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Cortés, Hernando


Belinda H. Nanney

Hernando Cortés was born on southwestern Spain in the village of Medellín in 1485 to Martín Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, both of honorable extraction, belonging to the middle class of nobility, but not wealthy. At the age of 14, he left home to study law at the University at Salamanca and returned home two years later. He wandered the seaports of Cádiz, Palos, Sanlucai, and Seville. Dissatisfied at home Cortés turned his eyes to the newly-discovered Western World.

In 1504, Cortés set sail for three reasons. First, for his Spanish manhood. Second, he wanted to find silver and spices. And thirdly, everybody said he should because he was bold.

Cortés arrived on the island of Hispaniola where he became a gentleman farmer and soldier for seven years. There he met a Spanish soldier and administrator Diego Velázquez. In 1511, Velázquez told Cortés of his plans of attacking Cuba and conquering it. The two joined with a small force and took over Cuba. After the victory, Cortés became the mayor of Santiago and married the sister-in-law of Velázquez. Velázquez had heard about a wealthy Aztec Empire in Mexico and wanted someone to lead an expedition there. He needed someone that he could trust and who would remain loyal to him. Cortés was overjoyed that he was asked to be the commander of the expedition to find the Aztec cities.

Cortés rushed to make preparations for departure before Velázquez changed his mind. The expedition consisted of 11 ships, 500 soldiers, 13 horses, and some cannons. His fleet anchored at Trinidad on the south coast of Cuba where more soldiers were hired and additional horses were taken aboard. Cortés sailed from Cuba towards Mexico. Cortés sailed along the coast of the Yucatan peninsula and touched Mexico on the coast of what now is the state of Tabasco.

There, he took many Indian captives; including a young Aztec princess to whom he gave Spanish name Marina. She became his interpreter and advisor. Although the local population of Tabasco possessed little of value, they told Cortés of the great wealth of the Aztec Empire further inland. On April 21, 1519, Cortés landed near the site of Veracruz. To prevent all thought of retreat, he burned his ships. Without a way to retreat, on August 16, 1519, the expedition started. In addition to the Spaniards, there were 40 Cempoalan warrior chiefs and 200 Indians to drag the cannon and carry the supplies. The men were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail. Although Cortés asked for peace and friendship, and permission to cross their land on the way to Mexico, the Tlaxcalan Indians refused. Throughout the month of September, Cortés and members of his expedition fought many battles with the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish weapons and technology and the boldness of Cortés, kept his men from being wiped out. Cortés made his last peace offer and it was accepted. The Tlaxcalans brought food, water, and gifts. On October 23, 1519, Cortés set out with an additional 1,000 Tlaxcalan Indians to conquer Montezuma and the Aztecs. As Cortés passed through mountain towns and villages, many Indians told of cruel treatment by the Aztecs. These Indians were very willing to help conquer Montezuma.

It took nearly three months to reach the outskirts of the capital city of the Aztecs. Cortés and his expedition were awe struck when they finally saw Tenochtitlán, Montezuma’s capital city. The cities and towns were even more beautiful and contained more riches than the Spanish had expected. When they first arrived there the Aztec thought that Cortés was Quetzalcoatal, a white-skinned god of the Aztec prophecy, who according to legend, had taught them about agriculture and government and whose return they were to welcome with great ceremony.

At first the Aztec welcomed the Spaniards to take as much gold and jewels as they felt like at random throughout the town, but soon after Montezuma and his men weren’t so friendly. For fear of being prisoners to the Aztecs Cortés arrested Montezuma and locked him in his palace. Cortés had begun to gather the treasures of his conquest when word reached him that a Spanish army under Narváez had landed at Vera Cruz with orders from Velázquez to arrest him because of his insubordination in exceeding his orders. Cortés divided his small force, leaving two hundred soldiers to secure Tenochtitlán, while he journeyed back through the jungle to confront Narváez. Cortés aggressively attacked at night, captured Narváez and convinced the survivors to join him.

When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, he found his men fighting with the Aztecs. Montezuma was stoned and killed by his own people. A year later, Cortés returned to the Aztec capital city and for two months fought a bloody battle. On August 13, 1521, Cortés claimed it for Spain. Cortés and his men searched in vain for the treasures they had left behind. Finally the Spaniards lost patience. They poured burning oil over the feet of Cuauhtemoc, hoping that he would reveal where the gold and precious jewels were hidden. Even under the torture the emperor insisted that everything of value had been thrown into Lake Texcoco. Divers scoured the bottom of the lake, but nothing was ever found.

For Cortés, the conquest of Tenochtitlán was only the beginning of his New World claims. He had the heart of an explorer and forever hungered to probe into undiscovered lands. Immediately after the conquest, the rebuilding effort compelled him to stay near Mexico City. So instead of leading exploration efforts himself, he sent out parties of discovery.

Cortés was in and out of favor with Charles V, for whom the conquistador had risked his life. Despite the pleas of Velázquez and Narváez the emperor named Cortés governor, captain-general, and chief justice of New Spain in 1522. Cortés served as New Spain’s governor for three years. He was the most powerful man in the New World, but he still had an enemy, Velázquez. Velázquez was passionately jealous of the younger man’s success in Mexico. Governor Velazqeuz had agents in Spain who suggested to King Charles that Cortés was disloyal to the Spanish Crown. Other detractors accused Cortés of murdering his Spanish wife, who died mysteriously shortly after her arrival in Mexico City. A deadly combination of old enemies and treachery among his own officers led to Cortés downfall.

Cortés led another expedition into Honduras in 1524, but because various members of the Spanish court continued to fear his ambitions, the king withdrew his governorship and ordered him home to Spain. In May 1528, Cortés returned to Spain, after an absence of 24 years. The poor boy of Medellín who had left to seek his fortune received a magnificent homecoming. He brought with him a treasure in gold, silver, and precious gems. In his train were native chiefs, and strange animals, birds, and fruits. As he traveled from town to town on his way to meet Charles V thousands of cheering Spaniards lined the streets to see him pass.

At last Cortés met with Charles V, the emperor of Spain. Charles made him marques del Valle de Oaxaca and gave him title to vast amounts of land. But the emperor refused to restore his old authority as governor of New Spain. In 1530, Cortés returned to Mexico with a rich new wife. He built a new palace for himself at Cuernavaca, where he raised sheep and cattle. He and his family prospered.

But Cortés could not live the life of a gentleman farmer for long. He was too restless. He sent out expeditions to Lower California at his own expense, leading one voyage personally. There were storms, shipwrecks, and mutinies. The expeditions all failed. By 1539 Cortés was forced to borrow money. He went deeply into debt.

The next year he returned again to Spain. But by then Spain looked to new heroes. Cortés was a forgotten man. He was ignored at court. Finally Charles V consented to see him, but treated him coldly. The conquistador was old, ill, and penniless.

In 1547 Cortés decided to return to Mexico. He set out to sea, but feeling himself close to death, landed again at a small town in Andalusia. There on December 2, 1547, he died in bed. A number of years later his body was moved to Mexico.

Hernando Cortés conquered and destroyed a magnificent civilization, a cruel one, it is true, but one that had done no harm to Spain. Moreover, although he defeated the Aztecs in the name of Christianity, his principal purpose was to win great wealth for himself in the shortest possible time. To gain his ends he did not hesitate to kill thousands of Indians and to enslave many time that number.


"Hernando Cortés" Catholic Encyclopedia (4th edition) Online.

Fisher, M. & Richardson K. "Hernando Cortés"

"Hernando Cortés" Crossroads Resource Online.

Jacobs, W.J. "Hernando Cortés" New York, N.Y.:Franklin Watts, Inc. 1974.

Stein, R.C. "The World’s Greatest Explorers: Hernando Cortés." Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Press Inc. 1991.


You can read about this and other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

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