The Aztec Empire of Central America

When Moctezuma ate, four beautiful women would appear to wash his hands before passing him a bowl of foaming chocolate
Visit the Aztec Exhibition at The British Museum [free entry when you join as a member] MoctezumaOf course, it was a tragedy. Never in history has there been such a clash of civilisations. Never has there been a conflict as unfair as the fight between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors, and it is hard not to see Moctezuma as the victim. What hope did he have against the Castilian aggressors, with their greed, their trickery and their superior military technology? He stands for every glorious and primitive monarch who has ever been overwhelmed by the white man. He is like Boudicca, crushed by the legions; or Cetewayo, his impis mown down by the Maxim gun; or Sitting Bull, his braves slaughtered by the US cavalry – except Moctezuma was far more glorious and more tragic than them all. When Moctezuma ate, four beautiful women would appear to wash his hands before passing him a bowl of foaming chocolate. When Moctezuma received visitors, they were obliged to enter barefoot and dressed in sacking, and to avert their eyes so religiously that no one was even sure what he looked like. When the king wanted to hunt, birds were discreetly ushered past his palace window, so that he could have a pop at them with his blowpipe. When Moctezuma pricked his ears with a needle, his people seriously believed that the trickle of blood would help the crops to grow. Adorned with gold and the feathers of tropical birds, he ruled the most powerful and opulent civilisation of the Americas. He was the elected and unchallenged master of a city of 200,000, a place of ancient temples and fantastic statuary, set dreamlike on an island in a vast lake fringed by snow-capped volcanoes. So when, in 1519, he looked into his black polished obsidian mirror and saw – so it was said later – strange men riding on deer, he was completely unprepared for the shock that fate had in store. Boris explains the Aztec v Conquistador story and challenges the reader to visit the Exhibition: "It wasn't just that the Aztecs were amazed to see the Spanish ships. They had never seen a horse before, let alone metal armour. As for the guns of Hernán Cortés and his army, what a terrifying contrast their explosions made with the most sophisticated weapon the Aztecs could deploy – a kind of wooden thwacker with stone teeth embedded down the edge. It was a clash between the Stone Age and the age of gunpowder, except that to call the Aztecs a Stone Age culture is mildly insulting to the Stone Age. It is an astonishing fact that in the early 16th century – when our Henry VIII was on the throne – they hadn't even invented the wheel, let alone writing. In two short years, much of the Aztec nobility had been slaughtered, and Moctezuma was dead, either at the hands of his own disappointed people, or else bumped off by Cortés as soon as he ceased to be useful. European diseases ravaged the native population, which fell by as much as 80 per cent. It was a catastrophe, wasn't it? Well, if you want to see the other side of the story, and you want to meditate on at least one powerful argument for colonialism and imperialism, you must go to the British Museum, where they have just opened a magnificent exhibition of the life of Moctezuma. There, you are invited to imagine what it was like to attend the inauguration of the latest expansion of the Great Temple, in 1506, not long before the arrival of the white man. Suppose you were one of the thousands of prisoners captured by the regiments of Moctezuma – the jaguars or the hummingbirds – in one of their endless predatory wars on neighbouring villages. You would be daubed with paint and given some kind of narcotic and then you would be led – either chanting or dreamily protesting – into the centre of town. First, you would file past the tzompantli, the huge racks of skulls, and then towards the reeking steps of the Templo Mayor. You would be led up the steps, slippery with blood, and at the top one priest would grab you by the hair, and four others would grab each limb. Then in an instant they would flip you expertly backwards on to the sacrificial block, and though your back would be very likely broken by the impact,  before you lost all brain-stem function, would have been your own still beating heart, held aloft by the priest as the snows of Popocatepetl turned pink in the evening sun. It has been estimated that 20,000 healthy young people died that day, their hearts yanked out at dizzying speeds by the obsidian knives, their bodies flung down the steps to be cut up for various cannibalistic procedures. So it went on, year in, year out, with human beings killed partly for religious reasons (to persuade the sun to come up in the morning), but also to create the climate of fear that was politically necessary: to terrorise the enemies of Moctezuma and to instil discipline in the people. When Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan, he came upon Golgotha. It was worse than the final scene of Apocalypse Now, where the heads of Marlon Brando's victims are to be seen on the temple steps.  Cortés and his conquistadors may have been brutal, and they may have been ruthless in their betrayal and possible murder of Moctezuma. But they were in the same moral position as the liberators of Belsen. They had stumbled on a culture gone mad, and incapable of telling what we would call right from what we would call wrong. You may think it makes no sense to impose such value judgments on the Aztecs. If so, go to the British Museum for the glories of Aztec culture. Then look at the knives, the skulls, the hideous basins in which they plopped the thousands of thudding hearts. Work it out for yourself. And if you find your brain churning with the evidence assembled, and buzzing with the question of when and whether it is right for one culture to impose itself on another, then why not fork out a fiver – entirely voluntarily – for one of the greatest museums on earth?" You can read the article in its entirety in The Daily Telegraph today

28 thoughts on “The Aztec Empire of Central America”

  1. Here is an interesting glossary of words and their original Nahuatl pronounciations:

    Tenochtitlan – (The capital city of the Aztecs) – te-nawch-tee-tlahn

    Quetzalcoatl – (a God ruler) – ket-sahl-koh-aht-l

    Teotihuacan – (ancient city with pyramids) – te-aw-tee-wah-kahn

  2. ” When Moctezuma received visitors, they were obliged to enter barefoot and dressed in sacking and to avert their eyes so religiously so that no one was even sure what he looked like.” Well, he might look like Colonel Gaddafi. If they don’t know what Sir Gaddafi looks like, just look at Jackie Stallone.

    ” When he wanted to hunt, birds were discreetly ushered past his palace window, so that he could have a pop at them with a blow pipe”. Moctezuma was so crude to his people, when he f*rted, some of the Aztecs should have flicked a cigarette lighter under his bum to blow him up once and for all.

    Two questions: Why are British museums free to any visitors and French museums are not?

    Und why are British autobahns free to any drivers but French autobahns are not?

    The hypocrisy reeks of garlic.

  3. The real Moctezuma was a violent despot who demanded that the subject peoples of his empire would sometimes rebel against him, so that he could crush them again in battle and take a few thousand captives for human sacrifice. These same peoples revolted and overthrew him when Cortes gave them the chance to do so. To paint him as a kind of latterday Ken Livingstone, receving the willing adulation of loving supporters, is the perverted reaction of self-hatred by the Western elite.

  4. Oh dear. It seems we have a raving imperialist for London Mayor. This is a cheap little article, well-written, rigorously ignorant, and utterly devoid of intellectual honesty.

    Good work, Mr Johnson, once again you’ve managed to brilliantly capture the grotesque, self-important certitude I’ve come to expect from politicians and overpaid writers who have nothing to say.

    What a staggering piece of narcissism – you should really take a look in the mirror… and congratulate yourself.

    You would have been right at home during the brutal days of New Spain’s first audencia, when the genocide of Mexico was well underway. Oh the torture, the murder, the rape! We showed them how to do it! A real victory for moral authority!

    What a tawdry work of propaganda.

    Mr Johnson calls the Aztecs less than stone age when the Spanish conquistadors, who dismantled their civilisation piece by piece, are known to have greatly marvelled at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – more resplendent, they said, than anything they’d seen in Europe or the Orient.

    The Aztecs did not have the wheel, says Mr Johnson. He is correct. Their ancestors had invented it thousands of years previously, and discovered there was little use for such a device in the rugged mountains and jungles of Mexico.

    The Aztecs did not have writing, says Mr Johnson. This is another fallacious assertion. The Aztecs were famed poets and writers, well-known for their epic tomes and their fantastic, lyrical exploitation of the Nahutl language. Flower and song, it’s called, and it formed a major part of Aztec cultural life.

    Mr Johnson should know that Aztec civilisation was born out of thousands of years of human evolution. They and their predecessors had writing, astronomy, mathematics, architecture and literature to rival – in some cases exceed – contiguous developments in Europe. A shame the Spaniards torched the libraries. There would have been much to learn.

    Although the figures are disputed, the Aztec appetite for human sacrifice is not a fresh revelation. And it’s not a very original justification for the Conquest either. This is an old Spanish idea that belongs, along with Mr Johnson, hundreds of years in the past. Just try to get past your high-blown, ethnocentric views.

    Among the Aztecs, human sacrifice had a deep religious significance. To be selected for it was considered one of the greatest possible honours. Many went happily to the slab, just as today, many happily march to death on the battlefield just as soon as some inglorious ape foists up the Union Jack.

    But of course, Mr Johnson is an enlightened and educated man. A civilised man. He knows all this. He’s merely engaging in frivolous, self-seeking controversies. He may not have got much further than the British museum press release, but he does know how to blow his own trumpet – and that counts for something.

    At least let’s hope so, because he’s now the most powerful man in London… Mr Johnson, perhaps you’d like to join me on my next trip to the Amazonian rainforest? I plan to tame the primitives and unfurl the banner of New Right conservatism. You know, they still eat each other out there – and shrink peoples’ heads – I think you would really like them, Mr Johnson.

  5. “To paint him as a kind of latterday Ken Livingstone, receving the willing adulation of loving supporters …”

    Did I miss something when Ken Livingstone was Mayor (or ever come to that)? I don’t recall him EVER receiving the willing adulation of anyone but himself and as for loving supporters!

    Ah, Tiresias, you must be jesting as no one could take those comments seriously. The only person in this country who could believe those comments to be true, would be Ken himself. Thanks for the laugh anyway.

  6. Mr Johnson should know that Aztec civilisation was born out of thousands of years of human evolution. Richard Arghiris

    Your travel website is very impressive.

    I can understand your specialist perspective and I can also understand that what Boris was trying to convey in the article was amazement at this rich culture deep in Central America and commending the Moctezuma Exhibition to the British Public so that they could explore and see for themselves some of the marvellous ancient relics of that civilisation and to try and understand their culture.

    Boris wants to promote culture and visits to museums and he is very successful at inspiring young and old alike.

  7. The Speccie are holding a debate prompted by the Aztec exhibition entitled ‘Is fear necessary for strong leadership?’
    Details here.

    I think it’s to Boris’s credit that he uses MSM space and opportunity to promote the very good things about London. Other politicians seem only to be playing the blame game rather than concentrating on their job and any real leadership.

  8. If anyone should want proof of the unreformed, and unrepentant, core of the New Tories, look no further.

    I was almost warming to the man. Until I read this and became aware of the kind of drivel Johnson feels at liberty to indulge in when nestled comfortably in the depths of the crazy right wing press.

    The guff about Mesoamerican writing is telling. Despite the authoratitive and literary tone, his desperation to consign Mesoamerican civilisation to the “stone age” in order to justify imperialism has caused him to blunder, exposing his total lack of knowledge of, or interest in, the civilisation he is so quick to disparage.

    Let me be clear: only a complete ignoramus would claim that the Aztecs lacked writing.

    Only someone whose spectacular stupiditiy was equalled only by their jingoism would write this kind of inane, banal trash.

    Only someone with a serious personality disorder would consider bringing the great city of London in to disrepute by voting for this man.

  9. Hi Melissa,

    Thanks for your response, which was greatly appreciated. I do realise that Boris is doing a good job in promoting the new Moctezuma exhibition at the British museum, and he should be commended for that.

    But I also find his argument for colonialism slightly distasteful. The conquest of Mexico was an act of genocide that wiped out 90% of the population – Aztecs, Tarascans, Mayans, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, and countless Nahua tribes among them. No one was spared.

    And so the great drama that had been playing out in the Americas, wholly isolated for tens of thousands of years, was suddenly and terminally interrupted.

    So it goes.

    But back to Mr Johnson’s main point. The issue of human sacrifice is an emotive one because it offends our morality and clearly doesn’t belong in our culture.

    Yet in Central America, human sacrifice had been practised for thousands of years prior to Spanish arrival. The locals would not have thought much of a sacrificial victim getting his heart torn out on a public altar. This was normal. This was every day.

    And it’s nothing to do with a society gone mad – just different ideas about life and death.

    It’s easy to label the Aztecs blood-thirsty savages who deserved everything they got. Much harder – and more interesting – to try and justify them. Suspending our prejudices and looking beyond our own cultural values is a worthy, human challenge. It easily beats ‘commonsense’ interpretations.

    As Boris rightly says, everyone should get out to the British museum and make up their own minds. So thanks for provoking some thought in the mean time.

    Cheers,

    Richard

  10. Richard Arghiris – IMHO you make some valid and interesting points, particularly about the judgement and attitude of one culture towards another. I wonder what you would say about Islam in Britain and hope to see your comments on a pertinent post here in the future.

    If you haven’t already I urge you to read Boz’s books, particularly ‘Dream of Rome’ in which he clearly sets out a challenge to our cultural ‘commonsense’ interpretations. It’s a good read and I like Boz’s style – it’s not a rant, as some journos books tend to be (a collection of prejudices), but a very readable but well researched book that encourages the reader to think and read around the subject. I recommend it.

  11. his desperation to consign Mesoamerican civilisation to the “stone age” in order to justify imperialism has caused him to blunder, Nathan

    You may be right about the Aztec civilisation being far beyond the Stone Age in sophistication but you miss the point that is made here: the Aztecs, with their skulls hanging around the place and primitive dress, would no doubt have come across as primitive to the Conquistadores. Granted, the Spanish may have been bullies but the article is not about justifying imperialism – it is about inviting readers to consider for themselves these two radically different cultures and to bring some moral justice to the final deadly outcome.

  12. I do realise that Boris is doing a good job in promoting the new Moctezuma exhibition at the British Museum, and he should be commended for that. Richard A

    Many thanks for your kind remarks.

    You say that human sacrifice is a main point here: there was indeed a great deal of human sacrifice which would appear to be especially unfair since Moctezuma invited Cortes into his palace on his arrival – read the Telegraph review http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/6240342/Moctezuma-at-the-British-Museum-review.html

    However, how much was instigated from within and how much from without? ie the Conquistadores did spark the genocide, but how much of the final result was Spanish-perpetrated and how much was internal Aztec-instigated in an act of desperate destructive action and passion?

    To justify the Aztecs would be an interesting exercise and I wonder what your theories are? I would say that since they were so great in number so would the rate of killings be – they were merely defending their beliefs and culture literally to the death. It is true that ideally the indigenous populations would have survived in greater numbers and not be so swamped and wiped out by the Conquistadores – but organising such great numbers would surely have been an almost impossible feat.

  13. Did you see the comment of Alan Johns on the interamerican website in reply to Richard Anghiris? http://interamericana.co.uk/2009/09/london-mayor-hails-conquest-of-mexico/

    alan johns says:
    September 29, 2009 at 1:41 pm
    Dear Interamerican,
    How very very cruel.
    BoJo is an endangered species and therefor merits protected status as prescribed by The WWF.
    One day Boris will merit an exhibition of his own at the British Museum and we will have much to learn.
    His exhibition will include his shrunken head complete with buttery thatch,his velocipede and protective equipment beloved by eco-pillocks and one of his testicles dried and sculpted into a miniature of The London Assembly building.
    Boris is a man of many parts, some of which are still working. So don’t write him off just yet, he has years of offence still to offer.
    Long Live BoJo

  14. “You may be right about the Aztec civilisation being far beyond the Stone Age in sophistication but you miss the point that is made here: the Aztecs, with their skulls hanging around the place and primitive dress, would no doubt have come across as primitive to the Conquistadores. Granted, the Spanish may have been bullies but the article is not about justifying imperialism – it is about inviting readers to consider for themselves these two radically different cultures and to bring some moral justice to the final deadly outcome.”

    1)Depends how you define stone age. But neolithic usually refers to a pre-civilised stage of development. Also, the Mesoamerican and Andean civilisations certainly were in possesion of metallurgical technology.

    2)Johnson explicitly states that the line of reasoning in his article should be taken as a justification for imperialism. He actually states this. Go back and read it.

    3)I’m not so sure that the Spanish necessarily would have viewed the natives, with their densely populated cities and advanced beurocracy, as primitive just because they wore silly clothes. What they did view them as was morally inferior, alien, heathen. That was how they could justify their actions in their own minds, just as European crusaders could justify eating human flesh because it was flesh of heathen Arabs, not Christians.

  15. Nathan – “just as European crusaders could justify eating human flesh because it was flesh of heathen Arabs, not Christians” eh??

  16. @Nathan: Emperor Moctezuma allegedly drank 50 (yes 5 0 !) goblets of chocolate drink every day – that must have caused a somewhat psychotic mental state. See http://www.chocolate.org/

    I wonder why the indigenous South Americans adapted so much better to the influx of foreigners than the Aztecs did in Central America? Was it the effect of chocolate? Was it the hostility of Cortes and his entourage? Many other arguments could be posited in favour or against.

    I blame the chocolate myself.

  17. Wow what a strange piece of writing – it feels very much like a product of nineteenth century thinking.

    ‘Primitive’ peoples?

    Do you really think the Aztec people were better off enslaved and robbed of their culture in a continent wide genocide?

  18. I visited the B.M. Aztec exhibition yesterday and for what you get,the £12 entrance fee is way too expensive.

    You’d be better off viewing for free,the other exhibits of native American civilisations.

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