Drawn primarily from histories written by the Aztec people, this book shares their perspectives from before, during and after the Spanish invasion
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As a child, I was endlessly fascinated by the most dominant aboriginal civilizations of the Americas: the Incas, Olmecs, Mayas and Aztecs. Unfortunately, outside of casual and all-too-brief mentions of them in dusty outdated grade school history texts, I was unable to pursue my desire to learn more about any of these groups of indigenous peoples. But I never forgot my early passion. So I was thrilled when I recently stumbled across Camilla Townsend’s book, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press, 2020: Amazon US / Amazon UK).
The author is a Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, and is an expert on indigenous peoples of the Americas and their relationships with new arrivals. In Fifth Sun, she writes an informative historical account that is a complex and captivating revisionist history of the Aztecs, drawn solely from their own texts, told in their own words — thanks to the author’s deep knowledge of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire.
Early on, the Aztecs were intrigued by the Roman alphabet and, unbeknownst to their colonizers, they learned how to use it to record their oral history in detailed accounts in their own language of Nahuatl. Until Professor Townsend’s translations, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated, and rarely consulted by scholars. We, her curious readers, are the beneficiaries.
The book begins with the Aztecs’ origins and rise to power, a recording of their own oral traditions, followed by a recounting (and revising) of the events of the Spanish conquest in the middle chapters as told mostly by the Aztecs themselves, with the last chapters devoted to the decades immediately after the Spanish conquest and how the indigenous survivors adapted.
The Aztec, who referred to themselves as the Mexica, began as a group of nomadic peoples who settled on Lake Texcoco in central Mexico around the year 1325. After introducing the reader to the Aztecs, Fifth Sun then examines the history of the Mexica people in detail in the time period before, during and after the Spanish invasion and conquest, which began in 1519 and ended in 1521. In this book, Professor Townsend shares the Mexica oral histories and songs that capture and preserve their historical culture and identity, and record the events that occurred when the Spanish arrived, focusing particularly on 15th century history, which has the most reliable sources. Professor Townsend especially focuses on Mexica women: their lives, loves, and fears.
The Mexica were no strangers to conquest and extreme violence themselves because this is how they built their own empire, which spanned the central valley of the Mexican peninsula. In fact, it was this history of Mexica violence and oppression of other indigenous people that motivated many critically important allies to aid the Spanish invaders’ ultimate triumph over the Mexica.
But the European conquerors’ use of extreme violence to achieve their goals is gut-wrenching to read about as the Spanish apparently sought to annihilate of their very culture and identity. The conquerors’ violence even extended to Mexica names: for example, the very word ‘Aztec’ was fabricated by European scholars centuries after the Spanish conquest. (The term ‘Aztec’ is actually a poorly defined term that denotes the Empire comprised numerous people who spoke a common Nahuatl tongue, and the peoples conquered by the Mexica.) Professor Townsend states: “No of people ever called themselves that.”
Despite the atrocities perpetrated by the conquistadors, and the devastating impact of deadly diseases against which the Mexica had no immunity, they are still with us. Their culture and language are still with us.
I was most interested that Professor Townsend overturns or debunks most of the pervasive myths that I was taught about “the Aztecs” as an intellectually defenceless child — that the Mexica believed that Hernan Cortes and his gang of diseased thugs were the incarnation of Mexica gods, and that Emperor Moctezuma II “gave away” his empire to the Spanish invaders. Bollocks to all of that nonsense! Professor Townsend also unmasks the many lies that the Spanish conquerors ascribed to the Mexica people — cowardly, superstitious, and prone to massive human sacrifices. In contrast, Professor Townsend reveals that the Aztec Empire boasted some very skilled and experienced tradespeople and politicians who built extensive intelligence networks and who traded and reformed the empire.
Speaking of politics, the political history of the Aztec Empire is riveting and thoroughly, surprisingly, modern: The power struggles, the built economies and trade goods, the family and social structures, and of course, the myths and legends that provided their identity. Parts of Fifth Sun provides a window into the world of a people on the verge of catastrophic change.
Actually, it all sounds eerily like what we are confronted with now by the daily news.
This engaging book includes 55 pages of Notes (a veritable treasure-trove of further readings) where hundreds of references of the primary literature are listed, and an 18 page Bibliography so readers can indulge their passion to read further and more in-depth about these fascinating people.
Although I enjoyed this book, I do have a few complaints. First, the book needed a map of the area encompassed by the Aztec Empire and it would have benefitted from a historical timeline of the Aztec Empire that emphasized the small time span that the book specifically focuses on. The author also should have made it clear in several sections of the book that the emotions and reactions of individuals — for example, the experiences of Cristóbal at the Franciscan-run boarding school of Tlatelolco (Pp. 149-150) — are her speculations and, although understandable, are not drawn from a historical source. As it stands, the reader must dig around in the Notes to learn this was fiction.
Overall, this enlightening book is readable, detailed, and respectful, and it includes a lot of information that the interested reader will likely not run across unless they are specifically looking for it. I highly recommend Fifth Sun to everyone who is interested in the history of indigenous peoples of the Americas, who wants to catch a glimpse of what colonialism ‘looks like’ (yikes), or who, like me, wishes to further pursue their latent passion to learn more about the Aztecs.
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs won the International Cundill History Prize 2020.
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