Ten Facts About Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes (1485–1547) was a Spanish conquistador and the leader of the expedition which brought down the mighty Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521. Cortes was a ruthless leader whose ambition was matched only by his conviction that he could bring the Indigenous peoples of Mexico to the Kingdom of Spain and Christianity, and make himself fabulously wealthy in the process. As a controversial historical figure, there are many myths about Hernan Cortes. What's the truth about history's most legendary conquistador?

He Wasn't Supposed to Go on His Historical Expedition

Diego Velazquez de Cuellar
Diego Velazquez de Cuellar.

In 1518, Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba outfitted an expedition to the mainland and selected Hernan Cortes to lead it. The expedition was to explore the coastline, make contact with Indigenous peoples, perhaps engage in some trade, and then return to Cuba. As Cortes made his plans, however, it was clear that he was planning a mission of conquest and settlement. Velazquez tried to remove Cortes, but the ambitious conquistador hurriedly set sail before his old partner could remove him from command. Eventually, Cortes was forced to repay Velazquez' investment in the venture, but not cut him in on the fabulous wealth the Spaniards found in Mexico.

He Had a Knack for Legality

Montezuma and Cortes
Montezuma and Cortes. Artist Unknown

Had Cortes not become a soldier and conquistador, he would have made a fine lawyer. During Cortes' day, Spain had a very complicated legal system, and Cortes often used it to his advantage. When he left Cuba, he was in a partnership with Diego Velazquez, but he didn't feel that the terms suited him. When he landed near present-day Veracruz, he followed the legal steps to found a municipality and "elected" his friends as the officials. They, in turn, canceled his previous partnership and authorized him to explore Mexico. Later, he coerced his captive Montezuma to verbally accept the King of Spain as his master. With Montezuma an official vassal of the king, any Mexican fighting the Spanish was technically a rebel and could be dealt with harshly.  

He Didn't Burn His Ships

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes.

A popular legend says that Hernan Cortes burned his ships in Veracruz after landing his men, signaling his intention to conquer the Aztec Empire or die trying. In fact, he did not burn them, but he did dismantle them because he wanted to keep the important parts. These came in handy later in the Valley of Mexico, when he had to build some brigantines on Lake Texcoco to begin the siege of Tenochtitlan.

He Had a Secret Weapon: Malinche

Cortes and Malinche
Cortes and Malinche. Artist Unknown

Forget cannons, guns, swords, and crossbows - Cortes' secret weapon was a teenage girl he had picked up in the Maya lands before marching on Tenochtitlan. While visiting the town of Potonchan, Cortes was gifted 20 women by the local lord. One of them was Malinali, who as a girl had lived in a Nahuatl-speaking land. Therefore, she spoke both Maya and Nahuatl. She could converse with the Spanish through a man named Aguilar who had lived among the Maya. But "Malinche," as she came to be known, was far more valuable than that. Although she was essentially enslaved, she became a trusted advisor to Cortes, advising him when treachery was afoot and she saved the Spanish on more than one occasion from Aztec plots. 

His Allies Won the War for Him

Cortes meets with Tlaxcalan Leaders
Cortes meets with Tlaxcalan leaders. Painting by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin

While he was on his way to Tenochtitlan, Cortes and his men passed through the lands of the Tlaxcalans, traditional enemies of the mighty Aztecs. The fierce Tlaxcalans fought the Spanish invaders bitterly and although they wore them down, they found that they could not defeat these intruders. The Tlaxcalans sued for peace and welcomed the Spanish into their capital city. There, Cortes forged an alliance with the Tlaxcalans which would pay off handsomely for the Spanish. Henceforth, the Spanish invasion was supported by thousands of doughty warriors who hated the Mexica and their allies. After the Night of Sorrows, the Spanish regrouped in Tlaxcala. It is not an exaggeration to say that Cortes would never have succeeded without his Tlaxcalan allies.

He Lost the Treasure of Montezuma

The Night of Sorrows
La Noche Triste. Library of Congress; Artist Unknown

Cortes and his men occupied Tenochtitlan in November of 1519 and immediately began badgering Montezuma and the Aztec nobles for gold. They had already collected a great deal on their way there, and by June of 1520,​ they had amassed an estimated eight tons of gold and silver. After Montezuma's death, they were forced to flee the city on a night remembered by the Spanish as the Night of Sorrows because half of them were killed by angry Mexica warriors. They managed to get some of the treasure out of the city, but most of it was lost and never recovered.

But What He Didn't Lose, He Kept for Himself

Aztec Gold Mask
Aztec Gold Mask. Dallas Museum of Art

When Tenochtitlan was finally conquered once and for all in 1521, Cortes and his surviving men divided up their ill-gotten loot. After Cortes took out the royal fifth, his own fifth and made generous, questionable "payments" to many of his cronies, there was precious little left for his men, most of whom received fewer than 200 pesos apiece. It was an insulting sum for brave men who had risked their lives time and again, and most of them spent the rest of their lives believing that Cortes had hidden a vast fortune from them. Historical accounts seem to indicate that they were correct: Cortes most likely cheated not only his men but the king himself, failing to declare all of the treasure and not sending the king his rightful 20% under Spanish law.

He Probably Murdered His Wife

Malinche and Cortes
Malinche and Cortes. Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco

In 1522, after finally conquering the Aztec Empire, Cortes received an unexpected visitor: his wife, Catalina Suárez, whom he had left behind in Cuba. Catalina could not have been pleased to see her husband with another woman, but she remained in Mexico anyway. On November 1, 1522, Cortes hosted a party at his home at which Catalina is alleged to have angered him by making comments about the Indigenous peoples. She died that very night, and Cortes put out the story that she had a bad heart. Many suspected that he actually killed her. Indeed, some of the evidence suggests that he did, such as servants in his home that saw bruise marks on her neck after death and the fact that she had repeatedly told her friends that he treated her violently. Criminal charges were dropped, but Cortes lost a civil case and had to pay off his deceased wife's family.

The Conquest of Tenochtitlan Was Not the End of His Career

Women given to Cortes in Potonchan
Women given to Cortes in Potonchan. Artist Unknown

Hernan Cortes' audacious conquest made him famous and rich. He was made Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley and he built himself a fortified palace which can still be visited in Cuernavaca. He returned to Spain and met the king. When the king didn't recognize him right away, Cortes said: "I am the one who gave you more kingdoms than you had towns before." He became governor of New Spain (Mexico) and led a disastrous expedition to Honduras in 1524. He also personally led expeditions of exploration in western Mexico, seeking a strait which would connect the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. He returned to Spain and died there in 1547.​

Modern Mexicans Despise Him

Statue of Cuitlahuac, Mexico City. SMU Library Archives

Many modern Mexicans do not see the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 as bringers of civilization, modernity or Christianity: rather, they think the conquistadors were a brutal gang of cutthroats who plundered the rich culture of central Mexico. They may admire Cortes' audacity or courage, but they find his cultural genocide abominable. There are no major monuments to Cortes anywhere in Mexico, but heroic statues of Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtémoc, two Mexica Emperors who fought bitterly against the Spanish invaders, grace the beautiful avenues of modern Mexico City.

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Minster, Christopher. "Ten Facts About Hernan Cortes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-hernan-cortes-2136576. Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). Ten Facts About Hernan Cortes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-hernan-cortes-2136576 Minster, Christopher. "Ten Facts About Hernan Cortes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ten-facts-about-hernan-cortes-2136576 (accessed June 10, 2023).