In this blog I compare biographical details of three legendary interpreters of the colonial era. Even though these women found themselves in different corners of the world their lives share striking similarities. In all three cases they were confronted with European colonial powers and had to walk a fine line between two radically different cultures. A common pattern emerges as their personal lives are plotted against the backdrop of colonial conquest.
La Malinche, otherwise known as Malintzin, was born sometime between 1496 and 1501 on the Mexican Gulf Coast. As a stepchild she was given to people from Xicalango who in turn gave the child to the Tobascans. After an altercation with the Spanish the Tobascans yet again handed her over as a slave along with some 19 other women on 1 April 1519. She was baptised and took the name Marina.
Her proficiency in two native languages, Mayan and Nahuatl, made her invaluable as an interpreter for Hernán Cortés the conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire. Her use as an interpreter to quell a rebellion in Honduras between 1524 and 1526 suggests that she had a working knowledge of dialects much further afield. It is during this expedition that she married Juan Jaramillo, a Spanish nobleman. She also shifted between different language registers and tones between certain indigenous tribes. Choosing a formal register could in certain contexts give the impression that she was of noble descent.
After learning of a plot between the Aztecs and the Cholulans to destroy Cortés’ small fleet, she informed Cortés who subsequently massacred many Cholulans. In this way her name became synonymous with “traitor” among some of the locals. The Tlaxcalans however, who formed an alliance with Cortés against Moctezuma, revered her. Her relationship with Cortés produced a child hence she is known as a founding figure of the Mexican Nation and the mother of a new race.
Pocahontas enters the historical record in 1607 when she allegedly saved the life of John Smith. Her specific birth year is not known, but based on Smith’s recollections it is estimated to be 1596. She was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah in Tidewater, Virginia.
In 1613 she was captured and held for ransom during a period of unrest between the English and the Indians. She converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. Historians speculate that this name choice was not fortuitous ─ Rebecca was the mother of two distinct nations and maybe Pocahontas viewed herself or was viewed in the same light. In 1614 she married John Rolfe and a year later they had a son named Thomas Rolfe. She died at Gravesend on the River Thames after a visit to London in 1617 at the age of 20 or 21.
Even though she never acted as a translator or interpreter, she also found herself in the precarious space between an indigenous culture and an aggressive colonial power. When given the opportunity to return to her people after being captured for a year she chose to remain with the English, citing the fact that her father valued her life less than the ransom demands, which included tools and weapons.
As is the case with the previous two women, Krotao, born in the Cape in 1643 as a member of the Goringhaicona (or Strandlopers), found herself among European colonists from a very young age. At the age of 12 she was either taken by Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch East India Company’s first governor at the Cape, or given by her uncle Harry who had a long history as an interpreter and postal worker for English and Dutch ships. As a servant in the Van Riebeeck household she learnt Dutch and was instructed in Christianity by Van Riebeeck’s wife, Maria de la Quellerie.
On 3 May 1662 she was baptised and given the name Eva. Two years later when she married Peter Havgard, a Danish surgeon called “Pieter van Meerhof” by the Dutch. This first mixed marriage between the colonists and the indigenous in Southern Africa produced two children.
Krotoa’s relationship with her original and her adopted cultures is complicated. Her intimate knowledge of Dutch and Khoi culture, her proficiency in the relevant languages, and her close relationship with Van Riebeeck made her the ideal choice as an interpreter and mediator. Even though she was instrumental in ending the war between the Dutch and the Khoi, she was often mistrusted by both sides.
After Van Riebeeck’s departure and the deaths of Havgard, and Harry, her life took a turn for the worse, and she eventually found herself banished to Robben Island for alcoholism and immoral behaviour. She died on 29 July 1674 and was buried in the church at the Fort.
Variations on a theme
A specific pattern emerges in all three cases. A young, native girl is taken from her family and tribe, assumes a new name, culture, and religion, marries a European, and becomes embroiled in a clash of civilisations. It is tempting to think of these women as unwitting bystanders or passive go-betweens, but in her essay “Malintzin, Pocahontas, and Krotoa: Indigenous Women and Myth Models of the Atlantic World” (Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 6(3)) Pamela F. Scully presents evidence to the contrary ─ agency, astute negotiation skills, and the ability to see the merits of cooperation between the indigenous and the colonial powers. The few moments of peace and cooperation between the Europeans and the indigenous on the eastern and western shores of the Atlantic, would not have been possible without the language skills and empathic talents of these three women.