The Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Camilla Townsend

Oxford University Press 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2022
Extending from the early history of the Mexica to the century after the Spanish conquest, The Fifth Sun is an indigenous history of the Aztecs based on Nahuatl sources written after the conquest. Townsend's focus is on politics, but she includes some social history and brings out the agency and decision-making of a few individuals.

In 1299 a royal woman named Shield Flower faced death bravely; her story is a starting point for exploring the origin stories of the Mexica and their early history. The life of Itzcoatl, the son of a concubine who became high king, anchors an account of the establishment of Mexica control over the central valley and of the complex web of lineages and marriages and alliances involved. And a dance by Flaming Snake before the high king Axayacatl in 1479 was a critical moment in the relationship between Chalco and Tenochtitlan: symbols and personal relationships played a key role in maintaining Tenochtitlan's ascendancy, alongside warfare and trade.

Born to a Nahua nobleman, sold as a slave to the Chontal Maya, and then given to the invading Spanish, Malintzin (Marina) played a key role as interpreter and guide in their success. Tecuichpotzin (Isabel), the daughter of Moctezuma, is also foregrounded in an account of the war, the effects of smallpox, and the immediate aftermath of the conquest.

In the early years the Spanish were heavily dependent on local leaders: the challenges facing an aging chief Chimalpopoca or "Smoking Shield" (don Alonso de CastaƱeda) illustrate the expansion and extension of Spanish political and religious control. And the fall from power and death under torture of Martin, son of Cortes and Malintzin, was part of ongoing conflicts in the 1560s over taxation and governance.

In 1612 panic fears about a rebellion led to the slaughter of twenty nine blacks, an event which had a dramatic effect on Chimalphin, one of the historians whose work informs The Fifth Sun, along with that of his contemporary Ixtlilxochitl. And an appendix "How Scholars Study the Aztecs" goes into more detail about the use of Nahuatl sources, and includes a sixteen page survey of the major texts.

Townsend's own summary, from the introduction:

"This book, rooted in the Nahuatl-language annals, offers five revelations about the Aztecs. First, though Aztec political life has been assumed to revolve around their religiously motivated belief in the necessity of human sacrifice to keep the gods happy, the annals indicate that this notion was never paramount for them. ...
Second, there has been a problematic tendency to deem some people in the Aztec world evil and others good. ...
Third, a great deal of ink has been spilled over the question of how the Europeans were able to bring down such a kingdom, but each generation of scholars has ignored certain aspects of the reality that the Aztecs themselves were explicitly cognizant of in their writings. ... What is everywhere apparent in the historical annals is the recognition of a great technological power imbalance in relation to the newly arrived Spaniards, one that called for a rapid reckoning. It was possible, some thought, that this current crisis might be the war to end all wars, and many wanted to be on the side of the victors as they entered the new political era.
Fourth, those who lived through the war with the Spaniards and then survived the great epidemic of European diseases found to their surprise that the sun continued to rise and set, ... it was not just the young people who proved themselves disposed to experiment with the new foods and techniques and animals and gods brought by the people from across the sea. ... Moreover the people proved adept at protecting their own worldview even as they adopted the more useful elements of Spanish life.
Finally, over the course of the next two generations, more and more people were forced to grapple with the enormity of the extractive economic policies the Spaniards introduced, and even more experienced racialized injustice. ..."

The Fifth Sun offers an essential complement to more traditional histories centering Spanish sources. It manages to convey a feel for the complexities of an often stereotyped culture, for the course of events over several centuries, and for some complex historiography, all while staying accessible and engaging.

May 2022

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%T The Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs
%A Townsend, Camilla
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2019
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780190673062
%P 320pp