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Superiority at the cost of forgetfulness

March 14, 2010

Human sacrifice is such a charged subject that its practice by the Triple Alliance has inevitably become shrouded in myths.  Two are important here.  The first is that human sacrifice was never practiced—the many post-conquest accounts of public death-spectacles are racist lies.  It was indeed in the Spanish interest to exaggerate the extent of human sacrifice, because ending what Cortés called this “most horrid and abominable custom” became a post hoc rationale for conquest.  But the many vividly depicted ceremonies in Mexica art and writing leave little doubt that it occurred—and on a large scale.  (Cortés may well have been correct when he estimated that sacrifice claimed “three or four thousand souls” a year.)

The second myth is that in its penchant for public slaughter the Triple Alliance was fundamentally different from Europe.  Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris—Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds.  London, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park.  (The diplomat Samuel Pepys paid a shilling for a good view of a Tyburn hanging in 1664; watching the victim beg for mercy, he wrote, was a crowd of “at least 12 or 14,000 people.”)  In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings.  “The corpses dangling from trees whose distant silhouettes stand out against the sky, in so many old paintings, are merely a realistic detail,” Braudel observed.  “They were part of the landscape.”  Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historian V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people.  At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire.  Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire.  France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel.

From 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, which, even though I’m only about a third of the way through, is so far just as good as sources (and real people) have suggested.  Earlier in the book the author also threw in some instances of the Indians lauding their superiority over early colonizers that contrast some of the familiar claims us Euro-Americans grow up with.

We’ve all heard how the savages had no work ethic and a seeming allergy toward hard work, so it’s funny to read about Indians sitting back and laughing at ignorant European colonists as they toiled hard for their daily bread.  We’ve all heard how the savages walked around naked like stupid animals, so it’s also funny to read about the healthier, taller, more physically-fit Indians laughing at the ugly and deficient European colonists covered in dirty rags and hair.  What kind of beast has orange, bushy hair coming from its face?!

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