Cannibalism and the Imperial Urge

I am writing this from my phone during lecture, so if my grammar or my tone seems hasty, you have been warned! (Update: I found a computer to sit down at and write)

The lecture I am enjoying at this very moment has to do with the readings I was assigned over the holiday weekend, and I am a careful reader so I am not too worried about missing out on a key insight. What I would like to do is hearken back the early 15th century and the time of the Spanish attempt to conquer the major polity of the Mexico Valley: the Triple Alliance aka the Aztecs (I don’t want to get in to the specifics of why I think that the term Aztec sucks, but I will just quickly note that it sucks and has been an extremely detrimental title to the memes associated with pre-Columbian New World polities).

One of the major justifications for the Conquest was the need to rid the New World of cannibalism, which all nations practiced in the New World. The extent of this practice varied from nation to nation, of course. The Triple Alliance was perhaps the worst of the worst in this regard.  The people of the Inca Empire did not indulge very often, and the decentralized polities associated with much of the New World rarely had the elaborate practices associated with the Triple Alliance (the Mayans are an exception to this, but at the time of the Spanish arrival, the Mayans were extremely decentralized, and thus much, much harder to conquer, but that is another blog subject for another day).

Cannibalism in the New World was largely associated with war and the State, and the elaborate ceremonies of human sacrifices practiced by the priests of the Triple Alliance were loathed as much as they were feared.  So when the Spanish arrived upon the continent of the New World, cannibalism was widely being practiced not only by a not-yet-known-but-definitely-heard-about Triple Alliance, but also by the neighboring peoples of the Triple Alliance.

Now, to be fair to the Spanish (and Europeans in general), the practice of cannibalism had largely disappeared from their culture, and from the cultures surrounding European society (think of the Turks and the Barbary polities; do you think Islam permits the eating of human flesh?), so when the Spanish saw this practice they were rightly horrified as well as disgusted.

Yet, was cannibalism itself a justification for the inevitable slaughter and slavery that was to be the Indians’ lot?

I think not!

What I think is much more interesting are the alliances that the Spanish made with various polities just outside of the realm of the Triple Alliance. It is quite obvious that this empire was hated by not only its enemies but also the people who the Triple Alliance had conquered (ie its subjects).  Another myth associated with the arrival of Columbus in the New World is that of the few hundred adventurous Europeans marching up to the capital cities of large, aggressive Indian polities and conquering them.  This is not true.  The Spaniards marched on Tenochtitlan, but they did so aside hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers who belonged to the Triple Alliance’s rival polities.

This small footnote of history serves to remind readers that the standard line espoused by zealots on both the Left (Europeans and Christians are evil) and the Right (Indians are savage and uncivilized) is wrong, and in a big way, too.

Anyway, I am getting off track.  One of the justifications for the savage Conquest of Mexico was that of the practice of cannibalism, and I don’t know if I would be able to argue that the Spaniards were wrong to depose the emperor of the Triple Alliance.  At the same time, we know that the justifications for deposing the emperor and subsequent events after the deposing of Moctezuma tell us that the intentions of the Spanish and their allies were hardly noble (the people of the Tlaxcalan republic were guaranteed self-rule for their efforts in aiding the Spanish; this agreement was honored for 300 years; until Mexican independence from Spain! Guess what the Tlaxcalan soldiers did to the soldiers of the Triple Alliance?).

For some reason the Conquest and everything associated with it, including the many myths that pass for facts in high school and entry-level college courses, often reminds me of modern-day foreign affairs.  This includes the affairs of the Han dominating the other nations within the Chinese state’s borders, the imperialism of the Europeans in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and the aggression of the Soviet Union up until its collapse in the late nineteen eighties.  Anyway, cannibalism largely ceased to exist after the Conquest, but was this the result of the toppling of the regime, or the result of other influences?  After all, the Spanish were largely powerless to command the Tlaxcalans (hence their self-ruled republic), and they stopped eating their rivals, too.

Does the aggressive use of force by outside states with no clearly-stated interests in a region really stop violence in despotic regimes?  Do states that intervene in the affairs of others on the behalf of the people being brutalized really have no other interests than what they claim?  Perhaps if the West dislodges Assad, the butcher of Homs, then Syrians will finally know peace, but there is scanty evidence of a benevolent state intervening on the behalf of another people for no other reason than to stop the blood being shed anywhere in the historical or contemporary record.

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