Part I: The Lurker Below
Part II: The Urge to Eliminate
Part III: Bringers of Light and Death
At the climax of Mel Gibson's new film Apocalypto -- currently the No. 1 film at the box office -- the main protagonist, a young Mayan named Jaguar Paw, is saved, at the end of a long chase through the jungle from a pack of Mayan warriors determined to kill him, by the arrival on the scene of a band of Spanish conquistadors, complete with Catholic priest in tow, whose presence gives him the distraction he needs to finally elude his pursuers.
It's a scene oddly reminiscent of the climax of Lord of the Flies, when the arrival of adult rescuers halts the bloodthirsty children's pursuit of their former leader. The clear implication is that the "civilized" adults from Europe have arrived to bring an end to the endless display of cruelty and savagery to which we've just been witness for most of the previous two hours.
This ending, in a film that is profoundly racist in its depiction of Mayan culture as relentlessly bloodthirsty and violent, is hardly lacking in irony. Because regardless of the brutality and viciousness of the Mayans at their worst -- and Gibson's depiction, for all of its faux authenticity (such as the strict use of Yucatec Mayan as the film's spoken language, even though none of actors cast in speaking parts was Mayan or knew the language), is almost crazily inaccurate as a cultural portrait -- they simply paled in comparison to what the Spanish, with the Catholic Church as their ideological wellspring, were about to inflict upon the Mesoamerican peoples as a whole. Nor could it hold a candle to what Europeans as a whole were to inflict upon Native American peoples over the next three centuries.
Traci Arden at Archaeology gives a rundown of just the immediate problems Apocalypto presents:
- Yes, Gibson includes the arrival of clearly Christian missionaries (these guys are too clean to be conquistadors) in the last five minutes of the story (in the real world the Spanish arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned). It is one of the few calm moments in an otherwise aggressively paced film. The message? The end is near and the savior has come. Gibson's efforts at authenticity of location and language might, for some viewers, mask his blatantly colonial message that the Maya needed saving because they were rotten at the core. Using the decline of Classic urbanism as his backdrop, Gibson communicates that there was absolutely nothing redeemable about Maya culture, especially elite culture which is depicted as a disgusting feast of blood and excess.
... Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue.
Nearly everyone with a serious acquaintance with Mayan culture has found Apocalypto repellent and simply wrong in nearly every respect. Among these is Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas who specializes in ancient Mayan art. She was interviewed by Austin360, and had this to say:
- And the ending with the arrival of the Spanish (conquistadors) underscored the film's message that this culture is doomed because of its own brutality. The implied message is that it's Christianity that saves these brutal savages. I think that's part of Gibson's agenda, sort of, "We got the Jews last time (in 'The Passion of the Christ'), now we'll get the Maya." And to highlight that point there's a lot of really offensive racial stereotyping. They're shown as these extremely barbaric people, when in fact, the Maya were a very sophisticated culture.
Likewise, Juan Santos at Fourth World observes that the film is built upon "the premise that the Mayan city states collapsed because they deserved to collapse, and that they deserved to be replaced by a 'superior' culture in the genocide known as the Conquest":
- "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within," is how Gibson puts it. In other words the Conquest was not genocide but a moral comeuppance; the civilization didn't fall, in the final analysis, from climate change or inadvertent soil depletion or even war -- it was conquered in god's wrath against the forces of evil. And Gibson's made sure you see the ancient Maya as a force of profound evil.
Indeed, you would be hard-pressed, upon seeing Gibson's depiction of urban Mayan life, to understand how such a rabble of gibbering savages could possibly have placed two stones atop each other, let alone built massive cities with astonishing beauty and precision. (Oddly enough, the protagonist forest dwellers seem not even to be aware of the existence of these cities, even though Mayan cities had been a major feature of the Yucatan human landscape for over a thousand years at the point at which the story is supposed to occur.) They resemble nothing so little as the cartoonish natives who occupy a similar cityscape in the original 1933 version of King Kong.
Depicting Mayan culture this way leads modern-day audiences to leap to conclusions such as that noted by Santos, from one of the film's defenders, who says that it
- [P]retty much precisely describes the whole point of the civilizations of such "noble savages" as the Mayans, if you ask us. There isn't one, there wasn't one, and there never will be one. Those bloodthirsty mongrels and many others before and after them were brutal, savage, cruel and entirely without redeeming qualities, and the best thing that ever happened to this planet was when they were wiped out, never to be heard of again.
In fact, we owe the Spanish Conquistadores an eternal debt of gratitude for having wiped that blood-curdlingly bestial, brutal blight upon humanity off the face of the planet because, had they not done it, we would have had to do so ourselves.
Bloodletting rituals, decapitations, and cenote sacrifices were inescapable factual features of Mayan civilization, as were the many wars that the various city-states engaged in, taking multiple slaves in the process. But focusing on these aspects gives us only a fractional view of Mayan culture. Depicting the gore and violence as constant, everyday occurrences creates a false and distorted portrait of Mayan society, which, as Julia Guernsey says, was actually extraordinarily sophisticated, a culture whose achievements at their height -- particularly in the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-950) -- in some regards surpassed that of contemporaneous Europeans.
Mayan culture featured a complex and fascinating cosmology. Their art was both sublime and beautiful. And their language -- which was so complex and unusual in structure that it only has been deciphered generally in the past 20 years or so, and is still not completely so -- produced a massive literature that included poetic, religious and philosophical works.
However, we only are able to obtain a slight glimpse of this body of work today because those Spanish "saviors," in the two centuries following their arrival, successfully eradicated, through forced burning, nearly the entirety of it. As Michael D. Coe observed in his 1987 book The Maya:
- "[O]ur knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and 'Pilgrim's Progress')."
Their scientific and agricultural achievements were also substantial. Their astronomical observations in particular were extremely accurate; modern scientists note that their lunar and planetary charts are at least the equal of, if not superior to, those produced by any civilization working from the naked eye. And their astronomical achievements also played a role in their architecture; as David E. Stannard explains in American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World [p. 38]:
- ... [I]t is important at least to point out how little we still know of these people. Their involved writing system, combining elements of both phonetic and ideographic script, for example, appears to have been fully expressive of the most intricate and abstract thinking and has been compared favorably to Japanese, Sumerian, and Egyptian -- but it continues to defy complete translation.
Similarly, for many years the absence of a gridwork layout to streets, plazas, and buildings in Maya cities puzzled scholars. Right angles weren't where they logically should have been, buildings skewed off oddly and failed to line up in the expected cardinal directions; everything seemed to twist away from an otherwise northward presentation. Apparently, said some archaeologists, Maya builders were incompetent and couldn't construct simple right angles. Given the exquisite and precise alignment of every other aspect of Maya architecture, however, others thought this to be at best a hasty criticism. And now it is beginning to become evident that these seeming eccentricities of engineering had nothing to do with incompetence.
On the contrary, a complicated and original architectural pattern had always been present -- the same pattern, some began to notice, in city after city after city -- but its conceptual framework was so foreign to conventional Western perception and thought that it remained effectively invisible. Recently the "code," as it were, of Maya engineering and construction has begun to be deciphered, and the story it reveals is mind-boggling. So precise were the Maya calendrical measurements and astronomical observations -- and so central were these cosmic environmental calculations to their ritual and everyday lives -- that the Maya constructed their cities in such a way that everything lined up exactly with specific celestial movements and patterns, particularly as they concerned the appearance and disappearance of the planet Venus in the evening sky.
Yet to the invading Spanish -- informed by centuries of Christian doctrine which portrayed people who dwelt on what they considered the "fringes" of the world as subhuman savages, in direct contrast to their view of Europe as the center of enlightenment and civilization -- the chief question was whether these people were even human.
That was the subject of the famed Debate of Valladolid of 1550-51, in which a council of 14 Church leaders discussed how to deal with the natives of the New World. The Spanish colonists' view was proffered by Juan Gines de Sepulveda, whose arguments are indistinguishable from Mel Gibson's portraiture of the Maya:
- On the other hand, those who are dim-witted and mentally lazy, although they may be physically strong enough to fulfill all the necessary tasks, are by nature slaves. It is just and useful that it be this way. We even see it sanctioned in divine law itself, for it is written in the Book of Proverbs: "He who is stupid will serve the wise man." And so it is with the barbarous and inhumane peoples [the Indians] who have no civil life and peaceful customs. It will always be just and in conformity with natural law that such people submit to the rule of more cultured and humane princes' and nations. Thanks to their virtues and the practical wisdom of their laws, the latter can destroy barbarism and educate these [inferior] people to a more humane and virtuous life. And if the latter reject such rule, it can be imposed upon them by force of arms. Such a war will be just according to natural law. ...
Now compare these natural qualities of judgment, talent, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religion [of the Spanish] with those of these pitiful men [the Indians], in whom you will scarcely find any vestiges of humanness. These people possess neither science nor even an alphabet, nor do they preserve any monuments of their history except for some obscure and vague reminiscences depicted in certain paintings, nor do they have written laws, but barbarous institutions and customs. In regard to their virtues, how much restraint or gentleness are you to expect of men who are devoted to all kinds of intemperate acts and abominable lewdness, including the eating of human flesh? And you must realize that prior to the arrival of the Christians, they did not live in that peaceful kingdom of Saturn [the Golden Age] that the poets imagine, but on the contrary they made war against one another continually and fiercely, with such fury that victory was of no meaning if they did not satiate their monstrous hunger with the flesh of their enemies.
... What is more appropriate and beneficial for these barbarians than to become subject to the rule of those whose wisdom, virtue, and religion have converted them from barbarians into civilized men (insofar as they are capable of becoming so), from being torpid and licentious to becoming upright and moral, from being impious servants of the Devil to becoming believers in the true God?
The Council of Fourteen never officially rendered a verdict, though Stannard notes that "Sepulveda later claimed, and there is some reason to believe him, that in the end all but one of the Council supported his position that the Indians were indeed divinely created beasts of burden for their conquerors." This debate, as historians now acknowledge, was a critical moment in the development of European colonization, and the views that emerged from it proved critical not just for Spain but for Europe generally. Eventually, it grew into what we now call "Manifest Destiny" -- the belief that white Europeans were fated by the hand of God to bring enlightenment and civilization to the Americas.
The die for this worldview was cast with Christopher Columbus' first contact with the native peoples of Hispaniola in 1492, when the celebrated discoverer of the Americas took captive some twenty natives and kidnapped them for display upon his return to Spain; of these, only a half-dozen survived the trip, and only two were to live beyond six months. As Stannard notes [p. 204]:
- Even the most educated and cultured and high-minded among the voyagers on this second expedition wasted no time in expressing their contempt for the native people. [Michele de] Cuneo, for example, the Italian nobleman and apparent boyhood friend of Columbus, repeatedly referred to the natives as "beasts" because he could not discern that they had any religion, because they slept on mats on the ground rather than in beds, because "they eat when they are hungry," and because they made love openly "whenever they feel like it." This judgment comes, it will be recalled, from a man who took a fancy to a beautiful young native woman during this trip and, when she rebuffed his advances, thrashed with a rope, raped her, and then boasted of what he had done.
Cuneo's opinion of the natives was echoed by Dr. Diego Alvarez Chance, a physician on the voyage who was later singled out by the Crown for a special award in recognition of his humanitarianism. For various reasons, including his disapproval of the Indians' method of laying out their towns and the fact that they ate cooked iguana (which the Spanish themselves later came to regard as a delicacy), Dr. Chanca declared that the natives were barbarous and unintelligent creatures whose "degradation is greater than that of any beast in the world."
... It is by no means surprising, then, that in only the second printed chronicle from the New World (the first being Columbus's report to the Crown on his initial voyage), the Spanish nobleman Guillermo Coma of Aragon dwelt at great length and in minute detail on the allegedly "very dark and grim-visaged" cannibals of the Indies. "They customarily castrate their infant captives and boy slaves and fatten them like capons," was but one of his numerous imaginings. And with equal vividness and equal falsity he described the great quantities of gold that awaited the adventurous, who could gather nuggets almost like fruit from a tree. ...
Yet it was with visions such as these that a flood of opportunistic adventurers called the Conquistadores began trammeling the shores of the Americas in search of gold. And whenever they encountered these "dark-visaged" natives, they read to them the Requerimiento, by which the natives could swear fealty to the Spanish Crown. It concluded:
- If you do so, you will do well, and that which you are obliged to do to their Highnesses, and we in their name shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude, that you may do with them and with yourselves freely that which you like and think best, and they shall not compel you to turn Christians, unless you yourselves, when informed of the truth, should wish to be converted to our Holy Catholic Faith, as almost all the inhabitants of the rest of the islands have done. And, besides this, their Highnesses award you many privileges and exemptions and will grant you many benefits.
But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.
Stannard notes that in practice, "the Spanish usually did not wait for the Indians to reply to their demands. First the Indians were manacled; then, as it were, they were read their rights."
Perhaps more significantly, on his second voyage in 1494, Columbus arrived in the Americas carrying a disease -- now believed to be either bacillic dysentery or influenza carried by Canary Island pigs -- that proved to have lethal effect on the native population. As Stannard writes [pp. 68-69]:
- Whatever it was, in any case, the imported pathogen moved among the native peoples with a relentlessness that nothing ever had in all their history. "So many Indians died that they could not be counted," wrote Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, adding that "all through the land the Indians lay dead everywhere. The stench was very great and pestiferous." And in the wake of the plague they had introduced, the Spanish soldiers followed, seeking gold from the natives, or information as to where to find it. They were troubled by the illness, and numbers of them died from it. But unlike the island natives the European invaders and their forebears had lived with epidemic pestilence for ages. Their lungs were damaged from it, their faces scarred with pocks, but accumulations of disease exposure allowed them now to weather much. So they carried infections with them everywhere they went -- burdensome, but rarely fatal, except to the natives they met.
... Wherever the marauding, diseased, and heavily armed Spanish forces went out on patrol, accompanied by ferocious armored dogs that had been trained to kill and disembowel, they preyed on the local communities -- already plague-enfeebled -- forcing them to supply food and women and slaves, and whatever else the soldiers might desire. ...
As horrific as the pestilence brought by Columbus may have been, it only foreshadowed the coming of the most horrific killer in the history of the Americas: smallpox. Though it first arrived in Hispaniola in 1518, the most significant outbreak was carried by the soldiers under the command of Hernan Cortes, who invaded Mexico in 1519 and brought it to the Aztecs during the Siege of Tenochtitlan, and left it behind after he was forced into retreat by his defeat on La Noche Triste in 1520.
Smallpox had immediately had a horrific effect on the native populace. Stannard writes [p. 77]:
- After being released among the Aztecs, wrote Cortes's secretary Francisco Lopez de Gomara, "it spread from one Indian to another, and they, being so numerous and eating and sleeping together, quickly infected the whole country. In most houses all the occupants died, for, since it was their custom to bathe as a cure for all diseases, they bathed for the smallpox and were struck down." Gomara continues:
- Those who did survive, having scratched themselves, were left in such a condition that they frightened the others with the many pits on their faces, hands, and bodies. And then came famine, not because of a want of bread, but of meal, for the women do nothing but grind maize between two stones and bake it. The women, then, fell sick of the smallpox, bread failed, and many died of hunger. The corpses stank so horribly that no one would bury them; the streets were filled with them; and it is even said that the officials, in order to remedy this situation, pulled down the houses to cover the corpses.
The epidemic seems to have lasted for about two months, during which time, and for months later, Cortes was reorganizing his defeated forces and marching on and burning smaller towns in the region. Once the disease dissipated -- having devastated the city's residents and killed off most of the Aztec leaders -- Cortes prepared to attack again.
The ensuing battle lasted for months, but Cortes eventually emerged victorious, thanks to a combination of tactics (he shut off the city's water supply) and the spread of the disease. But this was only the beginning. Endless waves of conquistadors now spread out through in Mexico, carrying with them the same brutal campaign of death: Pedro de Alvarado, Nuno Beltran de Guzman, Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Francisco de Ibarra, Vasco Nunez de Balboa. These were only some of the leading names of the marauders who engaged in a relentless campaign of massacres throughout what is now Latin America. Stannard writes [pp. 82-83]:
- The gratuitous killing and outright sadism that the Spanish soldiers carried out on Hispaniola and in central Mexico was repeated in the long march to the south. Numerous reports, from numerous reporters, tell of Indians being led to the mines in columns, chained together at the neck, and decapitated if they faltered. Of children trapped and burned alive in their houses, or stabbed to death because they walked too slowly. Of the routine of cutting off of women's breasts, and of the tying of heavy gourds to their feet before tossing them to drown in lakes and lagoons. Of babied taken from their mothers' breasts, killed, and left as roadside markers. Of "stray" Indians dismembered and sent back to their villages with their chopped-off hands and noses strung around their necks. Of "pregnant and confined women, children, old men, as many as they could capture," thrown into pits in which stakes had been imbedded and "left stuck on the stakes, until the pits were filled." And much, much, more.
One favorite sport of the conquistadors was "dogging." Traveling as they did with packs of armored wolfhounds and mastiffs that were raised on a diet of human flesh and were trained to disembowelel Indians, the Spanish used the dogs to terrorize slaves and to entertain the troops. An entire book, Dogs of the Conquest, has been published recently, detailing the exploits of these animals as they accompanied their masters throughout the course of the Spanish depredations. "A properly fleshed dog," these authors say, "could pursue a 'savage' as zealously and effectively as a deer or a boar. ... To many of the conquerors, the Indian was merely another savage animal, and the dogs were trained to pursue and rip apart their human quarry with the same zest as they felt when hunting wild beasts."
... Just as the Spanish soldiers seem to have particularly enjoyed testing the sharpness of their yard-long rapier blades on the bodies of Indian children, so their dogs seemed to find the soft bodies of infants especially tasty, and thus the accounts of the invading conquistadors and the padres who traveled with them are filled with detailed descriptions of young Indian children routinely taken from their parents and fed to the hungry animals. ...
Of all the weapons the Spanish brought with them, these dogs epitomized the brazen cruelty with which they treated the native peoples, wrought by a worldview that held these human beings as being no more than beasts themselves.
This pattern -- weakening the populace with disease, then overpowering them with superior arms and an inhuman ruthlessness and brutality -- was repeated endlessly throughout Americas in the ensuing decades, first throughout Hispaniola and the Caribbean, then in Mexico itself, then in Central and South America. The Spanish conquest of the Yucatan and of Mexico were only the first steps in Spain's larger colonization program in the Americas. The result was the near-utter obliteration of the existing civilizations.
Stannard observes [pp. 94-95]:
- From the very beginning -- from at least that day in 1493 when a "very beautiful Carib woman" fought off the violent advances of Michele de Cuneo, before being thrashed with a rope and then raped by him -- the people of the Americas resisted. None did so more successfully than the Maya, who combined retreats into the deep jungle cover of the Yucatan lowlands -- where, as one historian puts it, the pursuing conquistadors "soon found themselves adrift in a green expanse of forest without food to eat, souls to convert, or labor to exploit" -- with relentless military counterattacks that finally led to temporary expulsion of the Spanish in 1638. And neither did any people resist with more symbolism than they Maya, who made a practice of destroying not only Spanish soldiers but whatever foreign things the Spanish had brought with them -- horses, cattle, cats, dogs, trees, and plants. In the end, however, the Maya too lost 95 of 100 of their people -- a price for resistance that most outsiders, if they know of it, can hardly hope to comprehend.
By the time the sixteenth century had ended perhaps 200,000 Spaniards had moved their lives to the Indies, to Mexico, to Central America, and points further to the south. In contrast, by that time, somewhere between 60,000,000 and 80,000,000 natives from those lands were dead. Even then, the carnage was not over.
In reality, it had only begun. North America's native people had only begun to feel the effects of their contacts with European settlers. And the eliminationist worldview of the Spanish was fully intact throughout most of Europe; indeed, the English expanded upon and perfected it as they settled the northern reaches of the Americas.
The twin infections -- rampaging disease and a malignant eliminationism -- were proceeding on due course in the rest of the New World.
Next: 'People Die Very Much'
[Note: Edited for minor corrections.]