Before Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) landed on the coasts of present-day Mexico, two expeditions had failed. Badly prepared, but not only. They had found themselves facing indigenous populations that were difficult to maneuver, whose language and culture they had little knowledge of. At the head of 600 men whose horses and firearms strike the enemy combatants with terror, Cortes establishes more or less rough contact with the local chiefs.
As a sign of conciliation, a cacique of Tabasco offers the conquerors about twenty young slaves, immediately baptized. One of them, the daughter of a notable, masters several languages and dialects. Her name is Malinalli, like the Mayan goddess of grass, but she was given the Christian name of Marina. It will be distorted by the Indians (who do not pronounce the “r”) and the Spaniards to give a surname straddling two languages: Malinche.
The girl, who is only known to have been born around 1500, became the mistress of Cortes, but also her adviser and “missi dominici” to local potentates. Thanks to this precious ally, the Spaniards will be able to exacerbate the conflicts between the Maya and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II.
Alternating an outstretched hand and extreme brutality, Cortes impresses his interlocutors by posing as the representative of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of pre-Columbian mythology supposed to return to earth in various appearances – including that of a bearded man with a fair complexion …
La Malinche, referred to with deference under the name of Dona Marina, is omnipresent in the accounts of the time. In the Tlaxcala canvas, codex produced by a local city in 1552 to attract the good graces of the King of Spain, the Malinche appears in traditional costume, between Cortes and helmeted military leaders. His son, Don Martin Cortes, celebrated as the first half-breed from the conquest, will be raised in Castile and ennobled.
La Malinche divides historians. For some, it would have sought to protect the Mayans against Aztec domination and mitigated the violence of the Spanish troops. Others believe that by providing Cortes with valuable information and context, she accelerated the rout of the Aztec and Mayan leaders.
After having cut the country in order – the massacres and slavery, but also the ravages of smallpox imported from Europe on a population with little immunity, caused a massacre – Cortes lost interest in Malinche, whom he married to one of its captains. Too bad for him ; his expedition to Honduras turns into a disaster.
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