Review: Fifth Sun by Camilla Townsend

The Aztecs said that the world had ended four times by the time they founded their famous dynasty in what is now Mexico, and that they were living under the “fifth sun”. But as Camilla Townsend explains, they did not call themselves Aztecs. Rather, they referred to themselves as the Nahuas, people who had migrated from what is now the south western United States over many centuries. By the 1300s one group of them, the Mexica, had established a thriving city, Tenochtitlan, on an island in the middle of a lake in Mexico’s central valley. The Fifth Sun traces the Aztecs’ rise through the 1400s and their apotheosis under rulers like Moctezuma, through their fall after the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, to the efforts of Nahua scholars and writers to record their history in perpetuity.

Townsend, a distinguished professor in history at Rutgers University, writes that she set out to dispel the “orgies of violence” like those depicted in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. In truth, although Gibson’s film gets a lot of things wrong (including bizarrely mixing up Aztecs and Mayans!), much of the violence seems accurate. The Aztecs really were a people unafraid to use their military might and they did regularly sacrifice people, particularly towards the end of their reign and at the edges of their rule. Many of the peoples the Aztecs conquered were bitterly unhappy with their governors. More to Townsend’s point is the way exaggerated claims of sacrifice and violence were used to justify European conquest. What Townsend really does is complicate those simple stories. The Spanish themselves were of course often incredibly cruel and unjust in their subjugation of the Aztecs, blithely rewriting history to suit them.

What emerges is a fascinating, scholarly (notes make up nearly 40 per cent of the book’s length), respectful and often very moving account of a people surviving colonisation. Townsend uses texts written by Nahua scholars in the decades after the Spanish arrived. Men such as Chimalpahin, a grandson of the generation who witnessed the conquest, saw how his people’s culture was being erased and wanted to record it. These were often transcriptions of xiuhpohaulli, the yearly annals that were performed orally before conquest. As Townsend explains in a fascinating appendix, these sources have been until recently neglected and maligned in favour of documents written by Europeans. But it only through them that we can hear the Aztecs speak in their own voices.

There are many surprising details. As well as tracing the royal lineage of the Mexica tlatoani (the equivalent of a king), Townsend spends plenty of time fleshing out the world of the Aztecs – their laws, beliefs, art, cuisine, gender relations and social struggles. (For an interesting rebuttal to some of these claims, it’s well worth reading a review by Davíd Carrasco, a scholar of Aztec religion). Aztec nobles favoured polygyny, which led to byzantine lines of succession, complicated alliances and plenty of political intrigue. Towsend subscribes to the Jared Diamond school of thought that it was geographical coincidence that the Spanish had superior weapons and deadlier diseases (the Aztecs themselves attributed the Europeans’ power to metal and rapid communications). It’s really the only explanation that doesn’t invoke racist theories of biological and cultural superiority.

I was particularly struck by similarities with the British invasion of Australia. In a similar way that the British annexation of Aboriginal lands violated conventions of international law at the time, conquistador Hernán Cortés had no authority from the king of Spain to invade and usurp the Aztec lands. Like Nuennone woman Truganini assisted British colonist George Robinson to parley with Indigenous Tasmanians, Mexica woman Malintzin helped Cortés secure the new Spanish lands. Both women faced what must have been extraordinarily difficult decisions as they navigated the transition between two worlds.

This is not a straightforward history. Townsend centres each chapter on a particular character and uses them to explore a time period through their eyes. She uses several systems for naming characters and places, which gets more complicated when the Spanish arrive. But what the Fifth Sun sacrifices in simplicity it makes up by immersing us in the Aztec world. In a particularly wonderful passage, she describes the trepidation of Quecholcohuatl, a man from the Aztec-ruled town of Chalco, coming before the tlatoani Axayacatl in 1479. Subtly but emphatically he protests the treatment of his people through poetry. But instead of having him killed, the king is so impressed he takes him to bed (same-sex relationships being a fact of life for the Aztecs).

The story comes to life even more when Townsend quotes directly from the Indigenous sources. Here’s a mother’s life lesson to her child about the dangers of the world, taken from the Florentine Codex, a Nahuatl encyclopedia of the Aztec world collated by Franciscan friars:

On earth we live, we travel, along a mountain peak. Over here is an abyss, over there is an abyss. If you go this way, or that way, you will fall in. Only in the middle do we go, do we live.

Or the fate of the commoners in the midst of a famine, from the same source:

Here are the common folk, the machaultin, those who are the tail and the wings [of society]. They are perishing. Their eyelids are swelling, the mouths drying out… All the people face torment, affliction. They witness what makes humans suffer. Already there are none who are passed over.

So much of what we hear about historical peoples, particularly those who have been conquered, is inferred from their ruins or what others wrote about them. But here at last is a book that gives them a platform to speak in their own words.

Gay rating: 2/5 for brief discussion of same-sex relationships in the Aztec world

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