The fine new exhibition at the British Museum, Moctezuma, is a reminder of one of our most fondly held stereotypes: the noble savage confronted by the cruel Spanish conquistador.
Neil Young put it succinctly in his song Cortez the Killer, in which Cortés is met by a New Age Moctezuma (also known as Montezuma) surrounded by beautiful subjects offering coca leaves and pearls: “Hate was just a legend and war was never known.” This was the paradise that the brutal Cortés supposedly destroyed.
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. Driven by a greed equal to anything the Spaniards were to reveal later, they had mercilessly conquered neighbouring tribes under the direction of emperors who worked closely with priests — indeed some emperors, like Moctezuma, had previously been head priests.
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.
The smell and stench of blood at such mass ceremonies must have been nauseous. While the heart itself would have been burnt, each skull was collected on a rack; the rest of the body was flung down the steps of the pyramid, to be eaten later with chilli sauce by nobles or favoured warriors.
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.
The villain of the ancient Aztec world was a “grand vizier” called Tlacaelel (1397-1487), who nominally served under four successive Aztec rulers during the key phase of their imperial expansion, but wielded the real power. One of his first and most significant acts was to re-write the Aztecs’ past: the “old books” recounting their true history as one wandering tribe among many were burnt. Instead Tlacaelel instigated the convenient political myth that they were directly descended from the Toltecs, a previous race whose substantial ruins could still be seen near the valley of Mexico. This gave them the genealogical pretensions to go with their territorial ambitions.
Under Tlacaelel’s direction, the warrior god Huitzilopochtli was elevated from minor to major player in the complicated pantheon of gods, and had to be propitiated with ever-increasing amounts of victims. Tlacaelel devised different ways of killing victims. In addition to the usual cutting of the heart from the live body while the victim was bent over a sacrificial stone, Tlacaelel started to burn them alive as well.
The self-perpetuating waging of wars to obtain more sacrificial victims for the success of yet further wars meant that the Aztecs exploded from obscurity to military dominance as spectacularly as the Third Reich — and for many of their conquered territories, the experience must have been similar to Nazi occupation: their people and children taken for sacrifice to their capital Tenochtitlán, a city of death, as Tlacaelel harangued his people into ever-greater conquest. “We are capable of conquering the entire world,” he told a neighbouring king, Goebbels-style.
Tlacaelel was long departed by the time the conquistadors arrived, but his baleful legacy of a theocracy driven by fear and bloodshed lived on. If anything, Moctezuma had increased the life-and-death power of the emperor over his subjects. In that sense, Cortés’s arrival to bring about “regime change” was arguably one of the best things that ever happened to Mexico, even if the Spaniards were often brutal in their own turn and brought disease with them. 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.
The Mexican writer Octavio Paz single-handedly helped to define the country’s national character in his book The Labyrinth of Solitude. He suggested the line that most Mexican and Western intellectuals have followed since: that the Aztec sacrifices should be accepted as just part of a greater whole — and anyway, doesn’t all “history have the cruel reality of a nightmare”? It’s a poetic phrase but also a disclaimer of any moral responsibility for how that history is remembered.
Hugh Thomson, the author of Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico.