Biography of Diego Velazquez de Cuellar

Governor of Colonial Cuba

Diego Velazquez de Cuellar
Diego Velazquez de Cuellar.

Diego Velazquez de Cuellar (1464-1524) was a conquistador and Spanish colonial administrator. He is not to be confused with Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, the Spanish painter generally referred to simply as Diego Velazquez. Diego Velazquez de Cuellar arrived to the New World on Christopher Columbus' Second Voyage and soon became a very important figure in the conquest of the Caribbean, taking part in the conquests of Hispaniola and Cuba.

Later, he became Governor of Cuba, one of the highest-ranking figures in the Spanish Caribbean. He is best known for sending Hernan Cortes on his journey of conquest to Mexico, and his subsequent battles with Cortes to retain control of the endeavor and the treasures it produced. 

Life of Diego Velazquez Before Arrival to the New World

Diego Velazquez was born to a noble family in 1464 in the town of Cuellar, in the Spanish region of Castile. It is probable that he served as a soldier in the Christian conquest of Granada, last of the Moorish Kingdoms in Spain, from 1482 to 1492. Here he would make contacts and gain experience which would serve him well in the Caribbean. In 1493, Velazquez sailed to the New World on Christopher Columbus' Second Journey. There he became one of the founders of the Spanish colonial effort, as the only Europeans left in the Caribbean on Columbus' First Journey had all been murdered at the La Navidad settlement.

Conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba

The colonists from the Second Voyage needed land and slaves, so they set about conquering and subjugating the unfortunate native population. Diego Velazquez was an active participant in the conquests first of Hispaniola, and then Cuba. In Hispaniola, he attached himself to Bartholomew Columbus, Christopher's brother, which lent him a certain prestige and helped get him established.

He was already a rich man when Governor Nicolas de Ovando made him an officer in the conquest of Western Hispaniola. Ovando would later make Velazquez governor of the western settlements in Hispaniola. Velazquez played a key role in the Xaragua massacre in 1503 in which hundreds of unarmed Taino natives were slaughtered.

With Hispaniola pacified, Velazquez led the expedition to subjugate the neighboring island of Cuba. In 1511, Velazquez took a force of over three hundred conquistadors and invaded Cuba. His chief lieutenant was an ambitious, tough conquistador named Panfilo de Narvaez. Within a couple of years, Velazquez, Narvaez and their men had pacified the island, enslaved all of the inhabitants and established several settlements. By 1518, Velazquez was lieutenant governor of the Spanish holdings in the Caribbean and for all intents and purposes the most important man in Cuba.

Velazquez and Cortes

Hernan Cortes arrived in the New World sometime in 1504, and eventually signed on to Velazquez' conquest of Cuba. After the island was pacified, Cortes settled for a time in Baracoa, the main settlement, and had some success raising cattle and panning for gold. Velazquez and Cortes had a very complicated friendship which was on-and-off constantly.

Velazquez initially favored the clever Cortes, but in 1514 Cortes agreed to represent some disgruntled settlers before Velazquez, who felt Cortes was showing a lack of respect and support. In 1515, Cortes "dishonored" a Castilian lady who had come to the islands. When Velazquez locked him up for failing to marry her, Cortes simply escaped and carried on as he had before. Eventually, the two men settled their differences.

In 1518, Velazquez decided to send an expedition to the mainland and chose Cortes as the leader. Cortes swiftly lined up men, weapons, food and financial backers. Velazquez himself invested in the expedition. Cortes' orders were specific: he was to investigate the coastline, look for the missing Juan de Grijalva expedition, make contact with any natives and report back to Cuba.

It became increasingly apparent that Cortes was arming and provisioning for an expedition of conquest, however, and Velazquez decided to replace Cortes.

Cortes got wind of Velazquez' plan and made plans to set sail immediately. He sent armed men to raid the city slaughterhouse and carry off all the meat, and bribed or coerced city officials to sign off on the necessary papers. On February 18, 1519, Cortes set sail, and by the time Velazquez reached the piers, the ships were already under way. Reasoning that Cortes could not do much damage with the limited men and weapons he had, Velazquez seems to have forgotten about Cortes. Perhaps Velazquez assumed that he could punish Cortes when he inevitably returned to Cuba. Cortes had, after all, left his lands and wife behind. Velazquez had seriously underestimated Cortes' capabilities and ambition, however.

The Narvaez Expedition

Cortes ignored his instructions and immediately set out on an audacious conquest of the mighty Mexica (Aztec) Empire. By November 1519, Cortes and his men were in Tenochtitlan, having fought their way inland, making allies with disgruntled Aztec vassal states as they did so. In July of 1519, Cortes had sent a ship back to Spain with some gold, but it made a stop in Cuba, and someone saw the loot. Velazquez was informed and swiftly realized that Cortes was trying to fool him once again.

Velazquez mounted a massive expedition to head for the mainland and capture or kill Cortes and return command of the enterprise to himself.

He placed his old lieutenant Panfilo de Narvaez in charge. In April of 1520, Narvaez landed near present-day Veracruz with over one thousand soldiers, nearly three times the total that Cortes had. Cortes soon realized what was going on and he marched to the coast with every man he could spare to fight Narvaez. On the night of May 28, Cortes attacked Narvaez and his men, dug in at the native town of Cempoala. In a short but vicious battle, Cortes defeated Narvaez. It was a coup for Cortes, because most of Narvaez' men (fewer than twenty had died in the fighting) joined him. Velazquez had unwittingly sent Cortes what he needed most: men, supplies and weapons

Legal Actions Against Cortes

Word of Narvaez' failure soon reached a dumbfounded Velazquez. Determined not to repeat the mistake, Velazquez never again sent soldiers after Cortes, but rather began to pursue his case through the Byzantine Spanish legal system. Cortes, in turn, counter-sued. Both sides had certain legal merit. Although Cortes had clearly overstepped the bounds of the initial contract and had unceremoniously cut Velazquez out of the spoils, he had been circumspect about legal forms once he was on the mainland, communicating directly with the King. In 1522, a legal committee in Spain found in favor of Cortes. Cortes was ordered to pay back Velazquez his initial investment, but Velazquez missed out on his share of the spoils (which would have been vast) and was further ordered to undergo an investigation of his own activities in Cuba.

Velazquez died in 1524 before the investigation could be concluded.

Sources:

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. . Trans., ed. J.M. Cohen. 1576. London, Penguin Books, 1963. Print.

Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma and the Last Stand of the Aztecs. New York: Bantam, 2008.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Touchstone, 1993.