Subject: pochtecatl merchant/spy
Setting: Aztec empire, central Mexico 15thc
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Barbier-Mueller 2001 p306-307
"Many conquering peoples only set store by the valor of their combatants, their fighters. Not the Aztecs. Although the aristocracy was indeed made up mainly of warriors, Aztec merchants enjoyed important privileges. The class of pochteca constituted a veritable class that was highly closed to outsiders. The common people, or macehvatlin, could rise in society to join the ranks of notables (tecuhtli) if they showed daring in the incessant battles that were waged in order to take prisoners, who would serve as future victims of sacrifices offered to the gods; on the other hand, only the sons of traders could assume their fathers' duties, which were extremely well rewarded. The Aztec sovereigns, or tlatoani ('he who speaks'), took serious measures to insure the protection of pochteca traveling far from home to procure exotic materials. To this end, garrisons were maintained along the most heavily traveled routes and although the merchants themselves were armed, escorts of soldiers could be detailed to them if the situation warranted it. Likewise, it has been shown that the pochteca, whose clientele was found mostly among the aristocracy (commoners did not have the right to acquire non-indigenous products), also served as ambassadors and above all spies, in an empire far too vast for the Aztecs (who were less numerous than their vassals) to easily control. Indeed, all of Aztec history is made up of a long series of raids launched against neighboring populations, following the annexation of the small cities of the Altiplano. Occasionally such raids were even conducted under cover of diplomatic treaties, like the Triple Alliance concluded with the cities of Tlacopán and Texcoco which was still in force when Cortés and the Spanish arrived."
* Hassig 1988 p49-50
"The pochtecah (merchants; sing. pochtecatl) traded in a wide range of commodities throughout a vast geographical expanse. Not only did they travel throughout the Aztec Empire, they also went beyond it to trade with independent groups owing no allegiance to Tenochtitlan. In both areas the merchants brought back specific information for the state as well as general assessments of the local political climate, based on the way they had been received.
"Much of the merchants' intelligence gathering was incidental to their primary trading functions, but they were sometimes given intelligence duties to perform for the state. ... On at least some occasions when entering hostile areas beyond the Aztec Empire, the merchants disguised themselves as natives of other areas, cutting their hair in the local manner and learning the language, because if they had been discovered, they would have been killed."
* Hassig 1988 p162-163
"Aztec merchants traded over a wide area and were repeatedly the objects of attack, possibly because they dominated the markets and were detrimental to other merchants, but more probably because of their intelligence functions.
"Traveling throughout Mesoamerica, ... Aztec merchants were a prime source of information about such matters as roads, defenses, and political conditions, so their presence could easily have inspired hostility. Moreover, their political role was such that they may have been sent into areas as deliberate acts of provocation by the Aztecs to create an excuse for war. Such incidents were used by the Aztecs so often and over such a wide area that they cannot be understood as reasons for war but as pretexts. On the other side, what better way to signal a breach in relations than by killing these handy symbols of Aztec might, so even the innocent appearance of Aztec merchants may have stimulated hostile responses. In this instance, as in so many others, the killing of Aztec merchants prompted a military response."
* Matos Moctezuma 1988 p51
"Merchants played a particularly important role within Aztec society. Although they had to pay tribute to the tlatoani, they enjoyed privileges such as owning land or even their own armed forces. Furthermore, if one of them committed a felony, he was judged by a group of his merchant peers. These men also acted as spies while on long-distance trading expeditions, they disguised themselves as locals and gathered information about other groups -- such as defense measures and numbers of soldiers. As well as selling the products of their ruler and the state, merchants also traded their own goods in distant lands, thus monopolizing the market."
* North/Wallis/Weingast 2009 p57-58
"[T]he Aztecs limited access to economic activity by empowering a specific group of merchants, the pochteca. The pochteca possess exclusive privileges to trade in long-distance and luxury goods, organized as guilds, with their own elaborate social ranks signified by special privileges in dress and behavior. The Aztec Empire's fiscal system ran on a combination of tribute and market taxation. Local markets for agricultural products were under the control of local elites, but control of long-distance movement of goods was either directly under the control of the state in the form of tribute payments or indirectly under the control of the state through pochteca networks and formal regulation of markets for long-distance and luxury goods. The Aztec Empire possessed a market economy, but the state harnessed the market economy to the needs of the political system."
* Aguilar-Moreno 2006 p118
"The uniform of the interregional tradesmen, spies, and ambassadors consisted of luxurious clothing, including a maxtlatl, a timatli (cape), and elaborate jewelry."
*Pohl/McBride 1991 p43
"Although sumptuary laws were strictly enforced, with cotton mantles and jewellery being restricted as rewards for specific services, the pochteca pushed these restrictions to their limits."
* Hassig 1988 p50
"... [T]he killing of a merchant was a just cause of war in Mesoamerica, and such incidents initiated many wars. The merchants often acted as provocateurs. By demanding to trade or requesting materials for some domestic or religious purpose, they left independent cities little alternative but to expel or kill them or to become subjects of the Aztecs.
"On other occasions the merchants passed through enemy lands armed with shields and swords, as if prepared for war. They met with some success when battle was thrust upon them and were rewarded by the king in the same manner as valiant warriors. If the merchants were openly attacked or were besieged, the king sent warriors to their aid. Although flight was not honored among warriors, it was rewarded among merchants because of the emphasis on obtaining their information."