Hernan Cortes and the Maya of Potonchan

Women given to Cortes in Potonchan
Women given to Cortes in Potonchan. Artist Unknown

In 1519, after leaving Cuba but before launching his audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes made a stop in the Mayan lands of present-day Tabasco, where he defeated native attacks on his conquistadors before making peace. It may have seemed to be an insignificant step on Cortes' path to victory over the Aztec Empire, but it was in Potonchan that he found one of his best secret weapons: it was there that he acquired Doña Marina, better known as Malinche, who would serve as the expedition's guide and interpreter.

The Cortes Expedition

On November 18, 1518, Hernan Cortes set sail from Cuba. He had about six hundred conquistadors with him, greedy adventurers looking to find gold in the New World. Cortes' orders were to explore the coast, make friendly contact with the natives, set up a modest settlement if possible and return to Cuba, where governor Diego Velazquez had helped organize the venture. It was an open secret, however, that Cortes was more ambitious than his orders, and he had left Cuba just ahead of orders from Velazquez to remove him from command of the expedition. After exploring the northern and western areas of the Yucatan Peninsula, by March of 1519 they were exploring the area of present-day Tabasco.

Arrival at Potonchan

Sometime in late March, Cortes took some of his men and explored the Grijalva River, named for Juan de Grijalva, who had led a previous expedition to the region. Not far up the river, they found a town called Potonchan.

It was a substantial town and impressed the foreigners. It was a commercial center and probably produced rubber for trade. Grijalva had not fought with the people here, but the natives were leery of the Spanish, whose reputation probably preceded them at this point. The locals brought gifts of food but repeatedly told the Spanish to leave and refused to allow them into the town.

Several days passed like this: the natives bringing small gifts of food and the Spanish asking for more. Meanwhile, both sides readied for war: the natives sent their women and children out of the town and Cortes brought more soldiers from the ships.

Battle in Potonchan

When Cortes demanded on March 24 that the natives accept the sovereignty of the King of Spain, they attacked. The fighting was fierce, but Cortes was able to drive the natives off with some cannon fire and by flanking their position. The Spanish took the town and slept that night in the central plaza. For a few days, the Spanish received tentative emissaries from the lords of Potonchan, who brought them food. When the Spanish tried to forage for more, they were rebuffed by native warriors. Cortes answered by bringing the horses ashore. A larger battle took place in some fields near the town: the Maya had mustered thousands of warriors with which to attack the Spanish. The crossbows, harquebuses and even the cannons proved largely ineffective except for effect, but the cavalry shocked the natives, who thought the horsemen to be centaurs or some other monster. In short order, Cortes had routed the natives with only a few injuries to his men.

Three Weeks in Potonchan

The people of Potonchan had seen enough. Twenty well-dressed lords brought food as a peace offering. Cortes accepted, but demanded to see the leader. The lord of Potonchan arrived, bringing more food and some precious objects, including some gold and turquoise. He also brought twenty slave girls which were given to Cortes, who promptly divided them among his more important captains.

Cortes allowed the people of Potonchan to return. The Spanish were made welcome and stayed for three weeks. Cortes insisted the people agree to become vassals of the king of Spain, and they agreed. He also demanded that they quit their "idolatrous" practices, including human sacrifice. The locals agreed to this as well, at least for the duration of the Spaniards' stay there. The Spanish renamed the town Santa Maria de la Victoria, but the name did not stick, and the original exact location of the town is unknown.

After learning all he could, Cortes sailed north and west, eventually landing near present-day Veracruz and beginning his conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Importance of Cortes' Visit to Potonchan

At first glance, Cortes' visit to Potonchan seems unimportant in comparison with his later exploits in Mexico. The truth is that it was a very important experience in several ways. From a military standpoint it was very useful for Cortes. Cortes' men were not experienced in battle, and they got some crucial training in a situation which was not too dangerous. Cortes learned about the limitations of crossbows and harquebuses, and also about the value of cavalry in battle with natives.

But by far the most important thing Cortes took away from Potonchan was his secret weapon - Malinali, one of the native slave girls given to Cortes, spoke Mayan as well as Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. One of Cortes' men, Jerónimo de Aguilar, also spoke Mayan, having lived among them on the mainland for several years. Thus, Malinali - baptized as Doña Marina but better known as "Malinche" - could communicate with the Mexica and translate to Maya for Aguilar, who could then speak to Cortes and the Spanish, and vice versa. Malinche picked up Spanish quickly over the next few weeks, eliminating the need for Aguilar. Picking up an interpreter on the first major stop of his trip was a great boon for Cortes.

Doña Marina was more than an interpreter for Cortes, however. The Aztecs ruled through a complex system of vassalage, war, fear, family relationships, religious fervor and trade. She not only translated the words spoken by the different men and women Cortes came across, but she also explained cultural situations the Spanish never would have understood otherwise. As if that weren't enough, Malinche became Cortes' mistress and bore him a son, Martín.


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