The Perils of First Contact: Aztecs and Spaniards
First Contact is a risky business. Consider the fate of the Aztecs.
In 1519, strange vessels were seen approaching the coastline of the Yucatan. Just two years later, the powerful Aztec Empire had been destroyed at the hands of a relative handful of Spanish adventurers.
Yes, an extra-terrestrial species making First Contact with the Earth may be benevolent. On the other hand, they may be like the Spanish – invaders bent on conquest. Indeed, in the purported UFO briefing of President Ronald Reagan led by CIA Director William Casey at Camp David on March 6-8, 1981, Reagan was informed that one of the several ET species known to have visited Earth was very hostile though he was denied details.
Regardless of who shows up at our door, it is possible through careful preparations, to preserve Earth’s autonomy and protect its people. Let’s look closely at the collapse of the Aztec Empire to learn how Earth can avoid a similar fate.
The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, were the last of several groups of Nahuatl speaking peoples who migrated to the Valley of Mexico from the north early in the second millennium CE. Establishing the city state of Tenochtitlan in Lake Texcoco in 1325, they became the dominant partner in a Triple Alliance with the nearby city states of Texcoco and Tlacopan.
At the time of the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs had conquered most of modern day central Mexico with possessions on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The subjugated peoples were required to pay enormous tribute to the Aztecs and provide them with troops, slaves and sacrificial victims.
With the addition of levies from the tributary states, the Aztecs could field an army in the hundreds of thousands trained in both guerrilla and conventional war. The army was almost continually in combat, not only, to expand the Aztec Empire, but also, to take prisoners to be used as human sacrifices. It has been estimated that Aztec priests sacrificed at least 20,000 people a year in their religious ceremonies and would consume the flesh of the victims as part of the ritual.
As Spain had only emerged as a modern European nation state in the late 15th century, its empire was even younger than the Aztecs. Nonetheless, Spain was first in the New World due to its sponsorship of explorer Christopher Columbus.
Spain’s economy was based on bullionism, the belief that securing a steady supply of gold and silver guaranteed a nation’s prosperity and power. As Spain established colonies at Hispaniola, the modern Dominican Republic and Haiti, and later Cuba, mining precious metals became a top priority. It was largely the prospect of additional gold finds that attracted the Spanish to Mexico.
Hernando Cortes, a Spanish soldier and adventurer, who mined for gold on his own properties in Cuba, was so eager to lead the expedition to Mexico that he financed a large part of it himself – even mortgaging his property to raise funds. While Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish governor of Cuba, authorized Cortes only to explore the country and to establish trade relations with the natives, Cortes had more ambitious objectives in mind.
On February 10, 1519, Cortes’ fleet embarked from Cuba and made landing on Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula. His muster there showed 11 ships of varying sizes with a force of 508 including 32 cross bowmen and 13 musketeers plus a ships’ crew of about 100. Cortes, also, brought brass cannons with plenty of ball and powder and 16 horses.
Near the beginning of his expedition, Cortes acquired two translators who were to be critical assets: Geronimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan friar shipwrecked on the Yucatan in 1511 who learned Mayan while in captivity and Dona Marina, called La Malinche, a Nuahtl speaking native who, also, spoke Mayan and later learned Spanish.
Early in his expedition, Cortes learned from the natives that the gold that he sought came from the west. Later, he would learn that the precise location of the gold stores was the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan.
On reaching the Totonacs, a confederation of many towns in Veracruz, Cortes learned of their hatred of the Aztecs. This hatred was not due solely to the rapacious taxes, but also, to the Aztec practice of kidnapping their people, especially their young women.
While Cortes was staying with the Totonacs, five of Montezuma’s tax gatherers arrived. Cortes promptly arrested them and he informed the Totonacs chiefs that henceforth neither the Totonacs nor any of their friends were obliged to pay taxes or render obedience to the Aztecs.
Seeing the Spanish as liberators, the Totonacs formed an alliance with them and supplied Cortes with troops. In addition, the Totonacs suggested that many other native states would join Cortes in a rebellion against the Aztecs. Among them were the powerful Tlaxcala who after initial resistance became Cortes’ most important native ally and contributed large numbers of troops to his army.
When Montezuma learned of the arrival of the Spanish, it appears that he believed that Cortes was the returning Quetzalcoatl, the beneficent Aztec god. According some native traditions, Quetzalcoatl who was sometimes depicted with a beard, was banished to the East by a rival god but was expected to return.
According to native sources, Montezuma contacted his holy men for advice. However, he could find no consensus among them on how to proceed. The native historians suggest that Montezuma’s principal concern was not the security of his empire, but rather that he might be displaced by the newcomers as leader. In any event, Montezuma decided that the safest course of action was to welcome the Spanish with great deference.
To ensure the good will of the newcomers, Montezuma sent them offerings of gifts and human sacrifices. Unfortunately, the gifts which included intricate gold work merely confirmed that Montezuma’s gold treasures were the targets. And the human sacrifices performed by the Aztec emissaries in front of the Spanish repelled even the brutal conquistadores.
Indecisive and anxious, Montezuma made no defensive preparations prior to Cortes’ arrived at Tenochtitlan. He greeted the Spanish who were accompanied by their many native allies with great respect and offered them accommodations in a royal palace. Although Cortes showed great respect for Montezuma at first, the Spanish wasted no time in investigating the location of Montezuma’s hoard of gold and jewels.
While Montezuma was entertaining the Spanish in Tenochtitlan, some of his captains attacked the Spanish garrison Cortes had left behind at Villa Rica killing six Spanish soldiers. Although Montezuma may not have ordered the attack, Cortes seized Montezuma and put him temporarily in shackles. He compelled Montezuma to order the captains to return to the capital where Cortes tried them and had them executed by burning in front of Montezuma’s palace.
Although Montezuma had clearly lost control of the government, he clung to the delusion that somehow he could placate Cortes. He showered the Spanish with gifts of gold and jewels and he even offered to give one of his daughters to Cortes as a wife. However, Montezuma’s relatives understood that their leader was now powerless and began intriguing against him.
Unfortunately, Cortes had to leave Tenochtitlan temporarily to deal with a Spanish force sent by the Governor of Cuba to discipline Cortes for exceeding his remit. While Cortes was away, Cortes’ lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, slaughtered a large number of unarmed natives during a major religious festival on the mistaken belief an Aztec attack was imminent. Not surprisingly, this provoked a native uprising driving the Spanish from the city with heavy losses.
Cortes and his army retreated to Tlaxcala where they built a small fleet of ships. When the Spanish laid siege to the Aztecs in 1521, they launched the ships mounted with cannon on Lake Texcoco. This naval artillery enabled the Spanish to control the causeways connecting Tenochtitlan to its allies and to deprive the population of food. As Spanish cannons shattered their defenses, the Aztecs, weakened by a small pox epidemic and hunger, fought in vain.
In the aftermath, the mighty Aztec Empire was extinct and Cortes was in possession of unbelievable wealth. And the city states of the former Aztec Empire now vied for favor from their new masters, the Spanish.
So what lessons can Earth draw from this First Contact disaster?
1. Avoid wishful thinking. Consider the possibility that ETs might have plunder in mind.
2. Unity is critical. Only if Earth’s nations unite on the basis of mutual respect can they effectively secure Earth’s autonomy.
3. The U.S. President should have access to all intelligence regarding ETs so that he can organize a coherent response to any threat.
4. Earth nations should end destructive behavior, such as internecine war and environmental despoliation, which invites a morally justified intervention by an ET species.
5. Earth should take precautions to avoid contracting communicable diseases from ETs arriving on Earth.
6. All nations should cooperate in preparing for all possible defense scenarios. If a conventional war is not winnable, Earth should be prepared to fight an asymmetrical war and protect critical infrastructure.
In all this, it is essential to maintain a clear vision that one prepares for the worst First Contact scenario not out of a desire for conflict, but out of a desire to avoid it. The objective of ET First Contact policy is to preserve Earth’s autonomy, protect its people and establish peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with other space faring species.
Suggested reading: The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, Miguel Leon-Portilla; The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, Bernal Diaz del Castillo; Presidential Briefing: Ronald Reagan & Extraterrestrial Encounters: Camp David, Maryland Briefing Transcript from Tape Recording, E. Key
Kim MacDermotRoe, a former Assistant Attorney General for New York State, drafted a proposed constitution for an Earth Council to represent the Earth in ET relations, MUFON e-Journal, July 2020. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Kim T. MacDermotRoe 2020.