Let’s Not Forget Mexico

Letter to the editor printed in Queen’s Alumni Review, Review Plus, Volume 82 Number 2, May 19, 2008 • Thanks to Sara Beck for her informed, well-researched and interesting article, “A Question of Treason.”[1] The stories of Israel Halperin in the 1940s and the Security Certificate Five in the 21st century show clearly the frightening ease with which human rights can be swept away in moments of societal panic.

One small correction I would like to make. Sara calls the events of 9/11 “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” I have in front of me William H. Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru.[2] The first few hundred pages of the book amount to a dry tale of the utmost brutality carried out by the European armies of Cortés against the people of what is today Mexico, culminating with his barbaric assault on the capital.

A long siege reduced much of the population to starvation. As his armies advanced into the city: “Dead bodies lay unburied in the streets and court-yards … As the invaders entered the dwellings, a more appalling spectacle presented itself; – the floors covered with the prostrate forms of the miserable inmates, some in the agonies of death, others festering in their corruption; men, women, and children, inhaling the poisonous atmosphere, and mingled promiscuously together; mothers, with their infants in their arms perishing of hunger before their eyes, while they were unable to afford them the nourishment of nature; men crippled by their wounds, with their bodies frightfully mangled, vainly attempting to crawl away, as the enemy entered. Yet, even in this state, they scorned to ask for mercy, and glared on the invaders with the sullen ferocity of the wounded tiger, that the huntsmen have tracked to his forest cave.”[3]

And when the conquest was complete, the corpses “‘lay so thick,’ says Bernal Diaz, ‘that one could not tread except among the bodies.’ ‘A man could not set his foot down,’ says Cortés, yet more strongly, ‘unless on the corpse of an Indian!’ They were piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. … Death was everywhere. The city was a vast charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers than the famine.”[4]

Enough. The attacks of 9/11 were acts of terrible violence. But they do not qualify as “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” As someone who teaches history and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean, I feel it is important to qualify that one sentence from an otherwise excellent article. Mexico is part of North America, and we have to know that the Europeanization of North America – in Mexico, in the United States and in Canada – has at its foundation terrible acts of violence against this continent’s original inhabitants.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Sara Beck, “A Question of Treason,” Queen’s Alumni Review, Volume 82 Number 1, February 19, 2008
[2] William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru (New York: Modern Library, 1936)
[3] Prescott, p. 592
[4] Prescott, p. 599