Notes: Episode 29, The Fall Of The Aztecs (Part 1)

As with every show, I’ll list any corrections or clarifications here. If there’s anything I’ve overlooked, please contact me by email or in the comments and I’ll edit the notes to reflect the new information.


9:13 – I really overstate the size of the Mayan empire here – it doesn’t even extend all the way through central America, let alone into South America. Really it’s the Incan empire that shines in terms of size; the Mayans were larger than the Aztecs certainly, but had suffered a political collapse a few centuries before and at the time of Cortes’ landing weren’t really that much bigger.

15:02 – When I call the Aztec empire “very strongly centralized” here, I know it sounds like a bit of a contradiction to what I had said earlier – namely that the empire was rather diffused in its organization. This is more an issue of clarity on my part than a contradiction; what I really should have said right here is that military power in the empire was concentrated within the three main members of the triple alliance, leaving the option of rebellion as next to impossible for constituent members. The actual political administration of the empire was, as stated earlier, still somewhat loosely enforced.

24:00 – I should probably have jumped in here, but England wouldn’t declare independence from the church until 1534 – not until well after both the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella, as well as the conquest of the Aztecs. Ethan isn’t incorrect here in the spirit of things – the loss of the British Isles to reform was a significant blow to the church and elevated Spain in the eyes of Rome – but his timeline is a little off.

25:26 – “Maybe even hundreds by the time you’re done with it” – actually it was around 5,000 to 7,000. Terrible, but less than 20 people a year when you work it out. You can call lies, damn lies and statistics on this, but I think a lot of people would be surprised at how low the number is when framed as “the Spanish Inquisition only killed about 20 people per year”. You could also frame it as “less than 2% of those investigated were executed”, which would probably get similarly surprised reactions. This certainly isn’t meant to absolve the program; it’s just that the Spanish Inquisition has a popular reputation it may not have deserved when compared to some of the other justice systems (a term I use generously here) throughout history. One piece of low-hanging fruit is the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution – a period of less than one year during which more than 30,000 people were executed. Tragically, the 20th century could easily yield a number of far more terrible examples. Again, the Spanish Inquisition was not a good thing, but its reputation has become larger than the reality of the program, which is a phenomenon I’m never all that fond of. Both compassion and outrage should ideally be tempered by a measure of perspective.

35:02 – Seriously, even in a movie where I was willing to buy a talking willow tree giving someone advice, I still always had trouble believing Pocahontas would just spontaneously learn English. This isn’t a correction, I’m just ranting more about what amounts to really sloppy writing. Couldn’t Grandmother Willow have cast a spell on her to help her understand or something? It really wouldn’t be that hard to get around. Yeesh.

35:52 – These types of mental gymnastics to make it okay to essentially commit genocide were built on frameworks put in place for the Crusades; they weren’t invented from whole cloth to deal with the “problem” of Native Americans. Really all they ended up doing was putting them in the same class as they had the Moors for the reconquista, or the Saracens in the Holy Land, as they had found ways around the morality of clashes on a civilization level for both of these conflicts.

37:03 – I came out pretty strongly against cannibalism in the New World here. I should probably note that there were lots of reports and hearsay about cannibalism, and the word itself even derives from the Spanish word from Caribbean. The specific problem I have with these reports is that, as we’ll discuss shortly after this time stamp, Europeans seem to believe everything they’re told by Native peoples because they appear to have thought them too simple to lie for their own gain. They also tended to believe anything that framed other Native peoples as “savage” in some manner, and there’s no better way to dehumanize a group than to claim that they break a fairly strong and universal taboo. It’s certainly not impossible that some groups may have practiced ritualized cannibalism in warfare (eating a small piece of an enemy you’ve killed, often part of the heart), it’s also quite likely that these reports were essentially slanderous propaganda. The fact that widespread and regular cannibalism can lead to very serious health problems (for example, kuru), and the fact that these did not appear to be prevalent in native populations, suggests that it’s quite likely that it was uncommon if it happened at all.

39:31 – I did a bit of digging, and I ran into a similar problem as I’ve had elsewhere with population numbers – they vary widely. That being said, it looks like Beijing was probably the largest city in the world at this point in time. I mentioned Constantinople earlier in the context of being the only European city that was bigger than Tenochtitlan mostly to keep things in perspective for someone from Spain and what they might be familiar with around the year 1500. It looks like there were a number of cities larger in population – besides Beijing and Constantinople, there was also Baghdad, Cairo, and an Indian city called Vijayanagara that were likely bigger in terms of population. That being said, population isn’t everything – I do think that the planning of the city helped it stand out as a metropolitan center ahead of its time.

43:23 – I shouldn’t have said that intermarriage “was unusual for early European explorers”. A more accurate statement would be that children of mixed marriages were treated much more equally in Spanish-controlled areas than they were by some of the other pioneers into the New World. While the British and especially French tended to be far more reasonable in their dealings with indigenous nations as political bodies, any children of intermarriages were often considered second-class citizens and saw major discrimination – the most significant example that comes to mind for me is the Metis people of the Canadian prairies. While far from problem free, the children of both Spanish and indigenous backgrounds tended to be treated on par with any other Spanish citizen for the most part, provided that culturally they identified with Spanish mores.

44:25 – Besides the issues mentioned here (and I almost regret mentioning slavery at all, because it’s such a can of worms, but more because it’s difficult to do justice rather than trying to pretend it wasn’t an issue), the biggest problem with the slave trade of the 19th century is the systemic racism. Again, the versions practiced before this are not to be idealized – ownership of a human being is wrong. But what happened in the United States was a fundamental assumption based on skin colour of an entire group of people’s standing in society, leading to many of the social problems that still have a long way to go before being cleared up there. A racially based, multi-generational system of slavery that was highly organized and carefully structured is absolutely worse than the sporadic capture of slaves by the Spanish in the 16th century. It doesn’t make it alright, but that 19th century concept of slavery is so socially pervasive that it’s important to draw a distinction.

45:58 – What I should have been more clear about here is that the vast majority of people making the Atlantic crossing were men, and to deprive them of relationships was both borderline cruel and a poor way of establishing a lasting colony. There aren’t really a lot of good ways to deal with this problem; allowing your people to marry locals is really one of two solutions. The other would later be practiced by the French: between 1663 and 1673, the filles du roi (“King’s daughters”) were sent to New France to encourage the fur trappers and explorers there to marry and begin families. About 800 young women were sent, with nearly all beginning families. This did increasse the viability of the colony, but also encouraged maintenance of a distinctly European identity in contrast to the natives, while the Spanish policy encouraged integration to a much greater extent.

47:02 – The emperor was Marcus Aurelius and the book is Meditations – I probably should have known. Marcus Aurelius ascribed to a school of thought known as Stoicism, which suggested that reason, deliberate action, and abstenance from excess would lead to a fulfilling life. The passage I so poorly remembered is a passage on reminding yourself of your purpose in life – that being productive and participating in civic life was far more fulfilling than the fleeting pleasure of a few minutes of extra sleep. It’s also written as a dialogue with his inner self; he’s convincing himself that a warm bed isn’t as good as it feels. I can relate strongly to this passage.

1:02:58 – It’s actually not incorrect to say that what de Aguilar spoke was “Mayan”. There were numerous Mayan languages, but the one he would have picked up – also known as Yucatec Mayan – was by far the most common and would have simply been known as “Mayan” to its speakers. That being said, there is an entire family of Mayan languages that was spoken throughout the empire based on region, so we more or less got lucky calling the language he spoke “Mayan”.

1:11:34 – Metallurgy in the New World is a bit of a complex issue without much consensus. It seems that most of the elements necessary to begin more advanced metallurgy were in place, but that without any civilizations using harder alloys before European contact, almost all metal working was devoted to the comparatively soft and easy to work decorations made of gold and silver. The Incas were using bronze to develop tools by the time contact was made, but this was not present in the Aztec empire in a widespread manner when Cortes arrived. The lack of metallurgy (making the indigenous peoples of the Americas literally living members of the Stone Age) was one of many points against them when evaluating their level of “civilization”. There is a strong theory that they were simply good enough at working stone into effective and durable tools that they saw bronze as a brittle and expensive way to manufacture a somewhat inferior tool, meaning that development had stalled. It’s a big issue when looking at their “level of civilization” – most nations were aware of the wheel, but chose not to use it in favor of other equally effective solutions to efficiently moving heavy loads. The question should not be whether they were hitting the same milestones considered essential to old world civilizations, but rather whether or not those milestones are a hindrance to those who choose a different path.

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