British travel writer John Harrison delves deep into the heart of ancient Mesoamerica and the clash of Aztec and Spanish cultures that gave birth to modern Mexico in his latest book, 1519: A Journey to the End of Time. Russell Maddicks tracked him down to find out what drives this scholarly adventurer to venture forth on his Latin American quests.
John Harrison is an award-winning British travel writer and adventurer who specializes in books that seek to get to the heart of his subject matter through months of pre-travel scholarly research followed by adventurous off-the-beaten track exploration, usually in the form of a quest.
In his 2010 book “Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland” he spent five months walking 600 miles along the Qhapaq Ñan, the Royal Inca Road. Trekking along mountain trails at over 3,000 meters, he traveled from Ecuador to Peru, ending up in Cuzco and the magnificent lost citadel of Machu Picchu.
The author’s latest book, “1519: A Journey to the End of Time” (Parthian Books, March 2016), continues that quest, taking him to Mexico in the footsteps of the conquistador Hernán Cortés.
On a four-month trip from the Mayan coast of Yucatán to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the ruins of which lie underneath modern-day Mexico City, Harrison finds that the Spanish legacy is far darker than the Aztec one.
Rather than a romantic hero who against all odds conquered a bloodthirsty empire obsessed with human sacrifice, Harrison suggests that Cortés should be remembered for finding the largest and best-run city on earth and reducing it to rubble.
Q: 1519 covers such an important period in the history of both Mexico and Spain. What made you decide to follow in the footsteps of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés?
As with my Peru book, Cloud Road, I was fascinated by the meeting of two great empires, previously unaware of each other: in this case, the Spanish and the Aztec.
Arguably, the Aztecs were more civilized. Their capital, modern-day Mexico City, was the the largest and best-run city in the world. It was more like two planets meeting than two powerful individuals.
Q: What made you feel you could add something new to the oft-told tale of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire?
I am not a kings and battles historian. I describe only one battle from a military perspective: the Battle of Frontera against the Maya, and the first one in which horses were deployed. I did so to show how simplistic many accounts are when they focus on technological superiority, or native fears and superstition.
The locals adapted immediately to their first contact with firearms, steel and cavalry (there were no New World horses). It took two days of fighting before the Spanish won. The psychological drama of the protagonists is much more important than the violence.
Q: For many people being diagnosed with cancer would have marked the end of a project as ambitious and physically challenging as following in the hoofprints of Cortés across Mexico for three months. What drove you on to complete the research for the book?
I was diagnosed with a rare throat cancer and given three months to live. In the end it delayed me a year, and at times I was close to dying. Completing the project assumed more importance, not less. It would be a sign that I had got through it.
It came to represent a return to normal life. At worst, I would die happy traveling and writing, not expire in a hospital tower block overlooking Hammersmith flyover.
Q: Was Mexico a country you knew well before you set out? What drew you to it as a subject for a travel book?
I knew it only through books and films. It was the Cortés story that drew me there. I had to research him a little while writing Cloud Road to understand what his second cousin Francisco Pizarro did in Peru, a decade later.
I soon knew what the sequel was going to be. It was a huge bonus that Mexico itself is such a fabulously rich country to write about.
Q: The conquest of the Aztecs is a key moment in Mexico’s past and still has ramifications for Mexicans today. How did people in Mexico react to your quest?
I had an even more generous reception than in Peru, and that’s saying something. They share a pleasure that anyone would fight their way to a village in the back of beyond, and sleep in a wood, just to track down their history. It’s a great virtue of having a theme that it draws me off the beaten track and into the real Mexico of backwaters and small towns.
Q: Did it give you a greater understanding of the Mexican psyche?
The main surprise to me was how much the Mexican psyche is not Hispanic, but still a native one. They identify with the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, and even more strongly with his fiery, short-lived successor Cuauhtémoc, treacherously executed when captive.
Mexican historian Salvador de Madariaga expresses the national melancholy bound up with their defeat in 1522: “Every day, within the soul of every Mexican, Moctezuma dies and Cuauhtémoc is hanged.”
Q: Malinche, the indigenous girl sold to the Spanish by her family who became an important translator for Cortés, and his mistress, is a controversial figure in Mexico. On the one hand she’s considered a traitor for collaborating with the Spanish but after having a child with Cortés she also, symbolically, gave birth to the modern mestizo nation. What are your feelings on this much maligned character?
The only blunder the Maya made at the Battle of Frontera was in the truce. They gave Cortés women, one of whom, Malinche, became his translator, and bargained with the indigenous rulers in conflict with the Aztecs. Most Spanish victories were diplomatic, not military; it’s possible that without her Cortés would have failed.
All her life she was a chattel. She wasn’t criticized, even by Moctezuma, until a 19th-century Catholic historian wanted a scapegoat. Malinche became Eve, betraying man. I have the greatest admiration for her skill and stoicism.
Q: Mexico is a fascinating country to visit with its well-preserved archaeological sites, colonial towns, stunning beaches and amazing food, art and music. What were your travel highlights?
It’s no use asking me about the food, my throat was lined with scar tissue from radiation! It’s hard to beat the atmosphere of temples in jungles, so the Maya ruins of the Yucatán are world class, as are its beaches. Yaxchilan, reached only by canoe and patrolled by howler monkeys and strange New World mammals was a highlight.
The hilltop city of Monte Alban, Oaxaca, is a little-known treasure. Swimming in a flooded cenote (sink-hole) in the jungle beneath circling swifts was also magical.
Q: What advice would you give anybody who reads 1519 and wants to travel around Mexico in your footsteps?
Put aside anxiety. Stay away from the border with the U.S., and don’t mess about dealing drugs and you will be safe. If you can’t manage to stay several months, few of us can, pick a part and explore it well. Mexico really is magical. I promise you will return.
Q: Apart from your own, of course, what are the travel books on Mexico that readers should seek out for an enlightening and inspiring read?
Carlos Fuentes’ The Buried Mirror is unsurpassed as a survey of Mexico past and present. For the history, the best contemporary account is undoubtedly Bernal Diaz’s eyewitness story The Conquest of New Spain; he is open to the virtues of the natives, and not afraid to tell it as it was, bloody and compromised.
There are Aztec versions told through poems, of which Miguel León-Portilla gives a fine prose version in Broken Spears. Los de Abajo by Mariano Azuela, translated as The Underdogs in the copy I have, is a novel about the Mexican revolution written at the time, and serialized in an El Paso newspaper in 1915.
Russell Maddicks is a travel journalist specializing in Latin America who has published articles in BBC Travel, BBC Mundo, National Geographic Traveller Magazine and Songlines, among others. He is the author of the Bradt Guide to Venezuela, Culture Smart! guides to Venezuela and Ecuador, with guides to Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua scheduled for release in 2016-2017.
He has also given illustrated talks on Latin American travel destinations at the Globetrotter’s Club, the Telegraph Outdoor and Adventure Travel Show, Destinations: The Holiday and Travel Show, and at UK colleges and universities. His social media connections include LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.