Biography of Hernán Cortés, Ruthless Conquistador

Hernan Cortes

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Hernán Cortés (1485-Dec. 2, 1547) was a Spanish conquistador responsible for the audacious, brutal conquest of the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico in 1519. With a force of 600 Spanish soldiers, he was able to conquer a vast empire with tens of thousands of warriors. He did it through a combination of ruthlessness, guile, violence, and luck.

Fast Facts: Hernán Cortés

Known For: Brutal conqueror of the Aztec Empire

Born: 1485 in Medellín, Castile (Spain)

Parents:  Martín Cortés de Monroy, Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamarino

Died: Dec. 2, 1547, Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla ((Spain)

Spouses: Catalina Suárez Marcaida, Juana Ramírez de Arellano de Zúñiga

Children: 2nd Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Catalina Cortés De Zúñiga, Catalina Pizarro, Juana Cortés De Zúñiga, Leonor Cortés Moctezuma, Luis Cortés, Luis Cortés y Ramírez de Arellano, María Cortés de Moctezuma, María Cortés de Zúñiga, Martín Cortés

Notable Quote: "I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold."

Early Life

Hernán Cortés, like many who eventually became conquistadores in the Americas, was born in Medellín, in the Castilian province of Extremadura, the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamarino. He came from a respected military family but was a sickly child. He went to the University of Salamanca to study law but soon dropped out.

By this time, tales of the wonders of the New World were spreading across Spain, appealing to teens such as Cortés. He decided to head to Hispaniola, an island in the West Indies, to seek his fortune.

Hispaniola

Cortés was well educated and had family connections, so when he arrived in Hispaniola in 1503, he soon found work as a notary and was given a plot of land and a number of natives to work it. His health improved and he trained as a soldier, taking part in the subjugation of the parts of Hispaniola that had held out against the Spanish.

He became known as a good leader, an intelligent administrator, and a ruthless fighter. These traits encouraged Diego Velázquez, a colonial administrator and conquistador, to select him for his expedition to Cuba.

Cuba

Velázquez was assigned the subjugation of the island of Cuba. He set out with three ships and 300 men, including young Cortés, a clerk assigned to the treasurer of the expedition. Also along on the expedition was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who would eventually describe the horrors of the conquest and denounce the conquistadores.

The conquest of Cuba was marked by a number of unspeakable abuses, including massacres and the burning alive of native chief Hatuey. Cortés distinguished himself as a soldier and administrator and was made mayor of the new city of Santiago. His influence grew.

Tenochtitlán

Cortés watched in 1517 and 1518 as two expeditions to conquer the mainland met with failure. In 1518 it was Cortés’ turn. With 600 men, he began one of the most audacious feats in history: conquest of the Aztec Empire, which at that time had tens if not hundreds of thousands of warriors. After landing with his men, he made his way to Tenochtitlán, the capital of the empire. Along the way, he defeated Aztec vassal states, adding their strength to his. He reached Tenochtitlán in 1519 and occupied it without a fight.

When Velázquez, now governor of Cuba, sent an expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez to rein in Cortés, Cortes defeated Narváez, adding Narváez's men to his forces. After the battle, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán with his reinforcements but found chaos. In his absence, one of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, had ordered a massacre of Aztec nobility.

Aztec Emperor Montezuma was killed by his own people while trying to placate the crowd, and an angry mob chased the Spanish from the city in what became known as the Noche Triste, or “Night of Sorrows.” Cortés regrouped, retook the city, and by 1521 was in charge of Tenochtitlán again.

Good Luck

Cortés could never have pulled off the defeat of the Aztec Empire without good luck. First, he found Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest who had been shipwrecked on the mainland several years before and could speak the Maya language. Between Aguilar and Malinche, a female slave who could speak Maya and Nahuatl, Cortés was able to communicate during his conquest.

Cortés also had amazing luck in terms of the Aztec vassal states. They nominally owed allegiance to the Aztecs but in reality hated them. Cortés exploited this hatred. With thousands of native warriors as allies, he could meet the Aztecs with strength and secure a victory.

He also benefited from the fact that Montezuma had been a weak leader, looking for divine signs before making any decisions. Cortés believed that Montezuma thought the Spanish were emissaries from the god Quetzalcoatl, which may have caused him to wait before crushing them.

Cortés’ final stroke of luck was the timely arrival of reinforcements under the inept Narváez. Velázquez had intended to weaken Cortés and bring him back to Cuba, but after Narváez was defeated he wound up providing Cortés with men and supplies that he desperately needed.

Governor

From 1521 to 1528 Cortés served as governor of New Spain, as Mexico became known. The crown sent administrators, and Cortés oversaw the rebuilding of the city and expeditions to explore other parts of Mexico. Cortés still had many enemies, however, and his repeated insubordination reduced his support from the crown.

In 1528 he returned to Spain to plead his case for more power and received a mixed bag. He was elevated to noble status and given the title of Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley, one of the richest territories in the New World. He was removed as governor, however, and would never again wield much power in the New World.

Later Life and Death

Cortés never lost the spirit of adventure. He personally financed and led an expedition to explore Baja California in the late 1530s and fought with royal forces in Algiers in 1541. After that ended in a fiasco, he decided to return to Mexico but instead died of pleuritis on Dec. 2, 1547, in Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla, Spain, at the age of 62.

Legacy

In his bold but ghastly conquest of the Aztecs, Cortés left a trail of bloodshed that other conquistadores would follow. Cortés' “blueprint”—pit native populations against one another and exploit traditional enmities—was followed by Francisco Pizarro in Peru, Pedro de Alvarado in Central America, and other conquerors of the Americas.

Cortés' success in bringing down the mighty Aztec Empire quickly became legendary back in Spain. Most of his soldiers had been peasants or younger sons of minor nobility with little to look forward to in terms of wealth or prestige. After the conquest, his men were given land, native slaves, and gold. These rags-to-riches stories drew thousands of Spanish to the New World, each wishing to follow in Cortés’ bloody footprints.

In the short run, this was good for the Spanish crown, because native populations were quickly subjugated by these ruthless conquistadores. In the long run it proved disastrous, because instead of being farmers or tradesmen, these men were soldiers, slavers, and mercenaries who abhorred honest work.

One of Cortés’ legacies was the encomienda system that he instituted in Mexico, which “entrusted” a tract of land and a number of natives to a Spaniard, often a conquistador. The encomendero had certain rights and responsibilities. Basically, he agreed to provide religious education for the natives in exchange for labor, but it was little more than legalized slavery, which made the recipients wealthy and powerful. The Spanish crown eventually regretted allowing the system to take root, as it was difficult to abolish once reports of abuses began piling up.

Modern Mexicans revile Cortés. They identify as closely with their native past as with their European roots, and they see Cortés as a monster and butcher. Equally reviled is Malinche, or Doña Marina, Cortés’ Nahua slave/consort. If not for her language skills and assistance, the conquest of the Aztec Empire would almost certainly have taken a different path.

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