Friday, March 17, 2006

First Glimpse of Cortez

First Glimpse of Cortez

First Glimpse of Cortez (2004)

He came dancing across the water
With his galleons and guns
Looking for the new world
And a palace in the sun...

--Neil Young, "Cortez the Killer"

You can find considerable biographical and political information about Cortez on the Net -- and of differing stripes as to whether he was a liberator or conqueror.

Here's a taste. From our history could be bunk Wikipedia:

On November 8, 1519, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan. At this time it is believed that the city was one of the largest in the world; in Europe, only Constantinople was larger. The most common estimates put the population at around 60,000 to over 300,000 people.

Aztec ruler Moctezuma II, thinking Cortés to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl, welcomed Cortes with great pomp. Meanwhile, other Aztec nobles were in dismay at the royal submissive attitude and planned a successful, but temporary, rebellion which resulted in driving Cortes and his allies out of Tenochtitlan. Popular tales say that he wept under a tree the night of his defeat La Noche Triste. However, Cortes came back and put a naval siege to the city. The siege lasted months. Much of the city was destroyed by smallpox. In fact, a third of the inhabitants of the entire valley died in less than six months by the new disease brought from Europe. Cannons did the rest. Despite the valiant resistance, the city fell on August 13, 1521. Decomposed bodies littered the destroyed city and bloated corpses floated in canals and the lake.

The rest of the city was either destroyed, dismantled or buried as Mexico City was built on top of it. Some of the remaining ruins of Tenochtitlan's main temple, the Templo Mayor, were excavated in the 1970's and are now open to visitors. Mexico City's Zócalo is located at the location of Tenochtitlan's original central plaza and market, and many of the original calzadas still correspond to modern streets in the city. Some of the conquistadores had traveled as widely as Venice and Constantinople, and many said that Tenochtitlan was as large and fine a city as any they had seen.

As I said, you can spin Cortez this way or that. The Catholic Encyclopedia portrays him as a fairly benign agent of change:

To the Indians as a mass he was kind. He recognized that their preservation would insure eventual prosperity for the Spaniards, provided the Indians gradually accepted European ideas. Therefore he regarded the Church as the main instrument for the education of the Indian.

And compares Cortez's and Spain's blueprints for colonization to be much different than England's:

In comparison to the British colonization that occurred later in the north, the Spaniards wanted to colonize the entire continent. The British inhabited the continent more slowly and less ambitiously. Cortes viewed the death of Indians as a tragedy, considering they could help the Spanish crown tap the resources of the land. The British, on the other hand, interpreted the death of Indians as divine help to further the English cause.

The Spanish regarded Indians as subjects of the Crown. When possible, they were converted to Christianity and taught useful crafts in order to ensure their contribution to the Spanish colonization efforts. The British viewed the Indians as aliens and made no attempt to accept them into their colonization plans, with the notable exception of colonists William Penn and Roger Williams, two populists who championed religious tolerance, a liberal government and the fair treatment of Indians.

I said everything to them I could to divert them from their idolatries, and draw them to a knowledge of God our Lord.
--Hernando Cortes

Some people go even further -- making Cortez out to be saintly compared to the bloodthirsty Aztecs. Always up for a good pre-emptive military campaign while cowering safely behind their keyboards to accuse the vanquished of barbarism, let's drop in and see what scholarly Freepers have to say:

If possible, the Aztecs were even more disgusting than we've been led to believe. Their priests had cloaks of human skin, blood-smeared rooms, sprinkled blood on food like sauce, captured Spanish (after they were sacrificed) would have their faces flayed off to make masks (leaving the beards intact); they also chopped the heads off any horses that they killed or captured for display. Displaying the severed heads of captured Spanish also disheartened many of the Indian allies who were with Cortes.

Well, aside from the small snag of introducing smallpox, this view does seem to mesh well with Ann Coulter's comment that "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

Others, however, tend to view Cortez as an oppressor. From WebChron:

[The Spaniards] had a strong sense of supremacy and intended to convert the natives to Christianity. But their ministering methods were radical. The Spaniards gathered the natives together and shouted the essentials of the Gospel, oblivious to the fact that the Aztecs did not understand their language. If the natives refused to fall to their knees and repent, the Spaniards assumed they were rejecting the word of God and killed or enslaved them.


The Spaniards were harsh in their methods and motives, and many people argue that it was not their place at all to encounter new lands and demand control, much less force submission so cruelly. Moreover, virtually all of Aztec culture was carelessly destroyed in the conquest.

What's the loss of a little culture among friends -- as long as the gold is procured and the oil fields are defended? Oranges and apples, you say? And I'm sure this notation, seen on, is just a strange coincidence:

Cortez [Colorado] is in Montezuma County, which voted for Bush to the tune of 64 percent in 2004.

Cue Twilight Zone theme music.

Finally, there seems to be more web information (and debate) about Neil Young's song "Cortez the Killer" than about Cortez himself, and here is a site dedicated exclusively to the "use and abuse" of Cortez in Young's song. One writer, Jonathan Clark, who lives in Mexico City, concludes:

Neal [sic] Young writes some good songs, but his Mesoamerican scholarship leaves a little to be desired.

And Matthew Davis, writing in the American Educator, has some quibbles with Young's lyrical/historical record:

"Hate was just a legend, / And war was never known" is more of the same kind of romanticizing, all too common today. The residents of pre-Columbian Mexico were well acquainted with hate and war. In fact, the Aztecs stand out in the annals of history as an exceptionally belligerent civilization: In order to keep their altars supplied with a steady diet of sacrificial victims, the Aztec emperors kept up a perpetual war with neighboring peoples. It would be more accurate to say that "peace was never known."

Young again claims too much for the Aztecs when he declares that modern engineers could never build things as grand as the Aztecs built. But it certainly is true that "they lifted many stones." And here is another unexpected benefit for the culturally literate: Young doesn't tell us what the Aztecs "built up" when they "lifted many stones," and a culturally illiterate listener might be left envisioning a nondescript pile of rocks.

Yes, everyone's a critic. Davis also disses and deconstructs Young's "Ohio." But I like Neil Young (in electric mode anyway -- less thrilled when he de-evolves into Huckleberry Neil) and still dig "Cortez the Killer."

Is that because I blog out with my bare hands / what I still can't do today?


Tim said...

This image is great. It has a real Japanese print look to it in places and in others a batik look. The guy on the left looks like he's just walked off a spaceship and the guy on the right has a mult-eyed Chinese demon look. Fractals can really be wild.

As for Mr. Young, like most songwriters, their words would be thrown away if it wasn't for the great music that carries them along. I also think many songwriters miss the point that it's their music that has made them popular, not their lyrics. I think REM found the best compromise by using a senseless collage of phrases... uh, like me sometimes...

cruelanimal said...

Thanks, Tim.

I'm a big believer in the "senseless collage of phrases" school.

Vinod said...

The words of Mr Young reflect very accurately the self-image of peoples oppressed by foreign colonial powers.

This has been true of the Parliamentarian English who established a republic, having cut off the head of their King who had continued the 'Norman' oppression of the 'Saxons'. It is true of the Greeks oppressed by the Ottoman Turks, of the Finns oppressed by Tsarist Russia, of the Czechs oppressed by Austria.

It was true of the Zulu of South Africa and the of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka under the jackboot of the British Raj.

It is nationalism at its best which evokes these images of 'all the women were beautiful' and 'hate was never known'. This self-image of a people better than any other is essential in the project of liberating one's nation from an occupying power which oppresses it economically, culturally and spitritually.

Of course, a reefer or two helps
in the understanding of these lyrics considerably.

Paul Vincent said...

From the first time that I heard this song in the 80's I've always assumed that Young was using irony in this song, juxtaposing the "killer" with the peaceful Aztecs. Young knows history, and knew what the Aztecs were. During his war with the Aztecs Cortez started with 2,000 soldiers, but quickly rounded up 200,000 indigenous allies who were tired of serving as human sacrifice. The pleasant artifices sold in the Aztec market were due in large part because everyone was a crafts person,they had almost no farmers. Their subject tribes were forced to feed them. The men were tall and the women all were beautiful, just like in Germany circa 1938. They gave their lives in sacrifice so others could go on. Except the 80,000 prisoners sacrificed on opening day of the new pyramid in Mexico City, while the populace gathered for the show and ate snacks. That number is recorded by the Aztecs on the pyramid itself. To me the song ironically indicates that sometimes we project our own beliefs on the past, to shame Cortez we have to reinvent the Aztecs, glorifying a civilization that was in large part despicable.