Monday, November 27, 2017

Tlaxcala Part 4: Palacio Gobierno's murals of Tlaxcala's conflict with the Aztecs and alliance with the Spanish

Tlaxcalteca warriors engage in a "pep rally" before going into battle. The one on the right wears the heron emblem of Tizatlán, one of the four key cities of what the Spanish called the Tlaxcala Republic. All of the warriors brandish spears tipped by razor-sharp obsidian (volcanic glass). Throughout their history, Tlaxcaltecas maintained the fierce warrior traditions of their forebears. They were one of the tribes of Chichimec nomads from the north who had invaded and conquered the area in the 13th century AD. See my previous posting for a description of Tlaxcala's early history. In this posting, we'll look at the later stages of Tlaxcala's history, up through the Spanish Conquest. I will illustrate my posting with more photos of the wonderful murals covering the walls of the Palacio Gobierno.


Tlaxcaltecas versus the Mexica

Tlaxcaltecas celebrate a victory over the Mexica (Aztecs). Two men retrieve the body of the slain Mexica general from among the corpses of his elite bodyguard of Eagle Warriors. Around them, Tlaxcalteca warriors exultantly raise their obsidian-edged maquahuitls, a hand-weapon that was widely employed in this period. Notice the heron emblem strapped on the back of the warrior on the left, using rope and a wooden frame. The apparatus must have been light or it would have inhibited his movement in combat. The Tlaxcalteca and the Mexica warred with one another more or less continuously for almost 300 years. This conflict extended from the time they both arrived in the Valley of Mexico right up to the Spanish Conquest. While the scene above shows a Tlaxcalteca victory, they seem to have lost more often than not. Over the centuries, the Mexica empire continued to expand until it completely surrounded Tlaxcala, cutting all of Tlaxcala's trade routes. This deprived its people of many important and desirable goods such as cotton and cacao from the Gulf and metal objects from the Tarascan Empire in western Mexico. The trade blockade was enough to ensure enmity, but there was an even greater cause for the Tlaxcaltecas' intense hatred toward the Mexica.


The Mexica launched regular "Flowery Wars" against Tlaxcala. While the Mexica surrounded Tlaxcala, they never conquered it. Certainly the bravery and ferocity of the Tlaxcaltecas helped them keep their independence. However, the Mexica seem to have viewed Tlaxcala as a kind of wild game preserve in which to conduct conflicts they called "Flowery Wars". The main purpose of these wars was to capture Tlaxcalteca warriors for human sacrifice. In most pre-hispanic societies, human blood was considered to be an essential element of the universe. The ritual shedding of blood through human sacrifice was a common practice. However, the Mexica were different from both their predecessors and their contemporaries. The number of their victims was exponentially greater. The chief Mexica deity was Huitzilopochtli, god of war and of the sun. In order to keep the sun moving across the sky each day, the Mexica believed that Huitszilopochtli needed regular offerings of human blood. To fail in this was to risk a halt in the sun's daily course, thus jeopardizing the very existence of the world. Mass human sacrifices were, in this view, a kind of public service. The Mexicas' great Templo Mayor pyramid. located in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, was built to worship Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, a rain god who also required human sacrifice. In 1487, as part of the the pyramid's re-dedication ceremony, more than 10,000 people were sacrificed over four days. The Mexica are estimated to have ritually sacrificed as many as 250,000 people each year during various festivals for their many gods. It is no wonder that their contemporaries feared and hated them.


A captive warrior takes on all comers in a Mexica gladiatorial sacrifice. Of all sacrifices, those of warriors were considered the most important and sacred. In the scene above, the captive is tethered to a large, circular, stone disk which is covered with ritual carvings and dripping with blood. Archeologists have unearthed a number of similar disks, the most famous of which is the so-called "Aztec Calendar". It is not actually a calendar at all, but a platform for gladiatorial sacrifices. The captive in the scene above has just dealt a savage blow to one of the Mexica's elite Eagle Warriors. Another Mexica dances with excitement as he brandishes his obsidian-edged maquahuitl. This ritual was about blood sacrifice, not a fair fight, so the captive warrior's weapon is edged with feathers, rather than obsidian. At the bottom you can see the soles of a row of sandals worn by other captives. It is not clear whether they are dead already or simply lying trussed, waiting their turn. A famous story tells of a great Tlaxcalteca warrior who was captured during a Flowery War. He was promptly marched back to Tenochitlán and tethered to the gladiatorial disk. However, even armed with an un-edged weapon, he defeated all his opponents. The Mexica were so awed by his skill and courage that they offered him his freedom. The Tlaxcalteca warrior refused, since he considered death in this manner to be too a great honor to pass up.

Arrival of the Spanish

The native people experienced consternation, fear, and awe upon the arrival of the Spanish. Not only did these new people represent an unknown race and culture, but they possessed awesome tools and weapons. To native people, an encounter with a fully armored Spaniard would have been much like a modern person coming face to face with an alien in an outlandish space suit. Some Spaniards were mounted on a horses, an animal that had become extinct in the New World tens of thousands of years earlier. At first, many natives thought the man and horse were a single animal. In addition to all this, the timing of the Spanish arrival seemed to fit centuries-old legends about the return of the god-king Quetzalcoatl. Native people, from simple farmers to sophisticated rulers, had a hard time deciding whether the Spanish were terrifying new enemies or divinities who should be welcomed and appeased. The mural above shows this mix of emotions.


When the Spanish arrived, Tlaxcaltecas fought them fiercely at first. Above, Tlaxcalteca warriors staunchly hold the line against the invaders. The people of Tlaxcala resented any attempt to intrude into their territory or impinge upon their freedom. The centuries-long struggle against the Mexica had honed their ability to mount a fierce resistance against this strange new enemy. Hernán Cortéz, the Conquistadores' leader, was a gifted military commander, but he was  also a shrewd politician and diplomat. He knew that he would need allies for his plan to conquer the Mexica. In several hard-fought battles, Cortez' forces defeated the Tlaxcaltecas, in spite of being heavily outnumbered. He then made them an offer they couldn't refuse.


The lords of Tlaxcala welcome Cortéz and his men into their city. The fighting ability of the Spanish, plus their fearsome new weapons, convinced Tlaxcala's leaders to seek peace. Cortez had learned from other native groups that the Tlaxcaltecas were not only great warriors, but also the bitter enemies of the Mexica. Wisely, the Spanish commander treated the Tlaxcaltecas with courtesy, generosity, and respect. Thus, he persuaded them to consider an alliance against their ancestral enemy.


La Malinche played a key role in the Conquest. She is the richly-dressed woman on the right of the mural. Born into a noble Nahuatl-speaking family, La Malinche had been enslaved as a girl by the Gulf Coast Maya. During her enslavement, she became fluent in several Maya dialects. When the Spanish landed on the Gulf Coast and defeated the local Maya chieftain, La Malinche was given to them as a slave. Cortéz desperately needed an interpreter to assist in his search for native allies. La Malinche excelled at this and added Spanish to her linguistic repertoire. She played a key role in the negotiations with the Nahuatl-speaking Tlaxcalteca. They viewed La Malinche as Cortéz' noble consort and treated her with respect. For centuries, the people of Nueva España, and later Mexico, saw her as a heroine. However, after the Revolution, attitudes changed. Many now view La Malinche as a traitor to her native people who was instrumental in bringing about their oppression. Today, in Mexico, Malinchista is a derisive term for a person who abandons Mexican culture in favor of foreign ways.


The four lords of Tlaxcala sign a formal treaty with the Spanish. They are shown here in Spanish frilled collars and capes, but they still wear their feathered head dresses. The Tlaxcalteca were loyal allies. Even after the Spanish suffered heavy loss during their initial retreat from the Mexica capital, they were warmly welcomed back in Tlaxcala. In fact, Cortez and his men could never have conquered the Mexica on their own. Armed and armored though they were, their numbers were tiny compared to the tens of thousands of warriors the Mexica could field. While Cortez' forces never exceeded 1,500 men, they were accompanied by many thousands of Tlaxcaltecas and other native auxiliaries. The Tlaxcaltecas were shrewd bargainers on their own part. In return for their support, they demanded perpetual exemption from tribute, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered Tlaxcala. Cortéz agreed and, in truth, how could he not? As a result, Tlaxcala was exempt from tribute until the end of the colonial period, when the tribute system was abolished.


In the final struggle, Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecas fought side by side. While the Templo Mayor burns in the background, Mexica Eagle warriors fight desperately, their backs to the wall. A mounted Spaniard hacks away as a Tlaxcalteca warrior thrusts forward with his bloodied sword. The sword is probably an anomaly, since it is unlikely the Spanish would have entrusted one of their limited supply of weapons to a native soldier. In any case, the Tlaxcalteca would have been more comfortable wielding a maquahuitl. The final battle for the Mexica capital took weeks of bloody hand-to-hand fighting, during which the stunningly beautiful city was leveled. The great Mexica Empire was destroyed in its prime, but what would be Tlaxcala's fate in the post-Conquest world?


Post-conquest autonomy

The Lienzo de Tlaxcala displays the political structure of the Republic of Tlaxcala. The Lienzo, a large, cotton-cloth document, was created in the mid-16th century by indigenous scribes under the supervision of a Spaniard. It records the political structure of Tlaxcala, as well as the history of the Conquest, as seen through the eyes of the Tlaxcaltecas. The green "water mountain" in the center represents Tlaxcala. It contains a coat-of-arms, granted by the Spanish king in 1535. This was awarded because of the Tlaxcaltecas' great support during the Conquest and because the four lords had allowed themselves to be baptised. The coat-of-arms symbolized Tlaxcala's status as an autonomous unit within the Spanish Empire, accountable directly to the King, without intermediaries. Above it is the emblem of the Spanish Hapsburg Dynasty, signifying the ultimate power. The four altepetls (chief cities) of Tlaxcala are also shown, along with their rulers and chief retainers. Among the Spanish figures are the first two viceroys of Nueva España, a Spanish bishop, and Hernán Cortéz. The Lienzo is, in some ways, like a Tlaxcala Magna Carta.


Tlaxcala's autonomy was reinforced by later amendments, called cedulas. Three of the lords of Tlaxcala are shown above, holding some of these documents. The yellow-framed portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, is in the upper right, over another of the cedulas. Charles was the ruler who granted Tlaxcala's coat-of-arms.


Tlaxcala's Niños Martires were killed by evangelization opponents. The three young boys standing in the center holding green feathers and crucifixes are known as Los Trés Niños Martires (Three Martyred Children). Although the four lords of Tlaxcala, along with many others, were baptised and adopted Spanish customs, there were dissenters to the New Order. In fact, when the Spanish arrived, Tlaxcala's army commander, Xicoténcatl, had opposed the alliance. He was eventually executed by Cortés for treason. The Spanish were accompanied by Franciscan missionaries, who immediately embarked on wholesale evangelization. Many Tlacaltecas held to the old beliefs and were angered when their children were placed in Franciscan schools and indoctrinated in the new faith. The three young boys were killed, one in 1527 and two more in 1529, after they followed the Franciscans' teachings and desecrated pagan idols. One of the boys was the eldest grandson and heir to Xicoténcatl. The Spanish, and some Tlaxcaltecas, viewed the three boys as martyrs for the faith. In 2017, almost 500 years later, they were finally canonized, the last step to becoming Catholic saints. On the other hand, the warrior Xicoténcatl has also been honored. Several large statues of him were erected in Tlaxcala and a city plaza was given his name. Apparently, Tlaxcaltecas continue to have ambiguous feelings have about the Conquest.

This completes Part 4 of my Tlaxcala series. Next we'll take a look at the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, the oldest religious structure in Tlaxcala and one of the oldest in all of Mexico. I hope you have enjoyed this look at the wonderful murals of Palacio Gobierno. If you would like to leave a message or ask a question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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