How the apocalypse wrought by Cortes fits the theory

Posted December 20, 2011 7:00 pm  

Without a written message, little can be certain about the workings of the Teotihuacano mind or that of any other early Indian civilization. On the other hand, through the Spanish chroniclers, we do know quite a lot about how the Aztecs met their final, long awaited Armageddon, a story that, in fact, does throw light on the way cultural assumptions can affect collective will.

The Aztecs’ loss of their kingdom in the face of such overwhelmingly favorable odds required more than just poor military tactics. True, Cortes was the epitome of the fearless and ambitious adventurer with nothing to lose, as well as a brilliant psychologist.  Even so, his genius would never have sufficed against a warrior nation that could muster an army of several hundred thousand. True, Cortes’s task was greatly facilitated by the fact that the Aztecs were ruled by Moctezuma, a king burdened with a particularly fragile, pessimistic nature.  At the end of a year of frightening omens, fearing that the arrival of the light-skinned, bearded strangers was the prophesied return of avenging gods, the king collapsed into panic and handed over his kingdom without resistance. Certainly personality played a decisive role in this history. However, the fatalistic underpinning of Moctezuma’s response was a long cultural tradition, and he was not alone.

The Aztec was the dominant, but not the only Central Mexican state at the time of the Spanish invasion, and all the kings of the many vassal states failed to resist the Spanish. The Aztecs were widely hated; under their hegemony the demand on the tributary kingdoms for a steady flow of victims for human sacrifice developed into a system of state terrorism. Seditious rumblings were spreading at the time of Cortes’s arrival. But those who joined with the Spanish in order to liberate themselves from the Aztec learned very quickly that they were aiding an untrustworthy, quixotic, and brutal invader. They may have continued their fruitless alliance in the wish to side with the presumed victor—thereby insuring his victory—but they could not realistically have expected to fare well under Spanish rule. Nothing would have prevented the vassal kingdoms from taking advantage of the havoc wrecked by the invasion to rid themselves of both Aztec and Spanish dominance, but they seem never to have thought to do so. The peoples of Mexico greeted the Spanish—whether in the belief that they were gods or men, whether with despair or naive hope—passively.

Moreover, even the Aztecs—when Moctezuma was out of the way and his stronger brother in power—had a perfect opportunity to destroy the Spanish that they failed to take. After six months in the city, Cortes received word that 1400 men had arrived from Cuba with instructions to arrest him, as his Mexican campaign was entirely unauthorized and, in fact, treasonous. Cortes rushed to the coast with the bulk of his forces to deal with this imminent threat, leaving only a small group of about one hundred to hold the city of 200,000. With the imprisoned Moctezuma still the titular leader of the Aztecs, the people could not organize a rebellion; but, following a brutal massacre precipitated by Cortes’s remnant band, they began to resist the Spanish and to refuse to feed them.

When Cortes returned two months later—triumphant and with reinforcements but exhausted and starved—a resistance movement led by the king’s brother finally broke out. The Spanish suffered a major rout. Ambushed as they fled the city, they sustained loses in the hundreds. At that time, “la noche triste,” as they called it, was the single most serious defeat suffered by the Spanish in the New World. However, the Aztecs made no attempt to pursue them. Instead the high priests met to discuss whether, in fact, the Spanish invasion was the final apocalypse, the end of the fifth cycle, as Moctezuma believed. After some debate, the wise men decided it was not: Spanish soldiers had been killed, therefore they were not gods. Rather than attack and exterminate the crippled Spanish forces, the Aztecs celebrated their victorious moment and the moratorium of their prophesied doom. So firmly did they believe in a specific, god-driven, prophesied end that no other end seemed possible.  Their belief system short-circuited any idea of resistance beyond the immediate response to a threat perceived as transient. To take matters into their own hands, to destroy the Spanish, must have seemed irrelevant.

 Eleven months later when the Spanish returned, restored to health, their numbers reinforced by huge armies of Indian supporters, the situation was reversed. The Spanish, when they fled, had left behind a small pox infection which had spread rampantly among the Aztecs, who lacked resistance to the imported disease. The Spanish, moreover, returned with a clever battle plan, whereas the Indians continued to fight according to time-honored rules. Despite the invaders’ superior technology and their obvious intent on total conquest, the Indians persisted in using the same weapons that were designed, not to kill, but merely to take prisoners who could then be used as sacrificial victims. Frantic, last minute efforts to form alliances with former tributary kingdoms and to enlist their help met with failure. The Aztecs mounted a courageous, heroic defense, but, after a 72-day siege, their city fell.

The Aztecs were brought down by foreign invaders, not by the precise catastrophes they feared—the death of the sun, a final great earthquake—but the devastation that followed was as ecological and biological as it was political. Farms were seized and, with much of the enslaved population prevented from tending their crops, famine resulted.  Imported plants and animals wreaked havoc with the land; cattle, sheep, and pigs overran farmland and, reproducing wildly, deforested large areas of the country. Debilitated by hard labor and poor nutrition, the Indians succumbed to one imported epidemic after another—whooping cough, measles, influenza. Millions died, as much as two-thirds of the population in a few decades, according to some scholars. The Mexicans’ actual fate was, finally, not very different from the one they had long dreaded.

The Spanish, with their superior technology and unwitting biological weapons, were formidable adversaries, but the Aztecs and their vassal states actively contributed to their own collapse. They lost the kingdom because they could not envision resistance. As a result, they didn’t mobilize their efforts until it was too late, didn’t respond creatively to the new conditions of war, and couldn’t overcome old hostilities in order to work together against a greater, common enemy.

Alien as the Aztecs seem as a culture, it’s hard not to see the relevance to our own times in their failure to defend against collapse. In the 1980’s, we, in the USA, were on our way to energy independence and a commitment to renewable sources, but we abandoned the pursuit and returned to business as usual, as soon as oil prices fell—like the Aztec wise men who celebrated the moratorium of their doom and carried on as usual. The World Meteorological Organization has already predicted that 2011 will be the warmest year in recorded history, but the 190 countries that have been meeting annually since 1997, in an attempt to agree on the Kyoto Protocol, remain deadlocked—just as the Mexican vassal states, with or without the Aztecs, could not join forces against the Spanish. Even when the Mexicans saw the true horror of their situation, their frantic final efforts at alliance failed. Even now, with evidence of climate change becoming more and more undeniable, Obama has made health care, not climate change (our only problem with a time limit), his top priority. How much must the situation worsen before the USA, Canada, China and the other holdouts are finally willing to work with the rest of the world towards a solution? Will it be too late for our civilization, too?


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