‘The New World of Martín Cortés’ by Anna Lanyon

2003, 260 p.

In January of this year I re-read Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest (see my review here) and by the end of it I had resolved that I would read her follow-up book, The New World of Martín Cortés. Martín Cortés was the ‘natural’ son of Hernán Cortés and Malinche, thus making him one among the early mestizo children born in the New World. But he was not to stay in the New World for long, as his father took him back as a six-year-old to the Old World, Spain. This was part of the Conquistador’s attempt to seek forgiveness for, technically, being a rebel against the Crown when he embarked for Mexico against the orders of the Governor of Cuba. He also lobbied for recognition of his achievements and landholdings in the New World. Martín obtained a position in the court of Charles V and later, as a page to Phillip II. As part of embedding his respectability, his father arranged for him to be an initiate into the Order of Santiago. Both he and his father fought for the Spanish Crown in Algiers. Thus, this child of the New World, was integrated into the Old World, while his mother Malinche remarried and died within two years of her son leaving for Spain.

Just as she did with Malinche’s Conquest, Anna Lanyon presents this story as a search within the archives, and visits to significant locations, both in Spain and in Mexico. Perhaps my resistance to this way of narrating history is abating, or perhaps she spends less time in this book on journeying than in the earlier book: in any event, there is more about the archival search within the documents and less about travel.

The major complication Lanyon faced was that Hernán had three sons, and he named two of them “Martín”, a family name. He brought his first son Martín (Malinche’s son) back to Spain with him, but then had another two sons when he remarried in Spain, naming the first of those Martín as well. Hernán was appointed the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca for his ‘discoveries’ in Mexico, and this title was handed to his second, legitimate Martín, whom Lanyon helpfully distinguishes from Malinche´s son by designating him ´the marqués´. Although Hernán went to considerable effort to have Malinche´s son and other three other natural children declared legitimate, the title and the wealth went only to the marqués.

It´s a pity that the wealth and title didn´t go to the older Martín. After Hernán died, all three sons returned to Mexico, to take up their father´s landholdings. Although the marqués was enjoined by his father´s will to provide for the older but illegitimate Don Martín, he did not do so. Moreover, the marqués became involved in the local South American politics, where the children and grandchildren of the original conquistadors were in dispute with the Spanish crown. By royal order, their right to enslave the indigenous people had been curtailed, and they could only inherit New World land to the second generation, after which it would revert to the Crown. When the marqués arrived, he was hailed by the conquistador sons as the leader of a resistance to these royal decrees that would undercut their patrimony. There were rumours of a rebellion, with the marqués at its head. When he went down, he took his brothers, half-brothers and friends with him, although luck continued to smile on him.

Lanyon knew the broad contours of Martín’s life before she started her research but even she felt sickened and saddened by the latter part of his life. Coming with no knowledge at all about Martín Cortéz, I felt that way too. Courage isn’t just found on battlefields: it is found just as much, if not more, in the dank cells of torture, where men are truly alone.

Both this book and Lanyon’s earlier Maliche’s Conquest have beautiful covers and black and white illustrations distributed throughout the text. I was intrigued by the handwriting embossed on the front cover, and which was watermarked on the opening page of each chapter. Lanyon did not have much direct documentary material to work with, and that which she did have was always complicated by the issue of exactly which Martín Cortéz she was reading about (don Martín or the marqués) but she did find his signature on one document- a tangible mark of his presence all those centuries ago. This is the handwriting that appears on the front cover and underlies the text.

The paucity of sources has forced Lanyon into a great deal of speculation and inference. She clearly marks this in the text through using modifiers like ‘perhaps’ and by framing statements as questions. She is aware of the danger of making such assumptions, such as when discussing Martín’s mestizo status in a community and time when ‘race’ was not necessarily the defining feature. For example, Martín may have been one of the first mestizo children to be taken back to metropolitan Spain, but it was a Spain with heavy Jewish and Muslim influences, and Martín may have looked no different from many other young boys there at the time. We are wrong to infer that he, or anyone else, might freight the issue of race with the significance it has now.

As with Malinche’s Conquest, I enjoyed this book that combined research, reflection and history-as-search. It’s a fairly easy read, and Lanyon is a gracious companion. And as with Malinche’s Conquest, she has settled on an ambiguous title. Martín Cortés may have been a child of the New World, but his upbringing and fate were moulded by the expectations and politics of the Old World, even in a New World setting.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: my own bookshelves

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Anna Lanyon studied at La Trobe University.

2 responses to “‘The New World of Martín Cortés’ by Anna Lanyon

  1. Pingback: History Memoir and Biography Round Up: October 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  2. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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