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Ward Churchill, Moctezoma and the Stockholm Syndrome

11 April 2009

Mary O’Grady brought this to my attention, for which she deserves a deep doff of the sombrero.    From an article by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian (U.K.) on a British Museum exhibition :

The traditional account of the death of [Moctezoma] …  is that having been taken a willing hostage by Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors, he was killed by his own outraged people.

According to several versions of the story, in 1520, the Spanish brought him out onto a balcony of his own palace to try and calm the riotous mob, but he was pelted with stones and killed.

One Spanish account, written years later, even insists that he refused medical help and food from his Spanish captors, who “spoke very kindly to him”, before suddenly dying.

However, the exhibition will include two small images from later manuscripts, one now in Glasgow, one in Mexico, both probably made by Aztecs working for Spanish patrons, which show the leader distinctly less kindly treated, brought out with a rope around his neck, or shackled. Once the Aztecs began to revolt against the presence of the Spanish in their capital city, Tenochtitlan, this version suggests, Moctezuma was useless to them, so they killed him before just managing to escape with their lives.

The claim that the Castillians killed Moctezoma is based on oral tradition, and has to be treated carefully.  Oral tradition can be right, but can also move one event to another time or place.  An example of this came up in a U.S. courtroom recently.

Last week, a Colorado jury found that [University of Colorado tenured professor] Ward Churchill had been improperly fired, and awarded him $1 in damages. Churchill … wrote the essay that described the financial workers who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 as “little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.”

… Churchill sued the university for firing him from his tenured position for expressing politically unpopular, but constitutionally protected, views. The university argued in the trial that he was not fired for his political views but rather for sloppy academic work.

While Churchill won his case, his “sloppy academic work” has resulted in a separate investigation by a team of independent scholars.  Among their complaints:

… Churchill’s claims … that the U.S. Army deliberately spread smallpox to Mandan Indians in what is now North Dakota in 1837 by giving them infected blankets. This claim is important not just because the results of the epidemic were devastating, but because it is widely believed: Buffy Sainte-Marie referred to it in a song, and it has been widely asserted by American Indian activists. This widespread belief, as the authors note, probably originates in the fact that British troops did in fact attempt to infect Indians at Fort Pitt in 1763.

…Trying hard to be fair to Churchill and nontraditional modes of evidence like oral traditions, as they do throughout the report, the scholars conclude that Churchill did not fabricate his account of the causes of the epidemic .

In other words, the oral tradition might take the details of a verified event (the 1763 attempt at biological warfare) and transfer them to another event  (the smallpox epidemic in the Missouri Valley in 1837).

While I am not a professional scholar (and not looking for tenure), and was open to using oral history in my own book (though I was careful to note that such and such “is believed”, or “is said”… ), I don’t buy the idea that Montezoma was stabbed by Cortés’ men.  But, they were quite capable of needless violence, and more than once committed atrocities for which there is no logical explanation.  My belief, and that of most “real” scholars is a bit more nuanced than the Guardian story might have us believe though.

Moctezoma was not a powerful ruler, coming to the throne during a crisis (his predecesor, Ahuítzotl, had been in a coma for several years, and only the military leadership and the bureaucracy had held the state together) and various parts of the Empire were in rebellion already when the Cortés and company landed.

It’s a matter of record that Moctezoma was a prisoner of the Castillians, and seemed to suffer what today we call the “Stockholm Syndrome“…  in which both hostages and their captors start to see each other as friends.   Bernardo Díaz del Castillo might not have been exaggerating (any more than he usually did) when he wrote:

Cortes and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good.

However, Díaz did not have access to the Aztec side of the story, which recalls Moctezoma as vacillating and widely despised even before his disastrous decision to tolerate and parley with the Castillians.

Detail from Enconchado 16, by Juan y Miguel Gonzalez, AD1698.  Photograph: Museo de America, Madrid  posted in The Guardian

Detail from Enconchado 16, by Juan y Miguel Gonzalez, AD1698. Photograph: Museo de America, Madrid posted in The Guardian

There were many in the Aztec ruling circle who wanted a more war-like and decisive leader, but the Aztecs had no way to replace a bad ruler except to have him killed.   The Castillians were quite capable of doing Moctezoma in themselves — the cold-bloodedly executed Cacama who was also a hostage before retreating — but, given that holding the Emperor hostage was their only claim to legitimacy, and it was Moctezoma’s death that forced the Cortés to consider a retreat from Tenochtitlan, I don’t think Díaz was wrong in claiming the Emperor was beloved by his captors.  He was certainly useful.

While there are Aztec sources that claim Moctezoma was stabbed by a Castillian soldier, it is more likely that his people (egged on by Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc) were throwing rocks at him when he appeared in public, and he probably was killed when struck by one in June 1520 (the exact day is unknown).

The people — or at least the ruling class — was desperate for a strong ruler, and we know that Cuitláhuac and Cuauhtémoc were organizing anti-Castillian resistance groups.  Moctezoma was the only person who stood in the way of a general uprising, and there was no other way for the Aztecs to replace their ruler except to kill him.

The oral tradition — the one that the British Museum exhibit explores — might not be factually correct, but it makes perfect psychological sense.

With an entire society still suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, taken hostage as it were, many did show signs of the “Stockholm Syndrome” … hispanicizing themselves and adopting the oppressor’s values as their own.  Others, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, made sense and gave meaning to their nightmares by transferring the cruelties of the conquest.    One ruler was stabbed for no good reason, therefore another was probably also stabbed (much as the belief persists that because the English Army attempted biological warfare one time, the U.S. Army did it another time).  And… wtransformed their own failures into  Transforming the incompetent ruler into a fellow victim — and even a sort of hero — was necessary if the surviving Aztecs were maintain their own identity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 11 April 2009 11:01 am

    Rich– there is a tension, however, in parsing the accounts, particularly Spanish accounts, surrounding the death of Moctezuma that relate to questions of legality and recognition from the King.

    On the one hand, we know that it was a standard practice in the Spanish conquest to capture native leaders whenever possible, and to engage in symbolic acts of violence up to and including the public assassination of leaders.

    On the other hand, the Crown mandated that indigenous nobility, and particularly indigenous royalty, must be accorded the same position and respect as their Castilian counterparts. To kill the recognized royalty of an indigenous empire/kingdom was to act in an illegitimate manner that threatened future claims of participants before the Crown.

    Thus, when Díaz portrays a respectful and beloved relationship between Cortes and his men, and Moctezuma, he IS engaging in a propaganda exercise aimed at diminishing culpability in the eyes of the Crown, the ultimate arbiter and dispenser of titles, wealth, office, and reward.

    Thus, in the context of Conquest we have this tension between predicted and predictable Spanish modes of operation, Crown expectations, and the politics of Chronicle literatures that make even more difficult assessing the veracity of Spanish accounts.

    Not sure, given all that, how useful a modern psychological concept like the Stockholm Syndrome is, then, in parsing those realities.

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