A Study of Mexico/Chapter II
Popular fallacies concerning Mexico—Its geographical position and physical characteristics—Elevation of the "Mexican Central Railroad"—The valley of the city of Mexico—The "City of Mexico and Vera Cruz Railroad"—The "Tierras Calientes"—No navigable rivers in Mexico—Population—Character of the Aztec civilization—A development of the "Stone Age"—The romance of Prescott's History—The predecessors of the Aztecs—Counterparts of the mounds of the United States in Mexico—Possible explanation of their origin.
Now, with these current beliefs and impressions the writer has little sympathy; but, on the contrary, his study and observations lead him to the conclusion that the Mexico of to-day, through conjoined natural and artificial (or human) influences, is one of the very poorest and most wretched of all countries; and, while undoubtedly capable of very great improvement over her present conditions, is not speedily or even ultimately likely, under any circumstances, to develop into a great (in the sense of highly civilized), rich, and powerful nation. And, in warrant and vindication of opinions so antagonistic to popular sentiment, it is proposed to ask attention to a brief review of the condition of Mexico: first from its geographical or natural standpoint; and, secondly from the standpoint of its historical, social, and political experience.
Considered geographically, Mexico is, in the main, an immense table-land or plateau, which seems to be a flattening out of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains, and which, commencing within the territory of the United States as far north certainly as Central Colorado, and perhaps beyond, extends as far south as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; a north and south length, measuring from the southern frontier-line of the United States, of about two thousand miles. Entering the country by the "Mexican Central Railway" at El Paso, where the plateau has already an elevation of 3,717 feet, the traveler progressively and rapidly ascends, though so gradually that, except for a détour, made obligatory in the construction of the road to climb up into the city of Zacatecas, he is hardly conscious of it, until, at a point known as Marquez, 1,148 miles from the starting-point and 76 miles from the city of Mexico, the railroad-track attains an elevation of 8,134 feet, or 1,849 higher than the summit of Mount Washington. In fact, as Humboldt, as far back as 1803, pointed out, so regular is the great plateau on the line followed by the "Central" road, and so gentle are its surface slopes where depressions occur, that the journey from the city of Mexico to Santa Fé, in New Mexico, might be performed in a four-wheeled vehicle.
From Marquez, or the railroad "summit," the line descends rapidly, some six hundred feet, into the valley of the city of Mexico; which valley is really an elevated plain, thirty-one by forty-five miles in extent, having an average altitude of about 7,500 feet above the sea level, and inclosed by high and irregular mountain-ridges, from which rise two volcanic peaks—Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl—to the height of 17,884 and 15,705 feet respectively, and whose summits are covered with perpetual snows. And it is at the lowest point, and near the center of this valley, or plain, and surrounded by a group of lakes, which in turn are bordered by swamps, that the city of Mexico is located.
Starting next from the city of Mexico, and going east toward the Atlantic, or west toward the Pacific, for a distance in either direction of about one hundred and sixty miles, we come to the edge or terminus of this great plateau; so well defined and so abrupt, that in places it seems as if a single vigorous jump would land the experimenter, or all that was left of him, at from two to three thousand feet lower level.
The annexed cut approximately represents the profile of the country between the two oceans, and in the latitude of the city of Mexico.
Up the side of the almost precipice, which bounds the plateau on the east—tunneling through or winding round a succession of mountain promontories—the "Vera Cruz and City of Mexico Railroad" has been constructed; "rising" or "falling"
—according to the direction traveled—over four thousand feet, in passing over a circuitous track of about twenty-five miles; and of which elevation or depression, about twenty-five hundred perpendicular feet are comprised within the first twelve miles, measured from the point where the descent from the edge of the plateau begins. To overcome this tremendous grade in ascending, a sort of double locomotive—comprising two sets of driving machinery, with the boilers in the center, and known as the "Farlie" engine—is employed; and even with this most powerful tractor it is necessary, with an ordinary train, to stop every eight or ten miles, in order to keep up a sufficient head of steam to over-come the resistance. In descending, on the other hand, only sufficient steam is necessary to work the brakes and counteract the tendency to a top rapid movement. As an achievement in engineering the road has probably no parallel, except it may be in some of the more recent and limited constructions among the passes of Colorado; and, as might be expected, the cost of transportation over the entire distance of 263 miles, from Vera Cruz to the city of Mexico, is very heavy, although at an enormous reduction on the cost of all methods previously employed. When the road was first opened, the charges for first-class freight per ton were $76; second class, $65; and by passenger-trains, $97.77. Since the opening of, and under the influence of the competition of, the "Mexican Central," these rates have been reduced to an average of about $40 to $45 per ton, and still the business is understood to be not especially remunerative. Begun in 1857, this road was not completed, owing mainly to the disturbed state of the country, until 1873. It was built under English supervision, and with English capital, at a reported cost—including workshops and equipment—of about $27,000,000, although capitalized at $37,782,000, and is solid and excellent throughout. The parties—citizens of Mexico—to whom the concession for building the road was originally granted, also received in the way of subvention from the national Government, from the time the first concession was made in 1857 to the period of the completion of the road in 1873, the sum of $7,056,619. It is further claimed by the Mexican authorities that owing to extraordinary errors in commencing the construction of the road, and the intentional diversion of the line as projected by the engineers, in order to benefit certain factories and estates of the grantee of the road—Mr. Antonio Escandon—the length of the road was increased from 304 to 423 kilometres and entailing an unnecessary expenditure of $6,743,938. During the year 1876 the road was destroyed at different points by the revolutionists, and all traffic for a considerable time suspended. At the station "Esperanza," one hundred and fifty miles from the city of Mexico, on the farther side of a great sandy plain, and on the very verge of the plateau, and where the descent may be said to abruptly begin, the stations, engine-houses, and shops, built of dressed stone, are as massive and elegant as any of the best suburban stations on any of the British railways. And, as illustrating how rigidly the English engineers adhered to home rules and precedents, the constructions at this station include a very elegant and expensive arched bridge of dressed stone, with easy and extended approaches, to guard against danger in crossing the tracks; although, apart from the persons in the employ of the company, the resident population is very inconsiderable. Starting from this point in the early morning of the 27th of March, to make the descent to the comparatively level and low land intervening between the base of the plateau and the ocean, the ground at the station was white with hoar-frost; while behind it, apparently but a mile or two distant, and of not more than fifteen hundred to two thousand feet in elevation, rose the glistening, snow-covered cone of Orizaba. Within the cars, and even with closed windows, overcoats and shawls were essential. Within an hour, however, overcoats and shawls were discarded as uncomfortable. Within another hour the inclination was to get rid of every superfluous garment, while before noon the thermometers in the cars ranged from 90° to 95° Fahr., and the traveler found himself in the heart of the tropics, amid palms, orange-trees, coffee-plantations, fields of sugar-cane and bananas, almost naked Indians, and their picturesque though miserable huts of cane or stakes, plastered with mud and roofed with plantain-leaves or corn-stalks. In the descent, Orizaba (17,373 feet), which at the starting-point, and seen from an elevation of about 8,000 feet, is not impressive in respect to height, although beautiful, gradually rises, and finally, when seen from the level of the low or coast lands, becomes a most magnificent spectacle, far superior to Popocatepetl, which is higher, or any other Mexican mountain, but, in the opinion of the writer, inferior in sublimity to Tacoma in Washington Territory, the entire elevation of which last (14,300 feet) can, in some places, be taken in at a single glance from the sea-level and a water-foreground. The comparatively narrow and gently sloping strip of land which the traveler thus reaches on the Atlantic side in journeying from Mexico to Vera Cruz extends from the base of the great plateau to the ocean, and, with its counterpart on the Pacific side, constitutes in the main the so-called "Tierras Calientes" (hot lands), or the tropical part of Mexico. The average width of these coast-lands on the Atlantic is about sixty miles, while on the Pacific it varies from forty to seventy miles. Considered as a whole, the geographical configuration and position of Mexico have been compared to an immense cornucopia, with its mouth turned toward the United States and its concave side on the Atlantic; having an extreme length of about 2,000 miles, and a varying width of 1,100 miles (in latitude 25° north) to 130 miles at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Its territorial area is 139,700 square miles, or a little larger than that part of the United States which is situated east of the Mississippi River, exclusive of the States of Wisconsin and Mississippi; and this cornucopia in turn, as has been before intimated, consists of an immense table-land, nine tenths of which have an average elevation of from 5,000 to 7,000 feet. Such an elevation in the latitude of 42° (Boston or New York) would have given the country an almost Arctic character; but under the Tropic of Cancer, or in latitudes 18° to 25° north, the climate at these high elevations is almost that of perpetual spring. At these high elevations of the Mexican plateau furthermore, the atmosphere is so lacking in moisture, that meat, bread, or cheese, never molds or putrefies, but only spoils by drying up. Perspiration, even when walking briskly in the middle of the day, does not gather or remain upon the forehead or other exposed portions of the body; and it is through this peculiarity only of the atmosphere that the city of Mexico, with its large population, and its soil reeking with filth through lack of any good and sufficient drainage, has not long ago been desolated with pestilence.
The border States of Mexico on the north are Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. Sonora is larger than the States of Ohio and Indiana combined; Chihuahua is nearly as large as New York and Pennsylvania: Coahuila is larger than New York; and Tamaulipas is nearly as large as Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts combined.
The surface of the great Mexican plateau, or table-land, although embracing extensive areas of comparatively level surface, which are often deserts, is nevertheless largely broken up by ranges of mountains, or detached peaks—some of which, like Popocatepetl, Orizaba, and Toluca, rise to great elevations—a circumstance which it is important to remember, and will be again referred to, in considering the possible future material development of the country.
Again, if we except certain navigable channels which make up for short distances from the sea into the low, narrow strips of coast-lands, there is not a navigable river in all Mexico; or, indeed, any stream, south of the Rio Grande, that in the United States, east of the Mississippi, would be regarded as of any special importance. Wells, except a few "artesian," are also so scarce on the plateau of Mexico that their very existence has been denied.
In respect, therefore, to this element of commercial prosperity, Mexico has been characterized as less favored than any considerable country except Arabia; the name of which last, as is well known, stands almost as a synonym for aridity.
No one accurately knows the total population of Mexico, as no undeniably accurate census has ever been taken; and there is no immediate prospect that any will be: certainly not so long as a majority of the people have a fear of giving any information in respect to their number, as is represented, and a not inconsiderable part of the country, as has already been pointed out, has never yet been brought under the rule of civil authority. A census, however, taken in 1879 and officially published in the "Annales del Ministerio de Fomento" reported the population as 9,908,011;* but by some
So much, then, for Mexico, considered geographically or in respect to its natural conditions. Let us next, as a means of better comprehending its present condition, briefly consider its historical, social, and political experiences.
The authentic history of Mexico practically commences with its conquest and occupation by the Spaniards under Cortes in 1521. The general idea is, that the people whom the Spaniards found in Mexico had attained to a degree of civilization that raised them far above the level of the average Indians of North America, more especially in all that pertained to government, architecture, agriculture, manufactures, and the useful arts, and the production and accumulation of property. For all this there is certainly but very little foundation; and the fascinating narrations of Prescott, which have done so much to make what is popularly considered "Mexican history," as well as the Spanish chronicles from which Prescott drew his so-called historic data, are, in the opinion of the writer, and with the exception of the military record of the Spaniards, little other than the merest romance; not much more worthy, in fact, of respect and credence than the equally fascinating stories of "Sindbad the Sailor." And, in defense and warrant for such an unusual and perhaps unpopular conclusion, attention is asked to the following circumstances and reasons:
In the Museum of the city of Mexico there is probably the best collection of the remains of the so-called Aztec people that ever has or probably ever will be gathered. Here, ranged upon shelves and properly classified, the visitor will see a large number and variety of their tools, weapons, and implements. Setting aside their fictile or pottery products, they are all of stone—the same arrowheads, the same stone hatchets, pestles, and the like, which are still picked up on the fields and along the water-courses of New England, the South, and the West; and of which there are so many public and private collections in the United States—no better than, and in some respects inferior in artistic merit and finish to, many like articles excavated from the Western mounds, or known to have been the work of our historic Indians; or to the arrow-heads and lance-tips which are still fabricated by the Shoshones and Flatheads on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. In all this large collection there is no evidence, save a very few copper implements, the use of which is somewhat doubtful, that the Aztecs ever had any knowledge and made any use of metal tools; and in only a comparatively few instances have fabrications of copper, of unquestionable antique origin, ever been discovered in connection with Aztec remains in Mexico. And of the pottery and stone-work in the shape of idols, small and big, masks, and vases, and of which there are many specimens in the museum and throughout the country, it is sufficient to say that it is all of the rudest kind, and derives its chief attraction and interest from its hideousness and almost entire lack of anything which indicates either artistic taste or skill on the part of its fabricators. Take any fair collection of what purports to be the products of Aztec skill and workmanship, and place the same side by side with a similar collection made in any of the most civilized of the islands of the Pacific—the Feejees, the Marquesas, or the Sandwich Islands, or from the tribes that live on Vancouver's Sound—and the superiority of the latter would be at once most evident and questionable. In all fairness, therefore, all controversy with the writer's position, if there is any, ought to be considered as settled; for there is no more infallible test and criterion of the civilization and social condition of either a man or a nation than the tools which he or it works with; and stone hatchets and stone arrow-heads are the accompaniments of the stone age and all that pertains thereto, and their use is not compatible with any high degree of civilization or social refinement.
But this is not all. It is now generally conceded that the Aztec tribes, that have become famed in history, did not number as many as two hundred and fifty thousand, and that the area of territory to which their rule was mainly confined did not much exceed in area the State of Rhode Island. The first sight of a horse threw them into a panic, and they had no cattle, sheep, swine, dogs, or other domestic animals—save the turkey—of any account. They had no written language, unless the term can be properly applied to rude drawings of a kind similar to those with which the North American Indian ornaments his skins or scratches upon the rocks. It is very doubtful if they had anything which would be regarded as money; and in the absence of beasts of burden, of any system of roads and of wheeled vehicles, or, indeed, of any methods of transportation other than through the muscular power and backs of men, they could have had but little internal trade or commerce.
All authorities, furthermore, agree that human sacrifices constituted an essential part of their religion, and that, as a nation, they were addicted to cannibalism, and probably forced the adoption of its practice among the contiguous nations whom they invaded and possibly subjugated. But "cannibalism," as M. Charney remarks, "had its rise among tribes having no cattle, no hunting-grounds, and having for their maintenance only vegetable food, or an insufficiency of food; and, if the phenomenon is observed among civilized nations, it is exceptional, as in famine, or as in cities reduced to extremities by a protracted siege."
Prescott assigns to the Aztec city of Mexico a population of three hundred thousand, and sixty thousand houses, and abundant fountains and reservoirs of water; but a very brief reflection would seem to make it evident that no such population could have been regularly supported, mainly with bulky agricultural food transported on the backs of men, or in light canoes through canals from the neighboring small salt lakes; or supplied with water sufficient for fountains, drinking, and domestic purposes, through an earthen pipe "of the size of a man's body," brought some miles "from Chapultepec," the water adjacent to the city being then, as now, salt and unfit for use. What their manufactures could have been, with stone tools and the most primitive machinery, it is not difficult to conjecture. Probably not materially different from what the traveler may yet see at the present day in the case of the Indian woman, who, seated by the wayside, with a bundle of wool under her arm and a spindle consisting of a stem of wood, one end resting in a cup formed from the shell of a gourd, dexterously and rapidly draws out and spins a coarse but not uneven thread. If any higher degree of manufacturing industry had ever been attained by this people, it probably would not have been utterly forgotten in later days; and the fact is that, "even at the present time, the greater proportion of the domestic utensils, laborers' tools and implements, and articles of clothing in common use in Mexico, are said to be of Indian manufacture, and differing very little, if at all, from those used before the conquest." Even in the capital of the republic, says Mr. Consul Strother, where European ideas and habits most generally prevail, a large proportion of the population now use no other bed than the traditional Indian mat, and find their principal food in the Indian corn, ground by hand on the metate a hollow stone, identical in form and character with those used four centuries ago by the wives of the Indian emperors to prepare the corn and the chocolate for their august lords; and in the capital, also, as throughout the republic, the kitchens are furnished with cookery-vessels of Indian manufacture, spoons, bowls and platters of horn, wood, calebasa baskets, and trays of woven rushes and palm-leaves, unchanged in form and character from those described in the earliest histories of the country.
What Aztec architecture was may be inferred from the circumstance that Cortes, with his little band of less than five hundred Spaniards, leveled to the ground three quarters of the city of Tenochtitlan in the seventeen days of his siege; while of the old city of Mexico, with its reported palaces and temples, there is absolutely nothing left which is indicative of having formed a part of any grand or permanent structure. That there was, antecedent to the Aztecs, in this country of Mexico and Central America, a superior race to which the name of Toltecs or Mayas has been applied, who built the elaborate stone structures of Yucatan and of other portions of Central America, and who, it would seem, must have been acquainted with the use of metals, can not be doubted. At a town called Tula, about fifty miles from Mexico, on the line of the Mexican Central, where the Toltecs are reported to have first settled, the traveler will see on the plaza the lower half—i. e., from the feet to the waist—of two colossal and rude sitting figures; also, several perfect cylindrical sections of columns, which were very curiously arranged to fit into and support each other by means of a tenon and mortise, all of stone. The material of which these objects of un-questionably great antiquity are composed, and which all archæologists who have seen them agree are not Mexican or Aztec in their origin, is a very peculiar basalt, so hard that a steel tool hardly makes an impression upon it. When the same traveler arrives in the city of Mexico, and is shown the three greatest archaeological treasures of American origin—namely, the great idol, "Huitzilopochtli," the "Sacrificial Stone," and the so-called "Calendar" stone, now built into one of the outer walls of the cathedral—he might remark that the material of which they are all constructed is the same hard, black stone which constitutes the relics at Tula, and that neither in the large collections of
the Museum of Mexico, nor anywhere else, are there any articles, of assumed Aztec origin, composed of like material. Hence an apparently legitimate inference that the latter have a common origin with the constructions at Tula, and are relics of the Toltecs or older nations, and not of the Aztecs. Again, while much speculation has been had in respect to the origin and use of the mounds of our Western and Southwestern States, it seems to have been overlooked that almost the exact counterparts of these mounds exist to-day in the earth-pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, and the two pyramids at Teotihuacan, about fifty miles east of the city of Mexico; and that those structures were in use for religious rites and purposes—i. e., "mound-worship"—at the time of the invasion of the country by the Spaniards under Cortes. It seems difficult, therefore, to avoid also this further inference, that there is an intimate connection as to origin and use between all these North American mound-structures, and that they are all the work of substantially one and the same people, who found their last development and, perhaps, origin in Mexico or Central America. In calling attention to these circumstances, and in venturing opinions concerning them, the writer makes no pretension to archaeological knowledge, but he simply offers what seem to him the simple, common-sense conclusions which every observer must come to, who does not bring to his eye a capacity for seeing what has been limited by some preconceived theories.
Note.—When the views as above expressed respecting the character of the civilization of the Aztecs were originally presented in the pages of "The Popular Science Monthly," they evoked, especially from Mexican sources, not a little adverse criticism; and the author was accused "of a pompous and presumptuous way of dealing with historic facts," and a "curious boldness" in rejecting "the Spanish chronicles and the writings of Prescott, without offering any better authority to upset them." The question at issue, however, is not one of sentiment, but of fact; and if the evidence concerning the tools and implements, the manufactures and architecture, the absence of domestic animals, the lack of facilities for transportation, the ignorance of money and of a written language, the existence of a ferocious religious faith, and the practice of cannibalism, which the author has adduced in respect to the race which the Spaniards found dominant in the country at the time of their invasion, is fully in accordance with the facts and unimpeachable, then the latitude of deduction is so very narrow that the charge of presumption against those who may differ from the conclusions of the Spanish chroniclers certainly can not be well founded. Again, Cortes landed in Mexico with a force of five hundred and fifty Spaniards, two to three hundred Indians, a few negroes, and twelve or thirteen horses; and, with the small force, considerably reduced in numbers, but with some six thousand Indian allies, he completely overthrew and subjugated an empire whose chief city, according to Mr. Prescott, contained a population of three hundred thousand. As no such results in warring against foreign or savage nations had ever before been achieved by Europeans—the comparatively small tribe-of the West India Caribs, for example, having even then (as well as subsequently) successfully resisted subjugation by the Spaniards—Cortes and his associates undoubtedly foresaw that the inferences of the European public would be, that the races they subdued were in the highest degree effeminate and incapable of much resistance; and with such an anticipation what could be more natural than that they should magnify the numbers and the civilization of their opponents, as a guarantee of their own valor and apparently superhuman achievements? The author has also the satisfaction of learning, since his views were first presented to the public, that they are in full accord with the Independent conclusions of some of the leading American archaeologists and historians.