Hernan Cortes and His Captains

Pedro de Alvarado, Gonzalo de Sandoval and Others

Cortes and his Captains
Cortes and his Captains. Mural by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin

Conquistador Hernan Cortes had the perfect combination of bravery, ruthlessness, arrogance, greed, religious fervor and insubordination to be the man who conquered the Aztec Empire. His audacious expedition stunned Europe and Mesoamerica. He did not do it alone, however. He had a small army of dedicated conquistadors, important alliances with native cultures who hated the Aztecs, and a handful of dedicated captains who carried out his orders.

Cortes' captains were ambitious, ruthless men who had the right blend of cruelty and loyalty, and Cortes would not have succeeded without them. Who were Cortes' top captains?

Pedro de Alvarado, the Hotheaded Sun God

With blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes, Pedro de Alvarado was a marvel to behold for the natives of the New World. They had never seen anyone quite like him, and they nicknamed him "Tonatiuh," which was the name of the Aztec sun god. It was a fitting nickname, as Alvarado had a fiery temper. Alvarado had gone on the Juan de Grijalva expedition to scout the Gulf Coast in 1518 and had repeatedly pressured Grijalva to conquer native towns. Later in 1518, Alvarado joined the Cortes expedition and soon became Cortes' most important lieutenant.

In 1520, Cortes left Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlan while he went to deal with an expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez. Alvarado, sensing an attack on the Spanish by the inhabitants of the city, ordered a massacre at the Festival of Toxcatl.

This so infuriated the locals that the Spanish were forced to flee the city a little more than a month later. It took Cortes a while to trust Alvarado again after that, but Tonatiuh was soon back in his commander's good graces and led one of the three causeway assaults in the siege of Tenochtitlan.

Later, Cortes sent Alvarado to Guatemala where he conquered the descendants of the Maya who lived there.

Gonzalo de Sandoval, the Reliable Captain

Gonzalo de Sandovalwas barely twenty years old and without military experience when he signed on with the Cortes expedition in 1518. He soon showed great skill at arms, loyalty and the ability to lead men, and Cortes promoted him. By the time the Spanish were masters of Tenochtitlan, Sandoval had replaced Alvarado as Cortes' right-hand man. Time and again, Cortes trusted the most important assignments to Sandoval, who never let his commander down. Sandoval led the retreat on the Night of Sorrows, conducted several campaigns before the reconquest of Tenochtitlan and led a division of men against the longest causeway when Cortes lay siege to the city in 1521. Sandoval accompanied Cortes on his disastrous 1524 expedition to Honduras. He died at the age of 31 of an illness in Spain. 

Cristobal de Olid, the Warrior

When supervised, Cristobal de Olid was one of Cortes' more reliable captains. He was personally very brave and fond of being right in the thick of the fighting. During the Siege of Tenochtitlan, Olid was given the important job of assaulting the Coyoacán causeway, which he did admirably.

After the fall of the Aztec Empire, Cortes began to worry that other conquistador expeditions would poach land along the southern frontiers of the former empire. He sent Olid by ship to Honduras, with orders to pacify it and establish a town. Olid switched loyalties, however, and accepted the sponsorship of Diego de Velazquez, Governor of Cuba. When Cortes heard of this betrayal, he sent his kinsman Francisco de las Casas to arrest Olid. Olid instead defeated and imprisoned Las Casas. Las Casas escaped, however, and killed Olid sometime in late 1524 or early 1525. 

Alonso de Avila

Like Alvarado and Olid, Alonso de Avila had served on Juan de Grijalva's mission of exploration along the gulf coast in 1518. Avila had the reputation of being a man who could fight and lead men, but who had a habit of speaking his mind.

By most reports, Cores disliked Avila personally, but trusted his honesty. Although Avila could fight - he fought with distinction in the Tlaxcalan campaign and the Battle of Otumba - Cortes preferred to have Avila serve as an accountant and entrusted him with much of the gold discovered on the expedition. In 1521, before the final assault on Tenochtitlan, Cortes sent Avila to Hispaniola to defend his interests there. Later, once Tenochtitlan had fallen, Cortes entrusted Avila with "the Royal Fifth:" a 20% tax on all gold the conquistadors had discovered. Unfortunately for Avila, his ship was taken by French pirates, who stole the gold and put Avila in prison. Eventually released, Avila returned to Mexico and took part in the conquest of the Yucatan.

Other Captains:

Avila, Olid, Sandoval and Alvarado were Cortes' most trusted lieutenants, but other men held positions of importance in Cortes' conquest.

  • Gerónimo de Aguilar: Aguilar was a Spaniard marooned in Maya lands on an earlier expedition and rescued by Cortes' men in 1518. His ability to speak some Maya language, coupled with the slave girl Malinche's ability to speak Nahuatl and Maya, gave Cortes an effective way to communicate with Montezuma's emissaries.
  • Bernal Diaz del Castillo: Bernal Diaz was a footsoldier who participated in the Hernandez and Grijalva expeditions before signing on with Cortes. He was a loyal, dependable soldier, and had risen to positions of minor rank by the end of the Conquest. He is far better remembered for his memoir, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, which he wrote decades after the conquest. This remarkable book is by far the best source about the Cortes expedition.
  • Diego de Ordaz: A veteran of the conquest of Cuba, Diego de Ordaz was loyal to Diego de Velazquez, governor of Cuba, and even at one point attempted to subvert Cortes' command. Cortes won him over, however, and Ordaz became an important captain. Cortes even entrusted him to lead a division in the fight against Panfilo de Narvaez at the Battle of Cempoala. He was eventually honored with a knightship in Spain for his efforts during the conquest.
  • Alonso Hernandez Portocarrero: Like Cortes, Alonso Hernandez Portocarrero was a native of Medellin: this connection served him well, as Cortes tended to favor people from his hometown. Hernandez was an early confidant of Cortes, and the slave girl Malinche was originally given to him (although Cortes took her back when he learned how useful she could be). Early in the conquest, Cortes entrusted Hernandez to return to Spain, pass along some treasures to the king, and look after his interests there. He served Cortes admirably, but made enemies of his own. He was arrested and died in prison in Spain.
  • Martin Lopez: Martin Lopez was no soldier, but rather Cortes' best engineer. Lopez was a shipwright who designed and built the brigantines which played a crucial role in the siege of Tenochtitlan.
  • Juan Velazquez de León: A kinsman of Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba, Velázquez de Leon's loyalty to Cortes was originally dubious, and he joined a conspiracy to oust Cortes early in the campaign. Cortes eventually forgave him, however. Velazquez de Leon became an important commander, seeing action against the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition in 1520. He died during the Night of Sorrows.   

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.