As conqueror of the Aztec Empire in Mexico, explorer of Guatemala and Honduras, and leader of the first expeditions to California, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés contributed significantly to the establishment of European domination in America. His conquests helped shape the history of the southwestern United States and Mexico.
Cortés was born in 1485 to a poor, noble family in Medellin, in the dry area of Extremadura, in Castile—now Spain. He was the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy, a poor military captain who fought in many wars, and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. The family history of participation in regional wars almost exclusively includes private internal struggles fought within Extremadura. A sickly and only child in a region known to produce soldiers, Cortés's parents placed him initially as an acolyte in a local church and then sought to give him a quality education. Cortés studied Latin and grammar at the age of 12 in Salamanca, and probably attended the University of Salamanca, where he studied to become a lawyer. He did not complete his studies, but instead returned home to Medellín in 1501 when he was 17. In addition to his love of Latin and literary works, picked up from his time in Salamanca, Cortés increasingly dedicated himself to the martial arts, and to gambling, both of which played a role in his decision to leave school to go to the New World and make his fortune.
Cortés journeyed to Seville to join the expedition under Fr. Nicolás de Ovando, a distant relative and also from Extremadura. Injured while climbing through a girl's window in the capital city, he did not travel to America with Ovando in 1504, fortunately, as two-fifths of the expedition died shortly after arriving in Hispaniola and another fifth suffered from severe illness. Instead, Cortés delayed further, first in Seville and then in Valladolid, where he briefly served as a notary. This experience played a significant role in his later knowledge of policy and Castilian law in the Indies. He finally left for Santo Domingo on a fleet of merchant ships in 1506. For six years, Cortés lived as a landowner in Santo Domingo. Governor Ovando sent Cortés on an expedition to Xaragua, the western region of Hispaniola where the recent massacre by Diego Velázquez was still well remembered and served as a brutal introduction to the practices of conquest in the New World.
By 1509 Cortés's observations of the economic and demographic decline in Hispaniola, along with observations of the growing wealth of those seeking wealth on the mainland, prompted him to move to Darien in Central America (south of the Yucatán). Again, a medical ailment prevented his travels, saving him from a failed venture that ended in shipwreck. In 1511, he joined Diego Velázquez's expedition to Cuba. For his participation, the new governor rewarded Cortés with the position as his secretary and gave him an encomienda land grant in Cuba where he lived until 1518. He supplemented his income as notary with raising cattle and panning for gold in the river at Cuvanacan. With this new wealth, Cortés built a hacienda and fathered a daughter by an Indian girl. In the next seven years in Cuba, Cortés had a series of disagreements with his benefactor, Velázquez. In 1514, local settlers, desirous of larger apportionments of Indians, selected Cortés to represent them to petition the governor. Velázquez responded by dismissing and arresting his assistant, though he later pardoned him and extended the grants of Indians. Another conflict arose when Cortés courted, seduced, and then rejected Catalina, one of the sisters of his fellow encomendero, Juan Suárez, and sister to the new romantic interest of the newly widowed Velázquez. The governor again arrested Cortés, who escaped but eventually was reconciled when he eventually married Catalina.
In 1518, Velázquez appointed Cortés to lead a mission to the unexplored lands to the west, the area now known as Mexico. Despite several altercations with the governor, Cortés had proved himself a capable leader and administrator. Yet his military skills had rarely been employed. Nonetheless, Velázquez perceived him to be clever and cool under pressure. While observant of Cortés's qualities, the governor obviously underestimated the ambition and subservience of the adventurer. The governor tasked Cortés with sailing to help the Grijalva expedition, which was experiencing difficulties. Velázquez provided a couple of ships and asked Cortés to provide the rest, owing to the new wealth acquired by him from his gold mines.
Several Spanish ships had landed in Mexico before Cortés's expedition. The reports of wealth and gold tempted Cortés and his followers, although they also wished to conquer new lands for their king and find new civilizations that they hoped to convert to Christianity. For all of those reasons, Cortés accepted the governor's commission and funded a mission to Mexico with his own personal fortune and arrived in Cozumel, off the coast of Mexico, on March 12, 1519. Again, the governor's vision of the expedition differed greatly from Cortés's. The instructions maintained that service of God was the primary mission, with discovery of lands to be claimed for the Crown as secondary. All Indians encountered were therefore to be read the Requerimiento that placed them under the king's authority in return for protection and conversion. These same Indians were to be treated well. No native women were to be seduced or raped. Even gambling and cards were prohibited. Unaware that Grijalva had returned, Cortés was to inquire regarding any news of Grijalva as well as Cristóbal de Olid, who had already been sent to find the conquistador and his troubled expedition. Intended as an exploratory and rescue mission, the ideals outlined in the governor's instructions were circumvented easily by way of the loopholes in the contract signed by Velázquez and Cortés.
In preparation for his expedition in 1518, Cortés sought out Pedro de Alvarado, who had recently returned from Middle America. Alvarado willingly agreed to finance his own ship, as well as men and horses for the voyage. Cortés's traditional caution was tossed aside in his collaboration with Alvarado. Large-scale preparations alarmed Velázquez, who eventually attempted to revoke Cortés's commission. Sensing the impending loss of his greatest opportunity, Cortés decided to leave Santiago immediately.
Rushed out of port to avoid the loss of his commission, Cortés was compelled to make a series of stops to acquire food for the expedition, where he obtained provisions and further recruits. Velázquez sent messages to many ports and officials, including letters to two captains of ships in the fleet, seeking to delay or block the provisioning of the venture. Despite these efforts, Cortés was able to convince the recipients of the letters to cooperate with his undertaking, and even to enlist in his expeditionary fleet. Cortés went so far as to order Diego de Ordaz (one of Velázquez's appointees who threw his support behind Cortés) to seize a Spanish ship carrying food provisions, a ship that was added to the invading fleet when the ship's captain decided to join in the venture.
By the time Cortés arrived on the Mexican coast, the private expedition became virtually a public affair, with many settlers from Cuba and others joining in through loans, cooperation, or active participation. According to a muster in 1519, he now commanded 11 ships, not counting Alvarado's, who was absent at the time. He additionally had about 530 Europeans under his authority. Weaponry in his expedition included crossbows, 12 arquebuses (guns), 14 pieces of artillery, as well as breech-loading cannon. His personnel included about one-third from Andalusia, a quarter from Old Castile, and one-sixth from Extremadura. Two Franciscan friars accompanied the expedition, as did a few Spanish women. Craftsmen, professionals, and slaves also traveled with the fleet, including hundreds of Indians, despite Velázquez's instructions. Sixteen horses made the journey, along with several “war” dogs—probably Irish wolfhounds or mastiffs. Of the captains and commanders within the expedition, several had close ties to Velázquez, some had long disliked Cortés, but most were loyal friends from Extremadura.
Cortés cruised the Yucatán Peninsula in February 1519. His first landfall was Cozumel, where he found Alvarado and his missing ship. The Indians of the local village had fled inland, probably from the depredations of Alvarado. Cortés reached out to the native Maya, giving gifts, promising good treatment, and encouraging their return. While still at Cozumel, the expedition encountered two Spanish captives who had escaped captivity, Gerónimo Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. His next encounter with Mayans, at Potonchan, was less friendly, ending in a battle and Spanish victory due to the use of artillery and the native method of fighting. It was at Potonchan, at the battle of Centla, that the Spanish first used horses in military conflict to great effect in the Americas.
From encounters with the Mayan people living in that area of Mexico, Cortés heard of an empire based in central Mexico, confirming what Alvarado had already conveyed to him in Cuba. He also acquired a native Nahua woman, Malinalli (baptized Marina—also known as La Malinche), who spoke both Mayan and Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica. She served as interpreter, in conjunction with Aguilar, and later as Cortés's mistress. By April 1519, using his interpreters, Cortés encountered and solidified friendly relations with the Totonacs. This society sought allies for assistance in their struggle with the warlike Mexica further inland. The Spanish and Totonacs exchanged gifts and friendship. The next day, Easter, the emperor, Montezuma II, sent emissaries to observe the Spaniards. Discovering that their main concern was gold, the Mexica emissaries, festooned in feathers, gave the Spanish many valuable gold gifts, jewels, and highly valued Mexica featherwork. Convinced of great wealth to be obtained from the Mexica, Cortés decided to ally with the Totonacs to conquer the prosperous and populous Mexica civilization in the name of the king of Spain for its great wealth and to spread Christianity in a new country.
That civilization, known today as the Aztec Empire, was centered in the city of Tenochtitlán on Lake Texcoco. From about the year 1000, the indigenous populations of central Mexico attained an advanced level of knowledge in such areas as astronomy, architecture, painting, agricultural methods, literature, and philosophy. The Aztecs were originally a nomadic, warlike culture from northern Mexico. Starting in the 14th century, they adapted the civilization of central Mexico and gained power through alliances with the kingdoms already established around Lake Texcoco. In the middle of the 15th century, the Aztec emperors sought tribute and captives from other areas of Mexico. They also sent out colonists to spread their culture. Living off their tribute and their very productive system of agriculture, the Aztecs built the enormous, well-planned metropolis of Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City). Several great Aztec emperors succeeded in conquering much of central Mexico before a weaker ruler, Montezuma II, came to power.
Aware of the military success of the few Spanish against the numerous Mayan people, Montezuma sent extravagant gifts that would demonstrate to Cortés the might of the Triple Alliance of the Mexica. A quick and decisive action by Montezuma could have crushed the Spanish force of 400 men. Instead, Cortés failed to understand the importance of gifts like peacock feathers, while the gold and gems convinced him of the glory and wealth to be acquired through the conquest of the Aztec. Consequently, the Spanish refused to withdraw and the Aztec, wary of the Spanish military abilities and concerned of Cortés and the Spaniards, with their horses, beards, and white skin, fulfilled omens predicting the return of the god Quetzalcoatl from exile, delayed in reacting. Meanwhile, Cortés discovered the deep divisions within the Aztec Empire, which were the result of oppressive tributes and the practice of capturing and sacrificing neighboring peoples.
With the encouragement of the Totonacs, Cortés sought an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, rebels against their Aztec overlords. Initially the Tlaxcalans resisted the approaches of the Spanish. The Tlaxcalans viewed the Totonacs accompanying the Spanish as nominal vassals of the Mexica. After several small costly skirmishes and repeated peace offerings by Cortés, an alliance was formed when the Tlaxcalan confederation fractured, threatening to open them to conquest by the Aztec. Xicoténcatl the Elder allied with Cortés against the Aztecs. Collaboration of the Spanish with enemies of the Aztec still went unopposed by Montezuma II, in part due to the concurrent harvest season, which depleted the agricultural society of its military resources. Cortés misinterpreted this lack of resistance in 1519 as a sign of weakness, an impression further supported by his earlier easy conquests of the Maya. Meanwhile, the Tlaxcalans and Totonacs brought Cortés information and troops that would help him defeat the Aztecs.
On November 18, 1519, the Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán through an eight-milelong causeway that led across Lake Texcoco to the island city. Montezuma greeted them wearing sandals with golden soles and jewel-encrusted uppers. Cortés committed grave errors against the Aztec culture by looking at that godlike ruler directly and attempting to embrace him. Despite the diplomatic blunder, the Spanish and Aztec leaders exchanged gifts: Cortés gave glass beads, and the Aztec emperor presented his Spanish guest with a necklace containing eight solid gold pendants in the shape of large crustaceans. Instead of imprisoning or confining the Spanish as suggested by Cuitláhuac (the emperor's brother), Montezuma spared no expense in hosting them, though he questioned Cortés in hopes of determining the purpose and threat posed by the strangers. Foremost of the possibilities considered by Montezuma was that the Spanish represented the return of Quetzalcoatl, a traditionally humane ruler/deity who, while demonstrating typical human excesses, opposed the practice of human sacrifice. Cortés's repeated protestations to the Maya, Totonac, and Tlaxcalans against human sacrifice and cannibalism help explain this misinterpretation by the Aztec leader.
After such an easy entrance into the well-fortified city, Cortés repaid his host by imprisoning Montezuma in his own palace. Surrounded by enemies, Cortés demanded the emperor serve as a negotiator between the Spanish and Aztec. The captured but wily emperor insisted he had lost all authority and suggested the release of his brother, Cuitláhuac, who immediately rallied the populace against the encircled Spanish.
Between the fall of 1519 and spring of 1520 several events impacted Cortés and his expedition. Back in Cuba, Velázquez heard of the potential wealth discovered by his former assistant. Realizing that Cortés intended to circumvent Velázquez's new authority as adelantado by sending the king's one-fifth of all gold directly to Spain, the decision was made to send an old friend and fellow conquistador, Pánfilo de Narváez, to arrest and hang Cortés. In May 1520, Narváez's arrival in the Yucatán forced Cortés to leave Pedro de Alvarado in control of the situation in Tenochtitlán, while he dealt with the threat to his authority.
With Cortés temporarily absent and Cuitláhuac released, for organizing the Aztec successfully against Alvarado's forces, desperate measures were undertaken. Montezuma was compelled to address the people to calm them. Instead, unknown assailants of his own people, perhaps even his nephew, Cuauhtéoc, killed the ruler. Violence dominated the valley city. The empire lost more leaders, as many Aztec nobles were murdered by Spaniards led by Pedro de Alvarado, trapped as they danced at a religious celebration in an enclosed plaza. A smallpox epidemic also decimated the Aztecs, killing Montezuma's brother Cuitláhuac, who was the successor to Aztec Empire.
By 1521, the Spaniards under Cortés returned to destroy Tenochtitlán and imprison the last emperor, Cuauhtémoc. Cortés and his followers tortured Cuauhtémoc for information on the lost treasure of the Aztec emperors but could not extract the knowledge they sought. Cortés dragged Cuauhtémoc along on a failed attempt to conquer more societies south to Honduras, finally hanging the successor to the Aztec Empire in 1524.
Cortés’ violent and self-aggrandizing approach to conquering the Aztec Empire and his circumvention of his superiors resulted in numerous attempts to undermine him before the Crown. Through Charles V's reorganization of the Council of the Indies, it was learned that Bishop Fonseca had withheld information and requests regarding Cortés's testimony by a series of former allies of Velázquez, who went on to join Cortés's expedition. The previous negative reports earned Cortés a bad reputation with king, who appointed Antonio de Mendoza, not Cortés, the first viceroy of New Spain, as Mexico was then called. Cortés did hold the office of adelantado and governor temporarily, but only retained the land and title of the marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca. The final investigation of the Council favored Cortés, and though he was encouraged to repay Velázquez for money spent on the fleet of 1518, all other disputes were relegated to a court of justice and Velázquez was ordered to refrain from meddling in Cortés's affairs. In the end, Cortés remained an incredibly wealthy man.
Mendoza and Cortés also competed for exploration of the Pacific coast of Mexico. Cortés built ships in Acapulco and sent five expeditions north in search of pearls and gold. Cortés’ ships discovered La Paz, at the south end of Baja California, in 1533, although at that time, Baja was thought to be an island. Cortés led another expedition, convincing 400 settlers and 300 slaves to join him. Most of the hopeful colonists died of starvation, attacks from the indigenous people living in the region, and shipwrecks. A fifth expedition led by Francisco de Ulloa navigated the Sea of Cortés in 1539 and explored the peninsula of Baja California, finally moving up the coast of the Pacific against foul winds and currents. That final expedition disappeared, leaving Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who was supported by Cortés's rival Mendoza, to discover what is now the state of California, in 1542.
After those humiliations, Cortés returned to Spain where he was hailed as the grand conquistador. His desire for adventure prevailed and he led additional expeditions, including his last, a luckless voyage to Algiers in 1541. The failures were many but were counterbalanced by the enormity of his success over the Aztecs and the wealth and power that conquest brought Spain. Nonetheless, the last five years of Cortés's life was spent in obscurity. Though offered a knighthood, he declined the honor. His determination to return to Mexico was thwarted by illness. In 1547, his drafted his final will, made his final confession, and died in Seville at age 62 on December 2, 1547.
See also: Aguilar, Fr. Gerónimo de; Alvarado, Pedro de; Cuauhtémoc; Cuitláhuac; Encomienda; Guns, Impact of; La Malinche, “Doña Marina”; Ordaz, Diego de; Ovando, Fr. Nicolás de; Potonchan, Battle of; Tenochtitlán, Siege of; Totonacs, Alliance with Spanish; Velázquez, Diego (de Cuéllar).
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