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Malinche and Pocahontas

A Conversation with Camilla Townsend

Camilla Townsend is Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University and a specialist in the Nahua language and in the early colonial history of the Americas. She has carefully studied the lives of two indigenous women in the first years of contact, violence and interchanges with Europeans: Malintzin, known as La Malinche, born around 1500 in Mesoamerica and baptized by the Spaniards under the name of doña Marina; and Pocahontas, born around 1596 in the Tsenacommacah (Virginia) and baptized as Rebecca by the English. Both had short lives: Malintzin died by 1529, served Hernán Cortés as a translator and gave birth to his son, Martín; Pocahontas died in England in 1617 and was married to the English settler John Rolfe in Virginia, with whom she also had a son.

Paul Firbas: You have dedicated two remarkable books to two central figures in the history of colonialism in the Americas: Malintzin’s Choices, An Indian Woman in the Conquest of Mexico (Univ New Mexico Press, 2006) and Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (Hill and Wang, 2005). What led you to the study of these two indigenous women and their interactions with Europeans?

Camilla Townsend:  I have long been interested in relations between colonizers and the colonized starting in the earliest generations after contact. I thought I might learn a great deal about those relations by studying two women who were known for their role as go-betweens—Pocahontas in the Chesapeake, and Malinche in Mexico. We can’t know much about these women’s private thoughts or feelings, but their life stories reveal details about what sorts of arrangements were made between their peoples and the settlers.

Firbas: Based on your studies of these two historical figures, do you find any significant differences between Iberian and Anglo interactions with indigenous cultures during the initial period of colonization?

Townsend: What we find is that both the Anglos and the Iberians wanted to collect tribute from the indigenous peoples. Both Pocahontas and Malinche were asked to help make this European dream come true. What was different was not what the Europeans wanted; what was different was how the indigenous responded. In Mexico (like in the Andes), the native peoples were already settled farmers, used to paying taxes or tribute to their government. They mostly accepted a new set of rulers who demanded payments. But in North America, the native peoples were only part-time farmers; they still mostly relied on hunting and gathering. Pocahontas’s father and all his people simply left; they took to the woods and re-established their villages elsewhere.

Prof. Townsend at Stony Brook University on Oct 2, 2019.

Firbas: How would you present or explain (in general terms) to our undergraduate students the different (or similar) roles that indigenous cultures have played in the formation of modern Mexico and USA?

Townsend: In both Mexico and the future United States, the conquering settlers relied on Indians at first, as they learned the lay of the land. But the societies that the colonizers ended up organizing were very different, because the Native Americans who were there were very different. In Mexico, the settled or sedentary indigenous people and their mestizo children, became the pueblo, the people, who constituted the majority, but in the future United States, the semi-nomadic Indians were gradually pushed aside.

Firbas: What kind of studies or approaches would you recommend to promote a better and more dynamic understanding of the colonial period in the Americas?

Townsend:I think we can glean a better understanding of what life was like by studying the lives of real individuals. Seeing the difficulties that Pocahontas or Malinche faced, for instance, can help us grasp what conquest was really like. And we can literally watch the different reactions exhibited by different kinds of people. It is easy to say that indigenous people displayed courage in very trying times, but when we watch these young women try to survive, we truly internalize the agonizing nature of the choices they faced and the situations they handled.

Illustration based on the 1892 edition of Justus Perthes’s map on the ethnic groups of the Americas: Wohnsitze der amerikanischen Urbevölkerung in der Zeiten der Entdeckung.


Click here to read more on Prof. Towsend’s visit to Stony Brook University in Oct 2019 for our Mexico 500+ colloquium.

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