On the Conquest of Mexico

“Yeah, I remember that from high school,” Brielle said. “But the thing I never understood was how a little group of Spanish soldiers could conquer the whole Aztec Empire.”

“I don’t think there’s one single reason,” Mr. Magundi replied. “It may be that the Spanish, with their horses and their gunpowder, were superior to the Americans, in the same way that a boulder is superior to the man it crushes. It’s also true that the Spanish had as their allies huge numbers of Americans who hated their bloodthirsty and tyrannical Aztec overlords and were itching for a chance to shake them off.

“But the biggest problem for the Americans may have been a certain fatal open-mindedness. The Spaniard who murdered his captives and butchered women and children as if they were cattle was absolutely certain that he was the morally superior being. He deserved to rule. It was not that he compared himself with the Americans and judged himself superior: it never occurred to him that the question could be raised. The Americans, however, did ask the question. In the story of the conquest we see a fatal period of indecision while Montezuma and his court conscientiously debated the question of whether the Spanish were in fact divine, while the Spanish gathered their allies and made themselves invincible. By the time the Americans had figured out that Cortes and his gang were just horrible little men with an insatiable lust for gold, it was too late to get rid of them.

“I don’t really know what the moral of this observation is; or perhaps I do, but I don’t want to think about it.”

3 thoughts on “On the Conquest of Mexico

  1. Well, if I learned anything in Ancient Mesoamerica 220, it was that when Americans killed each other, it was “culture”, but when Europeans killed Americans, it was “brutal murder”. There I was, thinking that slaughtering people to take their resources was equally wrong for everyone!

    1. Mr. Magundi says: You were right, of course, and the Aztecs, particularly Montezuma II, were successful in precisely the same way that Stalin was later successful: by creating a culture of sheer terror. The fact that the Spanish were greedy little men does not somehow excuse human sacrifice on an industrial scale or the repeated treachery of the Aztec emperors against their allies as well as their enemies. But the spectacle is strangely incongruous: a few little thugs from Spain bring down a well-organized empire whose cities, in size and luxury, surpass anything the Europeans have ever seen before. This incongruity demands an explanation.

      The idea, incidentally, that Americans killing each other is somehow excusable because it was part of their culture is one that only a particularly naive European mind can hold. The atrocities of the Aztecs were not excusable to the Americans themselves, and that fact explains how Cortes gathered so many allies in such a short time.

  2. By an odd coincidence, Pansy Pauncefoot and I were in the same study group when we took Prof. McNaivëte’s course Ancient Mesoamerica 220: Culture vs. Brutal Murder. There was only one thing we learned in that class, but I kept forgetting it, and now that I am reminded of what it was, it is too late for me to benefit.

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