Saturday, August 26, 2006

by The Windjammer

The Deed to the Southwest

I have heard in the past few days and weeks an argument made by illegal immigrants and their supporters that Mexico still actually owns the southwestern U.S. because Mexico owned it first.

That one just doesn’t hold tequila.

That claim, I suppose, is based upon the "right of conquest." The hidden meaning in that term is that someone else had to own it before. If it had not been, the conquest would have been over the land itself. The truth of the matter is that there were people there many thousands of years before anyone had ever heard the word "Mexico." That term also implies that anyone who comes along later and whips the britches off the Juan-come-latelies can claim it "by right of conquest." As I recall, that is precisely what happened, although that perception may not be popular in some circles.

I know a guy who has written a few books and is in the process of writing a few more. He is known far and wide as an old geezer and he looks as though he could have been there when some of the events happened. I’m afraid to ask him.

He is part Seneca and part Cherokee, although I don’t know which part is which. The biggest part is European, mostly Scot with a little mixture of miscellaneous others thrown in just to make it confusing. I hope you noticed I didn’t spell it Scotch. He doesn’t touch the stuff.

I am always eager to promote accurate history, so I have purloined a few pages (a.k.a. plagiarism) with his permission, of course, from a couple of them to illustrate that there were people here and there in the area long before the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese and the English ever knew there was such a place as Virginia.

I don’t know if you knew it or not, but Virginia was once a pretty big pea patch, stretching from sea to shining sea and from ice cubes to tepid water. That is according to two guys who stood at different times among the abalones on one side and the sand dollars on the other and declared that the whole shebang was Virginia. Others may have thought otherwise. They both named it for their absentee girl friend whose given name was Elizabeth I. Cell phones and CB radios just weren’t as efficient back then as they are today.

The accounts go from back to front, starting with what has become known as the European Conquest and hopefully will end with some ancient history. The book from which the brief history of the Spanish invasion is taken has been out of print for several years. I’m not telling about the other. Hope you enjoy the history lesson.

When Columbus landed on that little island down south and first got the sand of the new world in his sandals he found a relatively isolated group of natives who were peaceful and generous to a fault. They would have given the Spanish the shirts off their backs if the sailors had asked for them and if the natives had been wearing any.

There have been a number of discussions about what the sailors and the subsequent armies gave the natives in return. It is almost a foregone conclusion that three of the gifts were gonorrhea, smallpox and syphilis. One good turn deserves another and each country sends its best.

What the natives wore could hardly be classified as shirts by the European definition. The rest of their attire left more skin than skins showing. Not a whole lot in front and barely anything behind, to paraphrase another well-known writer of days gone by.

The women’s fashions were hardly worth toting back to Spain. The women wore not quite as much as the men, but they displayed it better. The mannequins were shaped differently.

The senoritas back home would not likely consider the garments as Paris originals. They were just a little more particular about how much Spanish miss they displayed at bullfights.

Columbus was convinced that he had found Spiceland, so he insisted the people were Indians. We have perpetuated the myth. He may have lived long enough to know better, but if he did learn, he would never admit his mistake.

He could not believe the people could be so generous with their assets. He and his men started taking without the formality of saying "Please." This caused a slight resentment among the natives, so they decided to take their stout sticks and the situation in hand.

They were not well equipped for fighting and the confrontations resulted in several short necks without the fuzzy ball on top. The victims were the natives. I’m not too sure whether the women were exempt, but Spanish sailors surely would recognize a good thing when they saw it. Those events happened before some red-hot reporter coined the phrase "gunboat diplomacy," but they had similar results.

Columbus had not much more than returned to Spain and presented a half dozen natives and a handful of gold nuggets and emeralds to the queen when Pope Alexander VI declared that half the heathen lands belonged to Spain and half to Portugal. He may have been hedging his bets. He must have been like some of the TV evangelists and said that God had made him do it. I suppose he was afraid that the Spanish and Portuguese might start studying German. The kind that Martin Luther began to teach a few years later.

Spain began its conquest—and I use the term loosely—almost as soon as the miter was dropped. They used the excuse that they were Christianizing the natives. Most of those who were not converted by the time the echoes of the first "Howdy" died away never made it.

I haven’t read anywhere that any of the Spanish officers or soldiers made the sign of the cross over any of the victims. The invaders made no attempt to determine the religion of the "heathens" or the similarities between it and their own. A few priests did raise their voices in protest but those were soon drowned out by the clink of silver, the clunk of gold and the clank of iron blades on bone and stone. The real reason for the expeditions was greed.

It was then and continues to be one of the blackest episodes in the history of Christianity. It ranks right up there with the Inquisition and the Holocaust for honors for infamy in man’s continuing relationship with mankind. Those others received more publicity, but for decimation of a genetic group, they don’t hold a candle to the destruction of the Mayas and the Aztecs. I have never fully understood why we have failed to recognize it for what it was.

One account that I read at some time or another estimated the Tainos population at the time the Spanish arrived at a quarter of a million. That figure dropped to about fourteen thousand by 1513. That genocide was by sword and smallpox, with a case or two of syphilis thrown in which the native girls picked up while picking seashells off the beach.

The first direct encounter between the mainland Mayas and the Spanish was in 1511 when a Spanish ship ran aground. The crew was captured and eaten. Only two men survived to become slaves of a chieftain. It was not a coincidence that in 1516 a new disease called the easy death killed many of the natives. It was smallpox.

The second encounter was when a Spanish ship attempted to land and the Mayas successfully drove them off. The next year saw the event repeated almost word for word when four ships arrived. The Mayas succeeded in driving them off again. Their good fortune was not to last.

A short time later the Spanish came again. This time they had eleven ships, about five hundred men and sixteen horses. The natives had never seen horses, so they fled in terror at the first sight of animals that carried tin men figures on their backs. Hernando Cortes had hit the jackpot.

He and his men hit the beaches of Mexico in 1519 and took off at a fast trot to educate the Mayas. He used soldiers, swords, firesticks and a K-9 corps to destroy a civilization that was probably far superior to the one he had left at home.

We are still trying to understand what we don’t know about their beliefs, their mathematics, their astronomy, their construction methods and their way of life. Their calendar may have been the most accurate of its time. Maybe ours as well. That calendar was forwarded to the Aztecs, the name by which most of us know it today.

Their use of the decimal point probably predated Europe by nearly a thousand years. The Romans were the most powerful nation of their time, but they could count only so far. Their largest number was "M" (1,000). They used the term "as the grains of sand" a lot.

The religious beliefs of the Mayas, Ancient Mayas and Aztecs were not so well developed as some of their northern neighbors, but that observation is made from the vantage point of several hundred years of enlightenment. They enjoyed a little long pig on occasion. They still practiced human sacrifice, not so much to their gods as to the process of the regeneration of life and time. They built huge edifices which were laid out in respect to the sun, moon and stars. They had a large and powerful priesthood that may have been more mystical than devout.

Cortes moved inland against the great Aztec empire. Reliable estimates place the population figures at about eleven million, more than twice that of Spain. The Aztecs were fierce fighters, led by their demi-god, Moctezuma. The Spanish had about four hundred men at the start of the campaign.

Strangely, that expedition produced only one significant battle rather early in the invasion—and that with the enemies of the Aztecs (the Tlaxcalans). Those defeated warriors joined the Spanish after the battle. I suppose they wanted to see old Mocky get his comeuppance.

Instead of fighting, Moctezuma welcomed the Spanish with open arms, believing them to be the white gods predicted in their religious beliefs. They turned out to be devils. The invaders were given the royal treatment for a week or so. A slave girl who had been given to Cortes by the Mayas talked Moctezuma into submitting as a royal prisoner. The Spanish had won again without firing a shot.

The Aztecs’ religious practices were similar to those of the Mayas except moreso. They sacrificed captives, their own people and their firstborn. It is believed that they often used virgins. I can’t swear to the condition. The priests removed the heart from a living victim as a sacrifice to their powerful sun-god, Huitzilopochtli. Don’t fret. I have trouble pronouncing it too. The Spanish could no more understand this barbaric ritual than the Aztecs could understand the Spaniards’ religion.

Cortes left a captain in charge while he went to fight a Spanish usurper who was nothing more than a pirate. When he returned, his trusted captain had instigated a massacre of innocents and initiated a battle royal in which Moctezuma was killed, possibly by his own people. The Aztecs weren’t the only barbarians on the scene. The Spanish played the part as though they knew how. More than eight hundred Spanish were killed. The rest ran off to fight again.

I can’t figure from where all the Spanish came. Cortes started with four hundred and a couple of weeks later there were far more than eight hundred. The extras may have been tourists who came to see the ruins before they became so old and vine-covered. The Spanish returned a year later and destroyed the city of Mexico. Aztec losses in that run-in were set at 117,000.

We still haven’t been able to determine the complicated science necessitated by, nor the actual significance of, the gigantic carvings of human heads done by their predecessors, the Toltecs and the earlier Olmecs. All we know for sure is that it was impossible for them to accomplish such things. We still don’t know enough about the Olmecs and the Ancient Mayas. Some of the later Mayan temples are still standing in Mexico and Central America. The most noted of these today is Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula. There are a few descendants of the later Mayas living in Yucatan, but if they know anything about their ancestors, they aren’t telling very much. They have probably heard what happened to their ancestors and the Aztecs.

Cortes and his cronies and their dogs of war may have made it impossible for us to learn more than that their complex civilization was flourishing, peacefully for the most part, several centuries before Spain’s. Their wars were local and sometimes "friendly" for the purpose of capturing sacrificial offerings.

Ponce de Leon made the first Spanish landing on the North American mainland in what is now the United States in 1513 on the beach of Florida. He and his men took a bath in every little pond, puddle, inlet, outlet and stream they came upon in their frantic search for the fabled Fountain of Youth but they never found the one they were hunting. They went on and died just like everybody else—all gray and as wrinkled as prunes.

Pizarro followed a few years after Cortes and a few miles farther south to tame the Incas and to steal their treasures. There are a few descendants of that great empire who managed to survive.

What a tragedy that these great civilizations were sacrificed to the lust for a dull yellow metal that has been elevated to a god-like place in history and in the minds of men. To set the record straight, there was also some shinier metal that has not been considered quite so valuable but which still causes men to tear each others’ eyes out to gather a little of it.

The really sad part of the story is that the gold and silver could have been had in sufficient quantities for the asking and through kind and humane treatment. There is a strong likelihood that more would have reached the motherland and the mother church if the looters could have timed their departures more leisurely and avoided considerable losses at sea.

Footnote: Hernando de Soto explored from the eastern mainland to as far as what is now Kansas by 1541. He is credited with "discovering" the Father of Waters in that year. Heck, my ancestors had been catfishing in it for several thousand years before that. Isn’t it odd that nobody noticed?

De Soto made a reputation for himself as being a mean little bastard. He seldom met an Indian of whom he thought more than he did of the gold he never found in any appreciable quantity.

His people may have been the second Spanish people to meet the ani yvwiya (the tsalagi or Cherokee). They made themselves scarce when he came through the second time. Self-preservation, you know.

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