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Question contributor on the Aztecs Aidan Moffatt

‘How would the world be different today if the Aztecs had defeated the Conquistadors?’

Out of the blue we received the following question from a young student in the USA in December 2013: ‘I’m 14 years old and doing a project on how the world might be different today if the Aztecs had defeated the Conquistadors. I have some ideas but would be interested to know what you think about this question. Thank you.’ This complex question has taxed the brains of Mexican historians for generations, but it’s the first time we’ve been faced with it, so we sent it round to our Panel of Experts. We had nearly 30 replies from scholars, which provide fascinating reading. But first, we asked the student concerned to tell us a little more about the background to his question... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

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My name is Aidan and I live in Craftsbury, VT, USA, where I am in 9th grade at Craftsbury Academy. I’m 15 years old and taking World History with my teacher, Aaron Cornelius. Our mid-term exam was a PowerPoint presentation and a research paper on a topic of our choice from the things we had studied since the beginning of the year. Because I am taking Honors level, my topic had to be persuasive, as opposed to informative. I chose to research the Aztecs and Conquistadors because it was my favorite subject in class. I was interested in thinking about and exploring what might have happened if the Aztecs had defeated the Conquistadors, how American and world history might have been different.
Here were some of my main hypotheses:
• that American history would have been been more influenced by Latin American culture instead of European culture
• that the African slave trade may not have happened (if there was no need for free labor for the Conquistadors, due to their introduction of disease which killed much of the native population)
• that horses would not have been as critical to American history because the Aztecs feared them and probably wouldn’t have used them.

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Around half the group of scholars (Elizabeth Benson, Richard Diehl, Adje Both, Cecelia Klein, Frances Berdan, Caroline Dodds Pennock, Jane Walsh, Gordon Brotherston, James Maffie, Eric Taladoire, Susan Gillespie, Lori Diel, Warwick Bray...) took a fairly pessimistic view, along the lines of ‘Not much difference, at least in terms of world history’: in the decades to follow, the Spanish would have returned with reinforcements, other European powers (English, Portuguese, French, Dutch...) would have taken their place, and further diseases would have taken their toll. Any respite - though welcome in leading to a greater survival, indeed flourishing, of indigenous culture (CDP, JM) and of the ecology of the central valley (JW) - would only have been temporary. Many of the same factors that brought about the Conquest - from military and technological superiority to the exploiting of local unrest and resentment against the Mexica - would have led to the same fate, simply later on. By failing to finish off the Spanish during La Noche Triste in 1520, the odds were fatefully stacked against the Aztecs: Without taking into account thousands of allies (Tlaxcaltecs, Totonacs), Cortés had from the very beginning of the conquest about 900 men, and received continuous reinforcements. Narvaez’s forces amounted to some 2000 men, and other Spanish ships and fleets brought him hundreds of soldiers. At the eve of Tenochtitlan’s fall, and despite his enormous losses, Cortés still had a much stronger army than at the beginning. The Mexica Empire was doomed... (ET).

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In terms of technology, time simply wouldn’t have been on the side of the Mexica: whilst they might have quickly learned to use firearms (as the Japanese did at the time of European contact), to ride horses (as the Apaches did in the USA and the Mapuches did in Chile) and to to prepare themselves for future battles (as they did), through alliances (PL, AS), they would not have been able to master shipbuilding soon enough to impede the arrival of new conquerors (ET).

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A dozen or so of our Panel (Gordon Whittaker, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Alan Sandstrom, Patrick Lesbre, Joyce Marcus, Michael Coe, Elizabeth Graham, Adrian Locke, Matthew Restall, José Contel, John Bierhorst, Felipe Fernández-Armesto...) offered a range of imaginative and thought-provoking suggestions. Some were short and sweet: Mexico today might have an (Aztec) Emperor as a constitutional monarch rather than a President (JM, MC); Central Mexico might now be part of the United States (MR); there would be an Aztec delegation to the United Nations (MC); Mexico might now be the United States of Anáhuac, or, if the English had conquered, perhaps English might now be spoken in Mexico and Spanish in the USA! (JC). Others, though, were prepared to speculate more profoundly on how the Aztec state and world might have matured: If the Aztecs had succeeded in negotiating with a more conciliatory Spanish embassy, trade agreements would have been established, with time the Aztecs would have given up on human sacrifice (as all other societies have done), and the steady expansion of the Spanish Empire would ultimately have engulfed them - although their fall might not have come for a couple of decades. It is possible that a slower decline or later conquest might have spared Mesoamerica some of the ravages of disease and slavery that it suffered in the 16th century, with the result that the native population could have remained statistically dominant even under Spanish rule. Nahuatl would then have been unstoppable as the lingua franca of the new colony, so that today the official language (or second language) of the region would be “Mexican” (that is, Nahuatl by its Spanish name) (GW).

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There are so many hypothetical questions to consider: might the other, suppressed, tribes have risen up against Aztec power? This would have led to a civil war with far-reaching consequences for the political and social panorama in Mesoamerica (MA-M). If the Aztecs HAD gained, say, half a century of breathing space, would they have come into direct conflict with - and finally conquered? - the Maya (with whom they had essentially just traded before) (WB). Crucially, would the Aztecs have continued to practice ritualistic human sacrifice? Those scholars who raised this (PL, AS, MA-M, GW...) speculated that peaceful, commercial contact with outsiders might have led to a ‘taming’ of Aztec society: If forced to deal as equals with foreign powers, they may have undergone internal reforms such as elimination of human sacrifice, reduction in the power of priests, incorporation of subject peoples as citizens of the empire, and so on. I think that their isolation in the world allowed them to develop social and cultural patterns that weakened them internally when they were faced with an unexpected external threat (AS).

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This scenario of a relatively gentle, prosperous, flexible and sustainable development, perhaps along post-contact Japanese lines with many traditional cultural patterns preserved, cannot fail to appeal to us: The land and people would have benefited because indigenous lifeways would have persisted for longer. Cattle and sheep would have been introduced much more slowly as Spanish settlers trickled in, thus the landscape would not have been deforested, grass and grasslands would have been limited, and diseases would not have spread so quickly. Many of the same changes would have taken place, but at a slower pace, giving the Aztecs and their neighbours more time to adjust. Not least, the Aztecs would not have had to pay tribute and taxes to the Spaniards. Instead, the Spaniards would have to have paid tribute and tax to the Aztecs (EG). Further into the future, the situation could reach a point in which Mesoamericans (led by the Aztecs or some other group) would... evolve and be at the same level of development of any other world culture of today (MA-M), leading to a balanced international exchange of technology and culture: Given the sense of urban planning that the Aztec employed and their sense of order and hygiene I would think that the world would have learned a great deal from them in terms of town planning, ordering (and providing for) society and much cleaner people much sooner! (AL). One of the poets on the Panel encourages us indeed to answer the question ‘in a dream’: a dream of a Mexica at peace with their world, instead of at war with Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, and Chalco ready to jump down their throats at the first chance, and a dream of a unified system of gods, at one from city state to city state, from neighborhood to neighborhood... (JB).

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The reality of course was anything but harmonious, and in some ways we’re still struggling to understand what did happen (FF-A). The clash of worlds was a wider battle between Europe and America for which the stakes were colossal, and unfortunately for the Aztecs and Mesoamerican peoples they faced the institutionalized beginning of Imperialism and Colonialism that continues plaguing the world today with all its political, social, economic and military might (MA-M). Perhaps, at the end of the day, we should be grateful for small mercies, such as the fruits of the ‘Columbian Exchange’, without which we would not have popcorn, tomatoes, beans, chocolate or chile, for instance. We would not play football, soccer. They contributed deeply to the history of mankind, and we must not forget that in many respects, their civilization is still alive... (ET).
Perhaps too we should return this question to the younger generation whence it came: we leave you with this simple, wise advice from someone with vast experience here: This is a great question to stir our imaginations. We need to think of the pros, cons, and outcomes of the conquest as it really happened, and how the Aztecs and the Spanish lived, treated their own people and each other; then knowing that and using that information, all we can do is imagine what would have happened if the tables were turned. Your thoughts are as good anyone’s here... (PB).

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 17th 2014

emoticon Calling all sweet-tooths and foodies out there...
No conquest of the Americas? - No chocolate at parties, turkey at Christmas,tomatoes in pizzas, popcorn in cinemas, no peanuts, banana splits, chips, coca-cola, etc., and for you drunkards, no tequila, piña colada, etc... How empty life would be! (José Contel)

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