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Destruction of native religious images (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción’

The Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest for GCSE (III)

This is - the final - Part 3 of the full version of our resource for the Historical Association. Visit the HA website (link below) for a shortened ‘Briefing Guide for Students’ (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The burning of Aztec books by Spanish friars; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 1: The burning of Aztec books by Spanish friars; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The initial tactic of the Spanish Church was to use force: not only were Aztec temples pulled down but Aztec screenfold books were burnt (see main picture and pic 1) in their thousands (today only 16 pre-Hispanic ones are known still to exist - ironically, ones sent over from Mexico as exotic gifts to the Spanish King). The violence was backed up with arguments: could the natives not see that, though human sacrifice had ended, the Sun still rose and set each day?!

Pic 2: Virgin and child on an Aztec stone base; Museum of America, Madrid
Pic 2: Virgin and child on an Aztec stone base; Museum of America, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

Far from surrendering their beliefs, though, the Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs) went underground, in multiple forms of ‘cultural resistance’: Aztec religious icons were hidden in churches (sometimes built into new church walls themselves), old deities were disguised as Christian Saints (fertility gods in particular remaining popular to this day), they refused to enter the new ‘temples’, forcing the Church to accept holding mass and other ceremonies outside, the Days of the Dead (an ancient festival) is today far more popular than the Catholic All Souls Day in Mexico, the idea of Christ’s virgin birth was easily accepted by the locals (that’s how Huitzilopochtli had been born, after all!), and terms completely foreign to the Nahua, such as ‘sin’, had to be watered down in translation: ‘evil’ in Nahuatl could only be expressed as ahmo cualli (‘not good’). About the only item that the Catholic Church was 100% successful in imposing on the locals was trousers for men!

Pic 3: The Conquest of Guatemala, oil painting (anonymous), Museum of America, Madrid
Pic 3: The Conquest of Guatemala, oil painting (anonymous), Museum of America, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

C) Transformation of landscape and people: grazing animals, ecological devastation and mestizos
The Nahua had to fight hard to keep themselves and their traditions alive: under Spanish rule it was a case of ‘adapt or die’. The country, like its people, became a mixed-blood (mestizo) New World/Old World melting-pot. Some hangovers from before the invasion didn’t stand a chance: being of noble Aztec descent was quickly devalued, the Spanish authorities prioritising individual achievement instead (by mid-17th century all ‘nobles’ had become commoners). The landscape was badly affected too: for starters, the Spanish, wrongly believing it to be disease-ridden, became obsessed with draining and filling in Lake Texcoco which the Aztecs had managed so successfully (it never recovered); trees were wantonly cut down with resulting land erosion (wood was in high demand for lumber, fuel, lime production, building supports...); land used for centuries for growing traditional subsistence crops was turned over to livestock raising and to new cash crops such as sugarcane and coffee. A dual economy was born: local subsistence - on the poorest land - alongside an import-export market designed to provide a superior standard of living for Spanish colonialists.

Pic 4: : The original Aztec Sunstone on display today in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City – it weighs 24 tons!)
Pic 4: : The original Aztec Sunstone on display today in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City – it weighs 24 tons!) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec institutions merged with European ones: the calpolli (clan-based neighbourhood) with the barrio, the tianquiz (exchange (‘head’) town to channel tribute flows, native lienzos (roll-out maps painted on canvas) became key evidence in land-ownership court battles between native communities and encroaching estates. Against the odds, many old ways - languages, crafts, herbal medicines and healing practices, legends, myths, superstitions and other beliefs, foods, rituals, clothing styles, ancient calendars with the links to fates or destinies - survived long enough to be ‘rediscovered’ centuries later when a new interest in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past awoke, coinciding with the country’s independence from Spain in 1821. The huge Aztec Sunstone, toppled and buried during the Conquest, was unearthed in 1790 - a symbolic re-birth after many had thought the Aztec world buried and forgotten forever...

Sources and recommended further reading:-
The History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz de Castillo (edited with an intro by Davíd Carrasco), University of New Mexico Press, 2008
Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest by Matthew Restall, OUP, 2003
The Aztecs: a Very Short Introduction by Davíd Carrasco, OUP, 2012
Image of the New World by Gordon Brotherston, Thames & Hudson, 1979
The Conquistadors: a Very Short Introduction by Matthew Restall and Felipe Fernández-Armesto, OUP, 2012
Aztecs & Conquistadors by John Pohl and Charles M Robinson III, Osprey Publishing, 2005
The Encomienda in New Spain by Lesley Byrd Simpson, University of California Press, 1966
• ‘Conquest Narratives’ chapter by Benjamin Keen in Encyclopedia of Mexico Vol I, Routledge, 1997
• ‘The Spain that Encountered Mexico’ chapter by Helen Nader in The Oxford History of Mexico OUP, 2000
• ‘The Collision of Two Worlds’ chapter by Ross Hassig in The Oxford History of Mexico, OUP, 2000
The Aztecs of Central Mexico: an Imperial Society by Frances F. Berdan, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1982
1519: A Journey to the End of Time by John Harrison, Parthian Books, 2015

Picture notes and sources:-
• Main picture: the destruction of native religious images (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción’, folio 242r); Image courtesy and by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
• Pix 1, 2, 3 & 4: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Pic 6: The Aztecs: where does the truth lie...?
Pic 6: The Aztecs: where does the truth lie...?

A FEW ARGUMENTS/CONTROVERSIES
• The extent of human sacrifice. Were the Spanish accounts biased/exaggerated?
• Were the Aztecs ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’?
• Was/is Doña Marina a traitor or heroine?
• Who killed Moctezuma?
• Did European weaponry/technology win the war?

The extent of human sacrifice
There’s an incredible range of opinions on this. We’ll go from one extreme to the other:-
• If you read The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice by Michael Harmer (from Natural History, April 1977, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/aztecs/sacrifice.htm) you’ll find this: ‘In 1946 Sherburne Cook, a demographer specializing in American Indian populations, estimated an over-all annual mean of 15,000 victims in a central Mexican population reckoned at two million. Later, however, he and his colleague Woodrow Borah revised his estimate of the total central Mexican population upward to 25 million. Recently, Borah, possibly the leading authority on the demography of Mexico at the time of the conquest, has also revised the estimated number of persons sacrificed in central Mexico in the fifteenth century to 250,000 per year, equivalent to one percent of the total population.’

Pic 7: Scene of human sacrifice, Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 70r – drawn AFTER the Conquest
Pic 7: Scene of human sacrifice, Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 70r – drawn AFTER the Conquest

• If you read The Angry Aztecs by Terry Deary (1997), you’ll find the following:-
The Aztecs sacrificed 50,000 people per year (1 every 10 minutes!), 20,000 ‘in a single party’ (p48), and that there were 136,000* skulls on the main skull rack (p109).
• If you read The History of the Indies of New Spain by Fray Diego Durán (originally written 1588?, English translation by Doris Heyden, 1994), you’ll find this: ‘When the sovereigns grew weary, their satanic work was carried on by the priests who represented the gods. Our chronicle tells us that this sacrifice lasted four days from dawn to dusk and that, as I have said, eighty thousand four hundred men from different cities and provinces died.’ (Chapter 44, p. 339: this refers to the festival of inauguration of the Templo Mayor under King Ahuitzotl in 1487)
• If you read the Relación de Andrés de Tapia (chronicle of one of the conquistadors) you’ll find this: ‘The author, together with Gonzalo de Umbría, counted the poles [on the main skull rack or tzompantli at Tenochtitlan] and multiplied them by the five skulls hung between beams, and found there were *136,000 skulls, not counting the ones on the towers’ (The Conquistadors: First-person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, ed. Patricia de Fuentes, 1963, p. 42)

Pic 8: The classic image of Aztec human sacrifice... (source unknown)
Pic 8: The classic image of Aztec human sacrifice... (source unknown)

• If you read his History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz de Castillo, you’ll find this: ‘I remember that in the plaza [of the small town Cempoala, en route to Tenohtitlan]... there were piles of human skulls so regularly arranged that one could count them and I estimated them at more than a hundred thousand.’ (Ed. Davíd Carrasco, 2008, p. 439)
• If you read the second Carta de Relación sent by Hernán Cortés to the Spanish king, you’ll find he says that the Aztecs sacrificed ‘3,000 victims’ each year
• If you read ‘The Evidence of Human Sacrifice’ in Chapter 8 ‘Aztec Human Sacrifice’ by Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján in The Aztec World (eds. Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, 2008), you’ll find this: ‘The [archaeological] evidence demonstrates that the numbers in the historical sources may be wildly exaggerated. There is quite a long way from the skeletal remains of the 126 individuals found so far in all construction stages of the Templo Mayor and its thirteen adjoining buildings to the 80,400 victims mentioned in a couple of documents for one single event...’ (p. 141)
• If you read Sacrificios Humanos entre los Mexicas y otros Pueblos Indios: ¿Realidad of Fantasía? (Human Sacrifices amongst the Aztecs and other Indian Peoples: True or False?) by Peter Hassler, you’ll find this (our translation): ‘We must say there isn’t a single authentic eye-witness account, no communal burial sites for the victims of these supposed mass killings have been found, nor is there a single other proof of institutionalized human sacrifice among the Mexica (Aztecs) and other Indian Peoples’ (Ce-Acatl, 53-54, Nov-Dec 1993, p. 9).

Pic 9: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of a ‘red-striped prisoner’ being sacrificed, based on the Codex Borgia, p. 19
Pic 9: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of a ‘red-striped prisoner’ being sacrificed, based on the Codex Borgia, p. 19

(Questions to consider:-
• Why might the Spanish want to exaggerate the numbers for human sacrifice?
• Why might modern-day Aztec ‘revivalists’ want to deny that human sacrifice took place at all?
• Why have the Aztecs always been given a ‘bad press’, and stereotyped as the people who performed most human sacrifice in history?
• Most of the ‘classic’ images of Aztec human sacrifice were drawn by scribes AFTER the Conquest, under Spanish direction: what does this tell us?
• How could it even physically have been possible to sacrifice so many people, even over time? Just to give one example, referring to the figure of 136,000 skulls, Nigel Davies has written ‘Taking the figure of slightly less than five skulls per yard, this means that if all the cross poles and their skulls were stretched out end to end, they would have reached for about eighteen miles...’ [Human Sacrifice, 1981, p. 218])
• Finally, and in all seriousness, with such colossal numbers in line to be sacrificed, wouldn’t the victims simply have got fed up waiting and wandered off back home?!)

Pic 10: Mural of Aztec culture (detail), Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Mexico City
Pic 10: Mural of Aztec culture (detail), Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Mexico City

Were the Aztecs ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’?
In the Valladolid Debate (1550-51), called by King Carlos V, two leading Spanish theologians (religious scholars) took leading roles, on opposite sides. First -
• The philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who was a strong supporter of slavery: ‘The Spaniards are perfectly right to govern these barbarians of the New World and adjacent islands; they are in prudence, ingenuity, virtue, and humanity as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults and women are to men, there being as much difference between them as that between wild and cruel and very merciful persons, the prodigiously intemperate and the continent and tempered, and I daresay from apes to men.’ Then -
• The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, known as the Protector of the Indians: ‘With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it... Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned... And of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness, hate, envy and duplicity, the most patient, humble, peaceful, obedient and faithful to their native masters and to the Spanish Christians whom they serve.’
Even some conquistadors themselves changed ‘sides’ as a direct result of their personal experiences: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, after his 8-year trek to Mexico from the coast of Texas (1528-36), decided that his fellow Spaniards were the ‘savages’ and the Indians humane...

Pic 11: Doña Marina alongside Cortés speaks to the Aztecs below, Florentine Codex, Book 12
Pic 11: Doña Marina alongside Cortés speaks to the Aztecs below, Florentine Codex, Book 12

Was/is Doña Marina a traitor or heroine?
To the Spanish she was a heroine. Traditionally in Mexico she has been seen as a traitor, representing, even centuries later, the idea of giving everything away to foreign interests. In recent years, however, her image has been ‘resurrected’, for achieving considerable controlling power over the men around her, in very difficult circumstances. Read the words of the modern Mexican protest song ‘The Curse of Malinche’ by Gabino Palomares…

My brothers with their feather headdresses watched them appear out of the sea -
they were the bearded ones whose arrival had been foretold by prophecy.
Our great King announced to us that our God had arrived
And we opened our doors to them out of fear of the unknown.
They came riding on strange beasts like Devils from hell
They advanced with fire in their hands all covered in metal.
Only a few brave souls offered them resistance
And when the others saw the blood flowing they were overcome with shame.
Because our Gods do not consume nor take pleasure in stolen booty
And by the time we realized the truth it was all over.
And that one mistake led us to hand over the greatness of our past.
And from that one mistake we were to remain slaves for 300 years.
Since then we have been plagued by this custom of offering to foreigners
Our faith, our culture, our bread, our money.
And we carry on exchanging our gold for their trinkets of glass
And we hand over our wealth in return for their shiny mirrors.
Even today in the twentieth century white people keep descending on us
And we open our homes to them and call them our friends.
But if one of our own Indians should turn up exhausted from traversing the mountains
We humiliate him and make him feel like a stranger in his own land.
You hypocrite, bowing humbly down before a foreigner, yet turning on
Your own brothers and sisters with venom.
Oh, Curse of Malinche, today’s disease,
When will you leave my land, when will you let my people go free?

Pic 12: Moctezuma addresses/is attacked by his own people, from the Enconchado series of colonial depictions of the Conquest of Mexico, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Pic 12: Moctezuma addresses/is attacked by his own people, from the Enconchado series of colonial depictions of the Conquest of Mexico, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Who killed Moctezuma?
For years it was ’50/50’: there are several Spanish accounts saying he was stoned to death by his own people, but then there are several indigenous accounts saying he was murdered by the Spanish. However a new piece of evidence only came to light a few years ago, and was exhibited for the first time in the major Moctezuma Aztec Ruler exhibition at the British Museum (2009-10) - the Codex Moctezuma, thought to have been painted in the late 16th or early 17th century. It now lives in Mexico, but is in quite poor condition. Study the crucial section in the middle, where you can see Moctezuma addressing his people from a parapet. Have a close look to see who is really manipulating the events from behind... (See/enlarge picture 6 in Part Two).

Pic 13: Spanish 16th century cannons – illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, and on display, Real Alcaázar, Seville
Pic 13: Spanish 16th century cannons – illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, and on display, Real Alcaázar, Seville

Did European weaponry/technology win the war?
The general trend in histories of warfare has been to ‘rubbish’ Aztec tactics and weapons and to stress the superiority of the Spanish equivalents. Here’s one example, from the modern historian of war, John Keegan:-
‘[The Aztecs were] still trapped in the pathetically inappropriate ceremonialism of the flower battles at the hand of the Spanish conquistadors... Their ritualised style of combat also unfitted them to confront Europeans who fought to win rather than to take sacrificial captives; but, in a contest of hundreds against thousands, it was their horses that gave the invaders the decisive advantage’ (A History of Warfare, 1993, pp. 338-9)

And another, from Stephen Clissold:-
‘The Aztec warrior élite rose to power and maintained it by the obsidian-bladed sword-club and the barbed darts hurled from the atlatl; it went down before the greater power of Toledan steel, the cross-bow and the arquebus....’ (Latin America: New World, Third World, 1972, p. 13)

Pic 14: Illustration of an Aztec warrior by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 14: Illustration of an Aztec warrior by Miguel Covarrubias

Increasingly, though, writers are putting greater emphasis on luck (‘Throughout his campaign Cortés seemed as though guided by a hand which led, protected and directed him along the safest paths...’ - Marcel Niedergang), on disease, and on the role of his native allies. Here is one such commentary:-

‘The few hundred followers of Hernando Cortés would not have been able to conquer Mexico if its inhabitants were united. Without the succour from the Aztecs’ indigenous enemies and the resentful subjects, the Spaniards would in all likelihood have suffered a defeat.’ (Parasitism and Subversion: the Case of Latin America’ by Stanislav Andreski, 1966, p. 217)

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 17th 2017

Go to Part Two...

Historical Association website: ‘The Aztecs & Spanish Conquest for GCSE’ Briefing Pack
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