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

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador, or conqueror, best remembered for conquering the Aztec empire in 1521 and claiming Mexico for Spain. He also helped colonize Cuba and became a governor of New Spain. 

"Like many explorers we know about today, Hernán (also known as Hernando) Cortés's role in the Age of Exploration was influential but controversial," said Erika Cosme, Administrative Coordinator of Education and Digital Services at The Mariner’s Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. "He was a smart, ambitious man who wanted to appropriate new land for the Spanish crown, convert native inhabitants to Catholicism, and plunder the lands for gold and riches." 

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, when Cortés was a young boy. Columbus had set sail hoping to find a route to Asia or India. Nutmeg, cloves and pomander from the Indonesian "Spice Islands" and pepper and cinnamon from India were in high demand, said Cosme. "In the 15th century, Europe, Asia, and Africa were at the epicenter of a global exchange of goods; also, for Europeans, curiosities of different cultures continued to emerge. This Afro-Eurasian economy created an interwoven connection between India, China, the Middle East, Africa and Europe."

Cortés was eager to be part of the dynamic movement. "For individual explorers, gaining public fame could potentially make them rich," said Cosme. 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.

Cortés spent seven 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, Cortés 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.

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. Cortés was also interested in converting natives to Christianity. "His view on the indigenous people was similar to the majority of Europeans of that day — they were inferior culturally, technologically, and religiously," said Cosme. "While in Cozumel, he was astounded to learn of the gruesome rituals, including human sacrifice, of the natives to their many gods … He and his men removed and destroyed the pagan idols, and replaced them with crosses and figures of the Virgin Mary."

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). La Malinche became an important figure in Cortés' life and legacy. 

"She became bilingual, speaking Aztec and Mayan languages, which made her very useful to Cortés," said Cosme. "She eventually learned Spanish, and became Cortés' personal interpreter, guide and mistress. She actually had a pretty high status for both a woman and a native during this time and place among the Spaniards." 

Cortés and La Malinche had a child together named Martin, who is sometimes called "El Mestizo." He was one of the first children of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage. Eventually, Cortés' Spanish wife came to Mexico. After her arrival, historians are unsure if Cortés continued to acknowledge La Malinche or Martin, said Cosme. "It would seem his desire to maintain his reputation and standing among the Spanish community was stronger than his need to be a husband and father to Malinche and Martin." 

After a few months in Yucatan, Cortés headed 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.

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

Cortés had heard of the Aztecs and knew that they, and their leader Montezuma II, were a primary force in Mexico. "He arrived in the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519," said Cosme. "Although he was kindly received by the Aztec emperor Montezuma, Cortés' intentions were less benevolent." He set out to rule them. 

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, sacked it and took Montezuma hostage. La Malinche helped Cortés manipulate Montezuma and rule Tenochtitlán through him. "It is also said that she informed Cortés of an Aztec plot to destroy his army," Cosme said. 

The Spanish army had help in sacking the city. Though Cortés enslaved much of the native population, other indigenous groups were fundamental to his success, according to Cosme. Among them were the people of Tlaxcala, who helped him regroup and take Tenochtitlán. "The Aztecs were not always popular rulers among their subjected cities. When Cortés learned of this, he was able to use this to his advantage," said Cosme. "Xicotenga, a ruler in the city Tlaxcala, saw an ally in Cortés, and an opportunity to destroy the Aztec empire. They formed an allegiance, and Cortés was given several thousand warriors to add to his ranks. While the Spaniards still had superior weaponry — cannons, guns, swords — the additional knowledge on Aztec fighting styles and defenses given by Xicotenga, plus the additional men, gave Cortés a helpful edge."

While Cortés held Tenochtitlán through Montezuma, a Spanish force from Cuba landed on the coast of Mexico. They had been sent by 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. 

With the help of the people of Tlaxcala, Cortés' army regrouped and re-entered Tenochtitlán. They found that 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.

In 1524, Gov. 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.

Cortés' Spanish wife died and he remarried twice, though never to La Malinche, said Cosme. He fathered several children. 

The king 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.

Cortés is a controversial figure, especially in Mexico, because of his treatment of natives. Unfortunately, "when it came to the indigenous people, Cortés was not unique in his treatment and mindset," said Cosme. "He enslaved much of the native population, and many of the indigenous people were wiped out from European diseases such as smallpox. Both scenarios would unfortunately become a common theme among many explorers' interactions with natives."

Cortés was, nevertheless, important in his reshaping of the world. "Cortés' victory secured new and profitable land and opportunities for the Spanish monarch. He helped oversee the building of Mexico City, which is still Mexico's capital today," said Cosme. "He opened the door for further exploration and conquest of Central America to the south, and eventually led to the acquisition of California toward the north."