Skip to main content

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Camilla Townsend (Oxford University Press)

OXford University Press

Many years later, it would become an accepted fact that the indigenous people of Mexico believed Hernando Cortés to be a god, arriving in their land in the year 1519 to satisfy an ancient prophecy. It was understood that Moctezuma, at heart a coward, trembled in his sandals and quickly despaired of victory. He immediately asked to turn his kingdom over to the divine newcomers, and naturally, the Spaniards happily acquiesced. Eventually, this story was repeated so many times, in so many reputable sources, that the whole world came to believe it. Moctezuma was not known for his cheerful disposition. Even he, however, had he known what people would one day say, would certainly have laughed, albeit with some bitterness, for the story was, in fact, preposterous.

What really happened when the messengers returned with their report was that he sent scouts out to every important town between Tenochtitlan and the coast, and then set up a veritable war room. This is exactly what one would expect him to have done, given his history as a ferociously successful tlatoani who believed whole-heartedly in order, discipline, and information. Years later, a man who had been young at the time remembered: “A report of everything that was happening was given and relayed to Moctezuma. Some of the messengers would be arriving as others were leaving. There was no time when they weren’t listening, when reports weren’t being given.” The scouts even repeated a summary of the religious instruction that was being regularly offered by the Spanish priest and translated by Aguilar and Marina. When the Spaniards later got to Tenochtitlan and tried to deliver a sermon to Moctezuma, he cut them off, explaining that he was already familiar with their little speech, his messengers having presented it to him in full.

Only one European recorded the events in writing as they were unfolding— or at least, only one account from that time has survived. Hernando Cortés himself penned a series of letters that he sent back to the king of Spain between 1519 and 1525. These are our only existing direct source, all other commentaries having been written years later when their authors were older men and the events deep in the past. And in his letters, written on the spot, Cortés never claimed that he was perceived as a god.

Related: The 2020 Cundhill History Prize finalists on how their works speak to the present

The idea first appeared, albeit in somewhat incoherent form, in some writings by Europeans in the 1540s. Fray Toribio de Benavente wrote of the indigenous observers’ purported understanding: “Their god was coming, and because of the white sails, they said he was bringing by sea his own temples.” Then, remembering that he had earlier claimed that all the Spaniards were supposed to have been gods, the priest quickly added, “When they disembarked, they said that it was not their god, but rather many gods.” It was a deeply satisfying concept to this European author and his readers. In such a scenario, the white men had nothing to feel remorse about, no matter how much the Indians had suffered since their arrival. The Europeans had not only been welcomed, they had been worshipped. Indeed, could there be a European man living who didn’t like the idea, who didn’t feel flattered and pleased by the notion? In years to come, other invaders would try out comparable assertions. John Smith, for example, would claim that in Virginia, the local chief’s daughter had been wildly in love with him and had been willing to sacrifice her very life for his. He didn’t mention that when he had known her, she had been only ten years old. And interestingly, he only told the story of her adulation when she and her English husband had both been dead for years and couldn’t possibly refute what he said; in the report he sent back to London during the period in question, he said nothing remotely similar. There are, in fact, numerous such tales in the annals of colonialism.

In retrospect, the story of Cortés being mistaken for a god seems so obviously self-serving and even predictable that one has to wonder why it was believed for so long. In a fascinating turn of events, by the 1560s and ’70s, some of the Indians themselves were beginning to offer up the story as fact. The first ones to do so were the students of the very Franciscan friars who had originally touted the idea. The young indigenous writers were from elite families, the same ones who, forty or fifty years earlier had lost everything with the arrival of the Spaniards. And they were longing for an explanation. How had their once all-powerful fathers and grandfathers sunk so low? They were intimately acquainted with both sets of people—their Mexica families and their European teachers. They knew them both too well to believe that their own people were simply inferior, necessarily weaker or less intelligent than Europeans. Their own personal experience taught them that this was definitely not the case.

Here, however, was an explanation. God had been on the side of the Christians, of course; their own immediate ancestors had been trapped by their own loyalty to a blinding faith, tragically imprisoned in their own religiosity. The students of the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, author of the Florentine Codex, beginning in the 1560s and ’70s, wrote down what no indigenous person had ever said before—namely, that their forefathers had been paralyzed even before 1519 by the appearance of a variety of terrifying omens. Interestingly, the stories they told bore a distinct resemblance to the narrations in certain Greek and Latin texts that were in the Franciscan school library. They waxed eloquent in their tales of pillars of fire and a trembling king. A few pages later, the students turned to a new phase of the project and began to write down what certain old men who had actually participated in the events had to say, and then both the substance and the tone of their writings changed dramatically. They became much more specific and the indigenous people they described much more pragmatic. “At the first shot the wall did not give way, but the second time it began to crumble,” someone remembered, for instance. Gone were the pillars of fire.

The students weren’t done with the subject of influential prophecies, however. They liked an idea that one of their teachers had offered, which was that the great schism that had occurred in ancient Tula, present in so many of their early histories, had really been a battle between a brutal leader who believed in human sacrifice and a peaceful one who did not—one who was in effect an early Christian, unbeknownst even to himself. The group that had wandered away to the east had been following the peaceful leader. If they decided the man’s name was not Huemac, as a leading culture hero of numerous ancient stories was called, but rather Quetzalcoatl, as the former teacher fray Toribio was the first one to suggest, the story would work perfectly, as one of the many year signs associated with the god Quetzalcoatl corresponded to 1519. The mortal man could have become a god and been expected to return then. Unfortunately, the students got the matter a bit confused. From their people’s own records, they knew of the arrivals along the coast in the two preceding years, and they said it was the second captain who was thought to be Quetzalcoatl returning from the east. That one was actually Juan de Grijalva, sailing in 1518, not Cortés arriving in 1519. But no matter. The gist of the story was there, and it could be taken up in generations to come and embellished as much as future authors saw fit to do.

None of the original Nahua histories written down by the earliest generation of students in the privacy of their own homes had said anything like this. In fact, none of the elements ring true, given what we know about Mexica culture. The Mexica did not believe in people becoming gods, or in gods coming to earth only in one particular year, or in anybody having a preordained right to conquer them. They didn’t consider Quetzalcoatl to be their major deity (like the Cholulans did) or originally associate him with an abhorrence of human sacrifice. When we add the fact that we can actually watch the story’s birth and evolution in European-authored and European-influenced works, the case for its being a later fabrication seems closed.

Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

Vincent Brown (Harvard)

Belknap Press

Only the plotters truly knew if their plans had called for a general uprising from the beginning. The colonists were guessing based on evidence garnered from torture, and historians have little more to go on than their speculations. Were the events in St. Mary’s, Kingston, St. Thomas in the East, and Westmoreland part of a general insurrection?

Something important is at stake in the answer to this question. Historians sometimes view slave-conspiracy trials as evidence of panic, projections by slaveholders upon hapless victims. Another perspective casts the slaves’ actions as mostly reactive responses to immediate circumstances and opportunities, rather than as the outcome of careful organizing.

By contrast, the first named historian to interpret Tacky’s revolt, Edward Long, agreed with his fellow colonists that the rebellion had been carefully planned:

These circumstances show the great extent of the conspiracy, the strict correspondence which had been carried on by the Coromantins in every quarter of the island, and their almost incredible secrecy in the forming of their plan of insurrection; for it appeared in evidence, that the first eruption in St. Mary’s, was a matter preconcerted, and known to all the chief men in the different districts; and the secret was probably confided to some hundreds, for several months before the blow was struck.

For Long, Tacky was the “chief man” at the head of the conspiracy. But Long’s account is an unreliable guide. Most importantly, he offers an erroneous chronology of events. Wanting to show an island- wide conspiracy, he depicted the events in St. Mary’s Parish as simultaneous with later events in Westmoreland, extending the timeline for the St. Mary’s uprising and making it appear to last well beyond the Westmoreland insurrection. At least one detail of the account makes this misrepresentation seem willful.

Long states that it was Admiral Charles Holmes who dispatched the naval vessels to the north side of the island, despite the fact that Holmes did not arrive at Jamaica until May 13, weeks after Tacky was killed and the rebels had dispersed. Long surely knew this, but distorting the sequence of events in this way had the effect of making the whole affair seem that it was indeed

This theory gave the insurrection an identifiable scapegoat, whom Long could blame and belittle all at once. Acknowledging Tacky as a “young man of good stature, and well made,” he called him “handsome, but rather of an effeminate than manly cast.” Mocking and demonizing black sexuality was an important part of establishing racial hierarchy, and Long hastened to add that Tacky “had flattered himself with the hope of obtaining (among other fruits of victory) the lieutenant governor’s lady for his concubine”—that lady being Edward Long’s eldest sister. In Long’s estimation, Tacky’s elevation stemmed not from his leadership abilities or military experience but from his supposed resemblance to “some favourite leader of their nation in Africa.” Most likely, Tacky had himself been a leader in Africa, but for Long this was merely a sign of Coromantees’ credulity. He compared Tacky’s followers to some Africans who had once encountered the bronze statue of a gladiator erected on a local plantation, which “the Coromantins no sooner beheld, than they were almost ready to fall down, and adore it.”

With Tacky at the head of uprising, Long had devised an intelligible narrative of the violence that conveniently discounted the strategic implications he most feared. According to him, the uprising resulted from a concerted effort, but it was doomed by Africans’ intrinsic faults.

Yet, as he knew, from the attack on Fort Haldane to Tacky’s death in the rocky valley upriver from Downes’s Cove, “Tacky’s Revolt” lasted only a week.

What explains Long’s desire to subsume the entire rebellion within a chronology that elevates the primacy of the events in St. Mary’s? Other sources, too, conspired to highlight the importance of the earliest clashes.

The April 14 “Letter from a Gentleman at St. Mary’s” was the first and only coherently plotted account; the ones that followed display the irregularity and confusion of the colonists’ predicament. Dread governed their experience. By May, they were growing wild with fright as they ginned up the docket of African savagery. It is difficult to tell which stories came from captured rebels and which sprang from slaveholders’ imaginations, especially when the specter of cannibalism appeared in print. Colonists read that the rebels at Ballard’s Valley “cut off the Overseer’s Head, put his Blood in a Calabash, mixed gunpowder with it, and [ate] their Plantains dipp’d in it, as they did by every white Man they killed: In short, their savage Barbarity can scarcely be paralleled.”

If there had indeed been a blood sacrifice at Ballard’s Valley, this report made it seem as if the rebels were taking some holy communion, with bananas instead of bread. The story made the sacrament all the more heinous by comparing the Coromantees to Catholics— Protestant Britain’s foremost global adversaries— and contributed to the sense that the colony was besieged from within and without by enemies at once familiar and strange. With each successive discovery of new unrest, the slaveholders grew more fearful and bewildered. Suddenly the uprising seemed to be happening everywhere at once. The shocking reminder that power did not guarantee security drove colonists wild with fear.

Over the next several weeks, lasting into July, they discovered several more conspiracies. In the commercial capital, colonial officials deepened their investigation into the circumstances surrounding the war- token mahogany sword. They learned that Kingston’s Coromantees had rallied around a woman named Cubah, whom they elevated “to the rank of royalty” and dubbed the “Queen of Kingston.” Like other Africans, she claimed territory for herself and her followers in the knowledge that the boundaries of her dominion were drawn more by peoples’ loyalties than by land surveyors.

At meetings “she had sat in state under a canopy, with a sort of robe on her shoulders, and a crown upon her head,” adopting the “paraphernalia of power” she might have known on the Gold Coast. Upon this intelligence, the government seized Cubah and ordered her to be transported from the island. In the Vale of Louidas in St. John’s Parish, Coromantees belonging to the speaker of the House of Assembly, Charles Price, “had agreed to rise, ravage the estates, and murder the white men there.”

Three people familiar with the plan betrayed the rebels, and the “ringleaders were taken up, and upon conviction, executed; others, who turned evidence, were transported off the island thus the whole of this bloody scheme was providentially frustrated.” More plots were afoot in the parishes of St. Dorothy’s, Hanover, and Clarendon, where Edward Long owned his estate. Throughout this time Henry Moore kept martial law in effect, and the military remained on the march all over the island.

Fear transported the slaveholders into a delirious fever dream from which they would not soon recover. Possibly the experience of frightened alarm during the uprising sent some of them into a fugue state, in which linear temporality had lost some of its purchase. They had lost the plot. The narrative they pieced together at the start of the rebellion represented the most linear description they could manage, until Long sat down a de cade later in London to reconstruct the sequence. Partly for this reason, and partly because of events that occurred later in the 1760s, the St. Mary’s revolt established an enduring narrative pattern, providing an intelligible origin and knowable characters, with the colonists’ actions bending a discernible story arc from beginning to end.

The slaveholders were paranoid, and their slaves really were out to get them. Sometimes, these two facts could exist in dependently; the events of 1760 knotted them together. The causes of the insurrection were probably more broadly distributed and far more contingent than Long and the other slaveholders knew. Even so, whether or not these revolts were the result of a single grand design, they were not disconnected from each other nor merely opportunistic. The rebels coalesced around affiliations of language, regional identification, and military verve. If each uprising had its own inspiration, each also took careful account of local conditions, potential connections, and broader opportunities.

In St. Mary’s, the path of the insurgency strongly suggests a defined objective: control or destruction of the commercial zone along the rivers. Yet if what happened in St. Mary’s parish could be called Tacky’s Revolt, it was only one conflict within a larger war, an unfolding uprising itself encompassed by wars within wars.

In the cascading series of events initiated by the rebels in St. Mary’s, we see how African militancy derived from the entanglements of empire, trade, and war across the Atlantic. Tacky’s Revolt was smaller and less significant than Long and subsequent historians have supposed only because the slave war it advanced was larger and more consequential. “A more dangerous or troublesome Affair I was never engaged in, in all my life,” wrote Zachary Bayly about the St. Mary’s insurrection. And still the Coromantee War was closer to its beginning than its end.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury)


On 24 September 1599, while William Shakespeare was pondering a draft of Hamlet in his house downriver from the Globe in Southwark, a mile to the north, barely twenty minutes’ walk across the Th ames, a motley group of Londoners was gathering in a rambling, half-timbered building lit by many-mullioned Tudor windows.

Even at the time the meeting was recognised as historic, and notaries were present with ink and quill to keep a record of the unusually diverse cross section of Elizabethan London that came that day to the Founders’ Hall, off Moorgate Fields. At the top of the social scale, hung with his golden chain of office, there was the stout figure of the Lord Mayor himself, Sir Stephen Soame, robed in scarlet fustian.

He was accompanied by two of his predecessors in office and several senior Aldermen of the City – buttery Elizabethan burghers, their white-bearded faces nestling in a feathery tangle of cambric ruffs. The most powerful of these was the gravely goateed, ermine-trimmed and stovepipe-hatted figure of Sir Thomas Smythe, Auditor of the City of London, who had made a fortune importing currants from the Greek islands and spices from Aleppo. A few years earlier ‘Auditor Smythe’ had helped form the Levant Company as a vehicle for his trading voyages; this meeting was his initiative.

Besides these portly pillars of the City of London were many less exalted merchants hopeful of increasing their fortunes, as well as a scattering of ambitious and upwardly mobile men of more humble estate, whose professions the notaries dutifully noted down: grocers, drapers and haberdashers, a ‘clotheworker’, a ‘vintener’, a ‘letherseller’ and a ‘skinner’.

There were a few scarred soldiers, mariners and bearded adventurers from the docks at Woolwich and Deptford, surfbattered sea dogs, some of whom had fought against the Spanish Armada a decade earlier, all doublets and gold earrings, with their sea dirks tucked discreetly into their belts. Several of these deckhands and mizzen-masters had seen action with Drake and Raleigh against Spanish treasure ships in the warmer waters of the Caribbean, and now described themselves to the notaries, in the polite Elizabethan euphemism, as ‘privateers’.

There was also a clutch of explorers and travellers who had ventured further afield: the Arctic explorer William Baffin, for example, after whom the polar bay was named. Finally, also taking careful notes, was the self-described ‘historiographer of the voyages of the East Indies’, the young Richard Hakluyt, who had been paid £11 10s by the adventurers for compiling all that was then known in England about the Spice Routes.

Such a varied group would rarely be seen under one roof, but all had gathered with one purpose: to petition the ageing Queen Elizabeth I, then a bewigged and painted woman of sixty-six, to start up a company ‘to venter in the pretended voiage to ye Est Indies and other Ilands and Cuntries thereabouts there to make trade … by buying or bartering of suche goodes, wares, jewelles or merchaundize as those Ilands or Cuntries may yeld or aff orthe … (the whiche it maie please the Lorde to prosper)’.

Smythe had gathered 101 of the richer merchants two days earlier and pressed them to commit to individual subscriptions ranging fårom £100 to £ 3,000 – considerable sums in those days. In all Smythe raised £ 30,133 6s. 8d. ** This the investors did by drawing up a contract and adding their contribution in the subscription book ‘written with there owne hands’, so they declared, ‘for the honour of our native country and for the advancement of trade and merchandise within this realm of England’.

It is always a mistake to read history backwards. We know that the East India Company (EIC) eventually grew to control almost half the world’s trade and become the most powerful corporation in history, as Edmund Burke famously put it, ‘a state in the guise of a merchant’. In retrospect, the rise of the Company seems almost inevitable. But that was not how it looked in 1599, for at its founding few enterprises could have seemed less sure of success.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.