Reading Images & understanding firearms

Federico Navarrete (fnl@SERVIDOR.UNAM.MX)
Fri, 5 Jan 1996 10:37:44 -0600

>A fascinating thread, this, and one that is stirring a lot of interest.
>It seems to me that information theory is relevant here. According to
>that, the intelligibility of any message varies directly with the amount
>of redundancy it contains, redundancy being defined roughly as the part
>of the message that is already familiar to the receiver. If a message
>contains absolutely no redundancy for a given receiver, it will be
>completely unintelligible to him or her.
>So in Martin Cohen's contribution to the thread, the images seen in
>standing water would be the source of redundancy enabling someone who had
>never seen a photograph before to understand it.
>Here's another example that has always been fascinating to me. European
>explorers encounter a group that has absolutely no experience of
>firearms. A confrontation develops, the Europeans feel threatened and
>fire a gun, wounding or killing someone. Do the people fired upon
>understand what has happened? My anticipation is no, at least not right
>then. It would require at least two experiences to establish sufficient
>redundancy for them to understand (learn) the connection between pointing
>and firing a gun and the person pointed at being wounded or killed. (An
>exception might be Australian aboriginal groups who have the notion that
>a sorcerer can injure someone by pointing a killing stick at them. That
>might provide some redundancy to enable understanding of the first
>encounter with a firearm, in a way similar to reflections in water
>providing redundancy for understanding one's first encounter with a
>I'd be very interested in people's reactions to the situation of first
>encounters with firearms, and if anyone has some empirical data on it.
>Allan Hanson

Expanding on the thread about reading images, I think that Allan Hanson
posed an interesting parallel with understanding fire arms and their

The conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century was among the first
instances of a non-Western people getting in sudden (and terrible) contact
with firearms. Their reaction is quite interesting.
On the one hand, the Spaniards knew already the shock value of their
weapons (through contact with other native peoples in the Caribbean) and so
arranged very early in their dealings with the Aztecs for a spectacular
display of cannons and muskets. The ambassadors of Emperor Moctezuma were
duly impressed and actually fainted, noting the loud noise, the stench of
the sulphur and the destruction of several trees by the cannon balls. This
first disply of firearms was just a bravado by the Spaniards, but later
they did get to use their weapons against the Mexicas, to great effect
since Aztec warriors attacked in tight formations and so the muskets
provoked many casualties. However, the Mexicas soon learnt that their
traditional formations for attack were unsuitable and changed them
This shows that they understood pretty quickly what the fire arms' effect
was. However, there is another interesting aspect: when they captured fire
arms from the Spaniards, the Aztecs never used them, but rather destroyed
them (throwing them into the lake) as objects of awesome power. In general,
the Indians interpreted firearms (and horses for that matter) as things of
"divine" (in the sense of powerful and uncanny) origin, and thus thought
that the Spaniards were also somewhat "divine" or at least incredibly
powerful and fearsome (though this issue is hotly debated).
This reaction poses various problems. The first one is to wonder whether a
more 'pragmatic' people (like the Japanese) would have been able to use the
firearms against the Spaniards. It must be remembered that (unlike the
Japanese) the Aztecs had no ironworking (so could not imitate the weapons)
and no knowledge of powder (even for ceremonial ends). In contrast, they
did use captured Spanish swords against their attackers (since they had an
equivalent weapon, the macquahuitl, a club with flint edges).
Another interesting problem is how long would the Aztecs had needed to
learn to use firearms. Since they were destroyed barely two years after
their first contact with the Spaniards, they didn't get much time, but I
think that, once the shock value of the weapons had worn off, they would
have found ways to acquire and use them (like the African kingdoms that
traded them for slaves). This would surely had made any subsequent attempt
at conquest even more difficult. The "savage" nomadic people from Northern
Mexico learnt very well how to use firearms and horses and became
formidable foes to the Spaniards.
This is the general information about the Aztecs and firearms. If you are
interested in the subject, there are many editions of the main sources:
ON the Spanish side:Hernan Cortes's chronicle of the conquest, and Bernal
Diaz del Castillo _True History of the Conquest of New Spain_.
On the Aztec (Indian side) you can check out Miguel Le=F3n-Portilla _The
Vision of the Vanquished_, an excellent anthology of native sources.

=46ederico Navarrete Linares