A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend – Review

Drawn primarily from stories written by the Aztec people, this book shares their perspectives from before, during and after the Spanish invasion.

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As a child, I was constantly fascinated by the most dominant aboriginal civilizations in the Americas: the Incas, Olmecs, Mayas and Aztecs. Unfortunately, aside from occasional and all-too-brief mentions of them in dusty and outdated primary school history textbooks, I have not been able to pursue my desire to learn more about any of these groups of indigenous peoples. . But I never forgot my first love. So I was thrilled when I recently came across Camilla Townsend’s book, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press, 2020: Amazon US / Amazon UK).

The author is professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University and an expert on the indigenous peoples of the Americas and their relationship with newcomers. In Fifth Sunshe writes an informative historical account that is a complex and captivating revisionist history of the Aztecs, drawn solely from their own texts, told in their own words – thanks to the author’s extensive knowledge of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire.

Early on, the Aztecs were intrigued by the Roman alphabet, and unbeknownst to their colonizers, they learned to use it to record their oral history in detailed narratives in their own language, Nahuatl. Until Professor Townsend’s translations, these sources remained obscure, only partially translated and rarely consulted by scholars. We, its curious readers, are its beneficiaries.

The book begins with the origins and rise to power of the Aztecs, a record of their own oral traditions, followed by an account (and revision) of the events of the Spanish conquest in the middle chapters, told primarily by the Aztecs themselves, with the final chapters devoted to the decades immediately after the Spanish conquest and the adaptation of the native survivors.

The Aztecs, who called themselves the Mexicas, began as a group of nomadic peoples who settled on Lake Texcoco in central Mexico around the year 1325. After introducing the reader to the Aztecs, Fifth Sun then examines in detail the history of the Mexican people before, during and after the Spanish invasion and conquest, which began in 1519 and ended in 1521. In this book Professor Townsend shares the Mexican oral histories and songs which capture and preserve their historical culture and identity and record the events that occurred during the arrival of the Spaniards, with a particular focus on the history of the 15th century, which has the most reliable sources. Professor Townsend focuses particularly on Mexican women: their lives, their loves and their fears.

The Mexica themselves were no strangers to conquest and extreme violence as it was how they built their own empire, which spanned the central valley of the Mexican peninsula. In fact, it was this history of Mexica violence and oppression against other indigenous peoples that motivated many critical allies to help the Spanish invaders defeat the Mexica.

But the use of extreme violence by the European conquerors to achieve their goals is heartbreaking to read, as the Spaniards apparently sought to obliterate their very culture and identity. The violence of the conquerors even extended to Mexican names: for example, the very word “Aztec” was coined by European scholars centuries after the Spanish conquest. (The term “Aztec” is actually an ill-defined term that refers to the Empire made up of many people who spoke a common Nahuatl language, and the peoples conquered by the Mexicas.) Professor Townsend states: “No one has never called that. »

Despite the atrocities perpetrated by the conquistadors and the devastating impact of deadly diseases against which the Mexica had no immunity, they are still among us. Their culture and language are still with us.

I was very interested in having Professor Townsend overturn or debunk most of the pervasive myths I was taught about “the Aztecs” as an intellectually helpless child – that the Mexicas believed that Hernan Cortes and his band of sick thugs were the embodiment of the Mexican gods, and that Emperor Moctezuma II “surrendered” his empire to the Spanish invaders. Damn all this nonsense! Professor Townsend also unmasks the many lies the Spanish conquerors attributed to the Mexican people – cowardly, superstitious and subject to massive human sacrifice. In contrast, Professor Townsend reveals that the Aztec Empire had very skilled and experienced traders and politicians who built vast intelligence networks and who traded and reformed the empire.

Speaking of politics, the political history of the Aztec Empire is captivating and surprisingly modern: the power struggles, the economies built and trade goods, the family and social structures, and of course, the myths and legends that provided their identity. parts of Fifth Sun offers a window into the world of a people on the brink of catastrophic change.

In fact, it all sounds eerily similar to what we are faced with now by the daily news.

This engaging book includes 55 pages of notes (a veritable treasure trove of further reading) where hundreds of references from primary literature are listed, and an 18-page bibliography so readers can indulge their passion for further reading and more in depth about them. fascinating people.

Although I enjoyed this book, I have a few complaints. First, the book needed a map of the area encompassed by the Aztec Empire, and it would have benefited from a historical timeline of the Aztec Empire that emphasized the small period the book specifically focuses on. The author should also have made it clear in several sections of the book that the emotions and reactions of individuals – for example, Cristóbal’s experiences at the Franciscan boarding school in Tlatelolco (pp. 149-150) – are his speculations and, although understandable, are not taken from a historical source. As it stands, the reader has to dig into the Notes to learn that it was fiction.

Overall, this illuminating book is readable, detailed, and respectful, and it contains a lot of information that the interested reader is unlikely to come across unless they specifically research it. I highly recommend Fifth Sun to anyone interested in the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, who wants a glimpse of what colonialism (yikes) “looks like”, or who, like me, wishes to pursue their latent passion to learn more on the Aztecs.


Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs won the 2020 Cundill International History Prize.


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