In the village of Medellín, Spain, a clueless city councillor had an enormous cactus uprooted. It had been planted five centuries earlier by Hernán Cortés in his hometown, after he brought it back with him from Mexico. That species was the origin of all the prickly pears in Spain and North Africa. Understanding the mistake, the village council planted a seedling of the cactus that had been removed, to correct the error.
This example serves to show the ignorance about botany, about history, and about the figure of Cortés that prevails in Spain and Mexico, according to one of his most renowned biographers, the French anthropologist and historian Christian Duverger.
“If I had been the mayor, I would have created a whole narrative, so that visitors would come to see that impressive cactus, which was about [65 feet] tall,” laments Duverger, 75. “Cortés is demonized, but he was a modern man, a republican [who stood] against an absolutist monarchy, and a great writer,” he adds.
In a new work of historical fiction, Memoirs of Hernán, the Frenchman puts himself in the shoes of the conquistador. In the novel, the narrator (Cortés) addresses Martín, his first son, who he conceived with La Malinche. A Nahua woman — one of the first enslaved women taken by the Spaniards — she is best-known for contributing to the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The fictionalized version of Cortés tells his progeny about his adventures in America, his life and his beliefs.
While the work is a novel, the author clarifies that nothing is really invented: it’s a carefully documented work, with precise historical details from the era in question.
Question. In the book, you paint a picture of a modern man. The Cortés you create is almost a feminist. He’s passionate about the idea of a mestizo (mixed-race) country, he invented the novel before Cervantes… he’s a diplomat, a statesman. Was he really such a man, who could practically be transported to the times that we live in?
Answer. Yes, Cortés was a modern man. That is, he’s of the Renaissance. He founded the writing workshop in Valladolid almost 100 years before the French Academy. He was a militant republican who struggled between his own convictions and the power of Emperor Charles V… but he affirmed his republicanism when he was imprisoned in Cuba.
Occasionally, the Spain of Charles V is presented as a homogenous world without freedom, and with a general acceptance of the monarchy. But Cortés was an important political figure, he was the head of New Spain. Hence, he was able to develop a republican policy, install town councils in Mexico, push his idea of mestizaje (a mix of different cultures and races) and achieve the integration of his mestizo son into the heart [of Spain’s religious and military order]. All this means that the world wasn’t as closed as we may have thought. The existence of Cortés as an opponent [of the monarchy] wouldn’t have been possible without an echo in society. The system was freer than meets the eye.
Q. In the book — as you’ve dispensed with violence — you almost exonerate Cortés from the use of violence.
A. I erased the violence, but I don’t deny it. It’s difficult to identify Cortés’ own violence and that of the time. For me, Cortés isn’t a violent man — he’s simply as violent as the men of his time. Cortés didn’t enter Mexico with an army: there are documents that explain how his men complained that they didn’t have weapons. He bought 15 ridiculous shotguns that took between seven and eight minutes to load… imagine, with arrows flying everywhere. They couldn’t exactly say, “please stop, I have to reload.” Cortés arrived in Mexico without weapons, he didn’t want to impose himself through violence. His violence was merely the violence of the time. There was a lot of violence, but it was shared by many.
Q. Don’t historians fall a little in love with the characters they spend half their lives researching?
A. I see the problem occuring, yes. But I truly believe that Cortés was an exceptional man. I can explain what fascinates me about him: he becomes a statesman, although, initially, I think his idea was to just fish and live in peace. But he realizes that, if he doesn’t take [modern-day] Mexico, the Crown would do so instead, with the absence of vision that already characterized the Spanish presence in Santo Domingo or Cuba. So, he says to himself, “I’d better take care of it.” And he becomes a man of power. But he always has a taste for literature.
I believe that a writer, by definition, isn’t someone of violence. The combination of this character — someone who knows how to be a war leader and a writer at the same time — is fascinating. He discovers that he has an exceptional talent for convincing people with his speeches. So, I don’t know if it’s simply the fascination of the author, but for those who read the book, I think they’ll see Cortés with different eyes.
Q. You are male, white and European. Your perception of Cortés may be different in Mexico…
A. I know the Indigenous world, I’m able to understand how it works. This is possible for a white European [from the] Sorbonne and the academic world. I began [this project] with a certain ease regarding the logic of the pre-Hispanic world. I entered from the Indigenous side and decided to analyze the conquest from [that perspective] — that’s the vision that appears in my books. Cortés did what I did: he understood the Indigenous side and acted as if he belonged to it. That wasn’t a given for everyone — most of his lieutenants didn’t understand anything [about that world] at all.
Q. How is Hernán Cortés perceived in Mexico today?
A. He’s a demonized man. It’s more difficult for me to understand the conception of Cortés today than it is to understand Cortés himself. As a historian, I can analyze how the negative legend was constructed in a very particular context, after the independence of the Americas, when there was a propagandistic discourse that legitimized the neo-colonizing desire of the United States. [There was a reaction], a desire, at least, to have some influence. [In Mexico], there was a rejection of Europeans: “Spain is over, bye, we’re going to control this territory.” And they wrote an entire history against Spain, [portraying] the conquerors as barbarians. And [many Mexicans] blamed the Catholic Church, because they had become Protestants. Demonization continues… but I think less so among young people.
Q. Is Mexico now the mestizo country that Cortés envisaged?
A. It’s certainly a mestizo country, you can see it in the streets, in the culture, in the political rituals, in the way of eating. That means it’s much more Indigenous. For example, the tortilla is still valid. What we call mestizaje is a continuity of the pre-Hispanic world. That’s why I don’t understand the political speeches — I don’t want to specify which ones — that are given in relation to the arrival of the Spaniards and the actions of Cortés, because they don’t correspond with history or with reality. The vision that exists in Mexico of the conquest is very 19th century… but I have faith in the new generations of young people, who are more accepting of the new reading of history that I propose.
Q. Do you really believe that?
A. Yes. When I published a book in 2012 and explained that the author of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain was actually Cortés himself — and not Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who never knew how to write — there was an uproar. But many of my historian colleagues verified my research and confirmed that I hadn’t invented anything. In the academic world, the authorship of Cortés is accepted today — even the Central Library of France changed the authorship. Later, I was invited to many universities in Mexico and I always had a very favorable reception.
Q. Inventor of the novel, forger of the word “Spain,” curator of the first exhibition of pre-Columbian art in Europe… and even the inventor of rum. You credit Cortés with many things.
A. Yes, although, at the time, it wasn’t called rum — it was tafia, or brandy. Only the Arabs consumed sugar, but not the Europeans. Even melon was eaten green and with vinegar, like cucumber. Sugar had no market. Why, then, did Cortés make an investment in sugar cane, if it wasn’t a business? The business was alcohol.
Q. When you mention agriculture, you say that Europeans domesticated species, while Mexicans invented them. And that, from the Mexican green tomatillo, the Spaniards grew tomatoes, potatoes…
A. That’s going to be the topic of another of my books for the future. The botanists of the time were, after all, Europeans: they believed that God created a wild world and that man’s job was to domesticate it.
Q. You also write that Cortés transported axolotls to Spain in a barrel of water, but some pirates diverted the ship to France and the strange amphibian ended up on the shield of Francis I of France.
A. I’m not 100% sure of that, but it will stoke the curiosity of my colleagues! We need to gather more precise idea, but the fact is that the [conquistadores] arrived in France… and Francis I put a salamander on his shield. I think he was sending a message of power to the Spanish. It’s a good story and it’s in the novel. If I’m wrong, it’s not a big deal.
Q. You maintain that Cortés was a womanizer.
A. I don’t touch on that much in this book, because [the structure] is of a father who writes to his son — he’s not going to talk to him about other women. The understanding of polygamy today is different from back then. Montezuma had 150 women. Because, at the time, there was an association between the fertility of the land and that of the woman: to legitimize the possession of a territory, you had to have a wife from each part of the land. Every time the Mexica [Empire] expanded, the daughter of the local chief had to be taken as a wife. Cortés was a man who had many women… but this came with the role that he had, it offers a bit of nuance.
Q. If we accept the romantic narrative, was La Malinche his great love?
A. Yes, she was. And he also fell in love with María, the wife of Francisco de los Cobos. María was his love in his youth and she ended up being his love in old age.
Q. Shortly after arriving in New Spain, Catalina Suárez — the sister-in-law of the governor of Cuba — was found dead. She was Cortés’ first wife, although he had been pressured to marry her. He was accused of killing her and an investigation took place. Did he kill her or not?
A. Well, he didn’t kill her himself, but I think he had her killed. Not that there was any evidence — we can tell that the paid witnesses told a story that didn’t make any sense. But given the kind of character that he was — although he doesn’t say it in the book, because he wouldn’t say such a thing to his son — it makes sense that he [had her killed].
Q. What would you do with the remains of Cortés, which are currently hidden in a church in Mexico?
A. I’m not in charge of the country. All I can do is offer up another vision of Cortés that’s softer, more decent and honorable. I believe that Mexico has to embrace its founding father as an exceptional man — a visionary who decided to create a mestizo nation that had never existed before in Europe — and recognize his literary talent.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition