Hernán Cortés (1485–December 2, 1547) (who was known as Hernando or Fernando Cortés during his lifetime and signed all his letters Fernán Cortés) was the conquistador who conquered Mexico for Spain.
Cortés was born in Medellín, Extremadura province, in the Kingdom of Castile in Spain, the only child of Martín Cortés and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, he was second cousin to Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca empire of modern-day Peru (not to be confused with another Francisco Pizarro who joined Cortés in conquering the Aztecs).
Cortés took classes at Salamanca but bitterly disappointed his parents by returning home in 1501 at age 17, rather than studying law like his grandfather. He had a choice between seeking fame and glory in a war in Italy, or trying his luck in the Spanish colonies of the New World.
Arrival in the New World
Due to several setbacks, Cortés did not arrive in the New World until 1506. He took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba and was granted a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his efforts. This was the encomienda that had worked so well in the conquest of the Canaries (eliminating the indigenous Guanches) but would prove devastating in the New World. The brutality of the Cuba campaign and the subsequent extinction of the Indian population from disease, overwork and despair would later influence Cortés's more careful treatment of the Mexicans as Captain-General of New Spain, making possible, ironically, the survival of so many "genotypically" full-blooded Indians, Indian tribes, and Indian languages in Mexico today.
Expeditions to Yucatán by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517 and Juan de Grijalva in 1518 had returned to Cuba with small amounts of gold, and tales of a more distant land where gold was said to be abundant. Cortés eagerly sold or mortgaged all his lands to buy ships and supplies and arranged with the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, another distant relative and his father-in-law, to lead an expedition, officially to explore and trade with the rumored new lands to the west. He was forbidden to colonize, but calling upon what law he had studied and his famous powers of persuasion, he tricked Governor Velázquez into inserting a clause about emergency measures that might have to be taken without prior authorization, "in the true interests of the realm". At the last minute, the Governor changed his mind, sensing that Cortés was too ambitious for his own good.
Beginning his campaign
In 1519 Cortés fled Cuba with 11 ships, 500 men, and 15 horses. After short stops in Yucatán where there was little gold but the priceless gift of two translators, one "La Malinche" later made legendary even if not quite an Aztec princess sold into Mayan slavery, another a shipwrecked Spaniard who had also learned a Mayan dialect during seven years of slavery, Cortés landed his party in a location he named Veracruz ("True Cross") on March 4. By establishing a municipality, he could "reluctantly" proceed to claim land for king Charles V of Spain by popular mandate of the city magistrates he had appointed, his friends.
The local Totonac from Cempoala greeted him with gifts of food, feathers, gold – and women, who always had to be baptized before the eager Spanish soldiers were allowed to let them "fix supper for them" ("grind their corn"). He learned that the land was ruled by the great lord in the city of Tenochtitlán. Soon ambassadors from the Mexica/Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II arrived with additional gifts, apparently hoping to keep him at a distance by satisfying him with gold. It had the opposite effect, of course. Cortés learned that he was suspected of being Quetzalcoatl or an emissary of Quetzalcoatl, a legendary man-god who was predicted to one day return to reclaim his city in a One-Reed year on the cyclical calendar. (One-Reed was, in this particular 52-year "century", 1519, adding to the extraordinary luck of this conquistador.) Aided by the advice of his native translator, La Malinche, he took full advantage of the Quetzalcoatl myth, inflicting Moctezuma with what writer Octavio Paz described as "sacred vertigo".
While some of the expedition wanted to get such gold as they could quickly by trade or theft and then return to Cuba, Cortés had seen the results of this sort of plunder and had plans to build a working empire of his own. He ordered all his fleet scuttled (not burned as legend has it), except for one small ship with which to communicate with Spain, effectively stranding the expedition in Mexico and ending all thoughts of loyalty to the Governor of Cuba. Cortés then led his band inland towards the fabled Tenochtitlán.
Cortés arrived at Tlaxcala, a small independent state within the empire's sphere of influence. The Tlaxcaltecas attacked his troops, but Spanish crossbows, broadswords, battle axes, horses, war dogs and firearms quickly won the battle. Cortés said that if the men of Tlaxcala would accept Christianity, become his allies and vassals to his lord, he would forgive their disrespect and overthrow their nemesis, Emperor Moctezuma. Cortés's "lord" was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to whom he made his case by letters, over the head of Velázquez, who, in turn, was trying to make a case over the head of Diego Colón, son of Christopher Columbus and thus Admiral of the Ocean Sea . Otherwise, Cortés threatened, he would kill everyone in their entire nation. The Tlaxcaltecas agreed; Cortés then continued his march with some 2,000 Tlaxcalteca warriors and perhaps as many more porters. He also purchased cotton armour, seeing how much more effective than chainmail it was against Indian arrows.
After Cortés arrived in Cholula, the second largest city of the Empire, La Malinche relayed a rumor that the locals planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep. Although he did not know if this was true or not, Cortés ordered a preventive strike to serve as a lesson: the Spaniards seized and killed the local nobles, set fire to the city and killed an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 of the inhabitants. Cortés then sent a message ahead to Moctezuma that the lords of Cholula had treated him with disrespect and had to be punished, but if Moctezuma treated him with respect and gifts of gold, the Aztecs need not fear his wrath. Terror was one of his many powerful tools, though much of his military genius can be ascribed to La Malinche, who had her own motives for revenge.
When the Spaniards saw the island city of Tenochtitlán for the first time, from the ring of volcanoes around the Valley of Mexico, they asked each other if they were dreaming. Surely it was the most magnificent city in the world. How could God allow heathens such splendor? The expedition arrived in the Mexica-Aztec capital on November 8, 1519. Moctezuma welcomed Cortés to Tenochtitlán on the Great Causeway into the "Venice of the West", probably the largest city on earth, and many people mark this moment – when two high civilizations met after 40,000 years of isolation – as the true discovery of the New World. The two halves of the planet had found one another.
Relations with the last Aztec emperors
Moctezuma had the palace of his father Axayacatl prepared to house the Spanish and their Indian allies. Cortés asked for more gifts of gold as a vassal of Charles V. He also demanded that the two large idols be removed from the main temple pyramid in the city, the human blood scrubbed off, and shrines to the Virgin Mary and St. Christopher be set up in their place. All his demands were met. Cortés then seized Moctezuma in his own palace and made him his prisoner as insurance against Aztec revolt, and demanded an enormous ransom of gold, which was duly delivered.
After some weeks in Tenochtitlán, knowing their leader was in chains and having to feed not just a band of Spaniards but thousands of their Tlaxcalteca allies, the strain began to weigh on the city. At the worst possible moment, news from the coast reached Cortés that a much larger party of Spaniards had been sent by the Velázquez to arrest Cortés for insubordination. He left Tenochtitlán in the care of his trusted lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado, marched to the coast and defeated the Cuban expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez. When Cortés told the defeated soldiers about the city of gold, Tenochtitlán, they agreed to join him. (Narváez lost an eye, but worse awaited this great loser of the conquest in Florida.)
The arduous trek back over the Sierra Madre Oriental began. Years later, when asked what the new land was like, Cortés crumpled up a piece of parchment, then spread it out: "Like this," he said.
When Cortés returned to the palace, however, he found that Alvarado and his men had massacred the Aztec nobility and the survivors had elected a new emperor, Cuitláhuac. Cuitláhuac ordered his soldiers to besiege the palace housing the Spaniards and Moctezuma. Cortés ordered Moctezuma to speak to his people from a palace balcony and persuade them to let the Spanish return to the coast in peace. Moctezuma was jeered and stones were thrown at him injuring him badly, and Moctezuma died a few days later.
On the night of July 1, 1520, Cortés decided to try to break out by muffling the horses' hooves and carrying boards to fill in one of the causeways (which had been opened to prevent escape), but a woman saw them and alerted the city. The fighting was ferocious, and many of the Spaniards were hindered by having loaded themselves down with as much gold as they could carry. Cortés only survived because the Mexica-Aztecs wanted him alive to sacrifice to their god of war. Surely the offering of the heart of such a warrior would win back their god of war, Huitzilopochtli. The gap in the causeway, removed to prevent their escape, was so filled with bodies the fugitives just ran across. Over 400 Spaniards and some 2,000 Indian allies were killed, but Cortés, Alvarado and the most skilled of the men managed to fight their way out of Tenochtitlán and escape. The women survivors included La Malinche, ten conquistadors, Alvarado's lover and two of Moctezuma's daughters in Cortés's harem. (A third died, apparently leaving behind her infant by Cortés, the mysterious second "María" named in his will.) This major Aztec victory is still remembered as "La Noche Triste", the Night of Sorrow.
Cortés ordered his master shipwright, Martín López, a Basque who was arguably his most critical survivor, to build 12 brigantines for a siege of the city. Indian porters brought all the supplies stripped from the original fleet over the mountains from the coast, while Cortés and his allies secured all the towns around the Tenochtitlán lake system. The Mexica-Aztecs had been dominating other Aztec city-states for over a century, demanding ever more sacrificial victims and other tribute. Still, this phase of the campaign was arduous and brutal. The Tlaxcaltecas subsisted on the flesh of their massacred enemies while the "Christians" looked the other way, living on dogs and corn. Spanish foot soldiers helped kill Indians for their allies to "dress out", but also rescued many of the women Cortés planned to brand on the face as slaves. They hid the pretty ones in the bushes, sleeping with them during the night, and setting them free in the morning (or marrying them, now that their husbands had been devoured).
The siege of Tenochtitlán began at a time when smallpox struck with a vengeance. Cortés's Indian allies suffered as well, with an estimated 40% mortality, but the effect on morale in Tenochtitlán, as they began to starve as well, must have been horrendous. Still, they fought on long after a European city would have surrendered. Cortés genuinely wanted to spare the beautiful city, but with so many Mexica attacking them from the roofs, they were forced to pull houses down street by street. In the end, almost the entire city of Tenochtitlán was destroyed and some 120,000 to 240,000 Aztecs killed. The last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, surrendered to Cortés on August 13, 1521.
Cortés famously put Cuauhtémoc's feet to the fire to find the gold lost on La Noche Triste, but notarized testimony at his many subsequent trials (for murdering his legal wife, etc.) has abundant testimony from friends and enemies alike that this crime ruined Cortés. He never forgave himself and seems to have gone somewhat mad. He took off on a senseless, death-defying expedition through Guatemala to Honduras to punish a fellow Spaniard who had betrayed him, and with his departure all shadow of personal authority left Mexico. He became paranoid as well, having Cuauhtémoc hanged over the strong objections of his men. Perhaps he could no longer bear to see him limp from his disfigured feet.
When Cortés returned from Honduras, barely alive, he was greeted with joy by a desperate, lawless population. He served a term as Governor-General of "New Spain of the Ocean Sea" (as Juan de Grijalva had named Mexico before Cortés ever saw it), bringing stability and surprising civil rights to the country. But the Castilian bureaucrats began to arrive, undoing all his work, and he left with his eldest and favorite son, La Malinche's child Martín Cortés, to find China, eventually returning to Europe to fight in Italy with the same son, a mestizo. Cortés died in Castilleja de la Cuesta , Seville province, in 1547. Like Columbus, he died a wealthy but embittered man; he had not become the great Caesar of Charles V's Western Empire.
He left his many Indian and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. It is extremely difficult to characterize this particular conquistador – his unspeakable atrocities, the brilliant military strategies, his desperate maneuvers to keep the ruinous plantation economy out of Mexico, the rewards for his Tlaxcalteca allies along with the rehabilitation of the nobility (including a castle for Moctezuma's heirs in Spain that still stands), his respect for Indians as worthy adversaries and family members. In Mexico today he is condemned as a modern-day damnatio memoriae, Orwell's "Unperson", with only one statue – but half a million descendants, and one of the most remarkable stories in history.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:30:56