Not totally out of left field, apparently, as there’s a “fine new exhibition” on at the British Museum. Shucks…
The Spaniards did, of course, bring both guns and germs to the New World, with devastating effect. The Aztecs — or more properly the Mexica — were an advanced and sophisticated civilisation. But any appraisal of their empire has to deal honestly with the sheer scale of human sacrifice that sustained it.
There is a tendency to refer to this as if it were a sideshow — in their recent programme to go with the exhibition, the BBC described “this solemn sacrament” as “raw religious theatre”; and, runs the subtext, who are we anyway to judge the values of another culture? This ignores the way that what had indeed begun as a rare and sporadic accompaniment to ritual festivals had by the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1519 become a central and brutal instrument of state control.
When the recently excavated pyramid whose finds provide the centrepiece of the British Museum show was first inaugurated in 1484, there were prisoners lined up for sacrifice stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see. Some estimate that 20,000 victims were killed over four days.
The actual reign of the Aztecs was relatively short. They dominated the centre of Mexico properly for less than a hundred years before Cortés’s arrival. …
As the priests assumed more and more control of the Aztec war machine, so the human sacrifices had grown to a startling extent. By the time the Spaniards arrived, they were killing thousands of captives a year, ripping out their hearts on the tops of pyramids in mass ceremonies and letting the blood run down charnel channels cut into the stairways. …
What might have started as an occasional and religious way of propitiating the gods had become a useful, constant means of reminding tribute tribes who was in charge. In a chillingly Orwellian fashion, artificial wars were created, the so-called “wars of flowers”, in which the Aztecs would force tribes they had already conquered to meet them in combat again in order to furnish their war gods with sacrificial victims properly taken in battle. It is hard to excuse this brutality on the grounds of “different value-systems” — not unless we are prepared to exonerate Pol Pot on the same grounds.
And, following a long list of various atrocities and Nazi parallels:
No wonder that so many of the tribes under Aztec domination collaborated with Cortés to defeat Moctezuma, the Aztec dictator.
So why is he remembered by history as “a gentle prince”? The English had a hand in this: the conquest of the New World by Spain made it the European superpower and helped to finance the Armada. Hardly surprising that English propaganda should seize every opportunity to play up the leyenda negra, “the black legend” of Spanish cruelty in Mexico, and portray Moctezuma (and later Atahualpa in Peru) as hapless victims.
And there you go. Once again partisan propaganda turns into tiresome truth that the rest of us are still treating as fact 600 years later.