Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Aztecs and Samurai

In a post from my Voyagers to the East series, I noted that Hernan Cortes brought a dozen Aztec Indians to Spain in 1528 for presentation to Carlos I, and that several members of this cortege, whom Bernal Diaz described as jugglers and acrobats, wound up moving to Rome to adorn the court of Pope Clement VII. Courtesy of Charles Mann's fascinating book 1493, I have since learned that this was not the first party of Nahua to visit Spain: in 1526 Spanish clergy had brought another group of Mexican "jugglers" to Spain, who turned out to be skilled players of the game of ullamaliztli. The Venetian ambassador to Spain reported on the ball players' padded garments and on the immense speed and dexterity with which they propelled the ball to the goal. The purpose of the game puzzled the ambassador, but more puzzling still was the ball itself, made of some sort of "pith" that caused it to jump about. The pith was actually rubber, which Europeans had never seen before, and the ball's behavior was one which the ambassador couldn't describe because there was no precise word in contemporary Italian for "bounce."* (Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created [Knopf, 2011], 240-42.)

Jarring juxtapositions like this one are among the more compelling features of Mann's narrative. Another, more jarring (and fascinating) example of this trope occurs in Mann's discussion of Asian migration to colonial Mexico, which apparently was quite substantial in the 17th century. The 100,000 or so migrants included Japanese emigrants who had been stranded in China or the Philippines when the Tokugawa regime sealed the home islands' borders. A few of these were samurai whom the viceroy allowed to retain their katanas and employed in Mexico's colonial militia. I am fairly certain I made the previous sentence up. (Hastily checks book.) Nope, there it is on page 324. Mann cites a recent article by Edward Slack, who identifies the countries of origin of colonial Mexico's chino population (China, the Philippines, Japan, India), describes their professions, and observes that Asians were the only non-whites in Mexico who were licensed to carry weapons and serve in the colony's militia. (See Edward R. Slack, Jr., "The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image," Journal of World History 20 [Winter 2009], 35-67.) Professor Slack does not offer suggestions for how one might turn this fascinating story into a film plot, but such a movie script (perhaps a mashup of Yojimbo and Treasure of the Sierra Madre) almost writes itself.


* The English word "bounce," per the Oxford English Dictionary, existed but was not used to describe the bouncing of a ball until the seventeenth century.

No comments: