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Historical Personages > Malinche - Cortez's secret weapon.

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message 1: by Ed (last edited Aug 24, 2013 02:37PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Morawski | 22 comments Hernan Cortez conquered the land we now know of as Mexico - ruled by the mighty and feared Aztec Empire, with less than 500 men and a few horses and cannon. What was his secret weapon? A 16 or 17 year old slave girl named Malinalli, who would be come to be known as La Malinche.

Who was this girl also known as Malinalli? What did she look like? How did she act?

She was most definitely an Amerindian Nahuatl (what we call Aztec) girl.

She was probably born on May 12, 1502. If in fact her given name was Malinalli, that name signified her birth day on the Aztec calendar, hence May 12, 1502, which would have made her 16 years old when she met Cortes in March 1519.

As for her appearance and manner, we know certainly she was a native so some of the outlandish images of her floating around are just plain wrong. Like the natives of that region she probably had dark skin and high cheekbones. The best description we have comes from a man who knew her personally and the only man to write about her in his own memoir:

The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz
A True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain.

by Bernal Diaz del Castillo

Bernal Diaz writes:

“… and was certainly not to be compared to the twenty females with which they presented us, among whom one was a very fine woman, who subsequently became a convert to Christianity, and was named Doña Marina.”

“… the women were baptized, and she of whom I have already spoken was named Doña Marina. This was a lady of distinction, the daughter of a powerful cazique and a princess who had subjects of her own, which, indeed, you might see from her appearance.“

“… Doña Marina, who was the prettiest, the most active and lively of the number, was given to Puertocarrero, who was a stout cavalier and cousin to the earl of Medellin. When he subsequently left for Spain, Cortes took Marina unto himself… “

So according to a man that knew her and fought along side her, Malinalli-Malinche was ‘a very fine woman, a lady of distinction, and the prettiest, the most active and lively one…’

Sounds like Diaz was a bit smitten with Malinche! But Hernando Cortes himself took her for his mistress so we can only assume Malinche must have been attractive and certainly not afraid of expressing her will and opinion.

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) (lmironside) | 31 comments I've always found Malinche's story to be fascinating. I wonder whether she understood the part she was playing in the downfall of her civilization, and what her motives were, whether she understood or not.

It's hard not to compare her to Pocahontas (whom I am currently researching for a novel.) The more I learn about Pocahontas, the more I think Malinche was probably in a similar boat -- too young and naive to really grasp what was going on, and by the time she was old enough to "get it," she had no choice but to throw in her lot with the invaders and hope she could influence them to be kinder to her people.

message 3: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Morawski | 22 comments From my research it would appear Malinche knew exactly what she was doing. After all she was sold into slavery by her own mother and she appears to have hated the Aztec rulers for their obsession with human sacrifice. Everyone seems to admire the Aztecs, blithely ignoring the fact they ripped the still beating hearts out of tens of thousands of victims - mostly captured in their constant wars on their neighbors. The fact they were so hated was one reason Cortez was able to defeat them with Malinche's help in making the other tribes allies of the Spanish.

message 4: by Debra (last edited Aug 26, 2013 01:34PM) (new)

Debra Brown (debrabrown) | 957 comments Mod
Gah! Yes, I'm sure there were many who hated such a civilization.

Hawaii was so amazing- perfect climate, beauty, abundance of food and rain, generally good health (no flu, venereal disease, etc.) but the kapu ruined life for many. It included things like human sacrifice, and if your baby was born with a birthmark, you had to drown him/her.... If your shadow touched the king's, you were to be put to death unless you could get to the Temple of Refuge before those who were to kill you...

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) (lmironside) | 31 comments Well...I think you have to look carefully at who wrote that history before you make too many assumptions. Any historian who was trying to paint Malinche as a willing ally would certainly have portrayed her as somebody who hated the Aztecs for their admittedly violent ways and that she had "good Christian" ideals in her heart. That plays perfectly into the narrative of the willing convert, and it also plays perfectly into the image of Malinche as a native woman who worshipped the white males as gods and who found them irresistible. The same portrayal exists of Pocahontas, but it is likely very far from the reality of her situation, her understanding of the events in which she found herself tied up, and her motives in acting the way she did.

But it is entirely possible that Malinche hated the Aztecs. I'm just saying, the more I research Pocahontas for my novel, the less I trust the best-known portrayals of Europeans coming into contact with native cultures.

message 6: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Morawski | 22 comments I'm not sure whether Malinche having good Christian ideals had anything really to do with it. She was only a Catholic for a very short time during the conquest. I more believe she found a 'God' that didn't require human sacrifice and that preached love instead of endless death. Then again I'm not sure religion was as big a motivator as seeing translating for Cortez as a way out of her own slavery.

And the natives themselves named her 'Malinche' : the one who speaks for the 'Captain' as some translate it.

My fascination comes in when I think about what she might have said at those meetings. After all at first Cortez and his men had no idea what she was saying on their behalf. She could easily have told the other tribes that Cortez was the god returned.

I also admire that it is recorded she looked Montezuma in the eye when she spoke to him, something that was strictly forbidden.

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) (lmironside) | 31 comments No, I think you misunderstood me...I personally doubt very much whether she gave a rip about Christianity or whether she had any kind of religious motivation. That was just the story that was stuck to her by the Spanish people who wrote about her. That's the only point I was trying to make: that the conquerors write history to make it look any way they please, and it suited their purposes to depict her as somebody who wanted to be converted and wanted to work for them.

I am sure she saw working for Cortez as preferable to slavery...I think most people would rather work for a conqueror than live in bondage! Beyond that, though, I wonder at her true motives and predicament, and wonder how much of her real story was overwritten by the Spanish historians to tell the story they wanted told.

Or maybe I am reading too much of my Pocahontas research into this because there's little doubt that Pocahontas was badly misrepresented by the English, and the story everybody thinks they know about her and John Smith is not at all in line with reality. But that's what we all accept as the real story, because that's how the conquerors wrote it.

It's totally possible that Malinche's true story is exactly as it was depicted by the Spanish. Just because history is often tampered with by conquering cultures doesn't mean it always is!

She was most definitely a fascinating woman, and really stands out for her pluck and resourcefulness.

message 8: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Morawski | 22 comments Oh I definitely agree the Spanish wrote history the way they wanted. Cortez was famous for making himself look good. In fact Cortez barely mentioned Malinche in his writing since he didn't want her to take away from his accomplishments. It was Bernard Diaz that told the world about her. Then of course the Mexicans rewrote history again at a later time and proclaimed Malinche a traitor. In writing my book I used five different sources including the native codex and paintings and then discarded facts that didn't match. Still it was tough because they was so little written about Malinche during that period.

From your comments I am now really interested in Pocohontas. The only thing I know about her is that her real name was Matoaka and she supposedly loved John Smith. Do please drop me a line when you get the book done or want someone to test read parts of it. I love strong resourceful women.

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) (lmironside) | 31 comments Sure, I'd be glad to let you know when the book is done...but it'll be a while. :) I'm hoping to have it done around the end of 2014, but we'll see how that goes. I have four books to finish before then, so the timeline could change dramatically.

Pocahontas had several different names. All the reading I've done on Algonquian culture indicates that it was expected for people to take on new names when their lives changed. So she was Pocahontas as a child, Matoaka when she married her first husband Kocoum, and Rebecca when she married John Rolfe -- and it was probably her choice to take on the name Rebecca, since she had married a new man and moved into a new settlement. She may also have been known as Amonute somewhere along the way.

When she first met John Smith she was about ten years old, so it's unlikely that either one was in love with the other. Personally, I doubt whether the infamous "saving John from vengeful Powhatan" thing actually happened, but something similar (an adoption ceremony) may have occurred. Pocahontas clearly viewed John Smith initially as an ally or friend, and possibly as an adopted brother, and she absolutely expressed a feeling of deep betrayal when she ran into him in England. It seems like it was a very complicated relationship, but romantic love or lust were unlikely to have played a part.

The whole story of the Jamestown Colony and Powhatan and his brother are incredibly fascinating...so much more interesting than what everybody accepts as the real story. As is often the case with history, yes? :)

If you like fiction about strong women, you might want to check out my books. Hatshepsut was the first confirmed woman to rule ancient Egypt as Pharaoh (not just as a lone queen.) I'd link, but there might be rules against that in this group...not sure.

I'll check out yours once I have some free reading time!

message 10: by Debra (new)

Debra Brown (debrabrown) | 957 comments Mod
Feel free to link.

message 11: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Morawski | 22 comments Oh thanks! Hatshepsut sounds good.

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) (lmironside) | 31 comments Thanks, Debra! Okay, here are links to my books about some smart real women from history: The Sekhmet Bed and The Crook and Flail.

Just out of curiosity, because I think I like the research part of writing historical fiction the best...what resources did you use for your novel? Are there any good biographies of Malinalli out there, or did you have to put on your detective hat and piece it together from various sources?

message 13: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed Morawski | 22 comments I used many, many sources. But when researching La Malinche there are basically only three principal sources:
‘The True History of the Conquest of Mexico’ by Bernal Diaz
Cortés’ Five Letters to the King of Spain
‘The Aztecs speak - an Aztec account of the Conquest of Mexico’ taken from the Codex Florentino.

To a much lesser extent there is Francisco de Gomara's biography of Cortés, which by most scholars is considered extremely flawed..

Each of these sources has its issues.
The Codex Florentino is actually a translation of Aztec hieroglyphics (they had no written language) by Spanish monks and as such may have extensive errors in meaning, although most of this account corresponds closely to the account by Diaz. A thorough reading of this document would also lead one to believe it is often exaggerated, so taking a grain of salt with it is advisable.

It must be remembered that the letters from Cortés to his king were clearly designed to laud himself and flatter the king at the same time. Cortés was in a bitter battle to control New Spain or Mexico over the objections and greed of the Cuban governor Diego Velasquez and so much of what he writes while similar in timeline at least may have embellished some events while omitting others.

Bernal Diaz leaves us with the most complete historical document, but clearly it was written by a naive man some fifty years after the events took place, and appears to view those events from hindsight through rose colored glasses. However, reading between the lines and ignoring some outrageous remarks, this document mostly rings true. The fact that Diaz goes out of his way to call out glaring errors by Gomara, also tends to diminish that work to the point it cannot be taken seriously. But most importantly, Diaz was an eyewitness and participant in the Conquest, and knew both Cortés and La Malinche (Dona Marina / Malinalli) personally so his account must take weight over the others.

Unfortunately La Malinche herself apparently never wrote anything down, or at least nothing in her hand has survived the ages. And all the historians, scholars, and authors who wrote about the Conquest and La Malinche did so hundreds of years after the fact. The truth is, not one of these people knows the truth. There are no other documents available.

So, who do we go to for information on La Malinche?
The only legitimate method would seem to use all three of these sources, cancel out opposing descriptions of events, while considering those views that are in agreement to be factual. It is also important to read between the lines especially in the case of Diaz. Some of the events simply could not have happened the way he describes them and this is borne out by events that occur later or unknown to him. He certainly wrote down what he believed but its doubtful he always knew the actual facts. The best example of this is when Montezuma is held hostage by the Spanish. Diaz constantly writes how content he was with this imprisonment, but later Montezuma conspires with one of Cortés' enemies, Narvaez, to set himself free- so he couldn't have been all that content!

Finally, it is vital to remember that except for the Aztecs, none of the Spanish (including Cortés and Diaz) knew what La Malinche actually said to the Aztecs. Cortés could have told her to tell Montezuma that he (Cortés) was not a god and both Cortés and Diaz would have recorded it that way. However La Malinche could have spoken the opposite in Nahuatl to Montezuma and none of the Spanish would have known!

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) (lmironside) | 31 comments Crazy...such a complicated but fascinating history.

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