invasion of Mexico on the Mesoamerican world in general. Here is a selection, beginning with some of the most provocative...! (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Mexican eagle is stabbed in the heart: detail from Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration - the frontispiece for ‘The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico’’
Pic 1: The Mexican eagle is stabbed in the heart: detail from Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration - the frontispiece for ‘The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico’’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Our first, appropriately, is a no-holds-barred strike from one of Mexico’s all-time most esteemed historians, Alfredo López Austin: ‘The conquest of Mexico was the beginning of a colonial system whose consequences are still being suffered today by millions of indigenous people who continue living in the land of their ancestors in conditions of subordination to a foreign culture. Colonial rule is one of the most dishonourable forms of social organisation. It is a regime that degrades equally the oppressed and the oppressor.’

Pic 2: Spanish torture and killing of indigenous Mexicans; Codex Kingsborough (top) Manuscript of a Dogging (below)
Pic 2: Spanish torture and killing of indigenous Mexicans; Codex Kingsborough (top) Manuscript of a Dogging (below) (Click on image to enlarge)

Next, James Maffie’s blistering attack on European morality of the day: ‘One of the most intriguing and most persistent questions of early modern world history is the conquest of the Aztec empire by Cortez and his thousand-fold indigenous allies. What explains Europeans’ ability to conquer the powerful Aztecs (and other indigenous peoples in the Americas)? While many scholars maintain that it was European technological superiority (e.g. guns and steel), I submit that this can be no more than a partial explanation since their technological superiority merely provided them with the means to do so, not the temperament or the ideological license to do so. If it is only partially true that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” (as the popular defense of unrestricted gun ownership in the USA would have us believe), then we must examine the people who did the killing. I submit that a complete explanation must include (at least) two additional key factors. First, Europeans were better at killing human beings than were Native Americans because Europeans had the requisite (im)moral personality to do so. Briefly put, in order to be a murderer one must possess a murderous temperament, and to be a mass murderer one must possess the temperament of a mass murderer. Europeans possessed the requisite psychology to be mass murderers. Secondly, they were able to give free reign to their murderous temperaments because they enjoyed the philosophical and religious blessings of both secular and religious moral authorities of their day.’

Pic 3: World Map 1689 (‘Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula Amstelodami’), Amsterdam
Pic 3: World Map 1689 (‘Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula Amstelodami’), Amsterdam (Click on image to enlarge)

Anthony Aveni stresses the need to appreciate just how different the Old and New Worlds were 500 years ago: ‘We who are involved in education often speak of the need to confront issues related to diversity. Though I never designed my studies of Aztec cosmology to become involved in such matters, I am told by teachers who use my texts (see below)  that by pointing out how a culture, hermetically sealed by two oceans from Western European civilization until 1492, developed its own independent ideas about religion, social hierarchy, human relations , science, etc., gives one insight into the multiplicity of ways of comprehending the human condition. Ironically, historical studies that were once considered esoteric and perhaps unnecessary in educational programs now seem to emerge as ways of exploring the wonders of human diversity.’
Texts : People and the Sky (London, Thames and Hudson, 2008) Empires of Time (London, I.B. Tauris, 1997).

Pic 4 ‘Entrance of Cortez into Tenochtitlan’, from Campbell’s Guide to Mexico, 1899
Pic 4 ‘Entrance of Cortez into Tenochtitlan’, from Campbell’s Guide to Mexico, 1899 (Click on image to enlarge)

These last five centuries have, it is now recognised, allowed some very biased ideas to flourish, reminiscent of today’s ‘spin’, or worse, ‘fake news’, as Matthew Restall, author of the classic ‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’, reminds us: ‘The Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest have been misrepresented and misunderstood for five centuries. This is because the conquistadors claimed that the Aztecs were bloodthirsty cannibals whose culture was based on human sacrifice, justifying them being saved by Christian civilization; that Moctezuma surrendered to Cortés, legalizing the Spanish invasion; and that the Conquest of Mexico was the extraordinary against-all-odds achievement of a great hero. These claims are wrong. The Aztecs simply killed people in warfare, as did Spaniards and other Europeans (the term “human sacrifice,” like the term “tribe,” should not be used as a simple descriptor assigned only to non-Western cultures). The Aztecs were not barbarian or less civilized than Spaniards or Europeans; they just had different cultural practices. Moctezuma did not surrender to Cortés; he welcomed the Spanish invaders as guests, for reasons still being explored by historians (but probably related to profound intellectual curiosity as well as a strategy of containment).

Pic 5: Detail from ‘La Conquista de Guatemala’, oil painting, anon., Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 5: Detail from ‘La Conquista de Guatemala’, oil painting, anon., Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

‘And “the Conquest of Mexico” (which I would like to see retitled “the Spanish-Aztec War”) was not quick, glorious, heroic, nor an achievement by Cortés or any one man. It was a brutal, bloody, chaotic two-year war, marked by atrocities and horrific mortality rates, with decisions made by many leaders. Over 90% of combatants were Aztecs and other indigenous people (Mesoamericans). They were fighting to defend their homes, to survive the political upheaval caused by the war, or to use the disruption caused by the Spanish invasion to carve out political space or regional autonomy. New Spain was not born in 1521, despite Spanish claims. It developed gradually over the 1520s through 1540s and beyond, as the conquest wars spread and then subsided, and the new political arrangements between indigenous nobles and Spanish settlers turned into the colonial system of rule. Finally, we should view neither Aztecs nor Spaniards as “good” or “bad”; both civilizations contained people that were admirable or despicable, but all equally comprehensible to us as human beings.’

Pic 6: The stereotyped image of Cortés as an all-conquering, valiant hero fighting impossible odds. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 6: The stereotyped image of Cortés as an all-conquering, valiant hero fighting impossible odds. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the problems has been that the accounts of the ‘Conquest’ on which historians have relied in the past are Spanish accounts - sometimes written decades after the event, even in some instances by protagonists who never set foot in Mexico! Adrian Locke stresses the need for a balanced view... ‘Throughout history people have marvelled at the exploits of a small group of Spanish soldiers led by Hernán Cortés who vanquished a great and mighty civilisation, namely the Aztec (or as they called themselves, the Mexica). Much has been written about their heroic bravery and superior technology (steel swords, gunpowder and armour for example) which was celebrated in many accounts, most importantly that recorded by one of those soldiers Bernal Díaz in ‘The Conquest of New Spain’. This, however, is an example of history written by the victor. The reality was very different and thanks to better understanding of native accounts, that is books written by the Aztec and other indigenous Mexicans such as the Tlaxcalans, a much fuller picture has emerged over the past fifty or more years. Some people, as a result, refer to the event as an invasion rather than a conquest as people in Mexico continued to resist European rule for centuries afterwards. These accounts also demonstrate that the Europeans (who could best be described as mercenaries driven by personal enrichment rather than as a regular army) took advantage of those they came across, pitching different people against each other to exploit existing rivalries. In so doing they raised an army of many thousands of locals that fought alongside the Europeans against the Mexica.

Pic 7: Smallpox, Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 45v (detail)
Pic 7: Smallpox, Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 45v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘They also brought European diseases for which there was no resistance; smallpox, for instance, killed millions of people across the Americas. The dramatic population crash impacted all levels of society from farmers to soldiers and across generations. These mercenaries also paid little attention to the established conventions of warfare in Mexico, such as by killing in battle on an unprecedented scale.
By looking at the extraordinary sequence of events that took place in Mexico between 1519 and 1521 from both points of view we have a much better and more rounded understanding of what really took place. Over and above this, however, we have come to have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the Mexica themselves and in so doing can form a broader comprehension of how such a massive change, over which they had such little control despite their valiant and sustained resistance, came to take place over such a short period of time.’

Pic 8: An Aztec woman tends to a smallpox victim; Florentine Codex Book 12, detail
Pic 8: An Aztec woman tends to a smallpox victim; Florentine Codex Book 12, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

The devastating effect of smallpox is mentioned by many of our Panel. For Michael Coe it was one of two key factors: ‘The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire was not so much the result of Spanish military superiority, but of virulent disease and astute diplomacy. Accompanying the arrival of Europeans were microbes against which the peoples of Mexico and Central America had no immunity whatsoever. These terrible Old World plagues – such as smallpox and measles - preceded the advance of the Spaniards into Mexico and Central America, and entire populations were decimated. At the same time, leaders like Hernán Cortés and Pedro Alvarado made loyal allies of the traditional enemies of the Aztec state, in particular the people and army of Tlaxcala. In most of the major battles that ended the Empire, there were many times as many “native Conquistadores” as there were Spaniards. In the aftermath of the defeat, within a century and a half, 90 per cent of the Aztec people were dead.’

Pic 9: Tira de Tepechpan, detail of page 15. Bibliothèque National de France
Pic 9: Tira de Tepechpan, detail of page 15. Bibliothèque National de France

Lori Diel adds a third - the attempt at spiritual conquest: ‘A detail from the Tira de Tepechpan succinctly and poignantly expresses three of the main facets of the conquest: military, spiritual, and viral. In the year 1 Reed (1519), the painter of the manuscript juxtaposes the military conquest and the spiritual one. On the lower register, Cortés stands with weapon in hand and points to a burning temple, suggesting the defeat of the Aztec capital and its main temple. Meanwhile, on the upper register, an image of a cross and dove floats above the time line, suggesting the arrival of Christianity. Just one year later, we see yet another arrival, that of small pox. A small seated figure is shown above the timeline and covered in pockmarks to indicate the epidemic that would decimate the native population. Indeed, another victim of smallpox is shown above; this is the funerary bundle of Lady 2 Rabbit, ruler of Tepechpan. More deaths are shown in the register below. First, is the bundle of Moctezuma, who was either killed by the Spaniards or by his own people; the sources vary. Below Moctezuma, we see the seating of his successor, Cuitlahuac, but his funerary bundle is shown just below, as he too died of small pox just eighty days after his inauguration.’

Pic 10: Aztec stone slabs were re-used by the Spanish; this piece - probably the base of a church column - bears images of Tlaltecuhtli (earth deity). Nahua labourers made sure the images remained concealed, in contact with the earth itself...
Pic 10: Aztec stone slabs were re-used by the Spanish; this piece - probably the base of a church column - bears images of Tlaltecuhtli (earth deity). Nahua labourers made sure the images remained concealed, in contact with the earth itself...  (Click on image to enlarge)

This same theme is taken up directly by Louise Burkhart who stresses just how UNsuccessful the invaders were in their mission to eradicate Mexica beliefs: ‘Just as the idea of a “Spanish conquest” does not capture the extent to which the Aztec Empire was defeated by competing and rebelling indigenous groups, the idea of “missionization” or “evangelization” exaggerates the extent to which Aztec religion was itself “conquered” and replaced by Christianity. The Aztecs adapted their religious practice quite extensively to accommodate the expectations of Catholic priests and Spanish overlords. The practices they adopted and buildings they built are often strikingly similar to European models, but to understand them we should always look past those similarities for the subtle differences that show us a different worldview and a different religious sensibility at work. Aztec and other indigenous Christianities are indigenous religions, not transplants from the Old World. This is not the same thing as another common idea: that Christianity is a “layer” on top of an essentially unchanged preconquest religion. The Aztecs changed their religion, and adopted some aspects of Christianity with considerable enthusiasm. But Catholic churchmen had limited power to determine how these changes were made. It was the Aztecs who chose which aspects of Christianity they would accept and which they would not. They made sense of them in their own terms, and adapted these new traditions to a build a meaningful religious life as they faced the problems and pressures of survival under colonial rule. Christianity did not replace Aztec religion; it became an Aztec religion, in one of its many adaptations as a global religion.’

Pic 11: Mexican artist Roberto Cueva del Río cleverly captures the mythical resemblance between Cortés and Quetzalcóatl in his mural of the meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma (detail)
Pic 11: Mexican artist Roberto Cueva del Río cleverly captures the mythical resemblance between Cortés and Quetzalcóatl in his mural of the meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the myths of the ‘Conquest’ relates precisely to the idea that Cortés was mistaken for creator god Quetzalcóatl, predicted - so the myth went - to make a ‘second coming’ in 1519, the year of Cortés’ arrival. Camilla Townsend exposes the myth’s thin foundations: ‘In 1552, Francisco López de Gómara, who had been chaplain and secretary to Hernando Cortés while he lived out his old age in Spain, published an account of the conquest of Mexico. López de Gómara himself had never been to the New World, but he could envision it nonetheless. “Many [Indians] came to gape at the strange men, now so famous, and at their attire, arms and horses, and they said, ‘These men are gods!’” The chaplain was one of the first to claim in print that the Mexicans had believed the conquistadors to be divine. Among the welter of statements made in the Old World about inhabitants of the New, this one found particular resonance. It was repeated with enthusiasm, and soon a specific version gained credence: the Mexicans had apparently believed in a god named Quetzalcoatl, who long ago had disappeared in the east, promising to return from that direction on a certain date. In an extraordinary coincidence, Cortés appeared off the coast in that very year and was mistaken for Quetzalcoatl by the devout Indians. In fact, however, there is little evidence that the indigenous people ever seriously believed the newcomers were gods, and there is no meaningful evidence that any story about Quetzalcoatl’s returning from the east ever existed before the conquest.’

Pic 12: Mural of the Spanish invasion of Mexico by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 12: Mural of the Spanish invasion of Mexico by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Stephanie Wood includes this myth in her summary, and extends the narrative to cover the wider colonial enterprise: ‘Hernando Cortés and company did not represent an invasion of soldiers sent by the Spanish crown, but a diverse hodgepodge of individuals not formed or trained as a military who got to the Caribbean too late to get encomiendas (grants of tributes and laborers), and so they moved on to the mainland, investing in the expedition themselves, and getting returns that were proportionate to their (sometimes meager) investments. If Mesoamericans thought the invaders were “gods,” that notion was probably short-lived; in early native pictorial manuscripts they certainly look and act like human beings, and native people quickly learned how to deal with them. The invaders were not inhumanly strong and brave; they never would have been able to seize power in Mexico City without the thousands of indigenous allies they easily recruited, such as the Tlaxcalteca, who were traditional enemies of the Aztecs. Once in power, the Spanish interlopers built their colony following the lines of the pre-existing Aztec empire (and, slowly, beyond), established their cities on age-old native cities, constructed their churches with the stones of pre-Columbian temples, and collected taxes and used labor networks that indigenous people already had in place. It is true that vast numbers of indigenous people died—not from battles, but owing to unknown diseases introduced inadvertently by the Europeans (we have no records of the intentional distribution of “diseased blankets” in this region—rather, the Spaniards did not want their labor force to disappear). In the countryside, the native peoples faced some Spanish efforts to concentrate and tap into the workers of the reduced populations, but huge numbers of the original farming communities continued to function with indigenous leadership and some measure of autonomy for many years. So “conquest” does not imply total destruction of all the Aztecs (or the many other indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica), far from it. It implied a new, foreign domination with a new faith, but it was a gradual process of change for those who survived the epidemics. It was marked by alliances, some self-serving cooperation, and periodic acts of resistance. We have many sources written in native languages that are worth reading in order to understand the reality on the ground for indigenous peoples who held onto a considerable measure of their own cultures while they endured Spanish colonization for three centuries.’

Pic 13: Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration of the (for the Spanish) fateful ‘Sad Night’, when most of the Spanish force was destroyed by the Aztecs
Pic 13: Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration of the (for the Spanish) fateful ‘Sad Night’, when most of the Spanish force was destroyed by the Aztecs (Click on image to enlarge)

Several of our Panel have hinted at the ‘numbers game’ - the romantic myth that a ‘handful’ of brave Spanish soldiers managed somehow to vanquish a vast Aztec army. Eric Taladoire sets the record straight: ‘The current descriptions of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by Cortés pitch a handful of Spanish adventurers fighting against the tremendous forces of the Aztec empire. But this empire was still in its building process and numerous cities opposed it or cooperated reluctantly. On the other hand, we must not forget that many Spaniards were hardened veterans who had fought in the Reconquista or in Italy. Besides, Cortés’ army amounted to much more than the too often quoted 500 soldiers and already reached some 2000 men in 1520. While the Aztecs tried hard to organize resistance to their Spanish foes, as exemplified by the tremendous losses of Cortés’ army (more than half of his men, during the Noche Triste), they were unable to stop the continuous flow of invaders. During the siege of Tenochtitlan, Cortes could count on more men than at the beginning, through continuous reinforcements, while the ranks of Aztec warriors dwindled slowly, mostly from smallpox. Lastly, we must not minimize the importance of native warriors that represented about 90% of the conquerors’ forces. In these circumstances, and not considering the often-quoted technological Spanish superiority, the issue was predictable. But the fall of the Aztec ruler did not mean the fall of Mesoamerican civilizations. Let us simply remember that the last independent Maya city surrendered in 1697, while Indian wars in the northwest of Mexico lasted till the end of the XIXth century.’

Pic 14: Map showing the range of independent city-states and peoples in Mesoamerica in 1519; the Aztec empire is shown in brown
Pic 14: Map showing the range of independent city-states and peoples in Mesoamerica in 1519; the Aztec empire is shown in brown (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish tactic of allying themselves with enemies of the Aztecs was central to their final victory. Alan Sandstrom elucidates: ‘One of the most puzzling aspects of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire is how is it that a few hundred men under Hernán Cortés could have managed to overcome hundreds of thousands of seasoned warriors in battle after battle. The military subjugation of the Aztecs (as well as the Incas far to the south) fed into European ideas of their own superiority and was used to justify further conquests of peoples in different parts of the world. Part of the explanation for this remarkable event lies in the nature of the Aztec empire itself. Aztec rulers did not welcome the peoples they conquered as citizens of the empire but rather exploited them ruthlessly, making them supply their capital city—Tenochtitlan—with valued goods. The empire was in an almost constant state of rebellion. In short, many people feared and hated the Aztecs and welcomed the Spaniards as potential saviors. So Cortés and his men did not single-handedly defeat the Aztecs but rather led a rebellion involving hundreds of thousands of warrior allies from peoples the Aztecs had subjugated. We also know that a major purpose of Aztec warfare was to capture enemy soldiers and this purpose played into the hands of the invading Spaniards whose strategy was to kill as many of the enemy as possible.

Pic 15: ‘Clearly technology also played a role’. Spanish weapons - detail from a mural of the Conquest by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 15: ‘Clearly technology also played a role’. Spanish weapons - detail from a mural of the Conquest by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Clearly technology also played a role. Even the inefficient firearms of the Spanish soldiers were superior killing machines compared to weapons possessed by the Aztecs. Some additional historical context can be helpful in understanding the Aztec defeat. Between 1497 and 1515, a few years before Cortés and his men invaded the Aztec realm, Portuguese military ships under Alfonso de Albuquerque rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Portuguese soldiers, using weapons similar to those employed by the Spaniards, killed tens of thousands of people in the expedition from east Africa to India while suffering relatively few losses of their own. In the face of the ferocious and murderous fighting style of the Portugese, armies of Africans, Turks, Arabs, and Indians often turned and fled. The slaughter was appalling. Given the experiences of the Portuguese conquerors and the equally aggressive fighting style of the Spaniards, the Aztec conquest appears less of an anomaly and more an example of a larger pattern of defeat experienced by peoples in many places throughout the world at the hands of the European military with its guns and ruthless tactics.’
Related reading: Crowley, Roger. 2015. Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire. New York: Random House

Pic 16: Aztec ‘human sacrifice’; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 16: Aztec ‘human sacrifice’; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst not everyone might agree on the relative importance of the weaponry involved, when it comes to tactics on the battlefield, there is no doubt, as James Maffie made clear above, both sides had VERY different agendas. As Elizabeth Graham explains, this gave the Spanish an enormous advantage: ‘Perhaps the greatest injustice perpetrated on the Aztecs and their present-day descendants in Mexico is the idea that there was such a thing in their civilisation as ‘human sacrifice’. There is no word in the Nahuatl language—or indeed in any of the native languages of the region—for human sacrifice. The term was coined by the Spanish invaders, and particularly the Christian friars, as part of their efforts to impose political control, and to denigrate indigenous thought and philosophy that might serve to block Christian teaching. Not a single Aztec priest was ever interviewed by the friars about ‘religion’. All the information we have comes from Mexica (Aztec) males who were raised and educated by the friars, and who were then asked about their culture when they were adults—after being told all their lives by the church why and how their fathers and forefathers acted! What we do know is that Aztec warfare did not sanction killing opponents on the battlefield. Instead, opponents were captured. Capture was the way wealth and property, in the form of taxes and tribute that had been paid to the captive, were transferred to the captor. The concept that existed in Europe of capturing territory did not exist. Sometimes, some captured Aztec warriors—and why some and not others we do not know—were killed after the battle, and it may be this that the Spaniards decided to claim was ‘human sacrifice’. To the Aztecs, this was how men met their fate in warfare. To the Spaniards, the acceptable way of dying in war was to be killed on the battlefield. In Spanish rules of war, one killed as many enemy warriors as possible, which was completely shocking to the Aztecs. Given the vast numbers slaughtered by the Spaniards in battle, it is ironic that the Aztecs get blamed for being the brutal ones.’

Pic 17: The Aztecs sacrifice captured Spaniards and horses; Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 17: The Aztecs sacrifice captured Spaniards and horses; Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Could the Spaniards be accused of double standards? They claimed the Aztecs undertook mass human sacrifice in order to justify their conquest of Mexico - yet just look at the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, in the same era... Pamela Sandstrom presents the case: ‘When people think of the Aztecs of Mexico, the image they frequently bring to mind is the horror of human sacrifice. We have 16th-century records from the Spaniards and the converted Aztecs detailing many different types of human sacrifice. The most common way was to lay out a victim on his or her back atop a ceremonial stone, and as five priests held the person’s arms, legs, and head, the lead priest plunged a stone knife into the chest and removed the still-beating heart. The Spaniards were horrified at the spectacle and used human sacrifice as a major justification for their invasion and subsequent conquest of the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican and New World peoples. Captured Spanish soldiers themselves were sacrificed by Aztec priests. Scholars have attempted to understand this gruesome practice by pointing out that human sacrifice formed part of Aztec religion and that its purpose was to maintain the workings of the cosmos and promote fertility among humans and in the fields. Other explanations include Aztec use of human sacrifice as state theater to intimidate neighboring peoples and as a source—because many victims may have been consumed following the extraction of their hearts—of scarce protein in the diet. Scholars also point out that humans were sacrificed among almost all ethnic groups in Mesoamerica as well as in other cultures throughout the world.

Pic 18: The victorious Spaniards torture the Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc; bronze sculpture, Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City
Pic 18: The victorious Spaniards torture the Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc; bronze sculpture, Museo Nacional de Historia, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘We do not know the precise scale of ritual killing engaged in by the Aztecs. But even given the notoriously inaccurate records of the sacrifices left by the 16th-century chroniclers, it is clear that the Aztecs ritually killed people at an unprecedented level. People of today are justifiably horrified at the prospect of Aztec human sacrifice, however, a little historical context helps us to better understand (but certainly not condone) the practice. The Spaniards, who were so eager to conquer the Aztecs and put an end to human sacrifice did not hesitate to take human life in their own society for religious reasons. Hundreds of thousands of people perished during the Inquisition in Spain and elsewhere by being burned alive at the stake on suspicion that they were in league with the devil. The Spaniards thought nothing of sacrificing many thousands of Native Americans throughout Mesoamerica as a byproduct of their military action. And people today should not overlook the slaughter of innocents in recent European history. While the Aztecs were no saints, they do not deserve to be singled out for disrespecting human life.’
Related reading: González Torres, Yólotl. 2001. “Sacrifice and Ritual Violence.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Volume 3. Davíd Carrasco, editor in chief. Pp. 102-104. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

Pic 19: Nautical world map by Sancho Gutiérrez, 1551, Chapterhouse, Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain
Pic 19: Nautical world map by Sancho Gutiérrez, 1551, Chapterhouse, Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain (Click on image to enlarge)

We end this section as we began, with the comments of another eminent Mexican historian Manuel Aguilar-Moreno who summarizes for us the worldviews of two contrasting ‘camps’ five centuries after the invasion, each with its own interpretation of events... ‘In 1992 events were held throughout the American continent commemorating 500 years since the ‘Discovery of America’ by Columbus. Known as the ‘meeting of two worlds’, these celebrations provoked major controversies and political debates. The Hispanista position sought to justify the Conquest of America by referring to the inherent merits of Spanish culture. The indigenist movement denounced the destruction of major civilisations, the genocide and the dramatic cultural loss suffered by the people of the New World. As mestizo Mexicans we could argue that if we disown any part - Spanish or Indian - of our blood and reality, we would be denying our full identity as Mexicans, a new race sharing values formed by the complex fusion of European and American cultures. At the same time as we forge our identity, we have to understand the contradictions and disquiet that this implies for our indigenous peoples, who remain tied to their ancestral traditions and who don’t feel part of Mestizo Mexico. This helps explain the recent social and political upheaval in Chiapas (the Zapatista movement), where one of the key issues for debate has been the autonomy of indigenous communities.

Pic 20: Oil painting depicting a range of ‘castas’ - part of a hierarchical mixed-race category system used in colonial Mexico; painted by Luis Berrueco (18th century, Mexico); Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 20: Oil painting depicting a range of ‘castas’ - part of a hierarchical mixed-race category system used in colonial Mexico; painted by Luis Berrueco (18th century, Mexico); Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The conquest led in large measure to the destruction of diverse native cultures and to the imposition of a new culture on the populace. It reflects that strange, dark warrior instinct in human beings so enduring throughout history. In spite of this, Hernán Cortés was not just a bold soldier - he was also the founder of new towns and writer of new laws, with a vision to create a prosperous and stable ‘New Spain’ in the midst of an indigenous world. For good or bad, he truly is one of the founding fathers of Mexico.
These contradictions and ironies, alongside my own reflections on who we are as mestizo Mexicans, have led me to a fuller understanding of the core relationship between indigenous and Spanish cultures in the Americas. I am stunned by the sight, on the one hand, of Christian churches and monasteries erected atop pre-Columbian foundations, and on the other of pre-Hispanic aesthetics and cosmovision piercing through these buildings.
In today’s Mexico we speak a Nahuatl-ized version of Spanish, we believe in a syncretic Catholic religion still influenced by the magic of the past, we have native religious brotherhoods and feast days, we celebrate the cult of Death, and most of our customs and traditions are mestizo. So we have to ask: who conquered who?
In physical and military terms clearly the Spanish were the conquerors, but from the spiritual and cultural point of view the panorama is much more ambiguous. Three centuries of Transculturation produced a new ethnic and cultural identity permeating the whole of our history, art and religion. ‘Mexico’ was born out of that first meeting of two cultures, when Spaniards began to eat maize, and when indigenous people began imprinting their artistic and cultural canons onto Spanish art and architecture.’

In the next section we look at the ‘Spanish Conquest’ from the perspective of women...

Picture sources:-
• Main/pix 1, 6, 13 & 16: images scanned from our own copy of The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico 1517-1521 (Bernal Díaz de Castillo), illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias, Limited Editions Club, 1942
• Pic 2: top image from Codex Kingsborough, British Museum, photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore; bottom image from the ‘Manuscript of a Dogging’, courtesy Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris
• Pic 3: from Wikimedia Commons (Early World Maps)
• Pic 4: image scanned from our copy of Campbell’s Complete Guide and Descriptive Book of Mexico by Reau Campbell, Mexico City, 1899, original source not given
• Pix 5, 10, 11, 12, 15, 18, 19 & 20: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 7: image scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pix 8 & 17: images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 9: image courtesy of Lori Diel
• Pic 14: image courtesy of Tomás Filsinger.

Continue to Part Two...

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