Was Colonialism Good or Bad?

“By the standards of individuals, nations always act like sociopaths”

“We’re not more moral, we’re just in a position where we’re safe enough to pretend to be.”



I agree the fall of the Aztec isn’t just “Evil colonizers vs good Mesoamericans” but I have issues with some specifics that was said or shown here. Mind you, some of these are fairly common errors even reputable sources get wrong, so it’s somewhat understandable. I’ll explain in more depth below, but I think the video A: overstates the initial hostility between the Spanish and Mesoamericans during initial contact, B: understates the degree to which the Spanish DID recognize the humanity and complexity of Mesoamerican civilizations (and by extension, combined with A, understates how much the Spanish’s actions were self-serving) C: uses pretty misleading/inaccurate images of what Mesoamerican clothing, architecture, and political boundaries were like, and D: oversimplifies how Cortes got allies and overfocuses on Tlaxcala as his main local allied state.

All that said, before explaining in more detail, to give some basic context: “Mesoamerica” is the cradle of civilization and cultural region which covers the bottom half or so of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and arguably other Central American countries. It includes the Aztec and Maya, but also the Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Classic Veracruz Teuchitlán, Toltec, Mixtec, Otomi, Totonac, Huastec, Purepecha, etc, who tend to share key traits, like pyramidal temples, maize as a cereal crop, Plaza-courtyard based urban and architectural planning, a shared calendrical and base 20 numeral system, and yes, human sacrifice and blood offerings.

However, as you can tell by all the different civilizations I just mentioned (and that’s not close to comprehensive!) there is a LOT of distinct civilizations, and competing political states (not “tribes”: urban cities, writing, rulership, class systems, etrc go back in the region almost 3000 years before the arrival of Europeans) within each civilization. So there wasn’t a singular initial reaction by Mesoamerican civilizations to the Spanish, much less a universal “the Spanish get attacked the moment they stepped onto the shore” as you present in the alien analogy. Sometimes they passed by without being bothered, other time they got attacked on sight, but most of the time the Spanish entered the territory of a new kingdom, empire, city-state, etc, at least once they had translators, there was usually a diplomatic exchange and discussions or negotiations of trade, lodging, etc, and from there the Spanish settled down, moved on, or negotiations failed and stuff escalated into conflict.

One also needs to keep in mind is that Mesoamerican politics had a strict code and even highly symbolic, poetic subdialects of languages for engaging in diplomacy and by extension declaring/waging in war (though this isn’t to say Mesoamerican kings never bended or broke those rules to their own benefit: of course they did). The Spanish, while they had translators, did not understand the nuances of this, and by Cortes’s own admission, would kidnap/hold rulers hostage, raze towns and villages to pressure rulers into relenting and giving them lodging if fighting did break out, etc. For as much as the Spanish may have saw the Mesoamerican’s sacrifices as barbaric, so too were those actions by the Conquistadors seen as untrustworthy and savage: In a lot of cases, states had already heard rumors of the Spanish doing this by the time they arrived in their territory, so sometimes states didn’t wish to provoke conflict and would try to appease the Spanish in advance, or jumped into defending themselves proactively.

While the Spanish did view Mesoamerican sacrifices as evil and barbaric, and while the Mesoamericans did view some of the Conquistador’s actions the same way, the reality is that BOTH groups still did recognize each other as representing sophisticated, sovereign entities: Cortes, Bernal Diaz, Tapia, Aguilar, the Anonymous Conqueror, even latter Catholic Friars like Sahagun, etc, all endlessly praise the architecture, cities, art, and even ethics, governance, and order of Mesoamerican societies. I could fill MULTIPLE giant comments with quotes from Conquistadors remarking with wonder and adoration over what they saw, even people back in Europe like Albrecht Durer, the famous German artist, who saw Mesoamerican art on display in Brussels in 1520 (before the Aztec capital even fell!), remarked “All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart…as these…wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle genius of men in foreign lands”. Yes, there would be debates about if the Indigenous people of the Americas had souls and racial caste systems would come latter, but, at least generally, initial interactions between the Spanish and Mesoamericans had the former viewing the latter as civilized people with sovereignty, who were just nonetheless pagan or heathen, some Spaniards even compared them to the Greeks and Romans in that way. Some Mesoamerican kings and nobles initially had their status recognized within the Spanish colonial system and even into formal Spanish nobility and heraldry (though in the long term this had less and less success: Tlaxcala actually DID have it’s land taken in some cases by Spanish settlers even before it’s agreement with the Spanish king got nullified in the early 1600s).

By extension, though, this also means that Cortes and co cannot claim to done what they did because these were people in need of saving or liberation or to be made civilized: In part, some of their accounts do state such things, and yes, they probably felt Christianizing the Mesoamericans was a moral good, but Cortes, Diaz, etc are also very clear that their actions were primarily motivated by self interest, glory, and wanting wealth, while also paying lip service to enriching the Crown. That in particular was a concern for Cortes, who was EXPLICTLY committing treason against the Crown and working against Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba, at times directly fighting other parties of Conquistador sent by Velazquez to arrest him. Some Aztec forces even allied with Velazquez’s troops once it became clear Cortes lied to them about representing the king of Spain. There’s little contention among Mesoamericanists and even most Spanish historians that Cortes’s founding of Veracruz (which gave him the right to then plot his own course from there) claiming Moctezuma II surrendered to him (so he could then invade and conquer the city by claiming it’s people were already under the crown and merely in rebellion) etc were ploys to justify his actions legally.

Now, at this point, you may be wondering: If Mesoamerican civilizations were so complex and even the Spanish saw this, why are they always shown as living in worn down grey pyramids surrounded by jungle and a few huts and running around half naked? The answer is that most depictions (including in this video) are inaccurate. In reality, say, Aztec men would have worn cloaks/mantles a bit like Greco-roman togas, while women wore long, flowing baggy blouses (which, combined with their hair buns, almost evokes Japanese Geisha) which for nobles was garishly colorful with different designs and patterns, and accompanied by jade, gold, turquoise jewelry and feather ornaments. Feathers weren’t simply stuck into things, but were arranged like precise bouquets into specific shapes and arrays, or used in a mosaic to form patterns and images across other garments, using iridescent feathers with shifting,, glittering colors. (Look up Mexican Feather paintings or mosaics for surviving examples, they’re mind blowing). Temples, palaces, and other civic architecture was covered in smooth white stucco, and then painted with murals and frescoes and covered in reliefs, sculptural facades, and other accents. The overall architectural style is closer to Minoan palaces at places like Knossos more then anything else, with palaces having square geometric style rooms with flat roofs, and patios with columns surrounding open courtyards, etc. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, had most of it’s temples, palaces, ball courts, etc arranged around large open plazas (with many botanical gardens, aviaries, zoos, etc built in palace courtyards or around them) with the outskirts being grids of artificial islands housing both commoner homes and acting hydroponic farms with Venice like canals between them, as the city was built in the center of a lake.

If people want good visual examples of this all, i’d recommend the paintings of Aztec cityscapes by Scott and Stuart Gentling, depictions of Mesoamerican clothing by Kamazotz/Zotzcomic/Daniel Parada, Rafael Mena, OHS688 (some of his art is furry, but the fashion is all accurate), etc, or works of various subjects by Nosuku-K, Shi-Gu/Itzcacalotl, etc to name a few examples.

Next, I think people misunderstand the Aztec political structure and why Cortes even got allies. Whatifalthist brings up Tlaxcala (a kingdom headed by a city-state of that name, the city was actually a republic governed by a senate), and yes, Tlaxcala was one of Cortes’s most major allied states, but It was NOT an Aztec subject, rather an enemy state the Aztec were trying to conquer. So while it very much did resent the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, you can’t extrapolate it’s motivations to the other states Cortes worked with like Texcoco, Xochimilco, Chalco, Itzpalapan, etc which were actually a part of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec political system was actually quite hands off, with subjects usually keeping their kings, laws, and customs with minimal interference as long as taxes were met (which did not generally include providing people for sacrifice: Sacrifices were obtained as captives taken during conquests against enemy states or when reconquering ones who had seceded, not generally taken from existing, cooperative subjects).

This hands off political system encouraged opportunistic secession, side switching, etc; since subjects both kept their own political identity and interests, and the ability to act independently. Border provinces not invested in the empire would often secede after the deaths of emperors and have to be reconquered, meanwhile, core states within the Valley of Mexico actually benefitted from Mexica power and success due to their close political marriages with it’s royal line and the tax influx it brought into the Valley… but that hinged on Tenochtitlan continuing to be in a position of influence, since it didn’t actually directly manage most of it’s subjects to keep them in line. After Moctezuma II’s death, the massacre of most of the city’s nobility by Alvarado during the Toxcatl religious festival, and smallpox breaking out in the city, it was crippled and could no longer project influence, and it is only at THIS point which many core states switch sides to Cortes and Tlaxcala to opportunistically take it out to try to gain status in the new empire they’d be propping up.

The truth is, this is a very, very common method of political advancement, both in Aztec history and in Mesoamerican history as a whole since these hands off hegemonic political systems were pretty common (likely since the lack of draft animals and difficult terrain limited direct long distance administration): The Aztec Empire was actually founded in almost identical circumstances to how it fell: Azcapotzalco had a succession dispute which destabilized it’s influence and it’s subject, Tenochtitlan, overthrew it, with Texcoco and Tlacopan allying with Tenochtitlan to piggyback off it’s success and be in a high position in the resulting Aztec Empire. Similarly, even after the Aztec Empire collapsed and (mostly, some states continued to assert independence, or as mentioned, were initially given it in the same way the Aztec had during the early decades of Spanish colonialism) ceded to Spanish rule following the Siege of Tenochtitlan, other states which had nothing to do with the Aztec continued to use the Conquistadors against their local rivals and capitals, like the Zapotec kingdom of Tehuantepec allying them them to take out the Mixtec kingdom of Tututepec, or the Iximche Maya states worked with Conquistadors to defeat the Kiche, etc.

So, while the Aztec were definitely a conquering military power, Cortes getting allies against it has less to do with it being resented and hated or oppressive and more to do with it’s political system being hands off with many internal political factions acting in self interest as a result. In fact, in many cases, Cortes was less the one calling the shots and was being manipulated by local kings and officials: For example, while he was in Cempoala, the capital of one of 3 major kingdoms in the Totonac civilization, it claimed Tzinpantzinco, a rival Totonac capital, was an Aztec fort and got Cortes to help them attack it. The Totonacs then led Cortes into Tlaxcalteca territory, which they had hostilities with, (either to get rid of them, or according to some accounts, under orders by Moctezuma to pit them against Tlaxcala) which then eventually resulted in the alliance between Tlaxcala and Cortes, and en route to Tenochtitlan, the Tlaxcalteca may have used the Conquistadors to sack Cholula (which was previously allied with Tlaxcala but switched sides to being an Aztec ally) and then put up a Tlaxcalteca friendly regime in the city in the aftermath. There’s other examples, I could post, too, but people definitely should be talking about Xicomecoatl of Cempoala, Xicotencatl of Tlaxcala, Ixtlixochtli II of Texcoco, etc more as major figures actively deciding how things went when talking about the fall of the Aztec. And even in the decades after the fall of the Aztec, Mesoamerican kings and states continued to be the ones doing most of the campaigns for the Spanish against other states in Mesoamerica, against the tribes and chiefdoms up in Northern Mexico and the SW US, and even down against the Inca and across the Ocean in the Philippines to an extent.

In conclusion: the colonization of Mesoamerica was absolutely not just “Evil Spanish vs good natives”, but it was also not “Cortes liberating oppressed Aztec subjects against the evil Mexica”. It was a bunch of different political states and factions on BOTH the Spanish and Mesoamerican side all manipulating and playing one another so they could benefit politically: Moctezuma II wanted to court the conquistadors into becoming an Aztec subject or ally, Cortes wanted glory and wealth both for his own benefit and to try to get out of his legal troubles, Diego Velazquez wanted to be the one to win riches for the crown instead of Cortes, Ixtlixochtli II of Texcoco wanted to win the throne in Texcoco after he lost a previous succession dispute and allied with Cortes to do that, and even Tlaxcala, despite ostensibly fighting for their independence, still tried to project it’s own political influence over other cities as it travelled with Conquistadors.