Hernan Cortes was a Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztec Empire and claimed Mexico for Spain. Cortes was a pioneer for claiming lands in the Americas for European powers. After Cortes, other Spanish conquistador’s followed in his footsteps, such as Pizzaro who conquered the Inca Empire. Cortes is a controversial figure for his invasion and conquest of the Aztec Empire, but undoubtedly had tremendous influence in claiming Mexico for the Spanish monarchy – bringing Christianity and European culture to the Americas.
Cortes was born in Medellin, Spain, in 1485. His father was an army captain – of the lesser nobility, but poor. Cortes was sent away to be educated – hopefully, to be a lawyer. However restless with studying and life in small-town Spain, Cortes wished to travel to the Americas. He would undoubtedly have heard about the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the Americas. This journey created a wave of excitement about the possibilities of discovering wealth and power in the new lands to the west, and Cortes wished to be at the forefront of this new era.
“We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.”
– Hernando Cortes
Cortes was ambitious and was often considered haughty and proud by his contemporaries. Restless for adventure, in 1504, he travelled to Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti/Dominican Republic) to become a colonist. He took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba, which gave him a reward of land and Indian slaves. He also became clerk to the treasurer, where his administration and political skills brought him to the attention of the governor of New Spain, Diego Velazquez.
When news reached Hispaniola of untold riches on lands to the west, Velazquez allowed Cortes to mount an expedition to the mainland of Mexico. In 1519, with great enthusiasm and meticulous planning, Cortes assembled a fleet of six ships and 300 men and set sail within a month. However, Velazquez quickly resented Cortes’ growing ambition and influence, and Velazquez tried to recall him. But, fearing such an eventuality, Cortes had already set sail to Mexico.
His men disembarked on the coast near the city of Veracruz, where he gathered information about the great wealth which lay in the capital. Cortes had tremendous determination to march inland and conquer the Aztec Empire. Despite having only 300 men who were lightly armed, (about 13 handguns, 4 light cannons and 16 horses) Cortes was confident – feeling, like many conquistadors, they were doing the ‘work of God’ and under the banner of the Cross, they could not be defeated. However, facing overwhelming odds, not all his men felt the same and there was a reluctance to join Cortes on this seemingly impossible task with the odds stacked against the Spanish. However, Cortes wasn’t returning without success – so he had his own ships destroyed forcing his men to follow him into the interior of Mexico. There was no turning back.
Before reaching the capital, the Spanish faced fierce resistance from a tribe of Indians known as the Tlaxcalans. However, Cortes’ troops prevailed and he successfully encouraged them to join him in fighting the Aztecs (who the Tlaxacalans also hated). By October 1519, Cortes and his Indian allies arrived in Cholula, the second largest city and on route to the capital.
The king of the Aztecs was Montezuma II. He was all-powerful amongst his people, but it seems he feared the power of the white man from overseas. The description of Cortes matched a legend from Aztec legends about a God – Quetzalcoatl who was promised to one day return to the Aztecs.
Before Montezuma could attack the Spanish, Cortes sprung a surprise attack in Cholula, where many thousands of unarmed Indian nobles were massacred. This massacre filled the Aztecs with fear over the power of the invading force. By November, Cortes had accumulated a large army of Indian allies and were able to enter the capital, Tenochtitlán. Montezuma chose not to fight the Spanish. Instead, he invited them into the city and lavished them with wealth and gold. He hoped to attack them later when their defences were down.
But, the gifts of wealth only increased the ambition of the Spanish and Cortes had Montezuma arrested and put under house arrest. Cortes established Montezuma as a puppet ruler, and the Aztec capital effectively came under his control. Despite gaining Indian allies, it was still a stunning military victory by Cortes – given the imbalance in military forces.
The main challenge to Cortez – came not from the Aztecs – but another Spanish force, headed by Narvaez, which had been sent to Mexico with orders to arrest Cortez. Cortez returned to the coast and defeated this force.
Cortez then had to deal with an uprising in Tenochtitlan. The native population had rebelled against the ruler that Cortez had left in his stead. With additional Spanish troops Cortez was able to defeat the uprising and secure the important strategic town. Over the next few years, the Spanish succeeded in consolidating their power and established permanent colonies. The old Aztec capital was rebuilt as New Mexico and became the capital for Spanish-Mexico.
As well as seeking personal wealth and power, Cortes also felt the duty of a missionary Christian. During the conquest, he frequently tried to convert the natives to Christianity. Sometimes he was successful. He also asked the king to send mendicant friars to work as evangelists in the new lands. He feared that many Spanish priests would harm the religion because of their reputation for indulging in vices. The King agreed to send twelve Franciscan monks. The Franciscans became known as the 12 Apostles of Mexico and there was a strong alliance between Cortes and the Franciscans.
In a letter to Emperor Charles V, Cortes explains his evangelical fervour of this mission.
“I charged and enjoined much on the Spaniards to observe and comply with the orders I should give them in conducting the war with as great strictness as possible; and that they should take fresh courage and spirits, since they saw that our lord was leading us to victory over our enemies; for they knew that when we entered Tezcuco, we had not brought more than forty horse[s], and that God had succored us beyond our expectations, ships having arrived with horses, men, and arms, as they had seen; and that they should consider especially, that we were fighting in behalf and for the spread of our faith, and to reduce to your Majesty’s service the lands and provinces that had rebelled; a consideration which should inspire them with courage and zeal to conquer or die.” (Source)
For his capture of Mexico, Cortes was rewarded with lands and wealth. However, his haughty attitude and disobedience to the king’s commands meant he later was removed as governor of Mexico. This hurt the pride of Cortes because he felt that by rights, he deserved to rule the land he had conquered for the king. In 1541, he returned to Spain to petition the king to restore his position as ruler of New Mexico. However, the appeals were largely ignored, and Cortes spent the remaining years of his life in Spain. Despite the riches he gained in Mexico, the adventures had also cost him money. But he was mainly unhappy to be stripped of the power and prestige he felt he deserved. In his later letters, Cortes conveyed a feeling of betrayal, ingratitude and resentment at the way he was treated.
Cortes married twice. His first wife Catalina Súarez was a close relative of Velaquez. This was possibly to curry favour with Velaquez, but when they became politically estranged the marriage became awkward – especially because it was childless. In 1522, his first wife, Catalina died in mysterious circumstances. In 1529, he remarried the Spanish noblewoman – Doña Juana de Zúñiga. They had three children. Cortes also had illegitimate children with native Indians.
Letters of Hernan Cortes
The letters of Hernan Cortes to Emperor Charles V give an insight into Cortes’ mission. Obviously they are trying to portray his mission in the best possible light.
“Although they were subjects of Moctezuma, yet according to the information I received, they had been reduced to that condition by force, within a short period; and when they had obtained through me some knowledge of your Highness, and of your great regal power, they declared their desire to become vassals of your Majesty, and to form an alliance with me. They also begged me to protect them against that mighty Lord, who used violent and tyrannical measures to keep them in subjection, and took from them their sons to be slain and offered as sacrifices to his idols; with many other complaints against him, in order to avoid whose tyranny they embraced the service of your Majesty, to which they have so far proved faithful, and I doubt not will continue so, since they have been uniformly treated by me with favor and attention.” (2nd letter)
Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico
Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas at Amazon
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