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Hernán Cortés: Conqueror of the Aztecs

Hernan Cortés invaded Mexico in 1519
Hernan Cortés invaded Mexico in 1519 and conquered the Aztec Empire.
Credit: Public domain. Engraving by W. Holl, 1837.

Hernán Cortés is one of the most well-known Spanish conquistadors. He is best remembered for conquering the Aztec empire and claiming Mexico for Spain. He also helped colonize Cuba and became a governor of New Spain.

Early life

Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellín, Spain. He was the only son of noble, though not wealthy, parents. At age 14, Cortés was sent to study law at the University of Salamanca, but he was restless and unhappy. He became fascinated with tales of Christopher Columbus’ New World explorations. Columbus had landed at San Salvador and explored the West Indies in 1492, Cortés was a young boy. Cortés wanted to join the excitement of the Age of Exploration.

He decided to seek fortune and adventure in Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). In 1504, at age 19, Cortés set sail for the New World.

In the Bahamas

Cortés spent seven successful years on Hispaniola, living in the new town of Azua and working as a notary and farmer. In 1511 he joined Diego Velasquez’s expedition to conquer Cuba. There, Cortés served as a clerk to the treasurer and later as mayor of Santiago.

Despite his success, Cortes was hungry for more power and greater thrills. He convinced Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, to let him lead an expedition to Mexico. Velasquez canceled the voyage at the last minute. Ignoring his orders, Cortés set sail with 11 ships and more than 500 men.

Arrival in Mexico

In 1519, Cortés’ ships reached the Mexican coast at Yucatan. Mexico had been discovered by the Spanish just a year prior, and they were eager to settle it.

At Tabasco, Cortés was met with resistance from natives. He quickly overpowered them, and the natives surrendered. They provided the Europeans with food, supplies and 20 women, including an interpreter called Malintzin (also known as La Malinche or Doña Marina). She became Cortés’s intermediary with the natives and eventually his mistress, eventually mothering his son, Martin.

After a few months, Cortés set sail from Yucatan, heading west. On the southeastern coast he founded Veracruz, where he dismissed the authority of Velasquez and declared himself under orders from King Charles I of Spain. He disciplined his men and trained them to act as a cohesive unit of soldiers. He also burned his ships to make retreat impossible.

Cortes enters Tenochtitlán
A 1909 painting depicts the Spanish conquistadors entering Tenochtitlán to the sounds of martial music.
Credit: Public domain. Book illustration by J.H. Robinson.

Conquering the Aztecs

Cortés had heard of the Aztecs and knew that they, and their leader Montezuma II, were a primary force in Mexico. Cortés set out to rule them. During the march through Mexico, he encountered a group of natives called the Tlaxcalans, who were enemies of the Aztecs. They became an important ally for Cortés during his siege of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital city.

Unbeknownst to Cortés, his arrival coincided with an important Aztec prophecy. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, whom they credited with the creation of humans among other notable feats, was set to return to Earth. Thinking that Cortés could be Quetzalcoatl, Montezuma greeted the party with great honor.

Montezuma sent out envoys to meet the conquistador as he neared. The Aztecs were fascinated by the Spaniards’ light skin and the sight of men on horseback, which they described as beasts with two heads and six legs. The Spanish fired shots, which stunned the natives and further intimidated them.

Cortés entered the city. The Spanish soldiers and the Tlaxcalans sacked it, while Cortés took Montezuma hostage. With the help of Doña Marina, Cortés manipulated Montezuma and ruled Tenochtitlán through him.

The Siege of Tenochtitlán

While Cortés held Tenochtitlán through Montezuma, a Spanish force from Cuba landed on the coast of Mexico. They had been sent by Diego Velasquez to unseat Cortés. When Cortés heard of this, he took a garrison of Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers and marched on the Spanish. Cortés defeated the Spanish force, but when he returned to Tenochtitlán he was met with a shock. The Aztecs were in the midst of a full rebellion. Cortés and his men fled the city.

They were there long enough to start a smallpox epidemic in Tenochtitlán, however. One of Cortés’ men contracted smallpox from a member of the force from Cuba. That soldier died during the Aztec rebellion, and when his body was looted, an Aztec caught the disease, which spread like wildfire because the Aztec people had no immunity to it.

Cortés regrouped and attacked Tenochtitlán in full force in 1521. At that time, the city’s society had crumpled. The Aztecs no longer trusted Montezuma, they were short on food, and the smallpox epidemic was under way. More than 3 million Aztecs died from smallpox, and with such a severely weakened population, it was easy for the Spanish to take Tenochtitlán.

It is uncertain how Montezuma died. Some scholars state that, disgusted with him, the Aztecs stoned him to death. Others, including indigenous scholars, assert that the Spanish killed him.

Once the city had fallen, Cortés began building Mexico City on the ruins. It quickly became a pre-eminent city in the Spanish colonies and many Europeans came to live there. As a result of his success, King Charles I of Spain appointed Cortés as governor of New Spain.

Later years

In 1524, governor Cortés went to Honduras to quell a rebellion against him. He stayed for two years, and when he returned to Mexico he found himself removed from power. Cortés traveled to Spain to plead with the king, but he was never again appointed to governorship.

The kind did allow him to return to Mexico, albeit with much less authority. Cortés explored the northern part of Mexico and discovered Baja California for Spain in the latter 1530s. In 1540, he retired to Spain and spent much of his last years seeking recognition and rewards for his achievements.

Frustrated and embittered, Cortés decided to return to Mexico. Before he could go, however, he died of pleurisy in 1547.

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