Monday, May 26, 2014

The Aztecs in their final 93 days

To some extent I’ve been reading Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain because one of the points made by Cochran and Harpending in their The 10,000 Year Explosion, how Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution was that disease facilitated the ease with which Western Europe conquered the Americas, both north and south. One of their chief examples was the conquering of the Aztecs, or Mexicans as Bernal Diaz calls them. Cochran and Harpending assert that Cortes and his men would not have succeeded unless disease had weakened the forces of the Mexicans. But thus far, and I am 60% through Diaz’s book, I have seen only one mention of disease muting the abilities of the Mexican forces and that was not in a critical battle.

Also, the question of the extent of the aid provided by the Cortes’s Amerindian allies is interesting. Indeed they were present to offer any assistance the Spaniards requested. Cortes in his final 93 day assault on Mexico city divided his 550 or so Spanish force into three division. Each division was backed up by 8,000 Amerindians, mostly Tlascallans, but their aid does not receive much commendation from Diaz. At Kindle location 9358, Diaz writes, “If the Tlascallans had likewise encamped this night on the causeway, we should no doubt have suffered more severely, as their numbers would have embarrassed our movements; but experience had taught us prudence, and each night we ordered them to draw off to Tlacupa, and we only considered ourselves safe when assured they had left the causeway.”

Diaz describes the Tlascallans as not being very good about keeping watch at night. The Mexicans were far more successful in surprising the Tlascallans than they were the Spaniards who were always on the alert. But the Mexicans were learning by their failures. Here is Diaz’s account of an interesting engagement in which Cortes’s division (his 1/3 of the divided Spanish forces) was defeated, and this occurred well into the final 93 days of the final campaign against the Aztecs. Cortes proposed that all three of the Spanish divisions attack at once. Bernal Diaz and others objected saying it was better to take it slow, destroy the houses one by one and fill in the water ways so Mexicans couldn’t come in behind them in canoes, but Cortes thought otherwise:

Cortes indeed listened to our reasons for objecting to his plan, but nevertheless determined that the three divisions, including the cavalry, should make an attempt on the following day to fight their way up to the Tlatelulco, and that the Tlascallans, with the troops of Tezcuco, and of the towns which had recently subjected themselves to our emperor, should cooperate with us; the latter were more particularly to assist us with their canoes. The following morning . . . the three divisions sallied forth from their respective encampments. On our causeway we had forced a bridge and an entrenchment, after some very hard fighting, for Quauhtemoctzin [the last emperor of the Aztecs] sent out terrific masses to oppose us; so that we had great numbers of wounded, and our friends of Tlascalla above one thousand. We already thought victory was on our side, and we kept continually advancing. Cortes, with his division, had fought his way across a very deep opening, of which the opposite sides were merely connected by an extremely narrow path, and which the artful Mexicans had purposely so contrived, as they justly foresaw what would take place. Cortes, with the whole of his division, now sure of victory, vigorously pursued the enemy, who from time to time faced about, to fly their arrows and lances at him; but all this was a mere stratagem on their part, to entice Cortes further into the city; and this object was entirely accomplished. The wheel of fortune now suddenly turned against Cortes . . . for while he was eager in pursuit of the enemy, with every appearance of victory, it so happened that his officers never thought to fill up the large opening which they had crossed . . . When the Mexicans saw that Cortes had passed the fatal opening without filling it up, their object was gained. An immense body of troops, with numbers of canoes . . . now suddenly rushed forth from their hiding places, and fell upon this ill-fated division with incredible fierceness, accompanied by the most fearful yells. It was impossible for the men to make any stand against this overwhelming power, and nothing now remained for our men but to close their ranks firmly, and commence a retreat. But the enemy kept rushing on in such crowds, that our men, just as they had retreated as far back as the dangerous opening, gave up all further resistance, and fled precipitately. Cortes indeed strove to rally his men, and cried out to them, "Stand! stand firm” . . . But all his commands were fruitless here, and every one strove to save his own life. Now the awful consequences of the neglect to fill up the opening in the causeway began to show themselves. In front of the narrow path, which the canoes had now broken down, the Mexicans wounded Cortes in the leg, took sixty Spaniards prisoners, and killed six horses. Several Mexican chiefs had already laid hands on our general, but with great exertion he tore himself from their grasp, and at the same moment the brave Christobal de Olea . . . came up to his assistance, cut down one of the Mexican chiefs who had seized hold of Cortes, and rescued his general, by cutting his way through the enemy sword in hand, assisted by another excellent soldier, called Lerma. But this heroic deed cost Olea his life, and Lerma was very nigh sharing a like fate. During this dubious conflict for the rescue of our general's person several other of our men had by degrees hastened up to his assistance, who, though themselves covered with wounds, boldly risked their lives for Cortes. . . they now succeeded in dragging Cortes out of the water, and, placing him on the back of a horse, he reached a place of safety. . . The enemy in the meantime pursued Cortes and his troops up to their very encampment, hooting and yelling most fearfully. [Kindle locations 9389-9418]

Comment: Diaz doesn’t keep us in suspense. He has told us that these are the final 93 days of their campaign against the Mexicans and that Cortes and his men are ultimately victorious. Had he not told us, the reader approaching this story for the first time could be forgiven for believing that the Mexicans were going to win and that the Spaniards were destined to be sacrificed to the Aztec gods and their limbs consumed by the victorious Mexicans. I recently read about all of the major battles of the American Civil War, and if any of those forces whether North or South was defeated as badly as Cortes was in the above-described battle, the losing generals would be busy trying to collect his panicked men so that they could retreat with some semblance of dignity. But here, Cortes and his men are well within territory controlled by enemy forces. Even retreat would be difficult. One is reminded of the defeat by the Chinese of Army and Marine forces at the Chosen Reservoir. A journalist asked the Marine General Oliver Smith about The Marine’s defeat and he replied, “Retreat Hell. We’re just attacking in another direction.”

I know the Spaniards ultimately win, but if this were a novel, I would be expecting the novelist to introduce a preposterous deus ex-machina solution to enable his band of heroes to achieve an otherwise unbelievable victory. And if I ever knew precisely how victory was achieved in the actual event, I’ve forgotten; so I’m very anxious to read on.

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