The Savage and Civilized Man

People are horrified to learn of the practice of human sacrifice by the Triple Alliance in modern-day Mexico, of the thousands of persons—criminals, slaves, and war captives—fed annually the god Huitzilopochtli to keep the sun rising every day, to make the giver of life victorious in its eternal struggle with the forces of darkness. Some claim that Cortés exaggerated the numbers of those sacrificed to justify conquest. Some claim the killings never took place, that it is a racist lie.

Of course, the killings did take place, as the historical record plainly shows. For the sake of making a point about how we should think about these deaths, let’s assume that Cortés’ figure of “three to four thousand souls” annually. Charles C. Mann, in his book 1491, which chronicles the history and prehistory of the Americans before European arrival, offers this fascinating passage putting the human sacrifices in Mexico into perspective:

Criminals beheaded in Palermo, heretics burned alive in Toledo, assassins drawn and quartered in Paris – Europeans flocked to every form of painful death imaginable, free entertainment that drew huge crowds. London, the historical Fernand Braudel tells us, held public executions eight times a year at Tyburn, just north of Hyde Park. (The diplomat Samuel Pepys paid a shilling for a good view of a Tyburn hanging in 1664; watching the victim beg for mercy, he wrote, was a crowd of “at least 12 or 14,000 people.”) In most if not all European nations, the bodies were impaled on city walls and strung along highways as warnings. “The corpses dangling from trees whose distant silhouettes standout against the sky, in so many old paintings, are merely a realistic detail,” Braudel observed. “They were part of the landscape.” Between 1530 and 1630, according to Cambridge historical V. A. C. Gatrell, England executed seventy-five thousand people. At the time, its population was about three million, perhaps a tenth that of the Mexica empire. Arithmetic suggests that if England had been the size of the Triple Alliance, it would have executed, on average, about 7,500 people per year, roughly twice the number Cortés estimated for the empire. France and Spain were still more bloodthirsty than England, according to Braudel. In their penchant for ceremonial public slaughter, the Alliance and Europe were more alike that either side grasped. In both places the public death was accompanied by the readings of ritual scripts. And in both the goal was to create a cathartic paroxysm of loyalty to the government – in the Mexica case, by recalling the spiritual justification for the empire; in the European case, to reassert the sovereign’s divine power after it had been injured by a criminal act.

Apologists for colonialism exploit the accounts of human sacrifice in ancient Mexico to justify European conquest of the Americas. I have before been asked to reflect upon the thousands of human beings saved by the gallant efforts of Europeans to Christianize the native peoples of Mexico. The Europeans were, from the perspective of the rulers of civilizations throughout the Americas, seen as enemies; but, from the perspective of the victims of these indigenous empires, the Europeans were—or at least should have been—viewed as saviors. But examining the practices of the Europeans in their homelands, leaving aside the brutality of the European conquest of the Americas, the descendants of Europeans are confronted with an awful truth about their own history: Europeans engaged in human sacrifice of their own people, as well.

The thousands of executions that took place annually in Europe—of single and menopausal women, Jews, homosexuals, heretics, the disabled, and a myriad of others—were sacrifices to a powerful god, Yahweh, the creator of the sun and stars, and his representatives on Earth, the mighty sovereign figures moving with power derived from Heaven. What insanity can be attributed to the inhabitants of Mexico during fifteen hundreds can be attributed to the inhabitants of Europe during the same century (and beyond)?

The lesson to be learned is not that Europeans were more civilized than their savage contemporaries in the Americas, but that absolute power rationalized by myths of the supernatural and cloaked in elaborate popular rituals represent a certain and deadly threat to human beings. Debunking the myth of European superiority requires sober assessment not only of the practices of the colonized subject before conquest, but of the colonizer himself.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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