History will say that Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico.
Yet he couldn’t have done it without a woman named … Malinali.
He was a man of ruthless genius, a Christian crusader possessed of unparalleled greed, even for those times – but his achievements were breath-taking.
He conquered what is now Mexico with an army of less than 500 Spaniards, not all of them soldiers and not all of them loyal, while ostensibly on a simple scouting mission from Cuba.
He did not defeat the Aztecs with Spanish force of arms – they were a nation of a million people – but with an astonishing bluff.
The story of the invasion is one of the great epics of history, a triumph of human endurance and determination.
It was also an unmitigated disaster for the indigenous population and resulted in unimaginable misery for hundreds of thousands of people.
The story of Hernan Cortes and Mexico is also the story of a woman named Malinali.
Her exact origins are unclear –she was thought to have been a Mayan princess by some – but her place in Mexican history is unparalleled.
Without her, Cortes would have got no further than a Yucatan beach.
Her name was corrupted by history to Malinche; and five hundred years later her name is still reviled. Even today the word malinchista is shouted across the floor of the Mexican parliament as a deadly insult – it means a traitor to the Mexican people.
Yet was she the monster that history make her out to be?
She was also his translator, the only one who ever knew what was being said by both sides, the only one who spoke both Spanish and nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.
Her motives, what she said, how she said it; these things will always be a matter of debate – it is what makes hers such a gripping and intriguing story.
What is certain is that in almost every contemporary drawing and painting of Cortes’ entrada, she is at his side, whispering in his ear.
And every night she shared the conquistadore’s bed.
Did she love him? No one can say.
Did he use her for his own purposes and then cast her aside? Of course he did.
He was only ever interested in gold and glory.
These days his ancient bones molder in a walled-up in a casket by the altar in the Church of Jesus Navareno close to the place where he first met the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma.
No one knows what became of her. It is believed she died an old woman in Spain. Cortes showed his gratitude by marrying her off to someone else.
Foreign authors who dare write her story still get assaulted with man bags (see previous post.)
But for all that, her tale, and that of the conquistadores, remains one of the most intriguing and tragic sagas in history.
The story of Malinali – it was worth getting attacked by a man bag …