Cortés, Hernán 1485-1547
Hernán Cortés is best known as commander of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. His life reveals the human, political, and intellectual dimensions of Spain’s American empire and the use of history in shaping an understanding of this collective enterprise.
As commonly occurs in the biographies of self-made heroes, the few facts of Cortés’s youth have been supplanted by speculation to invent the lineage, training, and experience that befit so-called singular men of the Renaissance.
Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellín, a small town beside the Guadiana River in Extremadura. His parents were poor hidalgos (members of the lower nobility), for whom biographers would claim illustrious ancestors, celebrated for heroism and learning. At fourteen, Cortés was sent to learn Latin with the husband of his father’s halfsister in Salamanca. These preparatory studies have been misconstrued and, since 1875, when Bartolomé de las Casas’s History of the Indies (c. 1560) was published, others have repeated his belief that Cortés held a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Salamanca. However, Cortés returned home after two years, for which the decisive event in his education was instead an apprenticeship with an escribano (notary) in Valladolid, from whom he learned the skills used in the Caribbean and later in his own letters, reports, edicts, and briefs.
Cortés departed Spain in 1504, landing in Hispaniola, the administrative center of Spain’s colony and only permanent settlement until 1507. He received a small encomienda (grant of land with the right to native labor) from the governor Nicolás de Ovando and was made notary of the newly founded town of Azua, in the south of the island, an area subdued with his aid. Because an abscess in his thigh (perhaps syphilis) left Cortés unable to join the ill-fated 1509 expedition of Alonso de Hojeda and Diego de Nicuesa to Darién and Veragua, he remained in Azua until 1511, when he enrolled in the conquest of Cuba, serving its leader, Diego Velázquez, as secretary more than as soldier.
Cortés’s years as notary had earned him allies and taught him the workings of the colony at a key juncture in its existence. In 1509, Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego Colón, had replaced Ovando as governor, spurring the settlement of neighboring islands. Justifiably wary of Colón’s ambitions, the royal treasurer Miguel de Pasamonte would recruit Cortés to report on the conquest of Cuba, a service that Cortés capably performed without alienating Velázquez. Despite such oversight, demands for exploration grew over the next years due to the influx of settlers and the precipitous decline of Hispaniola’s native population. The conquests of Puerto Rico (1508), the Bahamas and Jamaica (1509), and Cuba (1511) only temporarily relieved this labor shortage, and did even less to satisfy the ambitions of colonists from Europe.
This state of affairs was further complicated by the protections ceded to the Amerindians under the Laws of Burgos of 1512, the recall of Colón to Spain in 1514, and the death in 1516 of Ferdinand II of Aragon, who had ruled Castile and its overseas possessions as regent after Isabel I died in 1504. Amid uncertainty and competing claims to legitimate and effective authority, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, sought to steal a march on potential rivals by organizing an expedition to the uncharted lands southwest of Cuba, about which there had been reports as early as 1506, and especially since the voyage of Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1511. To this end, a small fleet embarked under Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517 and, when this group reported finding a rich land (the Yucatán peninsula) with an advanced, urban population (the Maya), another flotilla was sent under Juan de Grijalva in 1518. Although this expedition met armed resistance, this was seen as a sign of social and political order, a conclusion reinforced by the artisanship of the items obtained in trade and by stories of a great land called México. Using this information, brought in advance of Grijalva’s return by a ship bearing the most seriously wounded, Velázquez demanded formal consent to colonize from the Hieronymite friars representing the Crown in Hispaniola, and from the Crown itself in Spain. While awaiting an answer, Velázquez sought to advance his claim to the title of adelantado (military and civil governor of a frontier province) by launching a much larger mission, ostensibly to search for Grijalva who had in fact returned, and also “to investigate and learn the secret” of any new lands discovered (Documentos cortesianos, vol. 1, p. 55).
It is possible that Velázquez conspired to have this expedition defy his orders not to settle these new lands, in that Las Casas reported that he later reprimanded Grijalva “because he had not broken his instruction” in this regard (Las Casas 1965, vol. 3, p. 220). In any event, Velázquez did not anticipate the disobedience to be shown by Cortés, whom he made its captain. Velázquez’s motives in naming Cortés remain unclear; for although Cortés had served Velázquez and was able to commit resources, he was an independent spirit; although liked and respected, he was not known as a soldier. The difficulty of hiding Grijalva’s return and the uncertainty of Cortés’s loyalties together explain the haste of the latter’s departure, which occurred on February 18, 1519, with six hundred soldiers and sailors in total.
From the expedition’s start, there were tensions between hidalgos with holdings in Cuba, loyal to Velázquez, and others hoping to improve their lot by backing Cortés. The voyage along the coast of the present-day states of Yucatán, Campeche, and Tabasco confirmed these lands’ civilization and wealth, and provided an essential means for their eventual conquest: a shipwrecked Spaniard held captive by the Maya, Gerónimo de Aguilar, and a Nahuatl-speaking native woman enslaved in Tabasco, Malinche (Malintzin or Marina). Translating in tandem and later independently, they enabled the Spaniards to communicate and gather intelligence.
A key fact learned was that many of the peoples subject to the Mexica (Nahua or Aztecs) deeply resented the tribute imposed upon them, and that others such as the city-state of Tlaxcala were at war. Cortés would astutely exploit these ethnic and regional divisions, which persisted under Spanish rule, but first he needed to free himself and his troops of the commission received from Velázquez so they might lay claim to the profit of their endeavor. To this end, he arranged to found the settlement of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz and had its cabildo (town council) review the legitimacy of Velázquez’s orders. The report sent to Spain with an impressive cargo of booty on July 10, 1519, was signed by this cabildo, yet bears Cortés’s imprimatur in its style and content. Depicting Velázquez as a self-serving tyrant, it states that the collective will of the Crown’s subjects residing in the land was to assist their nation and faith by settling there, so they might lead its people from abhorrent rites to Christian religion. For this, the settlers would answer only to the Crown and had implored Cortés to be their captain. It would not suit Cortés to relate these actions, in which he is said not to rebel but to acquiesce to the legitimate demands of his fellow subjects; it is unlikely that Cortés sent a letter of his own, as he and others have claimed.
Stripping and scuttling his ships so that no one could turn back and sailors might become soldiers, Cortés headed inland toward the Mexican capital of Tenochtitlán with approximately 15 horsemen, 400 foot soldiers, and more than 1,300 Totonac Indians. Claiming to be either an ally or foe of the Mexica in accordance with the loyalties of those encountered, Cortés made his way first to Tlaxcala, and then to Cholula, negotiating an alliance with the former after a series of skirmishes, and defeating the latter in part with intelligence obtained through Malinche, who warned that the Cholulans had prepared an ambush, despite protestations of friendship. Here as later, Cortés used exemplary punishment to make known the cost of treason, executing several thousand Cholulans as a warning to others. Though effective, this act was condemned in later years by political rivals and critics.
On November 8, 1519, the Spaniards were received by Montezuma II in the city of Tenochtitlán. Although impressed by the splendor of the city and Montezuma’s control of such a vast and diverse empire, Cortés was concerned by what might happen to his forces, amassed on an island in a lake, should this control falter, as indeed came to pass. For when he left to meet the challenge posed to his authority by an armada sent by Velázquez, hostilities broke out, so that by Cortés’s return on June 24, 1520, the fighting was such that Montezuma himself, held prisoner by the Spaniards, could not quell it. Accounts of these events and of Montezuma’s death a few days later differ, with blame assigned either to the greed of the Spaniards, who allegedly ordered a celebration held in the main temple to slaughter the Mexican warriors, or to the treachery of the Mexica, who allegedly used this event to arm an attack. In any event, the Spaniards were obliged to flee Tenochtitlán during the night of June 30 (la noche triste ), losing more than half their forces and nearly all the plunder. These losses fell heaviest on the troops newly recruited, with promises and threats, from among the men sent to arrest Cortés by Velázquez.
Escaping with further casualties to Tlaxcala—which would be accorded special privileges for its partly self-interested loyalty: tax exemptions, the right of its citizens to ride horses and use the honorific title Don —Cortés understood that retreat to the coast and on to Cuba or Hispaniola was impossible given the doubtful legality of his status as Captain General of the Spanish forces, which, although Cortés did not know it, Charles V had pointedly left unaddressed after receiving the cabildo’s letter and delegates. Cortés therefore began plans to retake Tenochtitlán, rallied his allies and troops (which, after the rout suffered on la noche triste, included the most resolute and battle-hardened of those previously in his command), and wrote to the king on October 30, 1520, assuring success while blaming defeat on Velázquez’s meddling, which, he said, had diverted his energies at a crucial moment, undermining his command over the Spaniards and his stature in the eyes of the Mexica.
This letter is key to an understanding of the conquest as a whole. Although it was designed to bolster Cortés’s claim to leadership—for example, by recasting fortuitous events as evidence of his foresight and God’s favor, or by narrating successful actions in the first-person singular— it also brings to light differences between the mainly political tactics of the first march to Tenochtitlán and the violent means ultimately used in its military conquest. The picture put forth in this letter of an enemy seemingly bewildered by technology (ships, firearms, and iron weapons), horses, psychological warfare, and Cortés’s ability to anticipate Montezuma’s every move and moreover use rhetoric and his own irrational beliefs against him— notably the idea that the Spaniards had been sent by the god Quetzalcoatl, an idea that would in fact become current only after conquest as justification for defeat—has led to the assumption of cultural superiority. Furthermore, it has prompted neglect of the difficulties encountered by the Spaniards after their initial entry into Tenochtitlán and especially after la noche triste. The introduction of diseases such as smallpox to which the Amerindians lacked immunity certainly affected the two sides equally.
The advantages cited by Cortés in his report to the king might have been decisive had the conquest been rapid; but, as it endured, the Mexica were able to devise countermeasures. Even as Cortés ordered thirteen brigantines built to ferry troops and attack Tenochtitlán from the water, where its defenses were most vulnerable, the Mexica were digging trenches armed with sharply pointed sticks and captured lances to kill or hobble the Spaniards’ horses. So too would the Mexica make a display of sacrificing and cannibalizing the Spaniards taken in battle to terrorize their comrades as the latter had before used firearms, horses, and dogs to terrorize them. The resulting pursuit of captives for sacrifice would prove costly for the Mexica insofar as it allowed Cortés and others in his company to escape death on several occasions. For this and the far larger number of Mexican combatants—despite the welcome arrival of reinforcements while in Tlaxcala, Cortés reports that in the final assault on Tenochtitlán his forces comprised barely 700 infantry, 118 musketeers and crossbowmen, 86 horsemen, 3 canon, 15 field guns, and an unspecified number of native fighters and bearers, apparently fewer than had supported him on his previous entry—Cortés was obliged to abandon his intent to take the city without destruction.
Despite more than two months of siege, beginning on May 30, 1521, the Mexica, though visibly starving, refused to surrender, prompting the Spaniards to raze the city sector by sector to maximize the effect of canon and to deprive the Mexica of cover for attack. Dismayed by the devastation of these final days and their aftermath, during which little was or could be done to restrain the Tlaxcalan forces, Cortés would remark in his third letter to the Crown (May 15, 1522): “So loud was the wailing of the women and children that there was not one man amongst us whose heart did not bleed at the sound; and indeed we had more trouble in preventing our allies from killing with such cruelty than we had in fighting the enemy. For no race, however savage, has ever practiced such fierce and unnatural cruelty as the natives of these parts” (Cortés 1986, pp. 261-262). On August 13, 1521, Tenochtitlán and its new leader, Cuauhtémoc, surrendered.
Although Cortés reorganized and governed the conquered territory, renamed New Spain, until 1528, and led another, this time disastrous, expedition to Honduras (1524-1526), his final years, until his death in 1547, were spent in relative obscurity. His actions in exploring the Pacific coast northward in search of the legendary riches of Cíbola (1532-1536) and in support of Charles V in the unsuccessful assault on Algiers (1541) show a man broken in spirit. It is telling that writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries celebrate Cortés’s role, not as military commander, but as an instrument of God, delivering the New World from idolatry and extending the rule of Catholic faith in opposition to Martin Luther, who they wrongly said was born in the same year. Although this image has faded from modern accounts, replaced by that of Machiavelli’s ruthless prince, the audacity of Cortés’s exploits has not. For this and the power of his discourse, Cortés’s letters to the Crown are required reading for scholars of Renaissance society.
Boruchoff, David A. 1991. Beyond Utopia and Paradise: Cortés, Bernal Díaz and the Rhetoric of Consecration. MLN 106: 330–369.
Casas, Bartolomé de las. [c. 1560] 1965. Historia de las Indias. Ed. Agustín Millares Carlo. 2nd ed. 3 vol. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Clendinnen, Inga. 1991. “Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty”: Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico. Representations 33: 65–100.
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal.  1908-1916. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, One of Its Conquerors. Trans. Alfred Percival Maudslay. 5 vols. London: The Hakluyt Society.
Documentos cortesianos. 1990-1992. Ed. José Luis Martínez. 4 vols. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Fondo de Cultura Económica.
López de Gómara, Francisco.  1964. Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, Francisco López de Gómara. Trans. Lesley Byrd Simpson. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Martínez, José Luis. 1990. Hernán Cortés. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Ramos, Demetrio. 1992. Hernán Cortés: Mentalidad y propósitos. Madrid: Ediciones Rialp.
David A. Boruchoff
Cortés, Hernán (c. 1485–1547)
CORTÉS, HERNÁN (c. 1485–1547)
CORTÉS, HERNÁN (c. 1485–1547), Spanish explorer and conqueror of Mexico. The son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, Hernán Cortés was born in Medellín, in southwestern Spain. His father sent him at age fourteen to study law at the University of Salamanca, but Hernán had little taste for academic life. He was drawn instead to adventure and in 1504 sailed for the Caribbean, where he won lasting fame by conquering Aztec Mexico.
On Hispaniola, Cortés served briefly as a notary and then assisted Diego Velázquez in the conquest of Cuba. He received an encomienda (grant of indigenous tribute) and claimed several gold mines. Around 1515 Cortés married Catalina Suárez Marcaida. Velázquez, governor of Cuba, appointed him to lead an exploratory and trading expedition to the Yucatán. Before Cortés sailed in late 1518, however, Velázquez grew suspicious of his protégé's loyalty and tried to block his departure.
Cortés departed anyway, having personally financed much of the expedition of 11 ships, 508 soldiers, and 16 horses. His men responded enthusiastically to his energy, charisma, and seriousness of purpose. They landed at Cozumel in mid-February 1519 and then moved westward around the Yucatán, fighting and trading as they went. At one town they received a gift of twenty women, including one, La Malinche or Doña Marina, who became Cortés's mistress. More important, she spoke both Maya and Nahuatl and, after learning Spanish, proved invaluable to Cortés as both a translator and a cultural interpreter.
By April 1519 Cortés had become aware of the rich, powerful Aztec empire and its ruler Montezuma (Motecuhzoma II). Cortés disbanded his expedition and founded the city of Veracruz on the Mexican coast. He and his men then organized a town government (cabildo), which appointed him to invade the Aztec empire and conquer it for Spain. This was a clever strategy by Cortés to free him from subordination to Velázquez.
In late summer 1519, Cortés marched inland toward the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. When the Spaniards arrived at Tlaxcala, bitter fighting erupted. The Tlaxcalans suspected that Cortés was an ally of their enemy Montezuma. Eventually, the Spaniards and the Tlaxcalans broke off battle and became allies themselves, seeing in each other potential help against the Aztecs. This proved crucial to the conquest: the Tlaxcalans provided manpower, food, and other logistical support and remained loyal, even during Spanish setbacks.
In November 1519, Cortés reached the densely populated valley of Central Mexico. Tenochtitlán lay on an island in Lake Texcoco, connected by causeways to the shore, and the other large cities "seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis." Montezuma welcomed Cortés to the capital, and the Spaniards seized the Aztec ruler and held him prisoner. For a while, Cortés managed to rule through Montezuma. Meanwhile, Velázquez sent a force under Pánfilo de Narváez to Veracruz to arrest Cortés. Leaving some of his men in Tenochtitlán under Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés returned to the coast, defeated Narváez, and persuaded many of his men to join in the campaign against the Aztecs. Returned to Tenochtitlán, however, Cortés discovered the populace in an uproar: Alvarado, fearing an attack, had massacred Aztecs participating in a public celebration. Besieged in the capital, Cortés fought his way out during the Noche Triste (Sorrowful Night), 30 June 1520. Montezuma was killed. Cortés lost hundreds of Spaniards and thousands of his indigenous allies, but managed to retreat to Tlaxacala and regroup.
Ever resourceful, Cortés gathered reinforcements and supplies, fabricated thirteen small ships to protect his men on the lake, and then returned to Tenochtitlán. During his absence, smallpox devastated the valley, weakening Aztec military might. Nonetheless, Cortés had to besiege the city from May to August 1521 before finally conquering the Aztecs and capturing their new ruler, Cuauhtémoc. To win the king's support, Cortés sent to Spain gold and feathered shields received as gifts from the Aztecs, along with reports of his exploits.
The conquest made Cortés a heroic figure, wealthy and powerful, yet his victory proved difficult to consolidate. He worked vigorously to subjugate other regions of Mexico and zealously pushed for the conversion of the indigenous population to Catholicism. From 1524 to 1526, he campaigned in Central America, trying to assert his right to Guatemala and Honduras. In his absence, chaos enveloped Mexico as factions struggled to control the spoils of conquest, especially when a rumor spread that Cortés had died. In 1527 he went to Spain and obtained from Charles I the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, along with a vast encomienda. But the king was suspicious of Cortés's power in Mexico and stripped him of political command. A marriage to Juana de Zúñiga produced Martín, his heir. The conqueror returned to Mexico for a few years in the 1530s but in a further attempt to defend his estate and actions went back to Spain, where he died at Castilleja de la Cuesta near Seville in 1547.
See also Colonialism ; Exploration ; Spanish Colonies: Mexico .
Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Translated by A. R. Pagden. New York, 1971. The dispatches Cortés sent to the Spanish king.
Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. New York, 1993. Analysis of the conquest from an indigenous perspective.
Madariaga, Salvador de. Hernán Cortés, Conqueror of Mexico. New York, 1941. Thorough, standard biography.
Kendall W. Brown
Cortes, Hernán (1485–1547)
Cortes, Hernán (1485–1547)
Spanish conquistador (conqueror), who subdued the Aztecs of Mexico and founded the colony of New Spain precursor to the modern Republic of Mexico. Born in the town of Medellin in the Estremadura region of Castile, Cortes was the son of a soldier and the cousin of Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire of Peru. Cortes attended the University of Salamanca but, in search of a more adventurous life, dropped his studies in law after two years. By this time, the discovery of a new continent was inspiring dreams of riches and glory among many young Spaniards.
Cortes first enlisted with the fleet of Nicolas de Ovando, the newly appointed governor of Hispaniola, but an accident while climbing out of his mistress's window in Medellin prevented him from sailing. He finally reached the West Indies in 1503, arriving with a Spanish expedition to Hispaniola and Cuba. He was granted an encomienda (estate) on Hispaniola by the governor, Diego Velazquez de Curellar, as well as a number of Indian slaves. In 1511 he set out with Velazquez to conquer the island of Cuba. For his service he was appointed treasurer of the new colony, responsible for directing 20 percent of all income from it to the Spanish crown, and an appointment as mayor of the town of Santiago, the island's capital city.
In 1519 he was appointed to lead an expedition to the mainland of North America. By this time, he was at odds with Velazquez, who recalled him at the last minute from the expedition. Cortes defied these orders and sailed with 508 men and sixteen horses for the Mexican coast. On reaching land, he promptly burned his ships to end any idea among his men of retreating from his intended conquest of establishing a new colony on the mainland. Cortes organized a cabildo, or town government, at Veracruz, then had the town appoint him as captain of an expedition to the interior, in this way escaping the authority of Velazquez.
At this time a powerful Aztec empire was ruling from a populous and wealthy capital, Tenochtitlán, built on a series of lakes and islands in the highlands of what is now central Mexico. To defeat the Aztecs, Cortez allied with their enemies, the Totonac and Nahua people, and gathered more allies in Tlaxcala, where he reinforced his small force of Spanish infantry and horsemen. On reaching Tenochtitlán, Cortes and his men were received as guests at the palace of the Aztec king, Montezuma, who believed Cortes to be a legendary god Quetzalcoatl. Cortes soon took the king prisoner, a hostage for the good behavior of the Aztecs.
On hearing of a second expedition arriving to relieve him of his command, Cortes left Tenochtitlán in the hands of one of his captains, Pedro Arias de Avila, and returned to the coast. There he defeated his opponents and persuaded many of their company to join his army. On returning to Tenochtitlán, Cortes found the city in revolt against de Avila, who was ruling the Aztecs as a tyrant. In the fighting Montezuma was killed and Cortes was forced to flee in what became known as La Noche Triste, or “The Unhappy Night.” Cortes waited two years in the hills near the city and finally gathered his men for a siege. Eventually the Spanish horses and artillery overcame the city's defenders; Cortes made the new emperor Cuauhtémoc a prisoner.
King Charles I of Spain appointed Cortes governor of the colony of New Spain. Under Cortes's rule, the ancient Aztec city was destroyed and a new colonial capital was raised. The Aztecs were converted to Catholicism and served their conquerors as peasant laborers; Cortes also imported slaves from Africa to work on the plantations of New Spain. But his defiance of Velazquez's orders in sailing to Mexico also made the king of Spain suspicious of Cortes's motivations and loyalty, and observers were sent to keep an eye on the colony and its governor.
Ever defiant, Cortes suspected Diego Velazquez of trying to undermine him, and issued an order for Velazquez's arrest. The king of Spain then sent an investigator to uncover the facts of the case. When the investigator died under mysterious circumstances, his successor appointed a replacement for Cortes, who was exiled from New Spain by his replacement. Cortes returned to Spain to answer the charges against him in 1528. He was received by Charles V, rewarded for his success with a title, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, but stripped of his authority of governor.
Cortes returned to Mexico in 1530 and disputed his right to explore northern Mexico with the new governors and administrators of the colony. He set out in 1536 and reached Baja California and the Pacific coast of Mexico. Returning to Spain in 1541, he joined an expedition against the Barbary pirates of North Africa, then found himself back in Spain with heavy debts and disregarded by the Spanish court. Unable to make his case in the Spanish court, he felt himself the victim of injustice and neglect. Without prospects in Spain, he decided to return to the colony he had conquered, but came down with dysentery and died in Seville before his ship set sail.
See Also: Columbus, Christopher; exploration
Hernán Cortés (c. 1485-1547) conquered the Aztecempire in Mexico and became the most famous of the Spanish conquistadores.
Hernán Cortés was born in Medellin. His parents were of the small landed gentry of the region. As a youth, he studied Latin for 2 years at the University of Salamanca, but lured by tales of new discoveries in America, he abandoned student life and in 1504 sailed for the New World.
Cortés settled initially on the island of Santo Domingo (Hispaniola) but in 1511 joined an expedition to Cuba, where he became a municipal official and an intimate friend of Diego Velázquez, the governor of the island. When Velázquez determined to dispatch an expedition to Mexico, he named Cortés for the command, but Velázquez soon came to suspect Cortés of excessive ambition and determined to relieve him. Cortés, aware of this danger, managed to slip away with part of his followers before the governor could formally confront him. After meeting with other recruits, on Feb. 18, 1519, Cortés departed for Mexico with over 600 Spanish soldiers, sailors, and captains, some 200 Indian auxiliaries, and 16 horses.
Cortés's route took him first to Yucatán and thence up the Mexican coast to the vicinity of the modern city of Veracruz, where he founded a town, Villa Rica de Veracruz, which became the base for the conquest. There he arranged to have the municipal council—which he had appointed—name him captain general and principal judge, an act which gave him at least quasilegal status. He also negotiated alliances with adjacent Indian tribes and gathered intelligence about the Aztecs.
War with the Aztecs
In August 1519 Cortés struck inland for Tenochtitlán, an island city in Lake Texcoco and the capital of the Aztec confederation ruled by Montezuma II. The most consequential episode in the march was an alliance which Cortés negotiated with the Tlascala, an Indian nation hostile to the Aztecs. In early November the expedition reached the shores of Lake Texcoco. Montezuma, unsure of the intentions of the Spaniards and, indeed, of whether they were gods or men, had offered no overt resistance to their approach and now invited them into Tenochtitlán.
The Spaniards were treated as not entirely welcome guests, and Cortés responded by seizing Montezuma as hostage. At this time Cortés was faced with the arrival of an expedition sent by Governor Velázquez to chastise him. Cortés hastened to the coast to meet the newcomers and, after a surprise attack on them, induced them to join his forces. Upon returning to Tenochtitlán, however, he found the inhabitants in arms and his forces beleaguered in their quarters. Judging the situation to be hopeless, on the night of June 30, 1520, he led his forces from the city to refuge with his Tlascala allies.
In Tlascala, Cortés rebuilt his forces with newly arrived Spaniards and Indian auxiliaries. In May 1521 he began an attack on Tenochtitlán supported by a small navy which had been built in Tlascala, transported to Lake Texcoco, and reassembled. After 75 days of bitter street fighting, on August 13 the city fell to the Spaniards.
Founding of Mexico
Success won legal status for Cortés. On Oct. 15, 1522, Emperor Charles V appointed him governor and captain general of New Spain, the name applied by the Spaniards to the conquered region. It also provided Cortés with an opportunity to display new dimensions of his abilities. He rebuilt Tenochtitlán as the Spanish city of Mexico and dispatched his lieutenants in all directions to subdue other Indian groups. Within a short time most of what is now central and southern Mexico was brought under Spanish rule. Cortés encouraged the introduction of European plants and animals. He vigorously supported the conversion of the native population to Christianity, and his government was marked by consideration for the physical welfare of the Indians.
The great conqueror's days of glory, however, were short. The Emperor was jealous of powerful and popular captains beyond his immediate control and soon began to withdraw or undermine the governmental powers conceded to Cortés. Royal officials were appointed to oversee the treasury of New Spain, royal judges arrived to dispense justice, and in 1526 he was deprived of the governorship. Cortés spent 2 years (1528-1530) in Spain defending himself against his enemies and attempting unsuccessfully to recover his administrative authority. He returned, retaining only the honorific military office of captain general but with the title of marquis of the valley of Oaxaca, which conferred on him a vast estate in southern Mexico.
Cortés remained in Mexico for the next 10 years, managing his estate and undertaking new expeditions which he hoped would recoup his power. His efforts were unsuccessful and in 1540 he returned to Spain, where he lived as a wealthy, honored, but disappointed man until his death in 1547. In compliance with his will, his remains were returned to Mexico, where they repose today in the church of the Hospital of Jesus in Mexico City, an institution which he himself had founded.
Cortés was unquestionably a man of immense abilities. As a conquistador, he displayed an exceptional combination of leadership, audacity, tenacity, diplomacy, and tactical skill. But he was more than a conqueror. He had a vision of a "New Spain" overseas and his statesmanship was instrumental in laying its foundations.
The Letters of Cortés was edited by F. A. MacNutt in three volumes in 1908. The best studies of Cortés are F. A. MacNutt, Fernando Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico (1909); Salvador de Madariaga, Hernán Cortés, Conqueror of Mexico (1942), a fictionalized biography; and H. R. Wagner, The Rise of Fernando Cortés (1944). A useful contemporary account is Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, translated by A. P. Maudslay (5 vols., 1908-1916). The best single work on the conquest of Mexico is still W. H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843; many later editions). See also R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503-1541 (1967). □
Hernán Cortés shared many of the characteristics of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistador. Born in Medellín in the province of Extremadura in Spain, Cortés was a minor noble driven principally by the quest for wealth and glory. Ambitious for political power, he played a key role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire and the incorporation of its peoples into Spain's New World dominions.
Cortés's swift defeat of the Aztecs (1519–1521), like Francisco Pizarro's (ca. 1475–1541) victory over the Incas (1532–1533), was facilitated by the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of native allies. The sheer number of Indians fighting alongside a few hundred Spanish conquistadores gave the events of 1519 to 1521 the character of a great Indian uprising against Aztec domination. Though undoubtedly aided by propitious timing, Cortés's diplomatic skills were crucial in the forging of lasting alliances with the independent kingdom of Tlaxcala, which had been encircled and was vulnerable to Aztec conquest, and with the numerous subject peoples who, resentful of Aztec imperial rule, joined the fighting forces that overcame the ferocious Aztec war machine.
Cortés's audacity and determination, even when the odds were clearly stacked against him, also played a significant part in the Spaniards' success. An early decision to undertake the conquest in defiance of the governor of Cuba's strict instructions to limit his activities to exploration and trade, placed Cortés in real danger of a charge of treason should he fail to deliver to the king the largest and richest territories thus far encountered in the Americas. Only this driving need to succeed can explain the recklessness and inventiveness of his decisions: the scuppering of his ships to prevent the followers of Cuban governor Diego Velázquez (ca. 1465–1524) from abandoning the enterprise; the return to the Aztecs' island capital, Tenochtitlán, even after an ignominious Spanish retreat during the Noche Triste (Night of Sorrow) and the loss of hundreds of his men; and the building, with Tlaxcalan assistance, of a fleet of brigantines equipped with artillery to take control of Lake Texcoco, which cut off Tenochtitlán's food supplies and weakened severely the capacity of its people, already suffering the effects of a traumatic smallpox epidemic, to further resist.
Notwithstanding the skill and tenacity with which he led the conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortés stands apart from his fellow conquistadors in one crucial sense. Having witnessed the tragic consequences of the kind of colonization that had taken place in the Caribbean, its peoples virtually destroyed within a single generation following the Columbian voyages, he sought to ensure that no such catastrophe was repeated in New Spain. Nevertheless, as governor from 1522, he faced the unenviable task of advancing several irreconcilable aims: to secure control over the Aztecs' former dominions, redirect native tribute and labor to support a growing Spanish population, and provide his followers with the livelihoods to which they aspired and which they considered their rightful reward for participation in conquest, while at the same time protecting indigenous peoples from exploitation and abuse. Thus the encomienda, a modified version of the repartimiento first introduced in Hispaniola, was extended to the Mexican mainland, and Cortés was one of its principal beneficiaries.
Despite personal reservations, Cortés believed that the encomienda, with its duties towards Indians carefully defined, was necessary to encourage permanent settlement, the development of a stable society, and profitable exploitation of the colony's resources. His authority in New Spain was to be short-lived, however. To limit the powers of conquerors and encomenderos, officials loyal to the authority of the crown soon made their way to the new colony: It was they who were to be responsible for its government until Mexico became independent exactly three hundred years later.
Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. London and New York: Longman, 1994.
Thomas, Hugh. The Conquest of Mexico. London: Hutchinson, 1993.
Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador who succeeded in claiming most of present-day Mexico for Spain by conquering the Aztec people in their capital city of Tenochtitlan.
Cortés was born in the region of Medellin, Spain, to parents of good social standing. Cortés was sent to the University of Salamenca at the age of 14 where, among other subjects, he studied Latin for two years. Following his studies, Cortés set out to make his way in life. His imagination ignited with the possibilities that awaited in the Indies recently discovered by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Cortés sailed, at age 19, to Hispaniola (present-day Santo Domingo) in 1504.
Cortés spent approximately six years as a farmer in Hispaniola, then in 1511 joined Diego Velazquez (1465?-1522), with whom he became an intimate friend, on an expedition to Cuba. When Velazquez was appointed governor of Cuba in 1511, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer.
Velazquez made plans to send an expedition to what is now Mexico; Cortés was placed in charge of the expedition. With his experience as a leader and his position in politics, Cortés was able to quickly recruit 300 men and acquire six ships. Cortés soon became aware that Velazquez was intending to name another leader of the expedition, and in an effort to preserve his efforts he slipped away and headed along the coast of Cuba, recruiting more men. When Cortés finally left for Mexico on February 18, 1519, he was the leader of over 600 soldiers and sailors, 11 ships, 200 Indians for support, and 16 horses.
Cortés went first to Yucatan and then along the coast of Mexico, where he founded the town of Villa Rica de Veracruz. He had himself elected, by his soldiers, as captain general as well as chief justice, making himself the sole authority for the expedition. He also burned their ships, a tactic designed to raise the level of commitment in his men to the conquest of Mexico.
Cortés led his men into the interior of Mexico, relying on information from Indians with whom he had become friendly; the most significant of these were the Tlascala, who were at war with the Aztecs. With the information gathered, Cortés set out for Tenochtitlan, the island-city capital of the Aztec empire in Lake Texcoco, ruled by Montezuma II. In early November of 1519 Cortés and his men reached Lake Texcoco. Accompanied by 1,000 Tlascala Indians, they entered the city on November 8, 1519. Montezuma initially thought that Cortés was the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and as a result opened the city to him. Cortés then took Montezuma hostage in an effort to conquer the entire Aztec empire with one action.
Soon thereafter, Cortés learned that an expedition, sent by Velazquez and led by Pánfilo de Narváez (1480?-1528), had left Cuba and had arrived at the coast of Mexico with the intent of relieving Cortés of his command of Tenochtitlan. Cortés left the Aztec city and, after a surprise attack and victory over Narvaez and his men, returned to Tenochtitlan. In the meantime, the Aztecs had revolted against the Spaniards that Cortés had left behind. So under cover of night on June 30, 1520, Cortés and his men left the city and found refuge with the Tlascala Indians.
Cortés reassembled his army and with Indian support marched on the Aztec capital in December of 1520. The attack on the city began in May of 1521 and by August 13 the city was in the control of the Spaniards; the Aztec empire was officially defeated. On October 15, 1522, Charles V named Cortés the governor of New Spain, or the territories in Mexico conquered by the Spanish; he rebuilt the city of Tenochtitlan. However, Cortés was only in power for a few years, and by 1526 he was removed as governor; from 1528-1530 he tried to regain his position in Mexico. He did not succeed in this effort and returned to Mexico where he retired to his estate about 30 miles (48 km) south of Mexico City (Tenochtitlan). He spent his time building a castle on his estate and leading expeditions, but he was not to acquire the position he had held before. In 1540 he returned to Spain, where he died in 1547; his body was returned to Mexico for burial.
MICHAEL T. YANCEY