Belinda H. Nanney
Hernando Cortés was born on southwestern Spain in the village of
Medellín in 1485 to Martín Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, both of
honorable extraction, belonging to the middle class of nobility, but not wealthy. At the
age of 14, he left home to study law at the University at Salamanca and returned home two
years later. He wandered the seaports of Cádiz, Palos, Sanlucai, and Seville.
Dissatisfied at home Cortés turned his eyes to the newly-discovered Western World.
In 1504, Cortés set sail for three reasons. First, for his Spanish
manhood. Second, he wanted to find silver and spices. And thirdly, everybody said he
should because he was bold.
Cortés arrived on the island of Hispaniola where he became a
gentleman farmer and soldier for seven years. There he met a Spanish soldier and
administrator Diego Velázquez. In 1511, Velázquez told Cortés of his plans of attacking
Cuba and conquering it. The two joined with a small force and took over Cuba. After the
victory, Cortés became the mayor of Santiago and married the sister-in-law of Velázquez.
Velázquez had heard about a wealthy Aztec Empire in Mexico and wanted someone to lead an
expedition there. He needed someone that he could trust and who would remain loyal to him.
Cortés was overjoyed that he was asked to be the commander of the expedition to find the
Cortés rushed to make preparations for departure before Velázquez
changed his mind. The expedition consisted of 11 ships, 500 soldiers, 13 horses, and some
cannons. His fleet anchored at Trinidad on the south coast of Cuba where more soldiers
were hired and additional horses were taken aboard. Cortés sailed from Cuba towards
Mexico. Cortés sailed along the coast of the Yucatan peninsula and touched Mexico on the
coast of what now is the state of Tabasco.
There, he took many Indian captives; including a young Aztec
princess to whom he gave Spanish name Marina. She became his interpreter and advisor.
Although the local population of Tabasco possessed little of value, they told Cortés of
the great wealth of the Aztec Empire further inland. On April 21, 1519, Cortés landed
near the site of Veracruz. To prevent all thought of retreat, he burned his ships. Without
a way to retreat, on August 16, 1519, the expedition started. In addition to the
Spaniards, there were 40 Cempoalan warrior chiefs and 200 Indians to drag the cannon and
carry the supplies. The men were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they
suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail. Although
Cortés asked for peace and friendship, and permission to cross their land on the way to
Mexico, the Tlaxcalan Indians refused. Throughout the month of September, Cortés and
members of his expedition fought many battles with the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish weapons and
technology and the boldness of Cortés, kept his men from being wiped out. Cortés made
his last peace offer and it was accepted. The Tlaxcalans brought food, water, and gifts.
On October 23, 1519, Cortés set out with an additional 1,000 Tlaxcalan Indians to conquer
Montezuma and the Aztecs. As Cortés passed through mountain towns and villages, many
Indians told of cruel treatment by the Aztecs. These Indians were very willing to help
It took nearly three months to reach the outskirts of the capital
city of the Aztecs. Cortés and his expedition were awe struck when they finally saw
Tenochtitlán, Montezuma’s capital city. The cities and towns were even more
beautiful and contained more riches than the Spanish had expected. When they first arrived
there the Aztec thought that Cortés was Quetzalcoatal, a white-skinned god of the Aztec
prophecy, who according to legend, had taught them about agriculture and government and
whose return they were to welcome with great ceremony.
At first the Aztec welcomed the Spaniards to take as much gold and
jewels as they felt like at random throughout the town, but soon after Montezuma and his
men weren’t so friendly. For fear of being prisoners to the Aztecs Cortés arrested
Montezuma and locked him in his palace. Cortés had begun to gather the treasures of his
conquest when word reached him that a Spanish army under Narváez had landed at Vera Cruz
with orders from Velázquez to arrest him because of his insubordination in exceeding his
orders. Cortés divided his small force, leaving two hundred soldiers to secure
Tenochtitlán, while he journeyed back through the jungle to confront Narváez. Cortés
aggressively attacked at night, captured Narváez and convinced the survivors to join him.
When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, he found his men fighting
with the Aztecs. Montezuma was stoned and killed by his own people. A year later, Cortés
returned to the Aztec capital city and for two months fought a bloody battle. On August
13, 1521, Cortés claimed it for Spain. Cortés and his men searched in vain for the
treasures they had left behind. Finally the Spaniards lost patience. They poured burning
oil over the feet of Cuauhtemoc, hoping that he would reveal where the gold and precious
jewels were hidden. Even under the torture the emperor insisted that everything of value
had been thrown into Lake Texcoco. Divers scoured the bottom of the lake, but nothing was
For Cortés, the conquest of Tenochtitlán was only the beginning of
his New World claims. He had the heart of an explorer and forever hungered to probe into
undiscovered lands. Immediately after the conquest, the rebuilding effort compelled him to
stay near Mexico City. So instead of leading exploration efforts himself, he sent out
parties of discovery.
Cortés was in and out of favor with Charles V, for whom the
conquistador had risked his life. Despite the pleas of Velázquez and Narváez the emperor
named Cortés governor, captain-general, and chief justice of New Spain in 1522. Cortés
served as New Spain’s governor for three years. He was the most powerful man in the
New World, but he still had an enemy, Velázquez. Velázquez was passionately jealous of
the younger man’s success in Mexico. Governor Velazqeuz had agents in Spain who
suggested to King Charles that Cortés was disloyal to the Spanish Crown. Other detractors
accused Cortés of murdering his Spanish wife, who died mysteriously shortly after her
arrival in Mexico City. A deadly combination of old enemies and treachery among his own
officers led to Cortés downfall.
Cortés led another expedition into Honduras in 1524, but because
various members of the Spanish court continued to fear his ambitions, the king withdrew
his governorship and ordered him home to Spain. In May 1528, Cortés returned to Spain,
after an absence of 24 years. The poor boy of Medellín who had left to seek his fortune
received a magnificent homecoming. He brought with him a treasure in gold, silver, and
precious gems. In his train were native chiefs, and strange animals, birds, and fruits. As
he traveled from town to town on his way to meet Charles V thousands of cheering Spaniards
lined the streets to see him pass.
At last Cortés met with Charles V, the emperor of Spain. Charles
made him marques del Valle de Oaxaca and gave him title to vast amounts of land.
But the emperor refused to restore his old authority as governor of New Spain. In 1530,
Cortés returned to Mexico with a rich new wife. He built a new palace for himself at
Cuernavaca, where he raised sheep and cattle. He and his family prospered.
But Cortés could not live the life of a gentleman farmer for long.
He was too restless. He sent out expeditions to Lower California at his own expense,
leading one voyage personally. There were storms, shipwrecks, and mutinies. The
expeditions all failed. By 1539 Cortés was forced to borrow money. He went deeply into
The next year he returned again to Spain. But by then Spain looked
to new heroes. Cortés was a forgotten man. He was ignored at court. Finally Charles V
consented to see him, but treated him coldly. The conquistador was old, ill, and
In 1547 Cortés decided to return to Mexico. He set out to sea, but
feeling himself close to death, landed again at a small town in Andalusia. There on
December 2, 1547, he died in bed. A number of years later his body was moved to Mexico.
Hernando Cortés conquered and destroyed a magnificent civilization,
a cruel one, it is true, but one that had done no harm to Spain. Moreover, although he
defeated the Aztecs in the name of Christianity, his principal purpose was to win great
wealth for himself in the shortest possible time. To gain his ends he did not hesitate to
kill thousands of Indians and to enslave many time that number.
Catholic Encyclopedia (4th edition) Online.
Fisher, M. & Richardson K. "Hernando Cortés"
Cortés" Crossroads Resource Online.
Jacobs, W.J. "Hernando Cortés" New York,
N.Y.:Franklin Watts, Inc. 1974.
Stein, R.C. "The World’s Greatest Explorers: Hernando Cortés." Chicago,
Illinois: Chicago Press Inc. 1991.
You can read about this and other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.
Click on the book cover or the title to order.