The Aztecs speak – an Aztec account of the Conquest of Mexico

articles Aztecs History & People

Shep Lenchek

An Aztec account of the Conquest of Mexico? Preposterous.

It is common knowledge that those manuscripts that escaped destruction by the Conquistadors were gathered up under the direction of the first Archbishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarrga, and reduced to ashes. In ” The Conquest of Mexico,” which remains the classic account of the event in English, William H. Prescott writes: “None of the Aztec compositions have survived.” He does mention the name Sahagun and says that he is aware that some of his translations of Aztec prose still exist, but does not pursue the matter.

Writing in 1843, before Aztec hieroglyphics had been deciphered, Prescott did not know that in 1962, a Mexican historian, Dr.Angel Maria Garibay, was to discover that Fra. Bernardino de Sahugun, whom Prescott had mentioned, and other Spanish priests had preserved numerous original Aztec documents by devising a way to write the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs in the Latin alphabet. This enabled eyewitnesses to the Conquest to record an Aztec account of the entire invasion. Here is a sample of the Aztec prose that has survived.

“The ‘stags’ came forward, carrying soldiers on their backs. The soldiers wore cotton armor. They bore their leather shields and their iron spears in their hands, but their swords hung down from the necks of the stags. The animals wear many little bells. When they run, the bells make a loud clamor, ringing and reverberating. These animals snort and bellow. They sweat a great deal and the sweat pours from their bodies in streams. Foam from their muzzles drips onto the ground in fat drops, like a lather of amole (soap) When they run, they make a loud noise, as if stones were raining on the earth. Then the earth is pitted and cracked open wherever their hooves have touched it.”

This description of the Conquistadors and their horses, slightly edited, is from the Aztec account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico as reconstructed by de Sahugun. Called the Codex Florentino, it can be found in the Laurenzian Library in Florence, Italy. First recorded in Nahuatal, under his supervision, using the Latin alphabet, he later translated it into Spanish, then prepared a second version in the original language. This is the one that survives. Never having seen a horse before, the Aztecs mistook it for a large deer. Despite being terror-stricken, their description of these new animals and their riders is very vivid and is an example of the Aztec ability to record accurate images, even of things they did not understand.

Other documents have been preserved in the National Library of France and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Fra. Diego de Duran, another priest, also reproduced other Codices, based on oral renditions by Aztec historians. Too, he collected records of picture writing, another Aztec method of recording history.

Additionally a few of the old Codices had been hidden away and emerged years after the Conquest. Finally, Fray Toribio de Benavente, known as Motolinia, a Franciscan monk, who arrived in Nueva Espagna in 1524, only three years after the fall of the Aztec capital, recognized that the Aztecs had their own records of the Conquest. His Historia de los Indios de Nueva España is based on original descriptions of events that he was able to have translated into Spanish. Thus, original words, written or dictated by Aztecs, still survive. In 1962 Dr.Angel Maria Garibay K, counted more than 40 manuscripts containing original Aztec records. Now, Aztec hieroglyphics could be read. His studies of these documents was translated into English and published under the title, ” The Broken Spears.”

While the Aztec account of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico does not basically change the facts we are already familiar with, it does detail brutality and massacres on the part of the Spaniards that historians have simply glossed over. Rather than bewailing the Spanish atrocities, we must accept that the way the Conquistadors conducted warfare was normal in the 1500’s and earlier centuries. We have but to read the accounts of battles as revealed in the Old Testament, The Illiad of Homer, or Greek and Roman History, to recognize that the Spaniards were relatively merciful.

What the Aztec records do is give us an insight into their mind-set. They explain why they were unable to defeat the comparatively few invaders. Even with their Indian allies the Conquistadors never numbered more that 25,000 armed men in their initial move toward the Aztec Capital. Approximately 500 Spaniards with only 16 horses, plus their Indian Allies, engaged armies that outnumbered them at least ten to one. The Aztec account of the Conquest reveals a philosophy of war that explains this.

What is most remarkable is that the Aztec account of the Conquest, is almost completely non-judgmental. Although they describe Spanish atrocities in gory detail, it is done factually, with little emotion. Additionally, they give Cortes credit for attempting to negotiate peace with the various tribes he met en-route to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Capital. Even in Cholula, the single city in which the Spaniards actually massacred most of the inhabitants, the Aztec report of the event includes the possibility that it may have been provoked by falsehoods spread by the Tlaxcalan allies of the Conquistadors. Nowhere in the Aztec accounts of the Conquest do we find any effort to paint the Spaniards as monsters. Actually, these records reveal more about the Aztecs themselves than about the Spaniards. They explain the way the Aztecs viewed the invaders and how their rulers attempted to handle them. We see Moctezuma himself and his people living in fear of the future and the very Gods they worshiped. In the end, perhaps their fears were justified.

Both the Spaniards who first encountered them and latter historians, describe the Aztecs as highly skilled craftsmen, with a well organized system of government. They had a written as well as an oral language, compulsory education, even a health care system. According to Bernal Diaz, himself a Conquistador, at their first glimpses of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards were awe struck. They saw a city with canals, bridges, a fresh water supply, floating markets, towering Temples and large paved plazas. Estimates of its population vary between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Few cities in Europe were as large or as clean. Despite this, the Spaniards still considered them barbarians, largely because human sacrifice and aspects of cannibalism were part of the Aztec religion. William Prescott persists in this, always referring to the Aztecs as barbarians and comparing them to semi-civilized Tarters.

All historians recognize that in addition to seeking gold and new territory for Spain, the Conquistadors were strongly committed to spreading Christianity. The Codices reveal that the Aztecs were equally committed to spreading the realm of their own Gods, particularly the blood thirsty Huitzilopochtli. Thus, fanatic Christians met an equally fanatic Aztec priesthood. Ultimately, it was the clash of the two religions that led to the destruction of the Aztec Empire.

Although historians portray Moctezuma as the absolute ruler of a vast empire, ( Map of the Empire) the Aztec account of the conquest reveals him as insecure, indecisive and superstitious.. Largely dependent on magicians and sooth-sayers to interpret omens and guide them, he vacillated on how to deal with the invaders. The records also reveal that the Aztecs were captives of their own legends, principally the one about a great god/leader, Quetzalcoatal, who the Toltecs, the people who proceeded the Aztecs as rulers of the Valley of Mexico, credited with bringing them civilization. Described as fair skinned and red haired, he had departed eastward and embarked on the ocean, promising to return someday.

To understand how a Toltec legend was to affect the Aztecs, we must take a quick look at their history. The Aztecs had entered the Valley of Mexico from the north in about 1325 A.D. By 1440 they had built an empire. Once this was done, they decided to re-write their own tribal history, Seeking respectability they now claimed to be descended from the Toltec nobility. With this new identity came the legend of Quetzalcoatl. Thus in the beginning, the invading Spaniards were mistaken for the returning God and these doubts lingered long enough to enable the Conquistadors to gain a foothold and enlist allies before being attacked in force by the Aztec armies. Also the Aztecs raised their own war god, the blood-thirsty Huitzilopochtli, to an exalted status and abandoned the more benevolent gods of the Toltecs, who had not required human sacrifice. Identified with the Sun, their “giver of life,” their fear that it would not return, led to the daily ripping out of human hearts, to placate him.

This dogma that Huitzilopochtli demanded a steady stream of blood led to constant warfare, since they believed he preferred the blood of a brave warrior, captured in battle. Soon, human sacrifice to the rest of their gods became the rule. Thus, the Aztec concept of war after their empire was established was not the total defeat of an enemy, but rather a short skirmish to capture warriors to sacrifice to their Gods. Much of it was ceremonial, with well-established rules that minimized bloodshed. For example they constantly raided the Tlaxcalans, their bravest foe, never seeking to conquer them, but preserving them as a source for sacrificial material. This constant culling of Tlaxcalan warriors to be sacrificed, led to the alliance between Cortes and the Tlaxcalans. The Aztec perception of them as valiant warriors was correct. Without them as allies, it is very unlikely that the Spaniards could have succeeded. Additionally, the Aztec tactics of quick raids, seizing prisoners, and then withdrawing, left them unprepared to fight an enemy like the Conquistadors. Also, human sacrifice had led to cannibalism based on the theory that eating the body of a brave warrior would increase their own prowess in battle.

This above all else incited the Spaniards to use violence to destroy the Aztec religion, which in turn infuriated the fanatical clergy and destroyed all chances of a peaceful settlement that might have satisfied the invaders. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, they had witnessed a series of events that they interpreted as bad omens. With no scientific understanding of natural phenomenon, living in the shadow of an and in an area that to this day is earthquake prone, they lived in constant terror of nature. We will detail these omens and their consequences, in the second part of this series

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Shep Lenchek © 2008


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