The Year is 1534, and…

…a great deal of Spanish conquistadores are trying to cut up Mexico into personal spheres of wealth and property.  I am reading Robert S. Chamberlain’s 1966 book The Conquest and Colonization of Yucatan, 1517-1550, and so far what I have gleaned from it has been great.  Check out this passage:

“Attempted conquest with small numbers and insufficient support for expeditions […] were the result of overconfidence on the part of [the would-be conquistadores…] They had a total misconception of the character of many of the Maya.  [Two of the conquistadores] had seen a few Spaniards destroy Montezuma’s imposing empire and bring it under the yoke.  They were firmly convinced of the invincibility of their arms in face of any odds, and, underestimating the determination and military capacity of the Maya, they believed they could easily be subjugated.

Furthermore, until it was too late, [the conquistadores] failed to understand that many caciques gave fealty only as a temporary expedient, and that they intended to appeal to arms at the first opportunity […] Many mistakes could have been avoided had the [conquistadores] accurately appraised the character of the people with whom he had to deal.”

Now, since the writing of Chamberlain’s book, new statistics and revision of the historical account of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire (referred to by specialists as the Triple Alliance rather than the Aztec Empire) has fleshed out his writings.  Instead of a handful of Spaniards that brought down the Triple Alliance, it was a combination of Spanish forces and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of indigenous soldiers from rival states that crushed the Triple Alliance.  The vast majority of the indigenous soldiers were commanded by indigenous military officers.

That the Spanish were able to put the empire of the Triple Alliance under its yoke so easily had more to do with the highly centralized structure of the Aztec state, rather than from any genius stemming from the Spanish aristocrats who helped depose Montezuma. The Spanish merely replaced the head of the Triple Alliance with one of their own, and the population accepted this change of events demurely. What is it about a highly centralized state that causes its people to be so accepting of hierarchy? Here I think it is pertinent to point out that the rulers of the Triple Alliance (and the intellectuals who worked with them) worked to present an image of the ruler as omnipotent. That is, the Triple Alliance was an executive state, and the lack of a system of checks and balances, as well as the Triple Alliances’ thirst for foreign wars and dragons to slay, served to solidify the centralized nature of the Triple Alliance. It must also be noted that the Triple Alliance is considered to be the first state to implement a system of compulsory education for every young person within its realm.

On how history can serve as a guide to the present, I think it would be pertinent to note the recent foreign excursions of the United States and its allies into other regions of the globe. There can be no doubt that policymakers are assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the states that they are fighting, but are they properly assessing the character of the people that inhabit the states that they are fighting? Are the West’s policymakers going about our foreign wars with a sense of humility and a sense of respect for the foes that they are engaging with? Perhaps they are, perhaps they are not.

What is also interesting about this passage is that Chamberlain rightly perceives that the Maya were not simply a monolithic entity. He continues:

“Another important factor which contributed to military failures of [the conquistadores] and which increased the difficulties of conquest everywhere in Yucatan was the political organization of the province into independent and self-contained cacicazgos, each with its own rulers and internal organization.  Many of thesecacicazgos were of almost equal size and strength.  There was therefore no centralized government as there had been in Mexico and Peru, the destruction or domination of which would carry with it control of the entire region, or even any considerable part of it.

Each cacicazgo had a separate existence, its own particular interests and policies, and was therefore in a position to act as circumstances made most desirable or expedient from its own point of view.  Such conditions, of course, at times offered the Spaniards excellent opportunity to apply divide and rule.  The [conquistadores] deliberately played on rivalry between cacicazgos.  Sometimes they had notable success […] Nevertheless, because of the independent and warlike character of many or the Indian nations of Yucatan, their policy of divide and rule was not effective because military and political strength was so equally distributed between a number of cacicazgos, the majority of which were determined to accept Spanish domination.

Conquest or submission of any single cacicazgo had no necessary influence beyond its frontiers; each cacicazgo was free to form alliances and build coalitions as its own interests dictated.”

I touched on this concept earlier, and I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate on the usefulness that a decentralized political system has in regards to defense and security from outside forces.  Chamberlain continues with his elaboration:

“In many places the multiplicity of independent nations would have permitted the Spaniards readily to defeat each one by itself, and would have made their task vastly easier.”

Here Chamberlain is referring to the situations that occur in international affairs when one power asserts itself in a region by conquering one nation at a time, and being able to hold one nation at a time because of the inability of a multiplicity of culturally distinct nations to come together in an alliance to repel the advances of a power into the multinational region, mostly due to the enmity that the various nationalities may harbor towards each other.

Here it is again pertinent to draw masterful historical accounts such as Chamberlain’s and apply it to the present day.  Much of the  modern world is composed of multinational states that were created by European imperialists in the late 19th century.  This wasn’t an accident or an aberration on the part of the Europeans.  After centuries of diplomacy, trade, and war with the non-European world, the European states knew that if they were to retain their recent conquests throughout the world, that they would have to devise a system of governance in which the nations that they finally conquered were divided up into separate states that tore apart a conquered nation’s homogeneity.

This is why we see in the states that we are fighting today, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan, a mosaic of different nationalities living both together and apart under the regime of a specific state.  This divide and rule strategy enabled the imperialistic European states (supported wholeheartedly by a recently enfranchised working class) to split their rivals into many separate states, and made it easier to install a dictator that would be forced to abide by the rules set forth by the imperial powers for the simple reason that it would be extremely hard for the puppet dictator to consolidate his rule and become a menace to the Europeans because of the enmity that so many different nationalities harbored towards the puppet dictator.

For a dictator to gain effective power and consolidation over a state, he would have to essentially engage in a series of ethnic cleansing campaigns to eliminate all opposition to his rule.  This path would ensure that a dictator had complete control over a puppet state, but it would also ensure that the said puppet would be far less powerful and far less able to use his newly acquired power to repel European imperialists from his borders. A recent example of this phenomenon can be no better illustrated than by the policies of Saddam Hussein.

A multinational state would therefore require a dependency of the puppet on the protection of European military power to legitimize his rule over a vast swathe of people. Chamberlain explains how political multiplicity (that is, decentralization) and cultural homogeneity served the Maya cause well:

“Yucatan, however, was homogeneous racially and culturally; because of the determination of many Maya, notably powerful and bellicose provinces such as Sotuta, Cochuah, Uaymil-Chetumal, and the Cupal, to fight the Spaniards to the last ditch, this very multiplicity [politically, not culturally – me!] proved an added difficulty to the Spaniards.  There was no single ruler or central government at which they could strike to bring down the whole as there was in the Inca and Aztec empires.  The subjugation or occupation of any single cacicazgo left the others untouched.  Repeatedly formed alliances and coalitions between cicicazgoswhich were determinedly hostile to the Spaniards made the Spanish task tremendously more complex.”

Thus we have a brief portrait of the situation in Yucatan in 1534.

I have chosen to write about this account because of the disdain I harbor towards the general attitude that many, if not most, Americans have towards the rest of the world and our own form of government. The standard story line that is told in public schools pertaining to European interaction with non-European peoples is one of ignorance and condescension, and that our own shortcomings as a people stem from our decentralized form of government.

On the charge of ignorance, this is the one that is to be most forgiven, because all peoples possess this at all times and in all places. But if our educational system is to do its job, and teach individuals how to think, then there needs to be more depth pertaining to the topic of how the West has interacted with the world since the 15th century.

The charge of condescension requires a much stiffer penalty. The standard account of how and why Europeans conquered the world is based largely out of a guilty conscience that is felt by the intellectuals who write our public schools’ history textbooks. Instead of analyzing facts, applying theoretical frameworks to them, and explaining what history has to do with current events, the authors of these textbooks resort to lamentations about the demure nature of the non-European world; the focus on the communalism that these cultures had, and the stark contrast this was in with Western individualism; the notion that these societies had no choice but to relent to the overpowering greed that drove Western states to imperialism.

This is condescending and factually inaccurate. As if the non-European world wasn’t (or isn’t) driven by the self-interests of every member of society! As if they simply accepted the fact that European firepower, technology, and political organization was superior to their own! What ridiculous nonsense!

It must be noted that most of the states that fought against the European states did so with guns and cannons very shortly after they arrived on the scene. They figured out how to use them very quickly, and their military tactics were easily on par with the Europeans. This is most evident by the fact that Europeans were unable to impose their power upon non-European states (outside of the Americas) until the late 19th century.

Which begs the question: how is it that Europeans finally gained the upper hand? My speculation is that the trade policies of the non-European states turned more isolationist as the 19th century progressed, while the trade policies of Europe turned towards liberalization. I have much more to research on the trade policies of various non-European states throughout the 19th century, and any suggestions that you – the reader – may have for me would be great.

The lamentations of the intellectuals and political leaders who abhor some of our shortcomings are pertinent, but their analyses of the problems we have and the challenges we face are usually superficial and based on emotion rather than reason. The charge that slavery, segregation laws, religious bigotry, and rising health care costs for the middle and lower classes stem from the decentralized nature of our political system is extremely superficial, and the emotional grief that one may feel for our shortcomings does not mean that we should necessarily create a strong central government to ensure that every little shortcoming we have is squashed, fixed, or expunged from the public’s memory.

It would be wise for the adherents of a strong centralized state to be careful what they wish for.

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