In the summer of 1520, the artist Albrecht Dürer viewed a sampling of the treasures the conquistador Hernán Cortés had recently shipped to Europe from the land that would later be called Mexico. In his diary, Dürer enthused about a golden sun “a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size”, plus “all kinds of wonderful objects”. “All the days of my life,” he wrote, “I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things.”
The awe with which Europeans at first beheld the civilisation of the people who would be known as the Aztecs – they called themselves the Mexica – would not last long. They would later be remembered mainly through images of hearts torn from living bodies with obsidian blades and corpses tumbling down bloody-stepped pyramids, as a people ruled by ritualised bloodlust, trapped in a rigid fatalism, easily conquered by more agile newcomers from across the sea. Moctezuma, the story goes, mistook Cortés for a god whose return had long been prophesied, and surrendered his empire without a fight.
In Fifth Sun, the historian Camilla Townsend points out that even Cortés, a figure hardly known for his modesty, did not mention being welcomed as a god in any of the letters he wrote at the time. Would he have neglected to include such a detail? The story only began to circulate decades later, and it is no surprise that it took hold: “In such a scenario,” Townsend writes, “the white men had nothing to feel remorse about … The Europeans had not only been welcomed, they had been worshipped.” Most of the enduring myths about the Aztecs perform the same function, flattering the conquerers by expelling the conquered from the realm of the rational. It did not help that until recently most of the textual sources on the Aztecs were accounts prepared by the Spanish.
Another body of sources survives, the neglected Nahuatl-language texts known as the annals, written in the years following the conquest by men Townsend describes as “indigenous intellectuals” eager to record their experiences in their own tongue for their own people, to preserve their history before it faded from collective memory. They allow Townsend – who has been championing, translating and publishing the annals for more than a decade – to synthesise a history of the Aztecs that relies primarily on their own words. “In the annals,” she writes, “we can hear the Aztecs talking. They sing, laugh, and yell.”
The Mexica, one of many Nahuatl-speaking peoples who migrated south from the deserts of what is now the American south-west into the fertile central valley of Mexico, were relative latecomers, arriving after most of the good land was taken. Sometime in the mid-1300s, they settled on a marshy island in the middle of a lake and built a town called Tenochtitlan. By the end of the next century, it would be the capital of an empire, a “shimmering, aquatic world” of gardens, canals, aqueducts, orderly streets and causeways, a grand palace and a pyramid at the centre of the city, schools for all their children, markets stocked with sumptuous luxuries and all the necessities required by the island city’s 50,000 inhabitants, a population comparable to London’s or Seville’s.
Prisoners were sacrificed in regular temple rituals – lots of them, by Moctezuma’s time – but this practice, Townsend argues, was not as central to the Aztec political order as some scholars have made it seem. Nor, she suggests, is the slaughter of subjugated peoples unique to the Aztecs: “Thus would it always be: the residents of the great cities almost never saw the vulnerable, shattered peoples in distant lands who supported them – except briefly, in an almost unreal sense, as honoured sacrifice victims in magisterial ceremonies.” A similar sentence could be written about the Spanish or indeed the British and Americans, though those empires rarely took the trouble to honour those they killed.
In the Nahuatl sources that Townsend draws on, it is Cortés and the Spanish who emerge as the savages, baptising girls as a prelude to raping them, “burning and killing with impunity” in a frenzy of cruelty and greed. Moctezuma emerges as a pragmatic and calculating ruler, neither cowardly nor fatalistic. Metal weapons, crossbows and cannons gave the Spanish formidable advantages. By the time they arrived in Tenochtitlan, backed by thousands of the Aztecs’ indigenous foes, it was clear he could not beat them on the battlefield. Unwilling to throw away lives in an unwinnable war, he tried to buy the invaders off, and to buy time. He failed. The spread of smallpox sealed the deal.
It is to Townsend’s credit that she does not attempt to be comprehensive. The cosmology of the Aztecs, their calendar, gods and myths, get only glancing treatment here. This is a brief history, and one told subtly and well, primarily through the lives of individuals. First among them is the woman baptised by the Spanish as Marina and known in Nahuatl as Malintzin, re-hispanicised as Malinche – a name that would become a synonym for traitor. Born to a noble lineage of a people unhappily subject to Aztec rule, she was offered as a tribute payment to the Mexica and then sold to the Chontal Maya on the Yucatán coast, one of the first communities to encounter Cortés’s ships. Given away again to the Spaniards, she survived by making herself indispensable, serving as Cortés’s concubine and interpreter as he tortured and slaughtered his way around the continent. Townsend has elsewhere devoted an entire book, Matlintzin’s Choices, to her resurrection. She emerges here as a complex and sympathetic figure, able – as indigenous Mexicans would be for generations to come – to hold many worlds within herself at once.
Martín Cortés, the son she bore to the conquistador, one of the planet’s first mestizos, appears here as a strong and tragic figure. Less strong and more tragic is Don Luis de Santa María Cipac, the last tlatoani, or king, of noble Aztec blood to govern his people under the yoke of Spanish rule. The real heroes of Townsend’s narrative, though, are the authors of the annals – men such as Alonso de Castañeda Chimalpopoca, Domingo Chimalpahin, Hernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc – who dedicated themselves to preserving their histories as one world crumbled around them and another, still shivering, was born. The religion of their ancestors, Townsend writes, “was premised on the notion of a carefully maintained record of a succession of imploding and renewing worlds, none of which was ever to be entirely forgotten”. They kept the record intact, and with it preserved a universe.
In this telling, there is no mystery to the conquest, no hidden germ of superiority bolstering the Spanish victories. Whatever advantages the Spanish had, Townsend argues, came to them only as the heirs of a Eurasian civilisation that, thanks to a few extra millennia of agricultural sedentism, had developed more efficient ways to murder. Placed in a broader timeline, and one that centres on indigenous accounts, the conquest was not the end of the Aztecs’ world, but a single chapter in a longer story of adaptation and resistance. Moctezuma’s empire has fallen, but so too has the Spanish. Tenochtitlan is gone, razed and rebuilt as the capital of a country in which indigenous traditions remain vital and more than 1.5 million people still speak Nahuatl, more than Welsh or Basque or Chechen. However much blood Cortés may have spilled, he did not destroy the Aztecs.
• Fifth Sun is published by Oxford (RRP £19.99).