Sunday, July 5, 2009

Maurice Collis on Cortes and Montezuma

Maurice Collis was born in Dublin in 1889, studied history at Oxford, and spent twenty years in Asia with the Indian Civil Service. His career was effectively destroyed by his book Trials of Burma, published in 1937 and describing sedition trials in Burma in 1929-1930, in which he adopted a too sympathetic attitude towards the Burmese nationalists and a too critical one towards the British colonial authorities (he was district magistrate for Rangoon at the time). Upon his return to England he wrote many books of history and biography, mostly to do with the British in Asia.

In the early 1950s he became interested in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and, finding himself dissatisfied with the Eurocentric Conquest of Mexico published by the American William Prescott in 1843, and seeing further possibilities opened up by the much more rigorous Hernan Cortes published by the Spaniard Salvador de Madariaga in 1941, he wrote Cortes and Montezuma, originally published in 1954 and reissued in 1999 by the wonderful New Directions Books, which has been one of the most important American imprints for serious literature for many years.

New Directions knows good writing when they see it, and we should be most grateful that we have this book, where a master storyteller spins the tale of what has to be one of the most bizarre and gaudy epics to have ever transpired: something much deeper and stranger than anything that anyone could make up. As a student of literature in college I discovered history when I realized that this was true of a great deal of history. Meanwhile, when I ordered this book from the New Directions' catalog some years ago (since when it has been floating around my bookcases), I had no idea if it was history or some sort of interpretive fiction or what. It just looked cool.

And cool it is, as Collis, convinced that previous chroniclers failed to understand the thinking of the Mexicans (they called themselves "Mexicans," by the way. "Aztec" is, according to Collis, a word of European coinage), set out to learn all he could about the "astro-magical" calculations of Montezuma and those around him. This has traditionally been difficult since the Spanish Catholic priests who came in Cortes's wake, although not genocidal and with their share of selfless heroes, did do their best to destroy every vestige of Mexican sacred writings, icons, and rituals. As with many other areas of early history, we are actually today in a better position to interpret many of these events than anyone has been since they occurred, as we now have several reasonably well reconstructed Mexican sources as well as a cadre of scholars of the classical Nauatl language to read them.

The story is of course amazing, better when one has the sensibility both to appreciate the magical aspects and to ask sceptical questions. On the one hand Cortes had the seemingly impossible luck as to appear to the Mexicans to be the incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the god of the highways and the wind, who had disappeared into the East millenniums before with the promise that he would destroy anyone who resisted his return. According to Mexican legend he was a white-skinned man with black hair and beard. The year that Cortez arrived on the coast of modern Mexico, 1519, was, according to legend and to Collis's reading, the end of a 52-year cycle that culminated in the return of Quetzalcoatl and his confrontation with Humming Bird, the militant incarnation of Smoking Mirror. Thus Montezuma attempted to convince Quetzalcoatl/Cortes to go away without confronting him directly. It is a great part of Collis's thesis that Montezuma regarded Cortes as a modern astronomer would regard a returning comet, and that highly precise calculations of an astronomical nature governed his thinking on strategy. (It is also important that Cortes understood none of this, perhaps not even to the very end.)

On the other hand it is certainly not the case that the Mexicans simply acquiesced, on astro-magical grounds, to the hegemony of Spanish forces. In fact Montezuma was killed by stone-slingers of his own people who revolted when Montezuma acquiesced to his confinement in the temple of Lord Face of Water's Palace, just down the street from his own palace. Subsequently the Spanish were routed from Mexico City and spent the better part of a year besieging the city and conquering it by force. An undeniable part of the story is Cortes's prowess as a field officer, who held his troops together under attack from numbers exponentially greater than his own.

As in the case of Pizarro's subsequent conquest of the Incas in the Andean lands (which did much to eclipse the reputation of Cortes during his own lifetime), a crucial part of the story is the cooperation with the extranjeros of local subject peoples. In particular Cortes enlisted, after fierce battles that convinced them of his importance, the Tlaxcalan people, who were older residents of the area (the Mexicans were derived from North American tribes) who saw themselves as culturally older and more distinguished than the Mexicans and who resented their depredations.

As to that, another decisive factor was the fact that the locals fought in a manner calculated to obtain live captives, who would subsequently be sacrificed to the gods and eaten. (The ruler before Montezuma is on record as having sacrificed as many as 20,000 people at a time in rituals designed to placate the gods of nature.) Montezuma himself was known to dine on the flesh of young boys, a fact highly distracting to the Spaniards who shared his table and who were at times unable to distinguish between various savories.

The Spanish, by contrast, had horses, heavy armor, and fought with sword and lance thrusts designed to kill. They were concerned with maintaining their own formations in order to survive, although the fact is that hundreds of Spanish were killed and many more were captured and sacrificed to the gods of the Mexicans. Cortes was tough and shrewd, and vastly ambitious, but his real genius was as a field officer. It was clear to every Spaniard, not all of whom were entirely loyal to him, that they would all perish if he were killed. Meanwhile the lure of gold was not merely fantastic; Cortes had a difficult time paying his local allies for provisions and always needed cash and credit to proceed.

All of this is superstructure to a fantastic story of individuals, men and women, Spanish and Mexican, who underwent tests of fortitude that most of us, thank God, will never even have to contemplate. Bernal Diaz's reminiscences, certainly the most important source for Collis, tell us of many individuals, their personalities, their foibles. I have a copy of Diaz here, and a copy of Prescott of course, but I'll move on, reluctantly enough: this is one of the great stories of all time, brilliantly narrated by Collis.

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