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‘1519: A Journey to the End of Time”
‘1519: A Journey to the End of Time”
Mexicolore contributor John Harrison

Talking a Good Fight: Communication and Conquest (1)

We are sincerely grateful to travel writer and lecturer John Harrison for this perceptive and personal account, based on extracts from his book 1519: A Journey to the End of Time in which he followed Cortes’s route from first landing to final battle. His other books have won the Wales Book of the Year, and the British Guild of Travel Writers’ best narrative guide book.

Pic 1: Sir Henry Wotton
Pic 1: Sir Henry Wotton (Click on image to enlarge)

Conquests are usually portrayed as dashing military affairs, but the conquest of Mexico was a campaign waged mostly through politics and diplomacy. As long ago as 1604, Henry Wotton (pic 1), a diplomat, and friend of the poet John Donne, said ‘An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.’
Cortés was something even slippier: an adventurer authorised to trade and explore, who pretended to be an ambassador while betraying his boss. He had good captains, but the personnel who were key to his success were a marooned Spanish sailor, and a teenage slave girl.

Pic 2: Hernán Cortés
Pic 2: Hernán Cortés (Click on image to enlarge)

No one growing up with the young Cortés tipped him for success. Not even his parents. He came from a small town called Medellín. Life was brutal and brittle. Most of Europe lacked heavy grain-growing soils to feed its cities. From 1450 Spain was being devastated by three million Merino sheep wandering over Extremadura and Andalucía devouring the grass, and exposing the soil to erosion. By the sixteenth century even trees were scarce. Extremadura was a place where go-ahead people got out.

Pic 3: Medellín from the Guadiana bridge
Pic 3: Medellín from the Guadiana bridge (Click on image to enlarge)

Medellín is reached by a causeway across a wide valley in the centre of which is a high bridge over the bright Guadiana river (pic 3). I visited in September, when the baking air still shimmered up the hill towards the castle which ranges along its ridge. This view would have changed little since the time of Cortés, for the modern town is hidden by the hill. Even its population of 2500 souls is the same as in Cortés’s youth. It was one of those endless afternoons whose smothering heat stills the clocks. Shops and cafes were all closed, its inhabitants might have gone to the moon. One thing might not have surprised the arrogant and ambitious young man: his statue now stands in the square.

Pic 4: Statue of Cortés in Medellín
Pic 4: Statue of Cortés in Medellín (Click on image to enlarge)

He was born in 1485, when the town’s churches still shared the skyline with a busy synagogue and mosque. According to Gómara, Cortés’s secretary turned biographer, ‘As an infant Hernán Cortés was so frail that many times he was on the point of dying.’ He was an hidalgo, a corruption of hijo de algo, literally the son of a someone. The qualification was modest: being able to name all four grandparents. It whispers volumes about a society in which many could not. It may have become important because it would prove or otherwise the absence of Jews or Moors in your blood. His grandparents ‘had little wealth but much honour.’

Pic 5: Old library, University of Salamanca
Pic 5: Old library, University of Salamanca (Click on image to enlarge)

Located in the wildest part of Extremadura, Medellín was a violent rebel town, which was one of the last towns in Spain to recognise the victorious Isabela of Castile. Amid this turmoil, Cortés had an education of sorts. Aged fourteen, he was sent to Salamanca, Spain’s oldest university (pic 5), to lodge with a kinsman of his father, and study Latin. Cortés’s family made sacrifices for Hernán, hoping a lettered career would pay them all back. Instead he left early, after two years, being, according to Bernal Díaz ‘either disgusted with school life or having changed his mind or, perhaps from lack of money. His return vexed his parents exceedingly, they being annoyed with him for having abandoned his studies. They had destined him for the law, because he was very intelligent and clever in everything he did.’ But he was also ‘restless, haughty, mischievous, and given to quarrelling.’

Pic 6: Seville cathedral at night
Pic 6: Seville cathedral at night (Click on image to enlarge)

At some point he began training as a notary in Seville (pix 6 & 7), handling day-to-day legal work, and he continued his apprenticeship in Hispaniola. This kept his Latin in use, and he would always enjoy displaying his credentials as an educated man, in a way truly well-educated people do not need to do. What undoubtedly shows through in his writings and dealings is a knowledge of the law, and an understanding that in public life and the Court, the law mattered, or at least a show of proceeding according to law. But when he quotes literature or the Bible, we sense a smooth talker with a stock of aphorisms, not someone drawing on a reservoir of deep reading. One biblical quote he might have taken to heart was the opening line of St John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word’. A lawyer’s understanding of the power of words would help to see him through.

Pic 7: View of Seville from the cathedral tower
Pic 7: View of Seville from the cathedral tower (Click on image to enlarge)

Inga Clendinnen, in her brilliant essay Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty, wrote that Cortés was ‘unremarkable as a combat leader’, and thought his captains, Alvarado and Sandoval, surpassed him. But ‘in his passion and talent for control of self and others, Cortés was incomparable.’ In other words he was a skilled manipulator.

Pic 8: Cempoala, home of the Fat Chief
Pic 8: Cempoala, home of the Fat Chief (Click on image to enlarge)

It was at Cempoala (pic 8), north of modern day Veracruz, that he first learned of the reach of the Aztec empire. The small city-state’s leader Tlacochcalcatl, simplified by chroniclers weary of polysyllables, to the Fat Chief, was a vassal of Moctezuma, and happy to befriend these aliens if they could help him defy Tenochtitlán. What Cortés learned there would help him formulate his strategy for conquest, which was to recruit the natural enemies of the overbearing Aztecs as his allies. But when the languages changed with every two or three days’ sailing, how was he to learn anything?
He began his voyage with two Mayans on board, who had been captured on a previous voyage and taught basic Spanish: Julian and Melchior. Cruising the coast, they realised some Maya had chanted the word ‘Castilan!’ at them, and they tracked down a man who had a remarkable story to tell. He was brought on board Cortes’s ship wearing a ragged cloak with the remains of a prayer book tucked in it, and one ancient sandal on his foot, and the other tied to his belt. His ears and lips were pierced, his hair cut carelessly with a knife, and he was brown all over. In broken Spanish, he told his tale.

Pic 9: The Yucatán landscape from temple top, Cobá
Pic 9: The Yucatán landscape from temple top, Cobá (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I am Jerónimo de Aguilar, of Holy Orders, born in Écija, east of Seville. Eight years ago I was wrecked on a voyage from Darien (Panama) to the island of Santo Domingo when our ship struck a reef called The Vipers near Jamaica. So twenty of us boarded the ship’s boat, but currents carried us to this country, eight of us already dead from want of any food or water, where the chiefs divided us up. Four were immediately sacrificed to their idols; the remaining seven of us were put in cages. I had been intended for sacrifice, but one night I escaped and fled to chief Xamanzana, where I have been ever since.’ All the other captives had died, except for one, Gonzalo Guerrero.
In Aguilar, Cortés now had a translator fluent in Maya, whom he could trust more than Melchior. The language he would soon need was a very different one, Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. But for the moment, Cortés was outnumbered by Native forces, and he needed diplomacy, and to do that he needed to talk, and now he had a voice. In Spanish a spokesman is a portavoz, literally a voice carrier.
Two events illustrate how, under the noses of supporters of the governor he was usurping, he refashioned his trade trip into one of conquest.

Pic 10: The battlefield site, La Frontera, where the first land battle with the Maya took place
Pic 10: The battlefield site, La Frontera, where the first land battle with the Maya took place (Click on image to enlarge)

After a successful first day’s fighting at La Frontera (pic 10), the first full battle the Spanish waged on the mainland, Cortés cut three slashes in the giant ceiba tree in the square to claim the land. This was a formal act of possession, witnessed by Notary Diego de Godoy, but it caused grumblings among men close to Governor Velázquez. The terms of Cortés’s orders did not include conquest or government. What is more, he had taken possession in the name of the king, without naming Velázquez. He was repositioning himself to act independently of his boss. Without a knowledge of local culture, how could he know that even his sword-cut meant something very different to the Natives? The ceiba, with its massive trunk, was a sacred tree that held up heaven itself. Now it was scarred, and weeping sap.

Pic 11: La Frontera battlefield site at sunset
Pic 11: La Frontera battlefield site at sunset (Click on image to enlarge)

The defeated chief came to him with gifts and they included twenty slave women. One was called Malinalli. In Nahuatl, Malinalli is a grass, and also the name of the twelfth day of the Aztec calendar. Each calendar day had its own astrological significance, and day twelve, Malinalli, was the sign for difficult, unlucky, rebellious children who would be torn from their parents. The grass she was named after had a special use, it was strong enough to be pulled through a hole in the tongue to make the wound bleed for the gods. The association of speech and pain was embedded in her name.
The Spanish called her Malinche. She was probably about as old as the century, eighteen or nineteen, when she was gifted to Cortés. Chaplain Juan Díaz wrote of her homeland, ‘The people of this province excelled in beauty and stature over all the other Indians.’

Pic 12: Overland route of Cortés from coast to Tenochtitlan
Pic 12: Overland route of Cortés from coast to Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

She told Díaz she was from the village of Paynala, near the modern city of Coatzacoalcos. In that area she would have been raised speaking Maya. Nahuatl-speaking neighbours called this coastal Maya dialect Popoluca, which you will guess, after saying it aloud, means babble.
Her parents were nobles, but her father died when she was very young, and her mother married another chief, and bore him a son. They wanted this son to succeed to their titles, and plotted to dispose of the daughter. One night they secretly gave her to traders based down the coast at Xicalango. Because of long-standing trade links, the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs was also spoken in this coastal enclave. The traders sold her on to men from Potonchan, close to modern La Frontera, who spoke Maya, which she now learned. We know she was intelligent with an aptitude for languages, and this would have made her valuable. She would also have seen how different nations in this patchwork of mini-states did business; commerce and diplomacy were closely linked.

Pic 13: Main cultural groups in 1519
Pic 13: Main cultural groups in 1519 (Click on image to enlarge)

These skills would direct the course of her life. Malinche spoke Nahuatl and Maya, Aguilar spoke Maya and Spanish. Through this pair of tongues Cortés could talk to the two most powerful groups in Mesoamerica. Within months her Spanish caught up with Aguilar’s half-forgotten usage. From then on, for the duration of the conquest and well beyond, one person constantly appears at Cortés’s side in the manuscript drawings of events, sometimes drawn larger than the men, to indicate her importance; that person is Malinche. She is speech, and speech is power.

Pic 14: Cortés and Malinche, Lienzo de Tlaxcala
Pic 14: Cortés and Malinche, Lienzo de Tlaxcala (Click on image to enlarge)

Cortés had no mandate for settlement; officially he was trading and looking for a man called Grijalva, who had gone missing on a voyage two years before. So before Cortés reached the Fat Chief in Cempoala, he performed the second of the significant acts which redrew his mission; he staged a coup over his own expedition. His aim was to be independent of the power base in Cuba under Governor Velázquez. When he told the men his orders had been fulfilled, and they would now seek to settle, loyal supporters of Governor Velázquez became furious. At first, Cortés seemed to capitulate, giving orders to return to Cuba.

Pic 15: On the trail of Cortés at Xico
Pic 15: On the trail of Cortés at Xico (Click on image to enlarge)

But many more men had become disillusioned over the slim pickings remaining in Cuba and Hispaniola, and saw Mexico as their chance to own land. They protested so vehemently that Cortés threw up his hands and allowed himself to be persuaded to stay, able to portray his own plans as the common will. He now wrote his own orders. The law’s requirements had been observed; his legal apprenticeship had not been wasted. In November 1519 they arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. The person who would address its emperor was the slave Malinche. If she was of average height for a native woman, she was just four feet ten inches tall, but now she stood toe-to-toe with kings.

Pic 16: Map of Tenochtitlan in 1521 (illustration by Miguel Covarrubias)
Pic 16: Map of Tenochtitlan in 1521 (illustration by Miguel Covarrubias) (Click on image to enlarge)

There were two styles of language within the Nahuatl-speaking world. Moctezuma would have used tecpillahtolli, the highly formal speech of court in which it was polite not to say what you meant. You might even say the contrary, in a kind of irony of manners. Malinche had not mixed in aristocratic company, with their diplomatic corps highfalutin speech, but all the evidence is that she coped perfectly. As a woman, her mere presence would add tension to the situation, speaking in forums where no women ever spoke. Codices show her staring Moctezuma in the eye as she speaks. This would have been doubly insolent.

Pic 17: Moctezuma by Antonio Rodrigez c.1690, Museo degli Argenti Florence
Pic 17: Moctezuma by Antonio Rodrigez c.1690, Museo degli Argenti Florence (Click on image to enlarge)

From early on, participants, chroniclers then historians created a Mexican myth setting in opposition Moctezuma - a timid, cowardly, despotic, effete savage king, bound to an irrational religion, and Cortés - noble, valiant, pragmatic, single-minded, rational, intelligent, flexible, persistent. The first great historian of the conquest, the nineteenth-century William Hickling Prescott, would present it as a consequence of mental and moral qualities allied to technological superiority. While Cortés possessed many of those virtues, his morals were what the occasion suited. He waged a campaign of diplomacy by necessity, for his steel swords, guns and horses couldn’t defeat the Mexica until he had enough Native allies to outnumber the Aztecs. By that time, Tenochtitlán was ruled by a man as skilled, savvy and determined as himself.

Pic 18: Malinche’s old house in Calle Cuba, Mexico City
Pic 18: Malinche’s old house in Calle Cuba, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Even in warfare, the languages of engagement were different. The Spanish fought to kill and win. The Aztecs had been dominant in their region for generations and fought to take prisoners for the sacrifices. It was harder to take a fit man alive than kill him, and if you succeeded, you had to bind him, and take him to the rear of battle before rejoining the fray. It was scrupulously observed; taking captives turned an ordinary man performing military service into an honoured warrior. Thus at one point, during desperate fighting for the city of Tenochtitlán, Cortés became isolated and Aztec warriors seized him. But obsessed by taking this supreme prize as a prisoner for their gods, they spurned the opportunity to kill him, and Spanish soldiers had a few precious extra moments to rescue him. Cortés did not fall, but the empire would.

Pic 19: Aztec warriors wielding obsidian clubs, Florentine Codex
Pic 19: Aztec warriors wielding obsidian clubs, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

The Spanish had appeared from across an ocean that Native Americans could barely have imagined contained an opposing shore. The Nahuatl phrase for distant places literally means ‘beyond the mists’. Back in Spain, people were trying to make sense of the strange new world that had been revealed. It was widely believed, including by Columbus, that the conversion of these new pagans had been given to the Catholic monarchs of Spain and Portugal as one of the last great acts before the final days of the world. Beyond the mists, in the blinding light of the hot southern villages, the timeless love and anxiety of mothers for absent sons was playing out, day by slow day.

Pic 20: The Plaza Mayor, Ecija
Pic 20: The Plaza Mayor, Ecija (Click on image to enlarge)

Aguilar’s hometown of Écija is known as the Frying Pan of Andalucía, and is one of the hottest towns in Spain. Its fine baroque buildings are thronged with churches. Aguilar’s mother was well known around the town during the long years after his capture, for when she had been told he was a prisoner of cannibals, she gave up meat, and became hysterical each time she saw it cooking, screaming ‘That’s my son!’ She haunted the church of Christ the Captive. The Sunday morning that I visited, the porch shadows held beggars desperate in the face. One ancient lady made noises in the throat, as if croaking though a ruined grating. A feeble arm gestured towards her plastic bowls. I gave to one mother, and remembered another.

Follow link below for the conclusion to John Harrison’s article, picture sources, and further information...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 17th 2016

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