Letters of Cortes to Emperor Charles V - Vol 1/Appendix 1 of the Second Letter

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With these few casual words, Cortes refers to the existence of one of the chief characters in the splendid drama of the conquest—his Indian mistress Marina, without whose aid the success of the Spaniards is hardly thinkable. He mentions her once again in his Fifth Letter, but she appears in his narrative only under the vague figure of "the interpreter whom I had with me."

There are almost as many different accounts of Marina's birth and childhood as there were writers to compose them, but all agree that she was of noble lineage, which Herrera says was evident from her superior bearing and manners.

Senñr Garcia Icazbalceta in Note 37 to the second of the Dialogos de Cervantes, gives us a critical study of Marina. The conclusions of this learned writer admit the version given by Bernal Diaz, in spite of the fact that this contradicts those of his contemporaries. Las Casas and Gomara, the latter of whom must have had his information from his patron Cortes, himself. Clavigero adopted Bernal Diaz as his authority, as did also Solis. Prescott noticed the differences among the early writers, but refrained from pronouncing in favour of any one of them. All these authorities, however, were anterior to Garcia Icazbalceta. It would be impossible for any student of history to-day to neglect his valuable work in Mexican archives, or to ignore his conclusions, which may be safely followed and especially in this instance, in which they are sustained on the narrative of Bernal Diaz. Orozco y Berra has also eliminated some of the conflicting statements concerning Marina by an ingenious dissertation on the habitual confusion of the spelling of Mexican names by the Spaniards, and particularly by those writers who, never having been in Mexico, were passably ignorant of Indian nomenclature and Mexican geography, and took their information second-hand, often from illiterate or inaccurate persons.

Marina was the daughter of the lord of Painalla, in the province of Coatzocoalco. Her mother married a second time, and, upon the birth of a son, she agreed with her husband to dispose of her daughter, in order that the son might inherit their property. This plan was effected by giving the young girl to some Indians of Xicalango, and publishing her death, the body of a slave's child being substituted to deceive the people. The Xicalango Indians sold the girl to others in Tabasco, and thus she came to be among the twenty slaves presented to Cortes by the cacique of that province. Marina, in the distribution of these women, fell to the share of Puertocarrero. When Jeronimo de Aguilar joined Cortes, it was found that he could speak to Marina in Maya, which closely resembled the language of Tabasco, and, as her mother tongue was the Mexican, it came about that, in treating with envoys from the interior and during the march through Tlascala and Cholula to the capital, Cortes spoke in Spanish to Aguilar who spoke in Maya to Marina who spoke with the Mexicans in their own tongue.

Her family name was Tenepal, and her Indian name was Malinal, derived from Malinalli, which is the sign of the twelfth day of the Mexican month; thus her Christian name in baptism, which was Marina, was really derived from, or suggested by, her Indian name, and as the Indians could not pronounce the letter r there was practically no change of name, save that in her new and important position they gave her the tzin, which was a title of respect, and henceforth she was called Malintzin. The Spaniards corrupted this into Malinche. Cortes came to be universally known as Captain Malintzin or simply Maliutzin, and to thousands of Indians, he had no other name than that of this slave girl (Orozco y Berra, vol. iv., cap. v.).

Doña Marina, as the Spaniards called her, was quick at learning Spanish, which her intimate relations with Cortes facilitated, or, as Prescott poetically puts it, "because it was the language of love." Perhaps it was on her side, but there is little evidence to show that it was on his. Marina was cherished because she was useful, not because she was beloved, and the circumstances forced her into intimate relations with Cortes, which were also favoured by her beauty and her superior wit. Aussi bien celle-ci qu'une autre was doubtless his view of the sentimental side of his relations with her.

After Puertocarrero's departure with the despatches and treasure, Marina reverted definitely to Cortes. Once the expedition had left the coast provinces, she became more and more indispensable, as Aguilar spoke no Mexican and the Maya language was not intelligible to the Mexicans. As soon as she had sufficiently mastered Castilian to be able to dispense with Aguilar as an intermediary between herself and Cortes, her position became a dominant one and she held the fate of the Spaniards in her hand. But most of all was she supreme over her own people and dispensed peace or war at her pleasure; for she alone could shape the results of the negotiations and treaties between Cortes and the caciques. Thus, an unforeseen turn in Fortune's wheel raised this princess from the degradation of slavery into which an unnatural mother had delivered her, and landed her in the Spaniards' camp, where she became the mistress of a nation's destinies. She showed herself so able, that Bernal Diaz affirms that they all held her to be like no other woman on earth, and that they had never detected the smallest feminine weakness in her; she alone of all the women was saved from the tragedy of the Sorrowful Night, and she saved herself. There is no way of knowing how faithfully and disinterestedly she played her part of interpreter; certainly she gave herself absolutely to Cortes, and her devotion to the Spaniards never faltered, but who shall say that she also did justice in her presentation of the Indians' claims and interests in the negotiations she directed? Authorities differ as to the number of children born to Cortes and Dona Marina; the eldest son, Don Martin, afterwards became a Knight of Santiago, and the existence of at least one daughter seems to be sufficiently certain. In October, 1524, Marina was married to Juan Xaramillo, described as an hildalgo. Bernal Diaz says that the bridegroom was ignorant of Marina's past, which makes one wonder where he came from, and Gomara's explanation that he was drunk at the time sounds more plausible. On the expedition to Yucatan there was a dramatic encounter between Doña Marina and her perfidious mother and the younger half-brother in whose interest she had been sacrificed. The recognition seems to have been instantaneous and mutual; the mother, fearing vengeance, threw herself at her daughter's feet, begging forgiveness, which was accorded, with the philosophic assurance that when she had so treated her child, she did not know what she was doing (as indeed it appeared), and that she thanked God for the boon of the Christian religion and the happiness of having given her master a son and the joy of possessing an excellent husband in Juan Xaramillo. Dona Marina's Christian morality betrayed it's recent adoption and weak growth at this point. She loaded her relatives with gifts and sent them home rejoicing. Bernal Diaz was reminded by this incident of the meeting between Joseph and his brethren in Egypt. Xaramillo became an alcalde in Mexico, and in 1528 a grant of land was given to him and his wife near Chapultepec. Prescott describes Marina as returning to her native place, where an estate was given her, but Icazbalceta says she ended her days in Mexico, rich and respected; Orozco y Berra concedes that she was rich, but doubts that she was respected. A curious painting represents Cortes with Marina standing beside him at the execution of a Cholulan servant of Andres de Tapia, who was condemned to be torn to pieces by fierce dogs; she piously holds a rosary in her hand as she watches the brutal spectacle, which took place in 1537. Doña Marina still lived therefore in 1537, but the date of her death is not recorded (Oviedo, Hist. Gen. y Nat. lib. xxxiii., cap. i.; Las Casas, Hist, de las Indians, lib. iii., cap. cxxi.; Clavigero, tom. iii., [p. 12; Bernal Diaz, cap. xxxvii., Garcia Icazbalceta, Dialogos de Cervantes; Orozco y Berra, vol. iv., cap. v.).