Hernan Cortes' Conquistador Army

Soldiers fighting for Gold, Glory and God

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

In 1519, Hernan Cortes embarked upon the bold conquest of the Aztec Empire. When he ordered his ships dismantled, signifying that he was committed to his expedition of conquest, he had only about 600 men and a handful of horses. With this band of conquistadors and subsequent reinforcements, Cortes would bring down the mightiest Empire the New World had ever known.

Who were Cortes' Conquistadors?

Most of the conquistadors who fought in Cortes' army were Spaniards from Extremadura, Castile and Andalusia.

These lands proved fertile breeding grounds for the sort of desperate men needed in the conquest: there was a long history of conflict and much poverty there that ambitious men sought to escape. The conquistadors were often younger sons of minor nobility who would not inherit their family estates and thus had to make a name for themselves on their own. Many such men turned to the military, because there was a constant need for soldiers and captains in Spain's many wars, and advancement could be fast and rewards, in some cases, could be rich. The wealthier among them could afford the tools of the trade: fine Toledo steel swords and armor and horses.  

Why did the Conquistadors Fight?

There was no sort of mandatory enlistment in Spain, so no one forced any of Cortes' soldiers to fight. Why, then, would a sane man risk life and limb in the jungles and mountains of Mexico against murderous Aztec warriors?

Many of them did it because it was considered a good job, in a sense: these soldiers would have looked upon work as a tradesman like a tanner or a shoemaker with scorn. Some of them did it out of ambition, hoping to be gain wealth and power along with a large estate. Others fought in Mexico out of religious fervor, believing that the natives needed to be cured of their evil ways and brought to Christianity, at the point of a sword if necessary.

Some did it for adventure: many popular ballads and romances came out at the time: one such example was Amadis de Gaula, a rousing adventure which tells the story of the hero's quest to find his roots and marry his true love. Still others were excited by the beginnings of the golden era through which Spain was about to pass and wanted to help make Spain a world power.

Conquistador Weapons and Armor

During the early parts of the conquest, conquistadors preferred arms and armor which was useful and necessary on the battlefields of Europe such as heavy steel chestplates and helms (called morions), crossbows and harquebuses. These proved less useful in the Americas: heavy armor was not necessary, as most native weapons could be defended against with thick leather or padded armor called escuapil, and crossbows and harquebuses, while effective in taking out one enemy at a time, were slow to load and heavy. Most conquistadors preferred to wear escuapil and armed themselves with fine steel Toledo swords, which could hack easily through native defenses. Horsemen found that they were effective with similar armor, lances and the same fine swords.

Cortes' Captains

Cortes was a great leader of men, but he could not be everywhere all the time.

He had several captains that he (mostly) trusted: these men helped him greatly.

Gonzalo de Sandoval: Only in his early twenties and not yet tested in battle when he joined the expedition, Sandoval quickly became Cortes' right-hand man. Sandoval was smart, brave and loyal, three important qualities for a conquistador. Unlike Cortes' other captains, Sandoval was a skilled diplomat who did not solve all problems with his sword. Sandoval always drew the most challenging assignments from Cortes and he never let him down. 

Cristobal de Olid: Strong, brave, brutish and not very bright, Olid was Cortes' captain of choice when he needed blunt force more than diplomacy. When supervised, Olid could lead large groups of soldiers, but had little in the way of problem-solving skills. After the conquest, Cortes sent Olid south to  conquer Honduras, but Olid went rogue and Cortes had to send another expedition after him.

Pedro de Alvarado: Pedro de Alvarado is the best-known today of Cortes' captains. The hotheaded Alvarado was an able captain, but impulsive, as he showed when he ordered the temple massacre in Cortes' absence. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Alvarado conquered the Maya lands to the south and even took part in the conquest of Peru.

Alonso de Avila: Cortes didn't like Alonso de Avila much personally, because Avila had an annoying habit of bluntly speaking his mind, but he respected Avila and that's what counted. Avila was good in a fight, but he was also honest and had a head for figures, so Cortes made him the expedition's treasurer and put him in charge of setting aside the King's fifth.

Reinforcements

Many of Cortes' original 600 men died, were wounded, returned to Spain or the Caribbean or otherwise did not remain with him until the end. Fortunately for him, he received reinforcements, which always seemed to arrive when he needed them the most. In May of 1520, he defeated a larger force of conquistadors under Panfilo de Narvaez, who had been sent to rein in Cortes. After the battle, Cortes added hundreds of Narvaez' men to his own. Later, reinforcements would seemingly arrive at random: for example, during the siege of Tenochtitlan, some survivors of Juan Ponce de Leon's disastrous trip to Florida sailed into Veracruz and were sent swiftly inland to reinforce Cortes. In addition, once word of the conquest (and rumors of Aztec gold) began to spread through the Caribbean, men rushed to join Cortes while there was still loot, land and glory to be had.

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.