MAKING HISTORY COME ALIVE
Jack Wheeler has recommended some books he thinks we ought to read. One, The Jade Steps, is by one of my favorite writers — Jack Wheeler. Jack has shilled for his book about as much as is seemly, so I thought I’d pick up the slack.
The Jade Steps is a fictionalized account of a fascinating, and profoundly important historical event which has been grossly misrepresented.
I love good historical fiction, because it brings to life events which would seem dry and dusty in a history book. The best historical fiction entertains as much as it informs. It is faithful to history, both by reporting events as they actually happened, and by putting them in context.
But it is history made more urgent, more gripping, more exciting through the interaction of fictional characters with the historical figures, or by imagined conversations and interactions between actual historical figures.
To my mind, no one was better at this than Kenneth Roberts. I learned more about the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 from his novels than from any other source, and it was from Roberts that I developed my lifelong fascination with Benedict Arnold.
I was reminded of Roberts as I read the The Jade Steps. I started to read it because it was Jack’s book, and I figured I ought to. But after a few pages, I was hooked. Like Roberts, Jack injects important historical fact and insight smoothly into his story. It’s a fast-paced, crackling good read, so entertaining you don’t realize how much you’re learning. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down.
All of Jack’s named characters — except in a prologue and epilogue set in modern day — were real people, and all events in the book are faithful to descriptions in contemporary accounts, chiefly that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1492-1585).
The Jade Steps tells the story of the conquest of Mexico between 1519 and 1521 by a small Spanish force led by Hernando Cortez. More accurately, it’s the story of the liberation of the native peoples of what is now central and southern Mexico from what, with the possible exception of the Assyrians, may have been the most bloody, brutal and oppressive empire in history.
I know much less about the peoples of pre-Columbian Meso-America than Jack does, but two things about the Mayans and the Aztecs have both fascinated and puzzled me.
The first is how they developed such advanced civilizations while the native peoples in what is now the United States, most of whom lived in more hospitable conditions, remained primitive. I’m especially impressed with the Mayans, who built their empire in a jungle.
The second is how they could be so cruel.
Both the Mayans and the Aztecs worshipped bloodthirsty gods. Human sacrifice was the central element of their religious worship. The Aztecs — as Jack chillingly describes — practiced it on an industrial strength scale. Their appetite for blood was insatiable. They demanded of the peoples they conquered a constant stream of men and boys whose hearts they’d cut out on their altars to feed to their gods.
The Aztec account of the rededication of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital, where Mexico City is now located) in 1487 said 84,400 prisoners were sacrificed over four days.
The Aztecs were cannibals. They ate — usually with tomatoes and chili peppers, Jack says — the arms and legs of the thousands of sacrificial victims each year, and of prisoners taken in battle. Ronald Reagan wasn’t wrong when he described the Soviet Union as "the Evil Empire." But the Soviets were sweethearts compared to the Aztecs.
People who are so vicious and cruel rarely are popular with those they conquer, which is the key fact to understanding how a Spanish force that never numbered more than 1,200 could destroy a sophisticated, militaristic empire whose population at the time was estimated to be as much as 11 million. Yet it is nearly always glossed over by contemporary historians.
Yes, the Spanish had muskets, a few cannon and horses, swords made of Toledo steel, and the Aztecs didn’t. The Spanish could not have prevailed without their superior weapons, and their superior military tactics. But technology can only take you so far. These weren’t machineguns or tanks.
A smaller force of Zulus than the size of the armies the Aztecs customarily fielded massacred (at Islandlwana in South Africa in 1879) a larger force of British soldiers than the Spanish ever mustered, even though the Brits were armed with Martini-Henry breechloading rifles, a weapon vastly superior to the arquebus of the early 16th Century, which could fire about a round a minute.
Nor could the Spanish have prevailed without the courage, wisdom, and inspirational leadership of Cortez, one of history’s most remarkable, but underappreciated, figures. Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, feared Cortez might be Quetzalcoatl, the only god in their pantheon who opposed human sacrifice, in human form. But Jack’s focus in The Jade Steps is on the woman who was the key to everything.
Her name was Malinali. She was a princess in one of the kingdoms conquered by, and paying tribute to, the Aztecs. By all accounts, she was very bright, and very beautiful. Her father died when she was 12. Her mother remarried. When her mother bore a son with her new husband, she sold Malinali into slavery to eliminate her as a claimant to the throne. When Malinali was about 18 as a slave in the Yucatan, her path crossed with Cortez.
Malinali was the key to this remarkable episode in history because if it weren’t for her, Cortez could not have communicated with most of the peoples he encountered. Malinali’s native language was very similar to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs (like Spanish is to Italian). In captivity, she learned Mayan, a very different language.
Cortez landed in the Yucatan in February, 1519 with 500 soldiers and 13 horses. There he encountered Geronimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan priest who had learned to speak Mayan during eight years of captivity following a shipwreck off the Yucatan coast. Cortez communicated with the far larger number of peoples who spoke Nahuatl and related dialects through Malinali. At first, she would relate what they said to Aguilar in Mayan, who would then translate that into Spanish for Cortez. Then she quickly learned fluent Spanish.
This method of communication gave rise to the name by which Malinali is known to history. When it comes to sexism, the Aztecs make Moslems seem like feminists. Women weren’t supposed to look a man in the face, much less speak in public. It was discombobulating to the Aztec dignitaries to have to speak to Cortez through a woman. They called him "Malinche" (ma-lin-chay), which means in Nahuatl, "the master of Malinali."
Jack describes how Malinali became a Christian and Cortez’ mistress, and how she helped him plot diplomatic strategy. She more than he was responsible for forging the alliances among formerly subject peoples that brought down the hated Aztecs. After Cortez set her free, she became arguably the first truly independent woman in Mexico. It was she who was now called "La Malinche," because Malinali herself was the "master of Malinali."
La Malinche is the mother of Mexico (a name Cortez derived from "Mesheeka," which is what the Aztecs called themselves) — at least of the 70 percent of Mexicans who are mestizos (of mixed Spanish and native blood). But to the Politically Correct in Mexico and elsewhere, she’s regarded as a traitor, because she helped overthrow the Aztecs, who they regard as the victims of Spanish oppression.
This is as perverse as regarding the Nazis as victims, the Jews as oppressors. In the Epilogue, Jack explains how this perversity developed, and discusses its consequences. The prologue and epilogue also contain the Wheeler touches we’ve come to expect. If I’m ever in the Coyoacán district of Mexico City, near the home Cortez built for Malinali, and where there is a monument to La Malinche, I’ll know at what restaurants to eat, and what I should order.
The conquistadores believed the Aztecs were Devil worshippers, that they had been sent by God to free those they oppressed. As I reflect on the enormity of the evils Jack describes so vividly in The Jade Steps, the remarkable series of events which brought Cortez and Malinali together, and the enormous odds they overcame, I think that may explain better than a few muskets and horses why the Aztec empire fell.
Jack Kelly is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette