8. Malinche



Malintzin lay on the bed, eyes open. She wanted nothing more than peace, to lie down and sleep without fear, but she could not close her eyes. The flight from Tenochtitlan to Tlaxcala had been the worst journey of a life that had featured many terrible journeys. She could still see the Spanish soldiers, as they slipped and scrambled across the stone bridge, drenched by the rain, trying to fend off the angry Aztec warriors. The greed of the Spanish had killed them. She had not been horrified by the lust of the Spanish: she had been given a slave to too many men. But to see men drown rather than lose the gold they carried… They were fools, madmen, to value gold above their own lives. Cortés had ordered them to carry as much treasure as they could. It was his fault that his men had died, his fault that she had almost died. If she stayed with him, she would surely die too, either in war or when he discarded her. She knew everyone thought her a traitor, and what the punishment for traitors was. It would not matter that she’d had no more choice with this man than she’d had with any other.

Malintzin felt closer to weeping than she had in years. She longed for peace, but Cortés would never let her go. Oh, he could find another woman for his bed, but he needed her to speak for him. None of the soldiers understood more than a few words of Nahuatl, not enough to stay alive. He understood little enough of Aztec culture, but he understood how much he needed her. He would not let her go.

She heard shouts from below. Someone from Tlaxcala. Probably Xicotencatl, always a reluctant ally, who had not been sympathetic to the desperate foreign soldiers who had dragged themselves to his city after they had been forced to flee Tenochtitlan. Xicotencatl, who led the armies of Tlaxcala, and who the Spanish would have to convince to help them if Cortés wanted to take back the Aztec capital. Who Malintzin would have to convince, as the Spanish could not speak to him. They would speak privately in a room crowded with the Spanish.

For the first time in weeks, Malintzin smiled.


There was nothing we could do. At the edge of the lake that surrounded the capital city Tenochtitlan, the Tlaxcala lord Xicotencatl betrayed us, and instead of aiding us, he and his men drove us into the lake, while the warriors fired arrows upon us from the city walls. Cortés had been at the front, ready to lead the assault on the city, and he was among those who fell first. His death left our men without a leader, and they lost heart when they saw him fall. Those few of us who survived, perhaps a hundred, spent the rest of that terrible day in battle, until we finally broke through the circle of our enemies and fled. We made the journey to the coast, harried by natives and made weak by illness. In the end, it was barely a dozen who arrived in Cuba four months later.

It was six months after the death of Cortés that I was summoned by Governor Velazquéz. He had news from Mexico, brought by a priest who had recently returned from there. Xicotencatl had taken possession of the city after our defeat, and had made himself lord of those lands. He was a great warrior, but not cruel, and was much beloved of all the peoples of that land. The priest also brought crueler news: our betrayal had been brought about not by Xicotencatl alone, but by the woman Marina, also called Malintzin, who had been slave and interpreter to Cortés. The priest spoke of how she was a great lady in Tenochtitlan, given wealth and respect. It was well known that she had conspired with Xicotencatl while we were in Tlaxcala, and that the rebellion would not have happened had it not been for her. Evil woman, to betray us, who had brought much good to her country, even baptising her in our Christian faith. The priest said that on the order of Xicotencatl she taught Spanish to certain men, who were sent out to every city of the empire, and that Xicotencatl had decreed that any who taught the Nahuatl language to the foreigners would be punished by death.

So it was that the Mexican expedition ended, victory turned to ashes by a woman’s words.

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The True History of the Mexican Expedition

What really happened…

Malinche/Malitzin did not betray Cortés, and the Spanish invaders successfully besieged Tenochtitlan. It is anyone’s guess what Malitzin thought of her Spanish captor: she had already been a slave in her homeland before the Spanish arrived. Diaz del Castillo thought she may have belonged to a local noble/royal family. The non-Spanish sources also indicate she occupied a position of importance; she is often shown on equal footing with Cortés, almost as a diplomat in her own right.

For her undeniably important role in the Spanish Conquest which brought so much misery to so many people, Malinche has been  reviled at times. But what choice did she really have?

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