Saturday, January 18, 2020

Noche Triste Revisited


For a couple of decades, I regularly lectured on the colonial history of Mexico.  One of the highlights was talking about the gold that Don Hernán Cortés stole and then lost following the Battle of Noche Triste.  Everyone likes stories about lost gold.

Cortés’ expedition to Mexico was not only unauthorized, but such an outrageous act of treason that only the discovery of vast quantities of gold could possibly have saved the explorer’s life.  That he was ultimately successful is one of those historical accidents that strains the credulity of every student.

Everything about Cortés’ discovery of Tenochtitlan, the capitol of the Aztec empire, is incredible.  Not only was it the largest city that the conquistador had ever seen, it was located in the center of an island in the midst of a mountain-surrounded lake over a mile above sea level.  When Cortés discovered that the Aztec empire had huge quantities of gold and jewels, he decided to plunder the capital despite the immense size of the Aztec army.

As most students know, Cortés played on the superstitions and naïveté of Montezuma, the Aztec chief.  (Yeah, I know that wasn’t really his name.  But, depending on which authority you want to believe, it was either Moctezuma II, Montezuma, Moteuczoma, Motecuhzoma, Motēuczōmah, Muteczuma, or as the Nahuatl texts say, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin.  If we are going to be that picky, he wasn’t the chief, but the ninth ‘tlatoan’ of the Aztecs.)

Montezuma was something of a poet or philosopher and he was really curious as to the true nature of the strange armor-wearing people who invaded his realm.  Cortés was lucky—if he had arrived during the rule of Montezuma’s bloodthirsty father, Xochicueyetl who believed in killing first, and introductions later, it is doubtful that he would have lived long enough to have made the history books.  It is possible that Montezuma thought the strangers were gods, or emissaries of the gods, or—and this most likely—just curious folks.  For whatever reason, the Aztec chief invited the Spaniards into the city and even gave them his father’s palace to use during their “visit”.

The Spaniards were amazed at the amount of gold in the city, and more than a little alarmed at the brutal and bloody sacrifices that the Aztecs carried out in their temples.  The Aztecs willingly gifted large amounts of gold to their visitors, since the soft metal had little value for the natives.  When Montezuma questioned why the Spaniards were so eager to acquire what the Aztecs referred to as “excrement of the Gods”, Cortés answered, “Europeans suffer from a disease that can only be treated with gold”.

When Cortés learned that more Spaniards had arrived on the gulf coast, he quickly departed the city, leaving the Spaniards who remained in Tenochtitlan under the command of his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado.  Hurrying back to the coast, he met a much larger party of Spaniards who had been ordered to find and arrest the treasonous Cortés. 

Luckily for Cortés, this Spanish army also suffered from ‘the gold disease’, and when Cortés offered to split his new wealth with them, the majority of the force quickly changed its allegiance to Cortés, enabling him to conquer the rest of the party sent to arrest him.

Hurrying back to Tenochtitlan with his newly augmented force, Cortés discovered that Pedro de Alvarado had really screwed up in his absence.  This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise since Pedro always screwed up:  he was the embodiment of brainless failure.  A few years earlier, the ill-fated conquistador had acquired a fortune from the Maya by swapping glass beads for hundreds of golden axes.  Pedro was halfway home before he discovered that his fabulous golden axes were actually bronze.

Years later, when Pedro showed up in Peru, Pizarro was so eager to be rid of this walking disaster that he paid the hapless conquistador to leave.  Once again, Pedro was halfway back to Cuba before he discovered that his “payment” consisted of gilded lead bars. 

As soon as Cortés had left for the coast, Pedro had begun harassing the Aztec priests, who were, as far as the dimwitted conquistador was concerned, actively worshipping the devil.  When he interrupted one of the sacrifices and killed a few of the priests and noblemen, the mood of the city bordered on open violence.  When Cortés returned, he quickly realized that the Spanish had overstayed their welcome, but instead of withdrawing, Cortés took Montezuma as a hostage, with the result that the palace where the Spaniards were staying was surrounded by a hostile mob.

What happened next is still open to debate.  What everyone agrees on is that Cortés took Montezuma out on a balcony to tell the angry crowd to disperse and when they refused, Montezuma died.  According to Cortés, the crowd began throwing stones and one of those hit the chief on the head.  The Aztec version of events maintains that when Cortés realized that Montezuma was useless as a hostage, he got angry and stabbed Montezuma.  I guess who you believe may depend on how politically correct you are.

However Montezuma died, Cortés knew it was time to withdraw.  Gathering his forces, he told each man to take as much of the accumulated treasure as they wished, and that they would attempt to sneak out of the city that night.  Some of the men evidently burdened themselves down with just a little too much gold.

The island city of Tenochtitlan was connected to the shore by long causeways which had removable sections for defense.  The Spanish, knowing that the angry natives, eager for revenge, had removed these sections to prevent their escape, had built a light portable wooden scaffold to allow them to escape. 

At midnight, the Spaniards began to move silently through the city, making their way to the closest causeway.  An old woman, washing her clothes in the lake water, spotted the fleeing conquistadors and raised an alarm.  Almost instantly, Aztec warriors began chasing the conquistadors down the causeway and even more began to flank the sides of the causeway in canoes.  As missiles—rocks, darts, arrows, and spears—rained down on the men, they came to the first break in the causeway where they used their scaffold to cross, but then discovered that the wooden structure had become wedged, resisting their efforts to remove it in order to cross the next break in the escape route.

As the missiles continued to pelt the helpless men, those in the rear pushed the men in front of them into the water, where, weighted down with packs of gold, those men quickly drowned.  Some of the men in the rear eventually escaped by crossing on the bodies of their dead comrades.

Cortés had been justifiably angry with Pedro de Alvarado, whom he had ordered to bring up the rear of the column of men as they tried to make their escape.  According to one account, when Pedro came to the first break in the causeway, he managed to use his long lance to vault across the break.  (I’ve always thought it a little unfair that none of the record books credit him with establishing the first Mexican pole vault record.)

By the time Cortés gathered his men on the beaches of Lake Texcoco, he had lost somewhere between 400 and 800 Spaniards and well over 1,000 native allies.  Cortés supposedly sat under a tree and mourned his losses.  The Spanish called the night of June 30, 1520, the “Noche Triste”—the sad night.

Cortés would eventually rally his men, and would eventually conquer Tenochtitlan and all of Mexico.  Though Cortés would eventually gather a fortune in treasure, the gold that was lost that night was never recovered from the bottom of the lake, and is still waiting for someone to discover it.

Well, that was the story that I used to tell my students:  the tale how Cortés gathered Aztec gold only to lose it in his escape from the city.  But, this month, the story got a new ending.  The gold—at least some of it—has been discovered, nearly 500 years later.

Using special x-ray equipment, archaeologists have just identified a gold bar that a city worker uncovered from a Mexico City park as part of the missing treasure.  The bar, 1.93 kilograms, is worth over $50,000 today.  This is the first piece of the lost treasure that has been missing for 500 years to be located.

And even as you read this, I bet that new holes are being sunk in that park.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

What the Hell is a Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang?


I suppose we should start the story with Felix Leiter, the C.I.A. secret agent who was a close friend with Bond, James Bond.  Felix Letter started the whole ball rolling.

This is kind of a fuzzy start, since Felix Leiter doesn’t actually exist:  he is a creation of the writer, Ian Fleming, but Fleming created the character and named him after two close friends:  Felix was the middle name of Ivar Bryce and Leiter was the surname of Marion Oates Leiter.  This was a friendly gesture and would probably have been completely forgotten if weren’t for the fact that Marion Leiter was also a close friend of John and Jackie Kennedy.

Fleming recycled a lot of names in his books, naming characters after people, places and events throughout his life.  He wrote all of the Bond books at Goldeneye, his Jamaican beach house, which was named for…no, not the book…for Operation Golden Eye from World War II.  As a British intelligence officer, Fleming had been in charge of a secret plan to install spies throughout Spain in the case it fell under Nazi control.  (If you are wondering about the origin of the name James Bond, he was the author of Fleming’s favorite book on birds of the Caribbean.  And the German code name for the Zimmerman Telegram during World War I was 0070.)

In March of 1960, Ian Fleming came to Washington D.C. to visit Marion Leiter and while she was driving him around Georgetown showing him the sighs, she spotted John and Jacquelyn Kennedy out for an afternoon walk.  As she was already scheduled to have dinner with the couple at their home that night, on impulse she stopped the car and asked then Senator Kennedy if she could bring a friend to dinner, introducing Fleming to the future president.

“James Bond?” said Kennedy, “But of course, by all means—do please come.”

It turned out that Kennedy was a fan of Ian Fleming and enjoyed reading his novels.  It was Leiter, in fact, who had first given him one of Fleming’s novels, Casino Royale, to read while he was recovering from back surgery.  The chance introduction on the streets of Washington would lead to a lasting friendship between the two men.  When President Kennedy publicly recommended the novel From Russia With Love in 1961, stating it was one his favorite books, sales of the book in the United States skyrocketed, eventually making Fleming one of the top selling authors in the United States, and attracting the interest of Hollywood.

The friendship was relatively short, but Fleming did reciprocate the publicity gift Kennedy had given him.  In his novel The Spy Who Loved Me, the author has Bond stating that the world needs more leaders like Kennedy.  Kennedy remained a fan of Flemings work—the last movie he watched was the From Russia With Love, and the night before his assassination, as he rested in the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth, he relaxed by reading Fleming’s latest novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In The Man With a Golden Gun, the first Bond book written after Kennedy’s assassination, the book opens with Bond relaxing with a glass of bourbon while reading Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

When the Bond books took off in America, several things happened all at once.  First, Fleming became the top crime writer in America.  Second, Hollywood signed Fleming to a five movie deal, and third, Fleming suffered a heart attack.  At the top of his career, Fleming had to stay home and recuperate.

Fleming didn’t have the closest relationship with his son, Caspar, and while he was resting, his son told him one day, “You like James Bond more than you like me.”  Chastened, Fleming feverishly embellished a bedtime story he used to tell his son—who he nicknamed 003-and-a-half—and finished his only book for children, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car.  Unfortunately, the book came out two months after Fleming’s death from a second heart attack.

By the time the book came out, the Bond movie franchise was firmly established by Albert R. Broccoli, an American movie producer who produced the Bond films in Great Britain, with American financing.  It was largely the reception of American audiences that turned James Bond into an enduring franchise.  Broccoli had found success with Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger, so it was only natural for Broccoli to be interested in making a film from Fleming’s latest book.

Purchasing the rights to the book, Broccoli hired Roald Dahl, who had written the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, to work with director Ken Hughes to produce a screenplay from the children’s book.  The writers shortened the title and substantially changed the plot, adding a female lead named Truly Scrumptious, in honor of the outrageously named female characters Fleming had written into his Bond books. 

The movie had more than a few connections to the Bond films.  John Stears, who had designed Bond’s Aston Martin (along with all sorts of other machines—from Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder and the iconic Jedi lightsabers to R2D2—was hired to supervise special effects.  Ken Adam, the set designer for the Bond film, designed the true hero of the film, the car.

Actually, six of the cars were built, only one of which actually functioned on the road.  Though a stick shift is visible, actually the car had an automatic transmission as Dick Van Dyke, the star of the movie, did not know how to operate a manual transmission.  Today, the car is owned by director Peter Jackson, who used to chauffeur the actors of The Hobbit around New Zealand in the vehicle while a sound system installed in the trunk would play the theme song from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.  (And I bet that obnoxious music is mentally playing in your head right now.  NASA used the music—ONCE—as the wakeup song for the International Space Station.  The astronauts threatened to take the station to a different planet.)

The movie was not exactly a great success, losing money at the box office and receiving poor marks from the critics.  Recently, three sequels of the book were released, and a musical by the same name had a brief run.  But, neither the books nor the movie answer a fundamental question:  What the hell is a Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang?

When asked, Ian Fleming said that he needed his heroic car to produce a distinctive sound, so he had named it after the race cars of the 1920’s built by Count Louis Zborowski and his engineer Clive Gallop.  While the count was one of the richest men in the world and thus able to finance his hobby, Gallop was a former fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force.  The first of three cars to be named Chitty-Bang-Bang, was fitted with an air-cooled Maybach aircraft engine (the oversized exhaust pictured was a phony to confuse the competition) and was unbelievably loud—so much so that the village of Canterbury passed an ordnance that Count Zborowski, whose workshop was nearby, was prohibited from entering the town in the car.

When asked about the distinctive name, the count would smile, and say that the car was named after the distinctive noise that an aircraft engine makes—which is highly unlikely since the exact nature of the car’s engine was a closely held secret.  Eventually, the car was replaced with Chitty-Bang-Bang 2, and the original was sold to the family of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

At one point, it was even suggested the name referred to Lelitha Chitty, a female aeronautical engineer.  This was unlikely since her fame was unknown by the time the race car was created.

So where did the name really come from?  Undoubtedly, the name came from Clive Gallop.  During World War I, while stationed at the front, soldiers in Gallop’s unit would occasionally request a pass—usually referred to as a chit or chitty—for just a few hours off base in order to visit what the French locals called a maison close.  (Or what is generally called a whorehouse).

Surely, I don’t have to explain the Bang-Bang portion of the name!