MEXICO CITY – History records that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes knew how to recognize and take advantage of the opportunity history placed before him to conquer Mexico.
Or was he just a tool used by the indigenous Indian population to win their own local war?
However it may be, although he became an iconic historical figure, Cortes ended his days sad and frustrated.
Mexican historian Federico Navarrete told EFE in an interview of several instances in the Spaniard’s life that lend credence to the idea that he was an almost bipolar personality.
On the one hand, he was a violent egomaniac who exalted his image as a conquistador in the eyes of the Spanish Crown, but on the other, he was a man with an acute sense of loyalty and honor whose lust for power was never quenched.
When Cortes (1485-1547) arrived in Mexican territory in 1519 he encountered a scenario in which various indigenous peoples were dominated by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma.
It was then that – helped by the natives – the Spanish commander forged different alliances with local peoples such as the Tlaxcaltecas and the Texcocanos, along with many others.
However, Navarrete – who holds a doctorate in Mesoamerican Studies from Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) – said that “The conquest of Mexico was made by the indigenous peoples themselves using Cortes for their own ends.”
But the narrative that has come down through history is significantly different, he said, and that is the one that is contained in the letters Cortes sent to the Spanish Crown telling of the conquest.
These letters, which became one of the first “best sellers” of the epoch – having been published shortly afterwards in Europe – were an instrument Cortes used to craft an image of himself to the world at large: that of a triumphant Christian conqueror “who imposed himself on savage peoples,” the greatest conquistador of all.
“He creates a very exalted vision of himself, he presents all his acts in a positive light, he omits all the outrages and crimes he committed, which were numerous,” Navarrete said.
In his letters, he leaves to the side the fundamental role played by the Indians in his life.
“He distanced himself from them” in his missives, Navarrete said, although “deep down inside, he knew that their fates were inextricably linked.”
That was the case, in particular, with Malinche, or Doña Marina, as the Spaniards dubbed her.
This beautiful Indian woman – between 15 and 17 years of age – was multilingual and had a prodigious gift for geopolitical analysis, and she was given to Cortes as a gift shortly after he set foot in Mexico.
She was his translator, his lover and the woman who took him by the hand after his victory over Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, where Mexico City stands today.
Navarrete said that the Indians in 1519-1521 used the designation Malinche to refer to the couple made up of Cortes and Marina.
“If we look at the codices painted by the Indians after the conquest, Malinche, the woman, always appears larger than Cortes, in a more prominent role,” indicating that this woman was more important for the pre-Hispanic peoples than the Spanish commander.
He, meanwhile, was known for his violence and seemed to be capable of anything because of his megalomaniac dream of becoming “the great feudal lord of New Spain.”
He ordered the hands of 40 indigenous ambassadors cut off and even staged a massacre on the town of Cholula.
The Spanish Crown brought him to trial for the massacre, an unprecedented move at that time.
The massacre sowed terror among the local peoples, since it was a milestone that broke the rules of war that had reigned throughout the area at that time.
It also “broke the rules of European war” and inaugurated a new type of warfare, Navarrete said.
It was “total war, the type of warfare that characterized the European colonial effort in the Americas and then in Asia and Africa,” the historian said, although he added that Cortes always honored all the pacts he made.
However, once the conquest was over, disappointment was not far behind, and Spain’s King Carlos I refused to allow the conquistadors to exercise political power and control over the new dominions.
As a result, Cortes’s final years were sad, full of frustration and travel to the Spanish court “to demand something that he himself knew he would never obtain,” and he ended his days “lamenting the ingratitude of the world.”