Saturday 20 July 2019

Against the Grain

Those of you with long memories might remember some grumblings here about colonialism, and the potential colonialism of wargaming. What I seem to have meant by that was that we lump all these non-Europeans into a similar sort of category. Thus, possibly, in some rule sets African tribes look similar to Siberians and Aztecs. As noted recently, these armies seldom evolve very much, by these same rule sets. Occasionally they might grow firearms units, of course, or even ships armed with cannons, but that is only under the influence of those colonial powers who brought enlightenment to the natives.

I exaggerate, of course, but possibly not as much as we might be comfortable with. There is also the problem, allied to all this, that history has a tendency to be written by victors and, in the world of colonialism from the beginning to the end, this tends to be the ‘white man’. The expression is chosen carefully, for both the whiteness and the maleness of the person chronicling the period and place is, in general, significant. This has implications for how we (in the broadest sense) understand history.

As you might imagine, I have not come up with this on my own. I have been reading some historical theory (more of that another time, perhaps) part of which has been this book:

Majumdar, R. (2010). Writing Postcolonial History. London, Bloomsbury Academic.

Postcolonial history, according to Majumdar, arose from dissatisfactions with the historiography which arose during and after the processes of decolonisation. Before decolonisation (roughly speaking the period from 1950-1970, but the time frame varies according to point of view and geography) history was dominated by the European viewpoint, as put forward by the white male writer. Thus, civilisation was brought to the unenlightened masses by such things as the rifle, machine gun, railway, international trade, education and so on. In some places, even educated (in the Western system) natives were permitted to work in the lower echelons of the governmental system (overseen by reliable people, of course: white males) in the pious hope that they may, someday in the future, be able to run the affairs of the colony for themselves. This would, presumably, have to be overseen by the colonial power, and anyway, for a lot of nationalists at the time, seemed to be an ever-receding target.

Decolonisation, in the British part of the world anyway, was a consequence of World War Two and impending bankruptcy. Historiography immediately post-decolonisation tended to become anti-colonial and nationalist. Local historians bemoaned the arresting of indigenous development, culture and society by the alien impositions (while, it has to be said, often benefitting from them themselves in university posts). It was not too long, however, before a reaction to this reaction started, and this is known as post-colonialism; its historical outworking is postcolonial history.

Postcolonial history defines itself (as far as anything of this nature is defined) as against anti-colonial history. It notes that colonialism had a great impact on the colonised, but also had some impact on the coloniser and the metropolitan colonial power, and sets out to chart this sort of relationship. The relative power of the colony and metropole might well be different, but postcolonial history argues that the colonised were not wholly powerless, and could often succeed against the coloniser.

As history is, usually, both recorded and written by the more powerful, the postcolonial historian has to work a bit harder to obtain their materials. This means that they have to read against the grain of historical records and texts to recover the agency of the colonised. Once this is done, in some cases a startling new history of the country can emerge, one where the (after all, heavily outnumbered) colonists had to tread carefully to negotiate their sometimes fragile (or non-existent) power.

A lot of postcolonial history focusses on India, but I thought I would try to draw some attention to another case where the historical records have to be read against the grain. This is Ross Hassig’s account of the conquest of Mexico, where he re-reads the accounts (which are mostly by Europeans) to reconstruct what was really happening in the early sixteenth century in Central America:

Hassig, R., 'War, Politics and the Conquest of Mexico', in Black, J. (ed.), War in the Early Modern World 1450 - 1815 (London: UCL Press, 1999), 207-235.

Hassig notes that there are two narratives of the conquest. The first is the triumph, against overwhelming odds, of the brave white man against a barbarian, bloodthirsty, pagan empire. This is the story we get from a surface reading of the texts we have available, the overwhelming majority of which are Spanish. Hassig notes that many of the reports sent back to Spain have elements of self-serving bias; the conquistadors were attempting to justify their new found wealth and power.

The second narrative emerges when we read against the grain. For example, Cortes took a detour on his way to Tenochtitlan, to Cholollan, where he conducted a massacre. Hassig notes that the Spanish had no reason to go there, so why did they bother? The answer is that Cholollan had recently deserted the Tlaxcallan alliance, and the massacre eliminated the ruling elite. Tlaxcalla could now control the selection of a new king. This event also led to Cortes overestimating his significance in Central America.

Similarly, Hassig observes that tens of thousands of Indian allies joined five hundred Spanish in the siege of Tenochtitlan, and thousands of canoes joined the thirteen brigantines on the lake. Who then had the most significant force? Who was really in control here?

Of course, many other factors – famine, disease and the Spanish view of what they were doing – played a part as well. But for wargaming the important part is that the Spanish numbers were never more than one per cent of the total. They were shock troops, regarded as expendable by the Tlaxcallans, who could break the enemy line and leave it exposed to exploitation by the Tlaxcallan forces. Hassig suggests that both sides recognised this and sought an alliance as a result.

So, postcolonial history should be a part of wargaming historiography. I am currently rebasing my Aztec forces, but I think that I will need to write my own set of rules as in most that I have seen the Spanish are massively over-represented in both numbers and effectiveness.


  1. I don't understand the logic of the last part. Surely if the Spanish are massively over-estimated in numbers, then current rules massively *under-estimate* their effectiveness? Not because the Spanish did everything themselves, but if they were shock troops who broke the opposing line with relatively little loss to themselves, then thatis pretty much the definition of elite.

    1. I think the Spanish are over-estimated in both numbers and in effectiveness; they did break the line, but only in one place. Local superiority in effectiveness does not translate into winning battles. How superior the Spanish were is difficult to gauge - in the fighting on the causeways 'not that much' could be an answer.

      The last bit of the above is of course a broad generalisation. The Spanish cavalry seem to have been able to do a lot. Spanish crossbows were quite effective. The armoured infantry could minimise losses but I'm not sure how battle winning effective they might have been.

      Anyway, I don't have a theory about all this, but it could probably do with some more thought.

    2. Yes, quite. I think I will have a peek at the books you mentioned. My inclination is the opposite of yours but we shall see.

    3. Fair enough; Hassig's books are probably the best.

      Problem is that we are reading the history through the accounts of the heroic Spanish who were doing heroic things. Reconstructing what was really going on is a lot more difficult than just following the Eurocentric account.

  2. Thought-provoking. Two disparate thoughts occur to me.

    (1) The early Spanish involvement in Central America sounds similar to me to the 18th century British involvement in India (though without the rival Europeans and earlier trade). Small numbers of Europeans allying with various local powers. Who was using who? Because we tend to read history backwards we (traditionally) view it as a stage in the inevitable conquest of Mexico/India by Europeans, instead of just another of the long string of historical forks in the road.

    (2) If I've read this right, I get a sense that reawkened awareness of local Agency is an important part of the mental de-colonisation process.

    I might be over-egging it, but point (1) in wargaming terms could mean that instead of fielding Spanish armies with some interesting local allies, to fight the Aztecs, we have clashes between two rival central American forces one of whom has an interesting foreign ally.

    1. I think that is right. The earlier parts of the conquest were Tlaxcalan against Aztec armies; the Tlaxcalans were in control strategically and tactically, and had Spanish allies as shock troops. To be fair to DBR, it does actually represent this, although it then backtracks and invites the wargamers to have a Spanish army.

      Local agency is a part of post-colonial history, as well. The "natives" could and did 'fight back' using their traditional possibilities and those (like, say, law courts) imported by the colonists.

      History is much more complicated and interesting then, but we miss our simple narratives.

  3. Great post! I'm only just getting into historical wargaming, so I don't know that much about it. That being said, I think it would be interesting to see how a rule set would go about capturing the shifting alliances between the native peoples and the colonizers. I bet it could make for some fascinating gameplay.

    1. I think there is a fair bit of opportunity for gaming the conflicts between the cities even before the Spanish arrived. In fact, many moons ago I wrote an article on the idea, published in Miniature Wargames (don't ask me when, I don't recall). It worked very nicely; you didn't even need that many figures.

      Gaming in a group would also work - shifting alliances between the players could model the shifting politics in Central Mexico.