Alexander Cockburn

From the moment of its opening in mid-March to its closing at the beginning of this month abuse descended heavily on the Smithsonian’s ‘West as America’ exhibition in Washington DC. At the heart of the row was something that will figure even more powerfully next year, in the various commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World: how much should Europe’s conquest of the Americas, as treated today in exhibitions and commemorations, reflect the experience of the people on the receiving end of the conquest?

The ‘West as America’ exhibition made a very decent attempt to suggest something which turned out to be highly controversial: namely, that the 19th-century artists on display tended to glorify the conquest in a manner that reflected little of the greed, exploitation and mass extermination that actually occurred. These attempts were swiftly denounced as another effusion of the spirit of Political Correctness, which, in the opinion of outraged journalists, academics and politicians including President Bush himself, is now contaminating the nation’s wellsprings of knowledge. None of this bodes well for the Quincentenary and any realistic assessment of what Columbus inaugurated for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Nothing in the exhibition aroused more ridicule than the commentary fixed to the wall next to Emanuel Leutze’s Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and his Troops. Newspaper columnists, bloodlust aroused by the denunciations of the show on the part of Daniel Boorstin and Simon Schama, among others, tossed the following about on their bayonets as the quintessence of Political Correctness:

In another passage Leutze raises (literally) the sacrifice issue again and turns it more conclusively against the Aztecs. Prescott describes in detail (in some of the most widely-read chapters of The Conquest of Mexico) the Aztec method of sacrifice and the numerous victims. No practice, he maintained, illustrated more widely the moral gap between the invading Europeans and resident natives, a judgment Leutze played on in the vignette in which the Aztec priest holds aloft a partially disembowelled child. Like much of Leutze’s Aztec world, however, the vignette was a distortion to prove a point. Aztec children were rarely sacrificed and only in times of drought. Young male adults were the usual victims.

Of course there is something comical in the earnest lilt of the last two sentences, but the ridicule of the columnists was more sinister, a foretaste of how they will try, as the saying goes, to take out pockets of resistance to celebrations of the anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World.

The rich Boston scientist, Amos Binney, who commissioned Leutze’s painting, probably knew and had certainly read his fellow Bostonian, William Prescott, whose Conquest of Mexico was published in 1843, and whose concern about the legitimacy of the Spanish conquest ‘lies between every line of his three volumes’, as William Truettner puts it in an essay in the catalogue to the ‘West as America’ show. ‘The Aztecs,’ Prescott wrote,

were emphatically a fierce and brutal race, little calculated, in their best aspects, to excite our sympathy and regard ... They ruled over their wide domains with a sword, instead of a sceptre. They did nothing to ameliorate the condition, or in any way promote the progress, of their vassals ... How can the interests to humanity be consulted, where man is levelled to the rank of the brutes that perish?

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