History, like life, is a complicated thing. The more one tries to simplify it, the more inaccurate the story becomes. A recent trend in the presentation of the history of the New World, the Americas, is the idealization of the indigenous cultures. The politically correct version contains a great deal of revisionism and applies today’s standards backwards onto people who lived in a very different time and place — well, as you will see, they’re only applying moral standards onto one group of people: the Europeans. Another instance of Moral Relativism at work, and the result isn’t very pretty.
When studying the discovery and conquest of Central and South America by Spain and Portugal, the more recent presentations tend to focus on the cruelty of the Europeans and the “tragic” loss of the “advanced” cultures of the Mayan, Aztec and Inca (among other lesser known tribes). While abuses by the Conquistadors are undoubtedly true to some extent, to what extent is difficult to determine considering that even at the time there were numerous forces working to paint Spain, in particular, as evil. This propaganda is referred to as the “Black Legend.” It was politically and religiously (by Protestants), useful to depict the Spaniards as immoral, greedy hypocrites. Today of course all European colonization of Native cultures and lands is seen as despicable.
If it is wrong to idealize the conquerors as primarily intention-ed to bring Christianity to the natives and be kind in doing so, it is also wrong to demonize them all as selfish and cruel. Many holy men (Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.) accompanied the explorers with the intent of converting the native peoples — not forcibly, but with persuasion. Often these priests and monks lost their lives. When abuses of the soldiers were made known to leaders of State and Church in Europe, they were denounced and those in the New World were admonished to cease their cruelty. Events “prompted Pope Paul III in 1537 to issue the bull Sublimis Deus in which he declared: ‘The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ.'”
One must also remember that the majority of the Europeans in the New World were hardened soldiers. Theirs was of necessity a brutal existence. To make the journey and explore lands that were wild and unfamiliar to them, they had to endure much hardship. They were all at least minimally Christian, being immersed in European Christian morality, if not actually practicing it well. What they discovered in the New World was so horrifying that we might excuse at least some of their supposed brutality in response.
When Hernando Cortez and his forces encountered the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan — a city on a partially man-made island in Lake Texacoco — they were amazed by its beauty, sophistication and cleanliness. There were paved streets and numerous canals laid out in an orderly fashion and intricate carvings and designs. They were welcomed with gifts by the natives who were so astonished by the arrival of these strange beings that they suspected they were gods (this belief was influenced by the fact that their calendar was predicting an important god return to the city that year). Then, and imagine their shock, they discovered in the temple district that the stairs and walls and statues were liberally splashed with blood, so much blood that one description speaks of the stench of decay. And the evidence of human sacrifice, walls of skulls for decoration. They would later learn that the Aztecs sacrificed tens of thousands of people every year. Can you imagine how you might have felt in their position? It is the stuff of stories indeed: one discovers a fantastic new civilization, appearing quite advanced and civilized in fact, only to later uncover the horrible truth of the underlying savagery. I wonder if when faced with such horrendous evil, it might be understandable if a person might “go off the deep end” a little and react by trying to wipe these frightening and inhuman practices out by any means necessary?
The Aztecs are the most well-known for their fierce fighting and warring and love of human sacrifice, but the Mayans, who predate them, and many other lesser tribes, whether enemies of the Aztecs or allies, were also fond of such blood-shed. The Incas of Peru, who I have seen described as mostly “peaceful,” were especially fond of child sacrifice. There is archaeological evidence that captured Spaniards and indigenous allies were used for sacrifice (and possibly cannibalized), which should come as no surprise since that was the typical fate of captured enemies.
Older historical resources tend to have a harsher presentation of these realities, while newer ones skim over the human sacrifice bit and focus on the other interesting bits of culture: art, astronomy, architecture and technological advances, and lament the loss of these cultures at the hands of the Europeans. I’m not sure if all the other “advances” or “achievements” account for much when the culture’s core is so rotten. How can I appreciate the interesting statues and carvings when many of them represent blood-thirsty gods with insatiable desire “to eat” hearts ripped still-beating from living people, that these images were once deliberately splattered with human blood? Can we “appreciate” such “art?” Is it morally acceptable to “celebrate” such cultures or mourn their demise?
One presentation I heard said basically “that’s what worked for them and that’s all that matters.” Can we not see what is evil any more? How can those practices ever be ok? People who think this way have no imaginations. How would they have liked actually living in those times? How would they have liked being “chosen” as a sacrifice or having their child chosen? Moral relativism and modern inconsistency leads to harsh criticism of the Europeans for their conquest of natives, but refrains from condemning human sacrifice.
I am glad that the dominant civilizations of ancient Central and South America were wiped out! The barbarity and cruelty of their religious practices make it difficult for me to summon up sympathy towards these peoples or condemnation for the Europeans who ultimately destroyed their cultures. It takes a Saint to respond with kindness and compassion. In 1987, then Pope John Paul II spoke to a gathering of Native Americans in Arizona:
“The early encounter between your traditional cultures and the European way of life was an event of such significance and change that it profoundly influences your collective life even today. That encounter was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged. At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects of your people’s encounter with the culture that came from Europe. Among these positive aspects I wish to recall the work of the many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land. They established missions throughout this southwestern part of the United States. They worked to improve living conditions and set up educational systems, learning your languages in order to do so. Above all, they proclaimed the Good News of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, an essential part of which is that all men and women are equally children of God and must be respected and loved as such. This gospel of Jesus Christ is today, and will remain forever, the greatest pride and possession of your people.”
Note that he was speaking to North American natives who weren’t infamous for their love of human sacrifice. I doubt “disruption of your life and of your traditional societies” would be considered a bad thing morally speaking, even if it was perceived as a negative by the people themselves, when that traditional society included human sacrifice. However, the good results of European conquest apply to those natives as well or one might argue even more so.