Saturday 7 September 2019

Aztecs Again

I am, very slowly, rebasing my Aztec and similar sorts of troops. This is a slow process because I seem to have an awful lot of them, far more than seems necessary or, indeed, sane. Now I know that I brought a lot of Aztecs because, under most army lists (especially DBR, which was the set I used at the time) armies such as the Aztecs fell at the cheap end of the spectrum per base. I also know that due to my presumed obsessive nature, I wanted to be able to field an army of Aztecs and an army of their enemies, plus, of course, a second Aztec army for the inevitable civil wars. The result of this has been, well, an awful lot of bases.

At present, I think, I am about halfway through, at approximately 60 bases done and about the same to go. You did read that correctly – about 120 – 130 bases will constitute my Central American armies, plus, in fact, 48 single based officers, and a town. When it is all done I might try my photography skills. Even in my inept hands, it might look a fair size.

Anyway, the point here is not to brag about the size of my armies, but to ponder a bit more the Aztecs and the conquest thereof. This has been inspired by some comments on my latest postcolonial post, wondering whether the Spanish were really that much of a factor in the overthrow of the Aztec Empire as the usual narrative of history gives them credit for. My time being spent largely rebasing the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Chicimecs and Tlaxcalans, this is based only on a very quick skim re-read of one of Ross Hassig’s books. I am sure there is much more to be said on the subject, and much more pondering to be done on rule sets.

Anyway, the book in question is

Hassig, R., Mexico and the Spanish Conquest (Harlow: Longman, 1994).

I have not been following the world of Aztec historiography that closely since around 2000, I think, so this might not be the current last word on the subject, but it will certainly do for my purposes here.

Hassig observes that most histories of the conquest take the view of the Spanish participants; even those who take the Aztec view more seriously depart little from the given script. He lists around nine different reasons given for the success of the Spanish: the Aztec belief that the Spanish were gods; the psychological and ideological collapse of the Aztecs; the personal characteristics of Cortez and the Spanish; the poor tactics and weaponry of the Indians; the superior weaponry of the Spanish; the flaws in the political structure of the Aztec Empire; the impact of disease, particularly smallpox; the Spanish superior grasp of the symbolic system.

It seems that serious historians have had little grasp of the reasons for the seeming miraculous success of the Spanish. But Hassig argues that it is only miraculous because we accept the Spanish account of it. Watching the conquest through Indian eyes gives a different perspective. As he notes, the Aztecs fought bitterly, effectively and valiantly against the conquest of Tenochtitlan: no psychological or ideological collapse is, in fact, evident in even the Spanish accounts of the conquest.

The problem is that accepting the Spanish interpretation of events requires assuming that Cortez understood Indian politics and that he could and did manipulate it. After all, both the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs could, if they had decided to, have wiped out the Spanish force by sheer overwhelming numbers, let alone ambush or starvation, at various times during the campaign. The fact that they chose not to is not because they thought of the Spanish as gods, but because all sides thought they could manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

On weaponry, we have to concede that the Spanish, with metal armour and weapons, had the edge. The Tlaxcallans ambushed the Spanish while the latter were on the march, but the Spanish weapons gave them the edge, although not a particularly decisive one. Hassig remarks (p. 65) that being ambushed left little time for the Spanish to prepare their gunpowder weapons and, although metal armour is fairly effective against arrows, it provided very partial protection against sling stones.

Tactically, the Tlaxcallans relied on ambush or, at least, feigned retreat followed by ambush. The Spanish seem, in the early days, to have rather fallen for this because politically they could not be seen to fail; to do so would have been to risk losing their Indian allies (who were mostly Aztec tributaries). Spanish firepower could keep the Tlaxcallans at bay, but Cortez needed more than that. He also needed food, and the Tlaxcallans were not about to leave any for his men to find.

In combat, Cortez and his men needed to keep their formations tight and ordered. They could not, for example, unleash the full power of a cavalry charge as it would have bogged down against the numbers deployed against it and, separated from the rest of the army, have been lost. A night attack by the Tlaxcallans proved to be more dangerous, as the Spanish were then out-shot by Tlaxcallan ranged weapons; only a desperate charge by mounted lancers disrupted the enemy formations sufficiently to get them to withdraw.

What do we make of all this as wargamers? Well, there is no doubt that the Spanish created problems for the Central American art of war. These are military, it is true, but an all-out attack by the Tlaxcallan army would probably, eventually, have overwhelmed the few hundred Spanish and their even fewer allies at this stage. If the Tlaxcallan’s had encircled and besieged the Spanish, they could probably have starved them to death as well as ensuring they ran out of gunpowder. But, again, logistics came to the fore and it is probable that the Indians could not sustain an offensive army for as long as needed. Further, in Central American military culture a defeated army (or an invading army held to a draw) retreated. That the Spanish did not, Hassig notes, (p. 70) is more to do with their lack of alternatives than battlefield success.

History, of course, tells a different story. The Tlaxcallans allied with the Spanish and pressed on to victory over the Aztecs, ostensibly because the Spanish had beaten them on the battlefield. In fact, if they had proceeded against the Spanish Cortez and his men would have been a mere private Spanish plundering expedition that had been wiped out. The Tlaxcallan geopolitical situation persuaded them to ally with the Spanish. Military defeat against the Spanish was not part of the problem; it was the threat from the Aztecs which persuaded them to parley. War and alliance is an extension of politics by other means.

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