CORTES AND THE DOWNFALL OF THE AZTEC EMPIRE
Jon "Manchip" White
published by St. Martins Press
Here's another Wahrenbrock Book House Save. Like many of the books I bought at the end of that shop, it is dated, but actually a cool-looking book. The cover is a lithograph outline of his head and shoulders, and imposed on top is 70s style stylized set of flames engulfing the lithographed head. It's real cool looking. I think that is one of the aspects of cultural products that is most "lost" in the transition from physical products to digital products: design. A cultural product can have worth merely from having a striking appearance. I suppose liking an object for that reason might be considered "shallow" by certain people who live in their Mom's basement, but an appreciation for style and design is commonplace for furniture fans.
I think that we could all use a little more conqueror mentality in our day-to-day lives. You can say whatever PC bs you want about my man Hernan Cortes, but he was a baller. There are lots of ways to diminish/denigrate/ignore the fact that Cortes conquered the shit out of Mexico, but it happened. Amazingly, Cortes was trained as a lawyer at the University of Salamanca, around the turn of the 15th century. Spain was militarily and culturally involved in Italy, so the Renaissance mentalite was transmitted to those in contact with the soliders and court members travelling back and forth.
Cortes wasn't an insider- he was from the Extremadura. The Extremadura is roughly analogous to being the "desert southwestern" state of Spain: hot, dry, not very fertile. The Extremadura was conquered by the Romans, but they put up a fight- before the Romans came they were Celtic speaking people. During the Reconquest of Spain, they were good soldiers for the Spanish monarch, but there was not a lot going on in the Extremadura, and the young men at that time did not have a whole lot of opportunity in the Courts of Europe.
Thus, after his legal education in Salamanca, it was natural that he would gravitate towards Seville, which was solidifying it's status as the entrepot for Spain's colonial empire. Cortes shipped out to the then-capital of new world Spain, Hispanola, where he served as an administrator. He spent seven years on Hispanola and then moved to Cuba, where he helped subjugate the island. During his time on Hispanola and Cuba, Conquistadors had been hitting out southward- in search of a water link between the Atlantic and Pacific. They were also looking for Gold, but weren't having much luck.
Cortes schemed and maneuvered to put together a little flotilla of ships with horses, guns. cannons and men, got the Governor to agree to the expedition, and then took off before the guy changed his mind (which happened almost immediately.) He went west from Cuba and hit the Yucatan peninsula, rested a bit, then landed on the main body of Mexico, south east of Mexico City (Tenochititlan.) Cortes landed in the territory of a vassal people of the Aztzecs- fortunately for the Spanish they were not huge fans of the Aztecs themselves. At this point Cortes probably figured out that a "divide and conquer" strategy a la Rome among the German/Celtic barbarians, would probably be a winner. His hosts told him that the Tlaxcalans, who had what we would call an "autonomous ethnic homeland" within the larger Aztec empire, would make good allies.
In fact, the Tlaxcalans thought the Spanish were some kind of Aztec trick and so they attacked the Spanish for weeks until they capitulated. After that, the Tlaxacalans became his main Native bros. They were independently motivated to defeat the Aztecs for the same reason that conquered people's everywhere are ripe for rebellion: Being an Empire means your subject people are going to hate you.
Cortes didn't actually storm into Tenochititlan and conquer- there was this strange interegnum where he and his cohort hung out inside Tenochititlan with emperor Montezuma II and pretended to be buddies. Eventually, they heard that they were going to be killed, so they essentially kidnapped Montezuma and held him hostage inside a temple for a period of weeks. Then they escaped, in what sounds like the bad shit craziest sequence of events in world history- replete with temporary bridges and sneaking around with an army of men in the middle of the night through the then biggest city in the world.
After Cortes escaped, he rallied his Tlaxacalan buddies and proceeded in a circle around Tenocititlan, cutting off the Aztecs in their stronghold and either gaining allies or eliminating enemies. In what turned out to be a master stroke of genius, he built some attack boats in the mountains and carried them down to water surrounded Tenocititlan. Montezuma II was killed during the escape from Tenochititlan and replaced by Cuatehemoc. The initial stage of the final battle was actually maritime, and here the Spanish "fleet" defeated the Aztec War Canoe's. At this point the Aztecs were surrounded and it became a kind of Hitler in his bunker scenario with much carnage and cannibalism. The Aztecs never lacked for spirit, but their tactics and weapons were just no match for Cortes and his combination of statecraft and warfare.
It's fashionable to view the Spanish conquest of the New World as somehow without human agency- perhaps it's a form of cultural coping with an indubitably traumatic sequence of events, but it's very much clear that Cortes was a conqueror: That's what he did. A Nation builder he was not but he conquered the shit out of Mexico.
In conclusion, I would also note that the divide and conquer move is Rule #1 out of the conqueror's handbook. It almost always worked in the past.
Dedicated to classics and hits.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
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