Saturday 18 September 2021

Aztec Agency

It might have escaped your notice with everything else going on (it certainly nearly escaped mine) but August 2021 was the five hundredth anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, to, well, to whom is the interesting question. The other interesting question is why there has been so little made of the event, which had worldwide implications. The celebrations in Mexico have been muted, to say the least, and that is not just because of a certain pandemic.

Specifically, the Aztecs surrendered on 13th August 1521. The winners were the Spanish under Cortes and a great alliance of other Mexica. The alliance had different aims from those of Cortes, of course. For them, the point was the removal of their vassal status under Aztec conquest and rule. Cortes aimed to plunder and, ultimately, to conquer. As Hassig pointed out a fair time ago, it was the disunity of the Mexica that caused their downfall, not really any technological advantage deployed by the Spanish.

That is not to say that the Spanish did not have a technological edge, of course. In fact, they had a literal edge with steels swords, not to mention gunpowder weapons, crossbows, and cavalry. But technology can be overcome. The Aztecs, for example, learned to run in a zig-zag fashion to avoid musket balls, and Cortes had to be careful in his handling of the cavalry because they could still get cut off and killed by Aztec fighters.

An article in August’s History Today reminds us of all this. It goes a bit further, arguing that the Aztecs and other Indians had agency in the conflict. That is, while the popular narrative gives all the credit to Cortes and the conquistadors, in fact, a lot of the running was made by the Indians, some of whom swapped sides when they saw the opportunity of getting rid of Aztec rule. It goes a bit further, observing that Monteuczoma perhaps invited the Spanish to Tenochtitlan because he worked out that they would be more easily destroyed in the city than in open battle. The Spanish nearly disastrous flight from the city in mid-1520 shows that he was probably right.

During the retreat from Tenochtitlan Cortez lost 860 Spanish and over 1000 Tlaxcalan allies, along with his cannon, many crossbows and so on. He also lost a huge amount of face and could not be sure that the Tlaxcalans and other allies would not switch back to the Aztecs. As it happened they did not, and they returned to the offensive with the Spaniards as a kind of crack assault troops. Cortes was a gambler, and his campaign was technically illegal. If it went wrong and he survived and got back to Spain he would be in trouble.

There is, of course, a lot more to say. The ‘Spanish’ conquest of the Aztecs is a classic case of post-colonial revisionism. Moctezuma was neither stupid nor cowardly. He did have a plan for handling the invaders (the Aztecs called them ‘bandits’, which is not far from the truth, and often killed them by striking the back of the head, which is how criminals were executed in Tenochtitlan). Other interesting bits and pieces arise: Malintzin (Cortes’ translator and concubine) is often portrayed as a traitor to the Aztecs, but she was from a coastal tribe, probably kidnapped by the Aztecs and sold as a slave to the Maya who gave her to Cortes. She was not betraying her people, she might well have had her own reasons for acting against them.

I could go on. Examples of the colonial treatment of the conquest can be multiplied. But perhaps it is best understood as an indigenous civil war in which the Spanish were involved, perhaps as partial catalysts and certainly as key troops. However, without tens of thousands of indigenous allies, the Spanish would simply have vanished in the interior, probably cut off in Tenochtitlan, and starved to death. We can also note that the allies simply saw themselves as transferring allegiance from the Aztecs to the Spanish king (who was conveniently far distant); post-conquest they sent a steady flow of petitions to the king and his council. The indigenous people adapted to the new political situation.

In wargaming terms, this gives us some real problems. Older, pre-post-colonial wargames, could pitch a smaller Spanish army with a few native allies against hordes of Aztecs who could be mown down by brave western technology. There is an element of truth here, of course, and the over-representation of the Spanish on the table could be rationalized by the disproportionate effects of their weaponry.

A post-colonial representation would be of Aztecs against an alliance of rebellious vassals, with a few Spanish added in. So far as I can tell the Spanish never amounted to much over 1500 effectives and very few of them were cavalry. In terms of my wargame rules of 1 base to around 500 men, that would be three bases and an insufficient number of cavalry to be represented.

However, the Spanish cavalry was effective. They could open holes in the Aztec units that other troops could exploit, as in the retreat from Tenochtitlan described by Hassig. Muskets and crossbows could also open holes but these could be closed more easily by the Aztecs. The cavalry disrupted in a way that the firepower did not.

Probably the answer in wargame terms is to allow the Spanish to be a special troop type, conquistador, which has assorted abilities to shoot, charge and defend at an advantage. They would, however, be present in limited numbers, one to three bases, and vulnerable as usually to being surrounded, which is what the Aztecs often tried to do.

It would also be best to see the conquest in a campaign context, with shifting native alliances. No-one likes being a vassal, particularly, and the indigenous people were alarmed by the growing power of the Aztec empire, even though is was a different sort of empire from the emerging European idea of one.

And now I have some ideas. I will see if anything comes of them.


  1. Am I right in remembering that DBR sort of did this in having the pre-1525 Conquistadores as elements in the Tarascan/Tlaxcalan lists? With the option to field a small Spanish-only army only in 100-point games, or somesuch?

    1. I've had a look and DBR did start in that direction. I think that I still have three issues, though:
      1. The Spanish are still over-represented as a fraction of Mexica.
      2. The Spanish general gets to be CinC. Exactly who was in charge is moot, but it was not necessarily Cortez.
      3. The Spanish are on separate bases for shot, crossbows, cavalry etc, which does not seem to be how they fought.
      Within the context of DBR they work, although as Phil notes, 100 AP Mexica armies are not exactly small. But I suspect we could do better.

    2. I wouldn't disagree with any of that. Point 3 is essentially the one that makes me a non-DBR player for some periods.

    3. Agreed, but other basing schemes like Polemos: ECW I find a bit limiting. Ho hum.

    4. fair enough. how do you base/would you suggest basing for the ECW and WotCR?

    5. Interesting question....

      I tend to base separately, pike and shot on different bases because I use the bases across the 16th and 17th Centuries. Additionally, I think that ECW units were in fact fairly flexible and could detach musketeers during an action.

      For the ECW you could use sabot bases for separately based troops. I also tend to have regiments grouped together anyway so keeping coat colours aligned is another possibility. I am slowly iterating WotCR towards a brigading rule, but it is quite hard to make it arise naturally.

      For the conquistadors I would probably go for mixed bases, or single weapon bases two deep. I've not worked it out yet.