BERNADINO DE SAHAGUN

History is written by the victors. Dark words that mark a past of war, triumph and power struggle. The social hierarchy of political power has dominated the historical scholarship and basis of civilisations, eras and entire worlds of philosophical, agricultural and religious thought. 1519 Tenochtitlan, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began. A bloody massacre with domination, glory and the growth of an empire at the heart of a ruthless power move with the intent of wiping the existence of an entire civilisation off the face of the earth and leaving nothing but a blank space in the history of mankind.

 

1529, 10 years after the massacre had begun the Franciscan friar and missionary priest Bernado de Sahagun was sent to Mexico among others to partake in the evangelisation of what was coined ‘Colonial New Spain’. Sahagun immersed himself into the Aztec culture and was deeply disturbed by the abuse handed out by the conquistadors. As the shock value of a new world passed, Sahagun noted the extremities along side the vastness of an entire culture with an exclusive history of influence, social politics, agriculture, religious idols and independent traditional values. Sahagun saw how an entire culture was being brought to it’s knees and there was nothing he alone could do to stop it. In reaction he independently displayed a new singular personal commitment; the perseveration of a civilisation. Sahagun dedicated the next 50 years of his life ensuring the culture of the Aztec people was not deleted from world history; without this history we would have a gaping hole.

 

Sahagun learnt the native language Nahuatl and made friends with the Aztec people he lived with as he travelled and worked together with them to compile a multitude of work in an attempt to store as much of the culture as possible; he has been noted as the first philosophical anthropologist and labelled as a pro-indigenous renaissance humanist. Sahagun recorded orations given by the elders of the villages he stayed in. Sahagun’s most notorious work was the Florentine Codex in which was composed of 12 volumes including: the gods and their origins, the ceremonies, ideas on cosmology, ritual practices, economics, omens, rhetoric and moral philosophy, kings and lords, merchants and Aztec history as well as accounts of the conquest of Mexico from the native perspective. In a sneaky attempt to allow the perseveration of Aztec symbolism and art he allowed Aztec locals to include their hieroglyphics and visual aesthetics into the new churches that were being built as he knew they would not be destroyed by the Spanish Army.

 

Sahagun’s passion for the Aztec culture faced the contempt of his allies, Sahagun was heavily criticised by both the army and the other priests that were sent over with him calling him a heretic, claiming idolatry and that he was siding with the enemy. Many attempts were made to destroy his work and his books were pushed underground banishing its teachings and for nearly 200 years his work was not known outside of Spain.

 

Sahagun reminds us that even in times of great destruction and immorality there are those that are able to stand aside from it all with clarity, virtue and respect. Sahagun reminds us of the importance of empathy and historical scholarship. Sahagun has shown the world that cultures should learn from one another. The Aztex culture has taught the modern world: cultivating sustainable ecosystems, architectural professionalism of great pyramids and temples, pharmacognosy, irrigation techniques, suspension bridges, creating artificial lands in water, hydroponics, hieroglyphic writing, a developed and complex calendar system, advanced cosmology and mathematics, farming techniques, rubber, latex, chocolate, over half of the westernised diet today is made from foods that the Aztecs cultivated. Without Sahagun this knowledge would have been lost, we would know little if anything at all of the Aztecs. When one culture wipes out another, there is no victory.