Thursday, December 5, 2019

Camilla Townsend's "Fifth Sun"

Camilla Townsend is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University. She is the author of numerous books, including Malintzin's Choices: An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, and The Annals of Native America: How the Nahuas of Colonial Mexico Kept Their History Alive, which won multiple prizes, among them The Albert J. Beveridge Award awarded by the American Historical Association.

Townsend applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, and reported the following:
Indigenous youths of the late 1500s [who came to accept the Spanish friars’ story of Moctezuma’s purported belief in the “white gods”] had no way of knowing the deep history of either the Old World or the New. They had no way of knowing that in the Old World, people had been full-time farmers for ten thousand years. Europeans had by no means been the first farmers, but they were nevertheless the cultural heirs of many millennia of sedentary living. They therefore had the resultant substantially greater population and a panoply of technologies—not just metal arms and armor, but also ships, navigation equipment, flour mills, barrel-making establishments, wheeled carts, printing presses, and many other inventions that rendered them more powerful than those who did not have such things. In the New World, people had been full-time farmers for perhaps three thousand years. It was almost as if Renaissance Europe had come face to face with the ancient Sumerians. The Mesopotamians were stunningly impressive—but they could not have defeated Charles the Fifth of the Holy Roman Empire working in combination with the Pope. Had the young indigenous writers of the late sixteenth century known all of this, it would have been a relief to their minds. But that relief was denied them. And so they participated in constructing a version of events that Moctezuma would have derided—but that he had no power to change from the land of the dead.
The “page 99 test” works for Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs if we accept that a western reader’s eye will always move from left to right. Opening the book to page 99, the reader will find it on the right side. To the left, on page 98, lies a paragraph that is, in truth—I kid you not—the crux of the book. Fifth Sun tells the story of the Aztecs from about 100 years before the Spanish conquest to about 100 years after, and it does so by relying entirely on sources written in Nahuatl (the Aztec language), many of which have only recently been translated into English, or are only now being translated. It accepts as a basic premise the idea that the Aztecs were every bit as creative, smart, brave and rational as the Europeans, but that they simply did not have equivalent technology they could use to defend themselves. Why didn’t they? The paragraph above is the culmination of a section that explains the profound importance of the Old World having turned to farming millennia before the New World did. It also refers to young indigenous men in the late 1500s choosing to believe the Spanish friars who taught them that their grandparents had perceived the newcomers to be gods. But when we read the sources written by their parents and grandparents closer to the time of the conquest, we find no evidence that the people thought Hernando Cort├ęs was Quetzalcoatl or any other god. There, it becomes clear that at the time, the Native Americans recognized they had a technological problem, not a spiritual one.

Numerous issues become much clearer when we pursue the indigenous-language sources rather than taking at face value everything the Spaniards had to say, and when we also take seriously all that archaeologists can teach us about the advent of farming and its results. Fifth Sun is an action-packed romp through the history of the Aztecs as they described it themselves in the years in which it happened, rather than as we have chosen to tell it in after years, based on the words and assumptions of other people.
Learn more about Fifth Sun at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue