Visions of Colonialism – Spanish and Indian Literature

A textual comparison of conquistador Bernal Diaz’ ‘The conquest of New Spain’ and the anonymous Aztec informants of ‘The Florentine Codex.’

To understand the mentalities of the Spanish invaders of the New World and the rhetoric they used to justify colonial conquests like New Spain, the first hand account of conquistador Bernal Diaz offers an interesting insight.

When writing his history, Diaz was well aware of the violent criticisms levelled at the invaders by individuals like Las Bartolome Las Casas – who in his history portrays the Spanish as driven by nothing but a crude greed for gold, where religion was simply a superficial and hollow excuse for what was nothing but enslavement and extortion – and consequently assumes a very defensive stance with regard to the motivations of the conquerors.

Spanish Justification: Colonial Rhetoric

Diaz is unrelenting in his portrait of the brutality and bloodthirsty nature of Aztec religious practices in an attempt to illustrate the positive role of the Spaniards and their quest for change in the country. We are frequently told how the Indians sacrificed to grotesque idols and how even children are not spared the horror of being ritually killed as means of appeasing, what Diaz describes as, ‘false gods’ (198) and ‘evil looking idols.’ (37) It is almost as the Spanish are embarked on a divinely ordained mission to purify and purge the country of these horrific, demon – like deities. They therefore assume a role as liberators in the eyes of the reader and enforcers of a more humane sense of morality.

Within this context Diaz maintains that the Spanish were genuinely driven by a desire to save the Indians from brutal practices, and to improve their lives for the better. We are told how Cortes ‘severely reprimands’ (58) one of his captains for robbing the Indians of food, and even comes close to killing a foot soldier who had the audacity to commit a theft in front of him, to which Diaz states ‘when they see how the theft of a fowl nearly cost a poor soldier his life, they will realize how they should behave towards one another,’ (121) Diaz is certainly keen to establish a sincere desire on the part of his commanding officer to civilize and instruct the Indians morally, and this becomes a key project in the conquest, as he remembers it.

However, the Indians themselves are obscured and even dehumanized by the frequency his descriptions of their brutality; indeed these passages are so frequent that Diaz even states: ‘the reader must be getting tired of these constant stories of sacrifice and I will mention them no more’.(105) However he continues to inform the reader of the Aztec atrocities throughout the narrative, and as a consequence, he displays few moral qualms about the righteousness of the campaign.

Aztec Perspectives

It is interesting to compare Diaz’ perspective to the one offered by the Indians themselves in the Florentine Codex. Here it is the Spanish who become the barbarians and the Aztecs who assert a sense of cultural superiority. Rather than seeking to convey any moral or religious teaching, the Spaniard’s sole agenda is the acquisition of gold.

They are portrayed as consistently disregarding any of the artistic accomplishments of the Indian’s religious ornaments, and seeking only to extract gold from them. This sense of barbarity is further reinforced by the text’s frequent use of animal imagery, ‘like monkeys they seized upon it…in truth they thirsted mightily for gold; they stuffed themselves with it, and starved and lusted for it like pigs.’ (12.31)

The Spanish are portrayed like an all consuming supernatural pestilence. Rather than purifying the country like they are portrayed by Diaz, they are instead depicted like some form of pollutant by the codex. Even their strange technology seems to be contaminating the landscape.

It describes how the ‘foul fumes from the cannon’ caused the messengers to faint and swoon, and how the smoke from the muskets ‘covered all the ground and spread all over the soil. It stupefied and robbed one of one’s senses.’ (12.38) After the Spanish are driven from the capital, the writers assert that ‘never more would they come back…all were swept, rubbish was picked up, and the dirt removed’, (12.77) as though Mexico has finally cleansed itself of the contamination.

Conclusion

The Spanish victors and the defeated Aztecs present very different visions of this most catastrophic clash of cultures. It is hard to defend the cruelty of both the Spaniards and the Aztecs in these writings, but also inappropriate to take sides when attempting a literary comparison.

The political agendas of post colonial theorists like Las Casas have certainly contributed to the survival of both texts, but rather than in the fulfilment of cultural and political aims, perhaps their true value lies more in the textures and layers of the writing. Bernal Diaz emerges as passionate, but ultimately inflexible character. His account remains one of the most popular and idiosyncratic pieces of post colonial literature up until the present day. The effect of the codex derives from its vision of the vanquished, and the Aztec’s civilization is memorialized through it use of visceral language. Their lost world is celebrated as vigorously and colourfully as Diaz celebrates the achievements of the conquistadors.

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