The Fifth Sun
a book by Camilla Townsend
The American Natives - North and South are often painted as savages in European history since this lets them absolve themselves of the cruelty and the avarice at play.
The Fifth Sun is an award-winning re-telling of the history of Aztecs. The book looks at the Aztec empire before the Europeans showed up. It also recounts the story of a motley crew of Spaniards who were able to finish off such a populous kingdom and reduce them to total subservience.
For me, the biggest takeaway from the book was the role of politics in bringing the Aztecs down.
Politics and the quest for power
When the Spaniards showed up there were a few hundred of them and even as the numbers grew, no more than 800 Spaniards were present in all of South America.
The popular narrative goes that the Spanish brought smallpox and it killed millions. It did. The narrative also goes that they had guns and superior weapons. They did.
The sickness and military superiority did not confer success necessarily.
The Aztecs had a large number of people who could have torn the Spaniards apart limb for limb.
They knew the land and the topography and how to trap a group of people using the geography of the land.
So what went wrong?
What they also had was politics. They were divided into several tribes and each wanted power over the other. This got them working with the Spanish rather than against them. Treating the Spaniards like a mercenary force, they showed them the lay of the land and also helped beat stronger armies. Hoping to overcome a competing tribe and become the dominant power.
Here is where the interesting fact about political organisation begins to emerge. Whether a place is following monarchy or democracy does not really matter; what matters is how many people that monarchy has control over. The South American tribes followed a monarchical system but no monarch reigned over the majority of the people.
It is estimated that there were close to 10 million people who lived in South America, the majority of them in the regions in and around modern Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, Moctezuma II was the most powerful monarch but he had only about 150,000 subjects. A reflection of how fragmented the power politics of the region was.
Various tribes had their own leaders/monarchs and they all were constantly vying for power and looking for ways to displace one another. This competition created the design for potential alliances with foreigners who could be utilised as additional fighters. If they knew the designs that the Spaniards had for South America as well as the numbers of them who would arrive, the initial party could have been finished off quite easily despite the germs, guns and steel.
The search for political power led the Aztecs down the path that destroyed them. It was not because they were savages but because they were too civilised that the Europeans made headway. If they had been savages, they would have probably killed those 800 men and cooked them for a meal.