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Model figures of Doña Marina and Cortés

‘Conquest’: the impact - expert opinions (2)

Our second compilation of thoughts on the Spanish invasion by members of our Panel of Experts focuses strongly on women - rarely heard yet key protagonists in the story. This approach allows us to introduce a new resource for younger readers, comparing the stories of Malinche and Pocahontas... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Model figures of Doña Marina and Hernán Cortés
Pic 1: Model figures of Doña Marina and Hernán Cortés (Click on image to enlarge)

We ended the first section of this two-parter with the question ‘Who conquered who?’. In this part we ask further hard-hitting questions: ‘Who entered whose history?’ and ‘What about the women?’ Barbara Mundy sets the scene eloquently: ‘What took place in the Basin of Mexico between 1519-21 was chaotic and inexplicable in its moment, with individuals only partially experiencing or learning of events that were happening in different places, at different times, like fragments of a broken mirror. Historical narratives, beginning with the letters of Hernando Cortés, have gathered up the fragments, setting them out into chronological order, choosing some as causes, others as effects, enhancing some, neglecting others. Today we encounter these narratives as uniform rivers of words on the page or on screen.
Up until the middle of the last century, historians had been largely content to stay within the confines of the historical narratives whose limits were set out in the sixteenth century. Over the centuries, these time-travelers - Francisco López de Gómara, Antonio de Solís, William Prescott - followed the course of the same dry river bed leading to the past. Their eyes squinted to catch sight of the familiar landmarks (the burning of the ships at Veracruz, the assassination of Moteuczoma, the massacre at Cholula) along the way.

Pic 2: Model figures of Doña Marina and Hernán Cortés, reversed in size
Pic 2: Model figures of Doña Marina and Hernán Cortés, reversed in size (Click on image to enlarge)

‘But when I walk up that riverbed, and raise my eyes to look at its banks and beyond, I see ghosts. Legions of them, standing along that riverbed of history, massed together along its banks, looking at it course. They are all silent. And they are all women.
The women didn’t write about their experiences during the Conquest, only the men. (The woman who was in the thick of it all, Doña Marina, “speaks” only through Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo.) What would history look like if more women spoke? I suspect we would find more about a different register of events, in particular the epidemics (for who would be sitting by the bedside and watching the course of the fevers?) and the food supply (who carried the empty basket home from the market?). These were no less consequential to the course of history than the massacres and assassinations. The ghosts are calling for our attention.’

Pic 3: Illustration of Doña Marina by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 3: Illustration of Doña Marina by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Elizabeth Baquedano reveals more about the life and importance of Doña Marina: ‘The Conquest of Mexico was not made by 550 Spanish soldiers or by the superiority of their weapons. The Conquest was made by a number of factors that contributed to its success in less than two years. Noteworthy was the contribution made by several native groups of Mexico who allied themselves with the Spaniards and by the help of a remarkable indigenous woman who became Cortés’s interpreter Malintzin, also called Doña Marina by the Spaniards. How did the Spaniards perceive this woman who was so essential to their success. How did the indigenous people portray her in their histories of the Conquest?
La Malinche, Malintzin, Malinalli and Doña Marina are all names commonly used when referring to Cortés’s indigenous interpreter. This extraordinary woman was born sometime around 1500. Her life before the encounter with Cortés and the Spanish army is not altogether well known. Malintzin was the daughter of a noble family near Veracruz but at the age of 5 she was sent away from her people to live in Tabasco with the Maya where she remained and learned a Maya tongue. One of Cortés’s soldiers, Bernal Díaz, claimed that her mother and stepfather sold her to merchants.

Pic 4: Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration of a group of native women being granted to Cortés
Pic 4: Miguel Covarrubias’ illustration of a group of native women being granted to Cortés (Click on image to enlarge)

‘In March of 1519, after a fierce battle against Cortés and his men the Maya chose to cooperate with the Spaniards and gave them food, gold and twenty slave women one of them was Malintzin later baptized and renamed with the Christian name of Marina.
Jerónimo de Aguilar a Spaniard who had traveled before Cortés and had resulted in a shipwreck had lived in the Yucatan peninsula as a slave for eight years. Cortés had recruited him to act as translator. Moctezuma sent messengers to speak with Cortés but his translator –Aguilar- was unable to communicate with them as he was only able to speak Yucatec Maya while the messengers spoke Nahuatl.

Pic 5: Marina’s central role in interpreting - even deciding - for Cortés is evident in this scene of negotiation in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Pic 5: Marina’s central role in interpreting - even deciding - for Cortés is evident in this scene of negotiation in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

‘It is at this point that Malintzin became indispensable to Hernán Cortés. As a native Nahuatl speaker she was able to translate from Nahuatl to Maya, which in turn could be translated into Spanish by Jerónimo de Aguilar. This role made Malintzin essential during the Conquest period. As translator to Hernán Cortés, the actions of Malintzin were a key factor in the fusion of pre-Colonial and Spanish societies. She soon learned Spanish as well.
Besides being an indispensable translator Malintzin showed her allegiance to Cortés rather than to her own people.
Malintzin changed the course of universal history. The many different roles she played can perhaps best be seen in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala where she is represented 20 times. She is often depicted as the central figure and is bigger in size than Cortés. She often dominates the scenes.

Pic 6: In this scene from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, titled ‘The lords were baptised’, Marina stands next to Cortés, as Xicotencatl I is baptised ‘Vicente’
Pic 6: In this scene from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, titled ‘The lords were baptised’, Marina stands next to Cortés, as Xicotencatl I is baptised ‘Vicente’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Malintzin acted as a diplomat, she was able to negotiate mediating all relations between Cortés and his native allies such the Tlaxcaltecas. She was the first to establish a political speech According to Baudot (1988) “es la autora del discurso politico de la Conquista”. She was the first woman to take a definitive role in a man’s world.
She was also the first woman to take part in the evangelization process: in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala Cortés and Malintzin are seen spreading the Catholic faith, supposedly one of the reasons for the Conquest.’

Pic 7 Further evidence, this time from the Tizatlan Codex, of Doña Marina’s pivotal role in influencing events during the Spanish invasion
Pic 7 Further evidence, this time from the Tizatlan Codex, of Doña Marina’s pivotal role in influencing events during the Spanish invasion (Click on image to enlarge)

It is thanks to the - in some cases recently discovered - evidence from books written/drawn by Aztec scribes around the time of or after the invasion that today’s scholars are able to compose a much more subtle and balanced picture of those monumental events - and of the role of women like Doña Marina/Malintzin. Some of those books, as Joanne Harwood points out, are close to home for those living and studying in the UK... ‘It is impossible to study the ‘Aztecs and the Spanish Conquest, 1519-1535’ without studying the books that the Aztecs produced both before and after the arrival of the Spanish invaders under Hernán Cortés. Most people are unaware that the Aztecs had books in a wide range of different genres, written using a complex and beautiful iconic script that, as scholar Gordon Brotherston has noted, combines in a single system mathematics, images and text. An extraordinary number of the few books that survived or were made after the arrival of the Spanish are located in the UK, including the early 16th century Codex Mendoza, held in the Bodleian Library Oxford. It has been likened to the Rosetta Stone because although it is written entirely in Aztec iconic script , it also includes alphabetic transcriptions in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs, which is still spoken in Mexico today) and alphabetic Spanish. In another 16th century post-Cortesian example called the Codex Kingsborough, in the British Museum, Aztec scribes have adapted their iconic script to show the often repressive deeds of the Spanish encomenderos who appropriated indigenous land and labour during the colonial period. Such depictions have led Brotherston to ask who entered whose history when Europe encountered, conquered and colonised Mexico.’

Pic 8: Spanish torturing and killing native people; Codex Huamantla, fols. 24-25
Pic 8: Spanish torturing and killing native people; Codex Huamantla, fols. 24-25 (Click on image to enlarge)

Though many of the images from the invasion bear witness to the horrific suffering endured by the indigenous peoples at the hands of the Spanish, we leave the last word to Susan Gillespie whose final sentence is uplifting: ‘The fateful encounter between Spaniards and Aztecs that began in 1519 is often represented as a “clash of cultures.” Many such meetings between “The West” and “The Rest” (of the world) are considered a “culture-clash,” but the phrase is especially pertinent to this specific historical event. From the early descriptions of Aztec culture penned by Spanish conquistadores and friars, further embellished over the centuries, we have inherited a view of the Aztecs as not only strange and exotic, but as the most horrible, brutal, and bloodthirsty people of antiquity. Art historian Esther Pasztory* argues that the Aztecs fill a niche in our Western view of the world’s peoples: some group has to be the most violent, barbaric, and awful so that they can be compared unfavorably with everyone else. The “clash of cultures” metaphor is about difference, and the Aztecs always come off looking, if not truly terrible, at least very different from us. The contrasts between Aztec and Spanish (as Western) society, culture, religion, and technology are standard fare for books and media directed to students and the public.

Pic 9: Male and female figures (West Mexico); Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 9: Male and female figures (West Mexico); Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Far less common are comparisons that reveal how similar the Aztecs were to their European counterparts. We tend to forget that the Europeans held a medieval mind-set not much different from that of the Aztecs. For example, the conquistadores beseeched God and the saints to deliver them in battle, not unlike the Aztecs. Furthermore, sixteenth-century Spaniards beheld a society comparable, even superior in some ways, to their own. Aztec social, political, and economic practices were more familiar to medieval Europeans than to modern scholarship. Even regarding their notorious religious practices, some missionary friars were so struck by similarities in belief and worship between Aztec religion and Catholicism that they thought perhaps an Apostle of Christ had converted the Indians long ago. There is much more to the Aztecs than gore and sacrifice. After 500 years, it’s high time we elevate them out of the “most barbaric” category, to appreciate what we (and other peoples) all have in common.’
*Pasztory, Esther (2003) Aztec Poetry. Nahua Newsletter #35 (February):20-23. Fort Wayne, Indiana

Pic 10: Mexican 1741 gold ‘real’, silver ‘real’ and gold ingot; Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 10: Mexican 1741 gold ‘real’, silver ‘real’ and gold ingot; Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

AND FINALLY... First, Susan Gillespie adds a reminder for students that: ‘the Spanish conquest of the gold producing countries in the Americas contributed to the rise of modern Europe (the Europe that looks down on these civilizations). That observation has been made by economic historians, but they leave out the fact that it wasn’t just that gold and silver were there in Mexico and Peru, but that complex empires with a long history of extracting the ore and making the objects were also in place, providing an extraction system which the Spaniards took over. In contrast the gold in North America wasn’t discovered until the 19th century.’

Second, Frances Karttunen leaves us a challenging question for students to tackle: ‘“The Aztec sphere of influence should not be called an empire, and the Aztec rulers should not be called kings.” Do you agree on disagree? Explain and give examples.’ Good luck!

Follow the link below for a new resource for younger readers on Malinche and Pocahontas...

Picture sources:-
• Main and pix 3 & 4: images scanned from our own copy of The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico 1517-1521 (Bernal Díaz de Castillo), illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias, Limited Editions Club, 1942
• Pix 1 & 2: Models of Cortés and Doña Marina by George Stuart, photos by Mary Harrsch; courtesy Historic Figures Collection
• Pic 5: image downloaded from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/tlaxcala-lienzo.htm
• Pic 6: image scanned from our own copy of ‘Lienzo de Tlaxcala’ (Alfredo Chavero edition, 1892), Artes de México no. 51/52, Vol XI, 1964
• Pic 7: courtesy Gordon Brotherston
• Pic 8: image scanned from our own copy of Códice de Huamantla, Codices y Manuscritos Tlaxcala 2, facsimile edition, Ed. Rosette, Mexico City, 1984
• Pix 9 & 10: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 26th 2017

‘The view from the metate’ - women and the Aztec world

The stories of Doña Marina and Pocahontas

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