Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Broken Spears Essay - Why the Aztecs Could Have Won

Portilla'sCM contribution to historians’ understanding of the Spanish invasion of Mexico challenges typical assumptions made of the resistance byCM Aztec forces and the intangibleCM advantages enjoyed by Spanish troops. The Broken Spears contains evidence of well trained, effective, and dynamic Aztec military forces capable of going toe to toe with Spanish forces. The Broken Spears highlights the important role fear played in paralyzing Aztec leadership, leaving the Aztecs susceptible to attack by Spanish forces.

The notion that Aztecs were defenseless is absurd. To the contrary, The Broken Spears indicates the Aztecs possessed well trained armies. There’s strong evidence to support the idea of a rigorous Aztec combat training program. In fact, Aztec military preparations were so thorough they conscripted young children for combat training (Portilla, XLIII) and even kept the entire Tlaxcala nation in tact to be used as a nonconsensual sparring partner to train inexperienced warriors. (Portilla, XLI) The effectiveness of Aztec military training can be judged by the span of Aztec power. By the time the Spanish had arrived the Aztecs had subjected most of their neighbors including Coyoacan, Cuitlahuac, Xochimilco and Chalco to a tributary relationship. (Portilla, XLCM)


The Broken Spears also highlights the Aztecs’ excellent military command structure that greatly contributed to a disciplined fighting force. Small units of roughly 20 soldiers were grouped into larger units of a few hundred. Each group was commanded by a tiachcauh and these were led by even more powerful military commanders known as tlacatecatl and tlacochcalcatl. (Portilla, XLIII) The Aztecs benefited greatly from this command structure during the Night of Sorrows. Aztec warriors obediently carried out orders given by group leaders such as the call to arms issued by Huitzilopochtli to pursue fleeing Spanish troops and their Tlaxcala allies. There’s also a superb display of Aztec military discipline during Cortes’ recapture of Tenochtitlan. Rather than run in terror and confusion as much of the city had done when cannons were fired, (Portilla, 66) Aztec warriors displayed military discipline and stood their ground against terrifying Spanish cannons and quickly adapted with zig-zagging techniques to reduce casualties. (Portilla, 94)


The Aztecs demonstrated an excellent grasp on military tactics during the defense of Techochtitlan. The Aztecs attempted to ambush and capture or murder key Spanish personnel like Fray Bernardino de Sahagun who could speak Nahuatl, a key Spanish resource enabling negotiations with potential allies. (Portilla, 83) The Aztecs enforced an effective blockade against Spanish troops barricaded inside the Tenochtitlan palace, and forced Spanish troops to temporarily withdraw. (Portilla, 78)


It's difficult to be asked to believe the Aztecs were defenseless against invading Spanish armies after a thorough examination of the Night of Sorrows during which the Spanish and allied Tlaxcala warriors were quickly routed after a surprise attack. In response to the massacre at Toxcatl, the Aztecs placed Cortes under siege, (Portilla, 78) forcing Cortes to retreat from Tenochtitlan. (Portilla, 83) The ensuing battle leads to a slaughter of the Spanish and Tlaxcala forces at the hands of the Aztecs. The Massacre at the Canal of the Toltecs epitomizes the capability of the Aztecs to defeat Spanish forces. The Spanish had been so badly cornered by the Aztecs the Spanish had been forced to leap from the cliff the Aztecs corralled them in. There were so many bodies a literal manmade bridge had been constructed over which remaining Spanish forces continued their retreat. (Portilla, 85)

The traditional account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico would have historians believe gunpowder was the only military advantageCM the Spanish enjoyed over the Aztecs. The Broken Spears proves this thesis to be anything but accurate. One of the most crucial advantages the Spanish had over the Aztecs was fear. Fear turned otherwise strong, capable Aztec leaders into cowering lumps of mush.

Montecuhzoma stands out as a prime example of how fear of the Spaniards paved the way for Spanish victory over Mexico. It’s important to note Montecuhzoma’s reaction to the arrival of unfamiliar Spanish vessels on the Aztec coast. Montecuhzoma felt threatened by the arrival of the Spanish whom Montcuhzoma perceived to be gods. (Portilla, 13) This led to a devastating lack of strong leadership on the part of Montecuhzoma. Time after time his fear of the Spanish enables Cortes to place Montecuhzoma and his people in ever more compromising situations, not the least of which is his decision to welcome the Spanish into Tenochtitlan after hearing of the conversion of Tezcoco to Christianity. (Portilla, 61) By allowing the Spanish into the city Montecuhzoma set the stage for his own capture and death.

As soon as the Spanish had entered the city they placed Montecuhzoma under house arrest and shot a cannon round to throw the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan into confusion. (Portilla, 65-66) Spanish troops secured and looted the city, seizing vast stores of Aztec gold. After a twenty day stay, the Spanish attacked the Aztecs without warning and slaughtered a large group of Aztec warriors unarmed. (Portilla, 74) Had Montecuhzoma acted with fortitude and placed confidence in his military might his army would have never been caught unarmed and mowed down by the Spanish and Tlaxcalas without resistance.

Portilla’s The Broken Spears adds to historians understanding of the fall of Mexico at the hands of the Spanish by providing a contrast to several common storylines. Most notably, he reverses the idea that the Aztecs were powerless against Spanish cannons and arquebuses. He reveals the Aztecs to be a warlike people capable of fending against the Spanish for themselves. This side of the Aztecs is most visible on the Night of Sorrows just after the Spanish massacre of Aztec warriors. The Aztecs successfully force Spanish-Taxcala military forces to retreat from Tenochtitlan with all haste, inflicting heavy casualties on Spanish soldiers and Taxcala warriors. Furthermore, Portilla effectively dispels the myth that guns were the only advantage possessed by the Spanish. The actions of Montecuhzoma present a clear case for fear playing a large role in the fall of the Aztec empire. Rather than standing firm when faced with Spanish aggression, Montecuhzoma acquiesces to Spanish demands which places Montecuhzoma and his people in precarious positions and susceptible to attacks by the Spanish.