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Dr Claudia Haake, La Trobe University; Dr John Minns, Australian National University, 13 November 2016

JONATHON LINEEN: Good afternoon and welcome to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Jono Lineen. I’m one of the curators here. And I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay respect to their elders past and present. So welcome. Welcome to our A History of the World in 100 Objects lecture series, from the ‘big bang’ through to early civilisations and the rise of the empires, we now focus our attention on ‘Before the new world’. Dr Claudia Haake from La Trobe University and Dr John Minns from ANU [Australian National University] will be taking us on a journey through the history of the Incas pre-conquest to Aztec society and through to Muslim Spain.

So what’s going to happen to this afternoon is John is going to come up and speak, then Claudia is going to come up and speak, and then we’re going to sit down after that, and save your questions until all three of us are up on the stage after that. A little bit of housekeeping, if you can put your mobiles on to silent, that would be great.

So our first speaker is Dr John Minns from the ANU. John is Associate Professor in politics and international relations and was Director of the Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies from 2007 to 2016. His research focuses on the political economy of developing countries in Latin America. He is a former Fulbright scholar, university medallist and has won numerous teaching awards. Please join me in welcoming John to the stage.

JOHN MINNS: Thank you very much and thank you to the Museum for giving me the opportunity to talk about the golden llama because it gives me the opportunity to talk about one of the most interesting civilisations and one of the most important empires in the pre New World period, that of the Incas. The golden llama itself is an interesting object in a few ways because it tells us a few things about the society that created it. One, just the fact that it is a llama is quite important because as I’m sure you know, before European contact, there were no heavy draught animals, oxen or horses that could carry loads or pull ploughs in the New World.

The llama was for the Inca people and the empire which they created; an extraordinarily important animal because it was able to carry not very heavy loads, perhaps only 20 or 30 kilos at the most; but it was able to do so across a very, very difficult terrain in the Andes in particular. And it was also able to withstand very high altitudes, 3000 metres and more and carry those packs. Probably without the llama it would have been very, very difficult for the Inca to establish an empire and the kind of very sophisticated society that they managed to do.

Secondly, the fact that it’s gold is quite important because gold was, of course, bound up in this whole story of the Old World and the New World. For the Inca people and for people throughout this region, gold was something close to a sacred metal. The main deity for the Inca was the sun god Inti. The gold was considered to be in some ways derivative of the sweat of the sun, perhaps because of its golden rays and so on. It was very important as a form therefore of worship. Also in civil society, gold was really owned increasingly by the period at which the Europeans arrived; was owned by the central king, the Sapa Inca of Inca society. Of course gold was one of the great two motivating forces of the Europeans and the Spanish in coming to the New World in the first place; the other being souls, but gold I think really trumped it more than anything.

Perhaps the third thing that’s interesting about this quite small object, if you’ve seen it, is that it was very possibly an object of tribute; that it was created by not the Inca people themselves but by conquered people and paid to the Inca in tribute, which tells you something about the nature of the empire that the Inca had created. It was a huge empire and, as I say, expands a number of countries that I’ve listed here in modern political terms. It was at that point the largest north-south empire in history – 5500 kilometres across, as I said, extremely difficult terrain in the Andes.

It was a place of great diversity. There are probably 30 languages or more in the empire at its height. It’s hard to know but at least ten million subjects of empire, possibly as many as 16 million at its height. Now to put that in some sort of world comparison, Spain, the conqueror of this region at the time probably had a population of about seven million. That was one of the more populated countries of Europe at the time. So this is a vast empire, both in terms of numbers of people and in terms of a geographical spread; and the fact that it incorporated such a diverse range of societies, cultures and tongues.

[points to slide] Here it is, and it gives you an idea. Quito, the northern capital to a little further south of Santiago. There’s some controversy about how far south the Incas actually got but probably somewhere in that range. Of course, it’s difficult to conceive of why the Incas didn’t go further to the east and start to push further into Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and so on. Eventually there are geographical problems with it, but the major ones that prevented the Incas from spreading east, I’d say, were the kinds of societies that they encountered there.

In the Andes, what you encountered were fairly urbanised societies in many cases; civilisations which were quite well developed which had well established agriculture and therefore could provide tribute; therefore they were worthwhile conquering. When you start to get into the Brazilian or the Amazonian jungle, it becomes very difficult going, and what you actually get for the conquest starts to decline. So it becomes a real social barrier, as well as a topographical barrier for the Incas. [points to slide] Let’s have a look at the geography of the place because this in many ways, shapes important things about Inca society and the empire that they create. It is an extremely rugged and difficult terrain. Even today, there’s talk about creating a highway across the Andes, and that’s become extraordinarily difficult to do even with modern engineering technology and so on.

The Inca of course had roads, but even so, without horses for example, communication across this area is quite difficult. This is the kind of topography that lends itself to two things. One is that you tend to get very different sorts of climates depending on exactly where you are. You could be quite close in terms of latitude to another area with quite a different series of cultivars, quite a different series of plants. That in turn lends itself to densely populated areas because it’s quite fertile, but also areas which are separated from each other. Squabbling polities almost within sight of each other, or within one mountain range or valley of each other. Actually, I think it’s quite similar with the case of Aztec society around the central Valley of Mexico, around the lake system there.

The origins of this civilisation in this area had developed long before the Incas of course. In some ways, the Incas are very much ‘Johnny-come-latelies’ in this area. The great classic civilisation, that civilisations to follow in the Andes looked to, was Tiahuanaco which rose about 500AD and for about another 500 years. The Incas and other civilisations in this area look to Tiahuanaco as the kind of classic civilisation from which they drew much of their culture. For example, worship of the sun as the central deity. I suppose the way in which Europeans look to the classic period of Greece and Rome, is the way in which the Andean people looked at Tiahuanaco.

Because of the range of different polities, you have a series civilisations, rising and falling in conflict with each other. It’s not really until quite late in the piece that the Incas come to dominate in that region. One of the things that I mentioned here, a preceding civilisation to the Incas is Chimu or Chimor which was quite important; that lasted up until the beginning of Inca expansion, the beginnings of the Inca Empire around 1450 from about 850. One of the key things that comes out of Chimor and that the Incas takeover is the idea of split inheritance of kings. Increasingly in these societies kingship becomes divine. The Sapa Inca, the head Inca, the only Inca, the king of the Incas, becomes increasingly godlike over time.

As he becomes a deity, the question then appears, what happens when physically he actually dies? He’s not really dead because gods can’t die. If gods can’t die and the Sapa Inca is actually still alive, then to take his property is stealing from the gods, is robbing the gods and is clearly sacrilegious. What Chimor establishes for the first time, and the Incas inherit now is this idea that a new Inca will take the place of the dead Inca, but the property of the dead Inca will always remain in trust for him rather than for the new one. This has very important implications that I’ll talk about in a moment in terms of the expansion of the Inca Empire.

As I mentioned, this society began to become more centralised over a period of a couple of hundred years. What begins in kingship as a fairly elective position of war leader, or the Sinchi, becomes increasingly a hereditary position; and it becomes more and more powerful. In other words the state starts to become the most important institution in Inca society. Kingship becomes the centre of the state and the state becomes more and more dominant. Inca society is not something  that’s frozen in time. It’s developing, it’s changing over the couple of hundred years before the Europeans get there and moving in this direction.

It’s an economy which is based on llama tending potatoes, of course, a huge variety of potatoes growing in the region. Over hundreds of years developed from tiny little tubers up into the sizeable sort of ones that we see today, but a huge variety even today. The Quechua language of the Inca is spread throughout the region as the empire develops and it becomes a fairly statist economy. The state intervenes in the economy, demanding tribute from different social groups and clan groups in the economy. Tribute can come in a variety of forms. It can come in material forms of food and so on. It can also come in terms of labour, most importantly.

The Sapa Inca is the ruler of the kingdom. The Inca state then is multicellular, made up of clan groups called the Ayllu, a village clan usually related to each other, owing tribute to the central state; taking it in turns through this institution called the Mita to provide labour to keep the state running and to build those extraordinary cities, those great walls, the roads, the terraces for agriculture that no doubt you’ve seen. [points to a slide]The religion of the Inca is based around the most important deity – there are many deities – the most important deity is the sun. As with many American religions, the single deity can have different facets depending on what’s happening. One aspect of the sun, is the god Viracocha who is the creator of the world. The other sort of more day-to-day god running things is Inti, a central god probably venerated by the Inca.

There are also very many sacred objects and golden objects can become sacred in this context as well. Very possibly, the golden llama is one of these. They are called ‘huacas’. Huacas could be oddly shaped stones; they could be all sorts of physical objects which people in this society thought in some way embodied holiness, in some way represented the sacredness of nature, of the world. The most sacred objects were the remains of ancestors. Throughout this whole region, mummification of the dead becomes a central practise of religious practice. There are many, many mummies of course that archaeologists have discovered in the Andes as a result. The most sacred of mummies or ‘mallkis’ are in fact the mummies of the Sapa Inca – the king, because these are the mummified remains of a god.

We tend – I think, wrongly with civilisations which are encountered by the West and which then collapse, or at least their polity collapses, the state collapses very rapidly – we tend to think of them as ancient organisations. In fact, the Inca were not an ancient civilisation at all. This empire was created really only in 1438. The Inca expansion from their initial very small base around the city of Cusco is very rapid, but it really lasts for less than a century by the time the Spanish get to it, 90 something years. They called it Tahuantinsuyu or ‘land of the four quarters’, and these are the four areas that make up those quarters.

As I said, Inca society through several hundred years is becoming more centralised; kingship is becoming more important, and with that the role of war, of warriors is becoming more important in that society. The role of the clan organisation in determining what happens in people’s lives, the Ayllu, is becoming less important. It’s an old saying, observation about empire in general, that some of the first victims of imperial expansion are the commoners in the society that’s doing the expansion . That’s also the case here with the Inca. The central state is wielding more and more power, sucking more and more resources from the Ayllu; determining what’s happening increasingly as it becomes more centralised, more warlike, and more expansionist. That expansion begins with an Inca called Pachacuti whose name means something like ‘he who remakes the world’ or ‘turning upside down of the world’; a cataclysm, turning things upside down. He begins the expansion with defeating another society called Chanka, just around Cusco.

To go back to this notion of split inheritance, the idea that when a Sapa Inca dies, as a god he’s not really dead and therefore must still own his property. Who actually looks after that property? The people who do so, the organisation that does so is called the ‘panaca’. The panaca is a group of, I suppose, the royal court of the Inca in life. They usually are related, usually male relatives of the Sapa Inca. In life, they are the immediate support group for the Inca. In death, they maintain the dead Inca’s property on his behalf. The panaca becomes a very, very important institution because in real life they’re in control of significant land, of buildings, of wealth, and of right to tribute from the Ayllu that the dead Inca had owned in life. An increasingly important institution is the panaca.

Now, probably the first Inca really is the Sapa Inca around about 1200 [AD] with Manco Capac. Then there are series of Incas before Pachacuti. But the period of imperial expansion really only has four or five Sapa Incas before Atahualpa, the last of the effective rulers of the Inca Empire is killed by the Spanish. So it’s a very short term empire, rapid expansion, but it doesn’t last very long. Now, the huacas, in particular the mummies, are very important for the afterlife. Atahualpa for example, who is eventually killed by the Spanish, is given the choice of maintaining his existing religion and being burnt at the stake or converting to Christianity, at least nominally, and being garrotted. He chose the latter. The Spanish were very fair about these things [laughter]. Atahualpa chose being garrotted rather than being burnt, not perhaps because he thought it a nicer way to die but because burning would mean it would be impossible to preserve his body, to mummify his body, and that is going to be crucial for the afterlife. The mummies are extraordinarily important.

Now, Inca expansion. Again, I think we can understand some aspects of it, some of the motivations for that expansion, because of the system of split inheritance. Because what split inheritance means is that every new Inca inherits the position but no wealth. With no wealth, no land, no rights to tribute, no buildings, no palaces, et cetera; with none of that available, how does he get it? How can he maintain a panaca to preserve his mummy in death, to preserve his remains so important for the afterlife? The only way the new Inca can do so is by expanding the territory under control. It can’t come from anywhere else.

The system of split inheritance gives the military impulses to expand the empire rapidly; a huge boost. It’s why we see in such a short period of time, I think, such a dynamic expansion of this empire. There are other people who benefit, of course, from the expansion. Each new panaca benefits because the new territories are under their control even when that Inca dies. There are military leaders and some who can move up now in society. The military become a more revered part of Inca society as the imperial expansion takes place. All of this you have to remember takes place in a society where there is no division between politics, society, economy and religion. These are all one and the same. The divinity of the Sapa Inca is crucial to the state and politics, but it’s also centrally involved in the operation of the economy through tribute, through the Mita, through labour, tribute and so on.

Now, there are some problems with the system. What’s the name of that? One is a problem that exists with all empire, I think. That’s a problem of expansion imposing costs on the empire that does expand. The more you expand, the more difficult that becomes. You have to have a huge army. The last army of Atahualpa for example possibly had 250,000 men in it, that has to be maintained as a standing army which does not produce the means of subsistence, of food and so on. It’s a cost, a huge burden on the productive forces of that society.

Secondly, as I said, expansion becomes more difficult, particularly expansion to the East for the reasons that I mentioned before. You start to run into jungle. You start to run into people who, in many cases, are not settled agriculturalists. Therefore it’s very difficult to get any tribute from them or to use their labour productively in the way that you can with the settled, larger societies of the Andes they may have conquered.

Thirdly, just the distance – in that this period of technology becomes extraordinarily difficult to maintain a coherent, cohesive, held together empire. With messengers – the ‘chasquis’, runners are doing relays; you could cover two to 250 kilometres in a day. There is no written language for the Incas. So either these were verbal messages that were being passed, or very importantly they use a system called quipus which are an intricate system of knotted cords which carry messages, particularly numerical messages.

For example, the number of people who are providing tribute or the number of llamas or whatever it is, the number of soldiers. Quite often using different cord of colours to indicate the kind of thing that you’re talking about, then knots in those cords to indicate the numbers themselves. They use the base ten system as well, so it was quite easy to read the numbers. Even so, across an empire of this size, the whole Cusco in constant communication with Quito in the north is always going to be a challenge. There are going to be separatist tendencies that are starting to develop in this empire.

Another problem is that each time the empire expands, the best land is monopolised by the new Inca who has no property, who has to recreate it in order to recreate the panaca and so on. Also, as the empire expands and it becomes more difficult to find new productive land, one of the things that the Inca society does is to use projects to try to increase the productivity of that land. You will have seen photos of the extraordinary terracing that’s done on very steep hillsides in order to create more land. This is an engineering marvel but it also illustrates the shortage of land that’s developing because it takes enormous amounts of labour, investment in labour in order to create that terracing, and reclamation projects and so on.

As time goes on, this becomes more and more difficult to do. Stresses and strains are starting to emerge inside the Inca society. Another problem is the panacas themselves, because the panacas’ loyalty is to a dead king rather than to the existing one, to the existing Sapa Inca. Therefore the system is built into itself a kind of permanent factionalism rather than a system where loyalty is to the existing state primarily.

Another problem is that the Incas, unlike the Aztecs, actually have a policy of moving populations around to sustain loyalty of ethnic cleansing if you like. They move populations who are loyal to them into areas where they feel possibly rebellious. This too creates problems in the area because these cultural differences; colonists settled in areas that they don’t come from; they don’t speak the same language; they take over land and the new areas; creates again rebellious ideas.

Now the collapse, when it comes, is very rapid. These are some of the weaknesses in the Inca Empire. Huayna Capac, an Inca, dies in 1525 probably of smallpox which is of course a European disease unknown in the Americas until the Europeans arrived. Huayna Capac never saw a European, never met a European, but the Europeans had passed smallpox through a chain of people. Even before they get there, to the Inca Empire, people are starting to die of smallpox.

There’s another factor which I just … sorry, I’m going on a little bit … I must tell you about this because this is a crucial factor as well in the collapse of the Inca Empire. You think if the king is divine, is gone, then what happens when a divine being, a god, marries a mere mortal and has a child? The child can only be half a god, a demigod, rather than fully divine. Eventually, the system that’s adopted, the beliefs that’s adopted is that a legitimate heir of the Inca can only be the product of an incestuous marriage between an Inca and his sister.

At the end, the empire is divided between two factions, one of whom, Huascar, is a legitimate heir in that he is the product of Huayna Capac and his sister, and Atahualpa who is the product of – and a much more able as you might imagine, heir; is the product of Huayna Capac and another woman, and not divine. Atahualpa and Huascar fight. It’s essentially between the north and the centre south of the system. There’s a civil war which lasts three years in which hundreds of thousands of people in this empire divides; and that’s when Pizarro enters, at the weakest point, at the point where it’s in crisis, in long-term decline, and in immediate crisis. With only 263, he captures Atahualpa at a place called Cajamarca, a famous point of meeting.

The Spanish actually promised to release Atahualpa if he can fill a room with gold, the room in which he’s imprisoned. He manages to do that, but they execute him anyway. As I say, the Pizarros were not nice people. Look, I’ll leave the reasons why Spain won, perhaps to the discussion. Let’s think about a variety of reasons, most of which are not technological, most of which have to do with the in-built weaknesses of Inca society itself. Thanks very much.


JONATHON LINEEN: Thank you very much, John. We could have gone on for hours there, I think, that was fascinating. I’d now like to welcome Dr Claudia Haake to the stage from La Trobe University. Claudia joined the history program in La Trobe in 2007 after lecturing in the United Kingdom and Germany. Her main research interest is Native American history, ethnicity, identity and culture. Claudia is also interested in land and treaty rights in the United States and the history of 20th century Guatemala. Welcome to the stage, Claudia.


CLAUDIA HAAKE: I’ll be talking to you about some of those reasons that John didn’t have time for, so that works out just fine. [points to a slide] A bit of lengthy title, ‘Aztec/Meshika: The Rise and Fall of an Empire’. The reason I’m going to talk about the fall of the empire, slightly pushing the brief, is because it has an impact on what we know about the Aztec Empire itself, and especially about the conquest period.

This is the object in the exhibit which is of Aztec origin [points to a slide]. You’ve probably seen the exhibit and know that it’s the malevolent spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, was equated in the Aztec religion with the spirits of men who died in battle. It may once have been part of a road side shrine intended to protect children from the spirits who descended to earth for five days of the year. Those were days of ill fortune. These spirits maimed and killed, they preferred maiming, and the preferred targets were children.

Now to some of us today, the most striking thing about this carving is probably the depiction of female violence. However, as you probably already know, and I will talk some more about this shortly, violence was an integral part of Aztec society. There’s also some fairly obvious parallels that can be drawn to, say, witches in European societies and cultures. The most striking thing, and again we have some wonderful parallels to what John has been talking about, is really the age of this carving which could potentially even have been contemporaneous with the conquest of Mexico itself which was from 1519 to 1521. It was at the end of this period, it may have been after Cortés had already landed and started his campaign.

The story I’ll tell shortly … starting with a little puzzle for you. Sorry, I have to do this for my students. I got into the habit … is one that goes back in time further … for the brief moment I’ll be talking about Europe … than it does about the Aztec. I will mostly talk about Europe to explain especially why the European produce sources on which we draw for some of our knowledge … were so unreliable and created enduring myths which have proven very hard to dispel.

Here’s the puzzle. [points to a slide] What do these two pictures have to do with one another? Who is that in the second image? What does he have to do with Aztecs, Aztec art, and what can he tell us about the fact that the Spaniards merged as victorious over the great Aztec empires? I was particularly excited going through the exhibit earlier to see that this person who is a painter has one image in this exhibit as well. I don’t want answers to all the questions, but does anyone know who the man in the right-hand side picture is?


CLAUDIA HAAKE: Dürer, very good. Of course you know the exhibit [laughter], but he lets everyone else off the hook. It’s Albrecht Dürer, and for the rest of the answers I’ll keep those until fairly to the end of the presentation. According to Aztec tales, Tenochtitlán, the great city, which is today Mexico, was actually less than 200 years old. Until then the Meshikas, the Aztecs were also called, and who already appeared or spoken Nahuatl when they reached the Valley of Mexico and their migrations were wondrous, really. Existing at the margins, tolerated at best and repeatedly displaced when they were unwanted. They are people without a place and without a home which was a great anomaly in the Valley of Mexico.

Eventually after being displaced again, they came to a swampy island where the legend goes, they saw an eagle sitting on a nopal cactus with feathers of burr scattered around underneath. A version of this image, as you can see, [points to a slide] is still in the Mexican coat of arms today. The snake is actually not something that features in the Aztec codices. The eagle represented the sun god, the main deity again, and scholars have suggested that the red fruit of the nopal cactus which you can see here … looked to the Aztecs like the stylised human hearts in the books they had been carrying around on their migration.

They slowly gained a foothold in that area but had to pay tribute to the city of – this is one of Nahuatl that I find most difficult to pronounce Azcapotzalco, which was dominant at the time. They finally had a place but they had to pay a tribute. In 1428 the Meshika then allied with Texcoco and Tacuba and overthrew this city to which they’ve been paying tribute. Only one generation later, this is a pretty rapid rise, the first Moctezuma and his allies controlled most of the Valley of Mexico. In 1402, Moctezuma the younger ascended to the throne and by then the Meshika were pretty much the dominant power in this alliance. Most of the neighbours have been subjugated and now had to pay tribute to the alliance. Local leaders were in this situation usually left in place as long as they paid tribute. This is probably what the Aztec Empire looked like at its largest extent [points to slide].

Now, I’m just going to call your attention to [points to slide] Tlaxcala here and Cuetzalan over there which will feature in the next story. Because the Aztec Empire was not, say, like the Roman Empire, something that had garrisons all over the place; as long as the subjected areas had paid their tribute, they’re pretty much left alone and locally that’s left in place. However, this was not always the case. During the reign of Moctezuma the elder, this city over here [Points to a slide], probably … by Tlaxcala which was not tribute paying, decided to defy Tenochtitlán and the Aztec, and not pay tribute. When the Meshika emissaries arrived to collect their tribute, the people of the city killed them, stuffed their bodies with straw, set them up in seats of honour, and paid very exaggerated reference to them. This was a really, really bad snub to the Aztecs.

They then moved in and militarily subjugated the town and increased the tribute, doubled it in fact. The punishment went beyond this as the Meshika also demanded symbolical tribute including live snakes. Just imagine how miserable it must have been to catch those for the tribute collectors, wriggling through areas with a snake stick and trying to catch the quota you were expected to present the tribute collectors with. The Meshika didn’t even have real use for all of the tribute they demanded. They could also ask for spiders or scorpions, but this was done to prove a point. They were in charge, the others were not.

In the meantime, thriving on tribute like this, the city of Tenochtitlán grew. By the time of the Spaniards arrival, there was a central zone and this is a recreated image of what the central zone may have looked like surrounded by other buildings [points to a slide]. The lordly houses could well be two stories with internal courtyards and gardens, but the humbler dwellings of the commoners were more likely one story with maybe some plantings on the roofs. What the Spaniards found striking when they arrived is how clean and tidy the city was. Boys from the warrior houses were tasked with sweeping and there were smaller trims  over boats which also meant that you could carry the waste away to use as fertiliser on the very scarce agricultural lands. The city had also vivid colours as I think you can see in that image [points to slide], there’s crimson and blue.

At the time of the arrival of Cortés and his group, there are about 200,000 inhabitants of Tenochtitlán. You could compare that to the 60 or 70,000 that Seville had about the same time. This was the biggest city in Spain and also one of the last likely that the Spaniards had encountered before leaving the country. There were beggars in the street which Cortés actually saw as a sign of civility because this was like in Spain so it must be right. Cortés in describing Tenochtitlán, wrote to the Spanish Emperor, Charles [V], that Moctezuma lived in a palace and I quote, ‘so marvellous, that it seems to be impossible to describe its excellence and grandeur. In Spain, there is nothing to compare it with.’ He then added three pages of closer descriptions. It seems it must have been possible after all to describe it [laughter].

What Cortés saw to do was to show the emperor how desirable it was to add this marvel to his crown. Cortés, we must remember, remember because I haven’t told you actually yet, was a bit of a renegade and he hoped that the end result would redeem him in the eyes of the king in Spain and also to make him rich. Now Tenochtitlán was in many ways a city of warriors and for them other dress and adornments were a sign of status. It was very strictly regulated, especially what warriors could wear but also what commoners and nobles could wear. To be born male in Tenochtitlán was to be designated a warrior. All young males were exposed to warrior training. Some either could become something else, for instance priests, but they’re all trained.

Success of a warrior was measured by the number and status of enemy warriors taken alive in one-on-one combat. If someone excelled at doing this and having, say, provide three captives like this was considered to be quite a good number and then you could start training others. If you were really a good warrior, this could also open a path into nobility which was the only, only way. Now, the captives that were thus obtained were needed for sacrifice. This was very important, human sacrifices what the Aztecs wanted. Animals wouldn’t ordinarily do. Sacrificing someone was not a denial of humanity, they were sacrificed specifically because they were humans. The objective of war was, not as in many, many other places, simply to kill the enemy. It was quite the contrary, killing would be failure.

That is brief and admittedly rather sketchy description of the state of the Aztec Empire at the eve of the arrival of the Spaniards, it had not existed for that long. I’ll briefly recap that before I talk about the Spanish arrivals. Tenochtitlán founded in about 1325; only a hundred years later an alliance lost subject status; 50 years after that they’re pretty much ready to push beyond the Valley of Mexico and then 50 years of imperial splendour; massive elaboration of Tenochtitlán during this time.

If you think about it in generational terms, a man whose grandfather had actually fought in other people’s wars as a hireling in the early days of the Meshika and the valley would have seen the glory of his empire rise and then his own son would witness the destruction. The destruction came with Hernán Cortés. Cortés came as one of the strangers from beyond the mists as the Aztecs referred to anyone from beyond the ocean, a people without a city, an anomaly. Cortés and Moctezuma met on the eighth of November 1519. This is an event scholars have referred to as the birth of modern history. Adam Smith and Karl Marx don’t quite agree. They say it was Columbus making landfall, but I think this meeting between Cortés and Moctezuma has a better claim than that.

Sadly, we know relatively little about what actually happened at the time, at this meeting. There are very few sources, actually only one from the time. This one, Cortés’ letters, this is the most important one we have, but he was not always the most reliable witness, to put it mildly. However, it was the only set of documents that was actually written at the time. Interestingly, Cortés himself never claimed to have been a god or been considered a god by the Aztecs. Ironically, this is one of the most enduring myths about this conquest. Some of you may have heard about it.

The origin of the myth that the Aztecs took Cortés to be the god Quetzalcoatl did not thus originate with Cortés himself. The myth of the Spaniards and especially Cortés being taken to be a god was actually not of Spanish origin. Even though some other Spaniards who have been part of a group of a conquering force wrote accounts later which largely corroborated what Cortés has done, and I will come back to this in a moment. Then there were the writings of priests who were in the area reasonably early on and collected Indian testimonies, most notable among these men was Friar Bernardino de Sahagún. The Indian voices were not from the conquest period or even its immediate aftermath, but really these were collected from about 1540 onwards, so a good 20 years after the fact.

One of the resulting works out of this is the Florentine Codex from which you can see an image from the conquest period of the conquest here. [points to a slide] This was Sahagún, who wrote parts in Spanish and the bits in Nahuatl were written by his indigenous aide. These men doing the bits in Nahuatl would have been young at the time of conquest and were most likely the sons of nobles. It seems likely that looking back, they sought to find particular auguries associated with the conquest to explain to themselves what had happened. How a mighty empire could possibly have fallen? And followed too so relatively few men.

[Points to slide] This is an image of Quetzalcoatl from another codices. The story about Quetzalcoatl’s promised return of a white god which then came to be told as Cortés being mistaken for this god likely originated with Florentine Codex, and several stories were conflated in this. It was the result of the Indians trying to justify to themselves what had happened. While this particular myth did not originate with Cortés, others did. Most importantly, the idea that Moctezuma submitted to him and the Spanish crown voluntarily. Here’s an image of Moctezuma [Points to a slide].

According to Cortés’ account from his letters to the king, the same evening that they met, Moctezuma handed over his entire dominions to Cortés and through him to Charles V Holy, Roman Emperor. Then the Spaniards were nice enough to secure the submission by arresting him. This, several scholars have suggested was unlikely to have happened. Spaniards it seems were actually granted access to the city, to appreciate Moctezuma’s greatness, and so that the Aztecs could find out more about them. Moctezuma had previously sent painters to record numbers of men, deer – as in horses and boats. These pictures which the Spaniards saw, were seen by them as claimed, but likely had a military objective.

Moctezuma had also gathered other intelligence. For instance, about the sermon the Spaniards preached along the way, which when they arrived in Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma asked them not to repeat as he knew it so well. He had obviously studied the Spaniards quite closely. He may also have decided to invite the Spaniards into the city because he realised that Aztecs might not be able to achieve victory over them in open country. It is unlikely that the Spaniards seized Moctezuma when Cortés claimed they did in November 1519, but he certainly was arrested before the end of April 1520. More likely until about that time the Spaniards had actually been in the city as guests or visitors.

Remember that Cortés appealed directly to the king to be recognised as conqueror of the mainland and thus reaped the rewards of his conquest. Instead of going through his sponsor whose brief he hadn’t adhered to anyway, he couldn’t go back, he would likely be punished. The only chance he had of coming out of this alive and rich was by appealing to the king. This is why Cortés’ story of Moctezuma’s voluntary submission to the crown was important as it justified the actions Cortés had taken without permission and also for a legalistic reason. The crown could only annex territories that came voluntarily or through a just war. In this case it would have been voluntary in the first instance.

Later, writers corroborated Cortés’ account as they had all read his letters and also had other compelling motives to do so. Bernal Díaz del Castillo for instance who had been a soldier with Cortés wrote his book, his memoirs, when he was in Spain in 1540 to advance a claim for a permanent ‘encomienda’ and allotment of indigenous workers as one of the original conquistadors. It was in his best interest to portray the war with the Aztecs as a just one for which he needed to be rewarded. Now we’ll come back to the notion of a just war shortly. Other letters by Cortés tells a story of being attacked and fleeing from Tenochtitlán, losing many men in the process, returning to lay siege to the city with native allies, and in its bare bones so it is correct. But the reason why the Spanish prevailed was likely more complex than these common mythical tales have led us to believe.

It appears from recent scholarship that in actual fact the reason why Spaniards triumphed, was much more complex and it had nothing to do with Moctezuma taking them to be god. In fact the Aztecs even appeared to have changed their practice about taking captives. [points to a slide] Here is a skull rack which was traditionally used. [inaudible] had started to not take the Spaniards or their native allies captive anymore, but especially the Spaniards they killed on the battlefield and they killed them with a blow to the back of the head like it was customary for killing criminals.

Smallpox had weakened the Meshika, the Spaniards had returned with allies and they had been resupplied. There were some technical superiorities. How well they worked out really likely depended on where the fights were actually happening. It may have in part the ability to get reinforcement and supplies quickly, and several more ships with supplies arrived by mid-1520. Word also spread through the printing press. Nonetheless, it was likely a very close matter in terms of who won this. This takes me back to my question from the beginning. Here is Albrecht Dürer [points to a slide] and he had actually seen an exhibit of Aztec art in Brussels. This is the amazing thing, July of 1520, so while the conquest was still very much ongoing, Cortés had already shipped treasures from the Aztec including art over to Europe and people like Dürer saw it. This shows us how fast the word spread.

However, apart from faster reinforcements, funding, resupplies, et cetera, this also meant more scrutiny. Especially the English were always keen to spread the Leyenda Negra, the ‘Black Legend’, of Spanish treatment of the Indians which was particularly bad. This meant that Cortés and others had to be very mindful to be seen doing the right thing, hence their focus on only waging just wars and following the required procedures. This goes back to Muslim rule over Spain which had started in 800. Muslims had conquered pretty much all of Spain up into France, and there was a slow and very drawn out reconquest. Now, when the Muslims conquered Spain, there was a specific procedure which required that the messenger be sent and first ask the enemies to submit. If they then didn’t, then loss of lives and blood was on them and not on the attackers. This was a protocol for conquest which they developed.

When the Spaniards reconquered Spain slowly, they followed this example with something they called – eventually, this practice was translated into the New World – was spread into the New World and a document was created in 1512. This came to be called a protocol for conquest. It was simply something that the Spaniards were used to; this was how things were done; this is what they knew. It was of course read in Spanish and often out of earshot of whichever group of natives they were attacking. So the practical value was zilch. Nonetheless, it was a legal requirement to do this. Basic idea behind it was that if the natives had not been exposed to the Catholic faith, they had to be given a chance to accept it and to submit. If they refused, they could then be attacked and conquered, and it wouldn’t be on the Spaniards’ conscience. Fulfilling such legal procedures was just many of the concerns that influenced those who created the sources we have drawn on for knowledge about the conquest, and even the pre-conquest period when it came to descriptions of the Aztecs.

Ironically, even though we have European accounts of the conquest, and these tend to be regarded as more reliable than indigenous ones, we know relatively little through them directly. They have been the source of enduring myths rather than more clarity. They were created by Europeans such as Cortés who are very much products of their time and had their own personal interest at heart. In some ways what we do know now about the Aztecs pre-conquest and at the time of conquest, pre-conquest, while at times hard to come by is almost more reliable than the conquest period. What we know from Cortés and others has also clouded our knowledge of the pre-conquest era. This takes me back to the starting point. The beautiful object, one of many that have brought us all here. [points to a slide] Things like this, objects like this are just some of the sources we can draw on for than what Cortés and others have said. Thank you.

JONATHON LINEEN: I’m going to invite John and Claudia up to the stage now. We’ve just got a few minutes. We’ve gone a little bit over time here. If anybody has any questions, now would be the time.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. Thank you for the talk. I’m Rubina. I was lucky enough to study history at La Trobe at its heyday, when it was the heart of its Latin American studies and all of that. I lament the fact that history at La Trobe and other universities is no longer taught because I think that some of our politicians in the light of the events of this week could learn a lot of from past events [laughter]. That’s the context of my question. In view of that context, I was wondering if you could see how we can better use these sorts of lessons from history to inform our politicians and governments about policy. I know it’s a bit broader than your brief, but I thought Sunday afternoon in Canberra, what else?

JONATHAN LINEEN Incestuous marriages?

JOHN MINNS: I can see Donald Trump as a kind of Francisco Pizarro [laughter]. I can see some parallels there. The problem is I can’t see him sitting through one of these lectures, but that’s not part of the problem. As Claudia said, this is one of the critical points in world history. I think there’s a Spanish historian who talks about the history of the world as for a very long period it’s people spreading out across the world. Starting in Africa, Europe, across the Asian land mass, into the Americas and so on. 1492 is the point where it comes together. In a sense, it informs a whole lot of debates.

We talked about globalisation. This is such a critical phase in the process of globalisation and intercultural mixing. It has all sorts of lessons for how civilisations meet for imperialism, for questions about the dominance of one part of the world to the other. Another theorist called this the beginnings of what he called the ‘global rift’. That you have parts of the world that are relatively equal until 1492 or 1521 or 1532, around that period. Then suddenly you get one part of the world which becomes massively dominant over the other, and the legacy of that remains. So, yes, you’re absolutely right in the history, particularly of this period, is absolutely crucial to understanding the modern world and some of the problems we still have.

CLAUDIA HAAKE: I’ll just add briefly. I assume it was Inga Clendinnen you studied with? Yes. One of the greatest joys of maybe preparing for this talk was that I was able to justify re-reading a lot of her work. I was reminded just how good she was at showing things from a number of perspectives. When she was looking at the conquest, she was able to describe the actions of the Spaniards and how they would have come across to the Aztecs; and the actions of the Aztecs and how they would have come across often misunderstood by the Spaniards. I think this ability to try and see things from a variety of perspectives is something that is sadly lacking in many of our politicians. I think even worse, people like Donald Trump wouldn’t want to.

QUESTION: Hi, a question to both of you. If the Spanish hadn’t invaded Central and South America, can you think about what the societies would have looked like 50 to a hundred years after the period that you’re looking at. The Incas society seemed to be collapsing, where was it going to? Is it the same thing with the Aztecs?

JOHN MINNS: It’s one of counterfactuals, the ‘what ifs’ of history, that you can never finally provide an answer for. My view, certainly in the case of the Incas and probably with the Aztecs as well is if Europeans had arrived there – I don’t know how long after, but possibly not too long after, the empires that they would have faced would have been different ones. I think in both cases you see really serious processes of disintegration, decay and division in both systems. Different kinds of empires, as Claudia mentioned, the Aztec one, without much consolidation. They have to continually reconquer areas in rebellion and missing out a few important areas on that map too.

In the case of the Incas, they did consolidate and that gave it a certain strength, but it also provided a new source of conflict. I think it’s very likely that they would have faced different empires. In terms of where those societies in the longer term would have developed, I think it’s really hard to say. Would they have undertaken the same sort of processes of social change as in Europe? I think that would have been a much longer process that is the development of large-scale markets of some forms of protocapitalism and so on. I don’t think we see in the Americas much of that going on at the time.

CLAUDIA HAAKE: I’m just going to briefly talk about one of those areas that the Aztecs didn’t conquer which really, really hurt them during the conquest. This was Tlaxcala and someone has called them the most important enemies of the Aztecs. They had developed such hatred for Tenochtitlán that Cortés who had seen them fight actually described their actions in the final fights in Tenochtitlán as fierce and unnatural cruelty, his words. This is the type of resentment that the Aztec Empire had created among its immediate neighbours, and which really came to harm them at this stage. I think this would only have grown. So yes, chances are it would have been maybe a different empire and that it would have been Tlaxcala.

QUESTION: Did the Aztecs build the city in Mexico?

QUESTION: How did they build the city?

CLAUDIA HAAKE: How did they build it? That’s an excellent question because a lot of it was on water and they reclaimed some of the water to build on it. If you go to Mexico city today and you go into some of the old big buildings and you go down into the basement, you can still find water. Especially during earthquakes, this tends to be a problem. We can’t see it anymore today but yes, it’s built on water. It was an intense effort. Everything had to be brought in on boats and eventually they built some causeways that made it easier. Still, boats were crucial.

JONATHAN LINEEN: I have one question. I am constantly amazed when I think about Pizarro or Cortés walking into Cusco or walking into Aztec cities and faced with the overwhelming numbers of people that were potentially hostile to them. I mean, balls [laughter].

CLAUDIA HAAKE: Cortés, he didn’t have an alternative. It was as good as – if he had gone back to Cuba – he wasn’t tasked with conquering. He was tasked with exploring, so he had broken everything, all directives. The Cuban government actually sent an army after him. Cortés, in the middle of conquering the Aztecs, had to deal with that. Turning back was not an option for him. He had to make this work or he would die one way or another. That was probably a very strong motivation [laughter].

JONATHAN LINEEN: The men with him were in the same boat. I mean, by following him they –

CLAUDIA HAAKE: Yes, by hook or by crook. Yes.


JOHN MINNS: I think one of the things that it’s important to understand is the ideological confidence of the Spanish in this period. Because as Claudia mentioned, in Spain they just concluded in 1492 with the defeat of the last Arab kingdom in Granada in Spain. In 1492, they had just completed the reconquest of Spain. They have built a militant form of Christianity which is about conquest, conquest is godly that the spreading of Christianity is crucial across the world. When you combine that with avarice and gold, it’s a powerful mixture. By contrast, I think the two great empires that we’ve been looking at, is we’ve been emphasising, we’re in a process of decay which included a moral decay and a sense of cataclysm.

Their millennial projections about people forecasting the end of the world. That the sun god, the sun may not come up, et cetera. The myth about Quetzalcoatl coming back is an end of the world myth. There’s a similar one in the Andes with Viracocha, the creator of the world who was said to have left, departed to the west, and would return at the end of the Inca ascendancy. Coincidentally, Pizarro approaches from the west. There may have been many other predictions that haven’t survived. This one did survive because coincidentally that’s what happened, but the predictions themselves are a sign of chaos and crisis in those societies. I think the sense of confidence versus the sense of crisis is the key dynamic rather than just war.

JONATHON LINEEN: Amazing. Sorry. We have time for one more question here.

QUESTION: I think it’s quite ironic that the amount of gold that went back to Spain from both of the empires actually led to its own collapse.

JOHN MINNS: Of course there’s a very important theorist, Earl J [Jefferson] Hamilton, American theorist, who deals with that question about the collapse of Spain. Yes, that’s right. The gold and more importantly later, the silver actually, that goes back into Spain basically flows out of Spain just as fast because the places in Europe that are developing economically and developing sophisticated trading and manufacturing centres are not Spain. They tend to be the low countries, Holland and Belgium, and then later parts of Germany and England. So the people, the places that are benefiting from the treasure are elsewhere than Spain.

However, the really interesting thing is that what you have in Europe is a developing capitalism but in a situation where you don’t have developed capitalist institutions, financial institutions of trust. Very few people trust banks. You don’t have banknotes because they’re signed by a king. Why would you trust a king with your money? It’s ridiculous. Before you have those trusted institutions, the only way in which a market can expand is by an increase in the supply of precious metals. Arguably, the vastly increased supply, particularly of silver into Europe creates the possibility for capitalism to develop further in Europe. Without that it would have been a slower process. There’s also another argument about the price revolution but I don’t have time to go on.

CLAUDIA HAAKE: You could say it’s equally ironic or very telling in another way that the treatment of the colonies then eventually led to this discontent that brought about the independence of the Latin American possessions of Spain, because they’re just so unhappy of being bled dry and having nothing to do with it, no say.

JONATHON LINEEN: I’d like to thank Dr John Minns and Dr Claudia Haake for a fascinating lecture. That was fantastic. Please join me in thanking them.


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Date published: 01 January 2018

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