History will tell you that Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico with just 500 men.

Or did a Mayan princess do it for him?

Cortes was probably one of the greatest of the Spanish conquistadores – which is a back-handed compliment in a way, like being the best of the Nazis or being named Terrorist of the Year.

He arrived in Cuba in 1504, a landless nobleman bringing nothing with him but a limitless ambition. In 1519, the Spanish governor of Cuba sent him to Mexico on a scouting mission – and explicit orders to go no further inland than the beach.

Cortes had with him just a handful of men – not all of them soldiers and not all of them loyal. After he won a scrap with villagers in the Yucatan, the locals tried to appease him with gifts – gold and girls.

It proved to be a terrible move.

Cortes accepted these tokens and chose a young woman called Malinali as his personal concubine and gifted the others to his officers.

Malinali’s exact origins are unclear – some believe she was a Mayan princess who was captured and sold as a slave – but her place in Mexican history is unparalleled. Without her, Cortes would have got no further than the coast.

Malinali proved to be extraordinary – she had an astonishing gift for languages. She learned Spanish amazingly quickly. She could already speak several local languages as well as her own, and most importantly of all she was fluent in nahuatl, the language of the Mexican overlords – the Aztecs.

Through her, it seems Cortes discovered that Mexico was by no means united – that there was infighting among the local tribes and that all of them hated the Aztecs. He decided to use this information for his own ends. It was the oldest trick in the book – divide and conquer.

Against his orders, he and his men set off inland, accepting more gifts of gold along the way. How did he do it? It seems Malinali told him what to say. Did she help him persuade the locals that he was a returning god, the legendary ‘Feathered Serpent’?

Did he, in turn, promise to free the local people from the tyranny of the Aztecs?

What is certain is that in almost every contemporary drawing and painting of Cortes’ entrada, she is at his side, whispering in his ear.

Her motives, what she said, how she said it; these things will always forever be a mystery – it is what makes hers such a gripping and intriguing story.

The more the local people tried to appease Cortes, the bolder he became. Within a few weeks he was at the gates of the Aztec capital – Tenochtitlan, the site of modern day Mexico City. Suddenly he had the country and all its riches within his grasp.

He could not have got this far purely by force of arms, despite his horses and cannon. He had just five hundred men and the Aztecs numbered millions.

In fact, it was only when he and his men were lodged inside their capital that the Aztecs realised they had been duped and that Cortes was not a god after all.

He only narrowly escaped from the city and then had the temerity to return with enough men to lay siege to the Aztec capital. He won in the end, not because of military might but because of something else, that is eerily resonant today; the Spanish had unwittingly brought with them a disease that was common in Europe but to which the Aztecs had no antibodies – smallpox.

It decimated them.

Fittingly perhaps, Cortes’ greed and ambition ultimately led nowhere. His life after the conquest was one of frustration and humiliation. He died penniless.

I spent the better part of an entire afternoon in Mexico City trying to track down his tomb. I finally found it not far from the Plaza Major; these days his ancient bones molder in a walled-up in a casket by the altar in the Church of Jesus Navareno, not far from the Metro escalators, and close to the place where he first met the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma.

You have to peer very hard to make out the plaque, let alone the inscription.

And Malinali? 

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.

Did she love him? And why did she help him? We may never know.

Her name was corrupted by history to Malinche; and 500 years later her name is reviled in the land of her birth. 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.

But her story, and that of the conquistadores, remains one of the most intriguing and tragic sagas in history.

I tell the story of Cortes and La Malinche in my novel Aztec. Here’s an excerpt. 


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