Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Camilla Townsend in conversation with Peter Frankopan

The Aztecs in New Light

Chichen Itza, chilli peppers, and The Road to El Dorado - I must admit, as someone restricted to a diet of South Asian history, the frame of reference I had for Mesoamerica was rather limited. That is, however, set to change with the Jaipur Literature Festival, which is back with gusto and yet another stellar lineup of historians, poets, and journalists for its 14th edition. In one of its offerings of sessions on history, Camilla Townsend, Professor of History at Rutgers University was in conversation with eminent historian Peter Frankopan, discussing her book ‘Fifth Sun - A New History of the Aztecs’.

Naming is Framing

Before diving into the golden age of the Mesoamericans, the two historians explained who constituted the Aztecs. “I use the word Aztecs because of familiarity, but it might be a problematic word. There were never people who called themselves Aztecs; it was a word invented by scholars in the 18th century,” said Townsend. For ease of reference, she explained, it was meant to denote people who were in control of Central Mexico in the period when Hernando Cortez and the European colonisers had arrived. Somewhat broadly speaking, it included people under the rulership of the emperor Moctezuma and in the general geographical area of central Mexico. Although they didn’t necessarily share all aspects of their religion or culture, the string that bound them together was their common language - Nahuatl.

As an American brought up in New York, Camilla Townsend was naturally introduced to the history of the peoples of Latin America with the city’s museums and universities. But it was after her stint in Nicaragua, where she worked as a teacher, that she set her mind on learning the Nahuatl language - an event that enriched her perspective on the Aztecs. “I took up several projects,” she explained, “and finally realised that so many books have been written about Hernando Cortez and Moctezuma but no one has told their story I think the way they would’ve wanted it told, as they did in the histories they wrote themselves.”

This was particularly important, as the Aztecs sought a method of multi-perspectivity in relating their history. The genre prevalent in Mexico was that people would gather together in the evening and tell stories, and different lineages would be invited to sit by the fire to give their account of the same moment. “It wasn’t just one man’s work,” she said, “the Aztecs insisted for their truth to be multi-vocal to get a holistic sense of what had caused a certain war or a political dissolution.”

The Aztec City

Painting a compelling picture of their abodes, Townsend described the quintessential Aztec city - “the skyline was dominated by two huge pyramids which were whitewashed with lime. Gorgeous woven flags fluttered from the highest pinnacles, showing off the brilliance of the rich local textile industry.” The newly arrived Europeans in the city often spoke of the straightness of the streets with admiration. “This is because the Aztecs had only occupied the place for 100 years, so the city grew up not organically but as a planned entity,” she explained.

The Spaniards may have been overawed, but they were also jarred by certain aspects of the city like their religious practices, said Townsend, referring to the Mesoamerican ritual of sacrificing humans to the Sun God. “It is doubtless horrific by modern sensibilities,” said Townsend, “but for the Aztecs, it was a political ploy with a religious overtone.” The Aztecs would ask for people, instead of precious stones or gold, to be surrendered by the losing party. And sometimes, they were also known to make a spectacle of it. “Much like a smoking gun - people were brought in from states that the Aztecs wanted to subdue, to have them shown the gory ritual. This is so that they would go back in fear and implore their compatriots to surrender themselves to the mighty Aztecs.”

Bringing the session to a close, Townsend spoke poignantly of the downfall of the Aztecs, although they kept a war going against the Renaissance Europeans, “as the Incas did for even longer”. They were dealt a hand at that particular point of history, and they fell to the Spaniards, she said, expressing the deep respect she held for the Latin American power.