The tulipanes de la India, the big soft red flowers that grown on trees around here in early summer had fallen on the bumpy stone walkway at La Orduña. I meant to take a picture after tai chi: a nice arty shot, colors and textures competing nicely. But I had heard a noise -- I thought something dragging behind the car -- during the second part of my drive to class. When I checked after class, I discovered I had a completely and totally flat right rear tire: llanta ponchada, completemente sin aire . So I forgot about the picture.
So this is an indirect way, or maybe a direct one, into asking about whether what you see is what you get, or why do we notice what we notice and what does that all have to do with history and interpreting the world around us.
In my last post, I talked a little about the size of the indigenous population of Mexico around the time of the coming of the Conquistadors.
I don't remember hearing much about population sizes when we rushed through Cortés's conquest of the Aztecs in high school many years ago. From then until a few years ago, I carried around the notion that of course the Spanish conquered the Aztecs: they had guns, horses, armor, whatever: they were after all European. I wasn't alone.
Automatic assumption among Westerners (and maybe particularly among Americans) of conquest being a manifestation of European superiority to the rest of the world began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. Cultural sprouted, culture wars broke out. Colleges and universities opened departments of black studies, women's studies, Chicano studies. Political correctness entered the vocabulary.
I myself was a beneficiary of these changes. After two years in the Peace Corps in Uganda, I came back as a graduate student in history at the University of Minnesota where they had a brand new collection African history courses and some excellent professors. Having been in Uganda, it didn't seem the least bit a matter of political correctness to think that African history was worth learning: I knew it was, and I was really curious to learn more about the deeper past of where I had lived. Living oversea remade the box of my brain into a more complicated shape which held new kinds of information and new thoughts about it. There were passageways for non-European ideas to make their way in. And there was a bright light shining on my realization that western individualism, capitalism, etc. etc. were really only one culture's way of shaping lives and perceptions.
(As an almost complete non-sequitur, David Brooks's column today was an excellent discussion of "harmonious collective" outlooks vs. individual outlooks, how they differ, and how the former is more attractive than we may have thought. My only complaint is his last line. He said, referring to the "harmonious collective" that "It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats." I would think he would know better: both kinds of ideologies have been useful for aspiring autocrats.)
In the late 1960s and 70s a lot of ummm junk scholarship, propaganda, really, was churned out to support growing militancy among people who really and truly had been kept down. This stuff fed into the hostility and noisiness of conservatives (think The Closing of the American Mind by Harold Bloom). But basically, the changes were good because if the world was becoming more densely woven together, if strands of cultures were being stretched from one continent to another, we really had to learn to recognize how varied the cultures of the world are, how many different answers to human problems exist. And actually how many ways there are to cause human problems.
We need the approaches this vastly more varied world. The answers we Americans thought we had aren't turning out to work so well.
So back to the population of Mexico at the time of Cortés arrival, and to what happened to it after he came.
Well, not quite.
Remember, Columbus landed in the New World in 1492. By the 1519 when Cortés arrived on the southeast side of Mexico, the Spanish had set themelves up in Cuba. Columbus had landed there in 1492. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull commanding Spain to "conquer, coloize, and convert the Pagans of the New World to Catholicism." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Cuba, n.11) Columbus returned in 1494 and explored the south coast, including what today is Guantánamo Bay.
After colonizing Hispaniola, the Spaniards started establishing settlements in Cuba in 1511. The Spaniards were brutal to the people they found there, burning alive many leaders and massacring most of the rest of the population with extraordinary brutality. According to Wikipedia, by 1515 the local population was effectively destroyed "as a culture and a civilization." The destruction of so many people, the death of more from disease, and the flight of the rest meant that the Spaniards could not find cheap labor. In 1513, they began importing slaves from Africa.
The Spanish seem to have gotten themselves firmly established quite fast in Cuba: by 1517, in fact. The govenor, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar who had arrived with Columbus on his second voyage, was already interested in further explorations to the west. In 1518 Governor Velázquez sent an expedition also to the Yucatan, and another followed (There had been a first voyage in 1511). Juan de Grijalva, the leader of this group landed on San Juan de Ulua, and it was news of his arrival which reached the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán. (You can read a little about it here.) So Moctezuma was well aware there were foreigners sniffing around when Cortés travelled the coast of Yucatan and then landing on what is today the coast of Veracruz in 1519.
It wasn't hard for the Aztec emperor to learn about the arrival of the Spaniards. The central and southern parts of Mexico were heavily populated at the time, and communication from shore to center quite good. As I mentioned in my last post, there may have been as many as 25 million people in the area. And they weren't just standing still. In fact, some scholars think that the Aztec Empire might have been one of eight cultures which were on the brink of being able to move outward to find the larger world if Spain hadn't. The other seven are Polynesia, the Incas, Japan, China India, Islam, Latin Christendom. (Francis Brooks, p.131)
But within 150 years of Cortés's conquest, the population of Mexico had been reduced probably by 90%. What happened? No. It wasn't weapons. And it wasn't simply disease. And it wasn't inferior technology.
Don't worry, more to come.
Below is a picture of a stone road not far from where we live. Our dogs Giaco and Cosi can be seen in it. This would not have been a prehispanic road, because as you may or may not know, the indigenas managed to achieve quite a remarkable civilization without wheels and without beasts of burden. These two lanes would have been for something with wheels.