Hernan Cortes (1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish Conquistador known for his bravery, ambition, thirst for gold, brutality, and extraordinary leadership. Cortes was a self-made man who was a bastard son to a Spanish noble. While Cortes accomplished much in his sixty-two years he would become infamous for his actions against the Aztec Civilization. Hernan Cortes successfully defeated the Aztecs and destroyed their civilization. The death of a civilization did not come easy and throughout Cortes showed an uncanny ability to lead men through some of the darkest moments. His success against the Aztecs should not cause us to cover up his brutality against the Aztec people.
Hernan Cortes Facts: Early Life
- Hernan Cortes was born in 1485 in Spain. His family had a distinguished military background, but their excellent service had not given them much wealth. He was described by many as a pale and sickly child, but a child with a thirst for knowledge and gifted in leadership and military tactics.
- At the age of 14 Cortes attended the University of Salamanca in Spain which was one of the premier institutions at the time. He was given one of the best educations of that time.
- Growing up there is little doubt that Cortes was influenced by the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de Leon and Vasco da Gama. Each had acquired great wealth and influence through opening trade routes to wealthy lands.
- In the case of Christopher Columbus he discovered a New World with a wealth of new natural resources to be traded. His ambition to carry out the same coupled with his knowledge of the law would give him great success in the New World.
Hernan Cortes: The New World and Thirst for Glory
- Cortes planned to sail for Hispaniola with Nicolas de Ovando, but this plan was scrapped when Nicolas injured himself after committing adultery with a married woman. Cortes then opted to sail to the New World as a colonist which he managed to do in 1504 at the age of 18.
- He arrived in Santo Domingo and registered as a Spanish citizen. This enabled him to acquire a plot of land to farm. With the held of his legal background the governor of Hispaniola made him a notary which allowed him to establish himself as a leading citizen in that particular colony.
- Cortes began to quickly rise up the chain of command when he gained favor with Diego Velazquez. Velazquez was appointed as governor of Cuba and made Cortes his clerk to the treasurer.
- Cortes impressed the governor so much that he was placed in a powerful political position in the colony. Cortes pioneered many reforms for the colony and became extremely wealthy during this time. However, Velazquez became increasingly jealous of the talented Cortes.
- Velazquez began to stand in the way of any advance in the career of Cortes. In response Cortes married his sister-in-law hoping to calm the angry governor and establish goodwill between the two. This seemed to work as Cortes remained in his position of influence until 1518 when he was put in command of an expedition to explore the interior of Mexico.
Hernan Cortes: Mexico and the Aztecs
- In a last attempt to hinder Cortes, Velazquez revoked his charter to Mexico. Cortes ignored the orders and continued to the Yucatán Peninsula. Upon arrival he came in contact with Geronimo de Aguilar who had survived a Spanish shipwreck and was prisoner of the natives.
- During this time he learned the Mayan language which allowed Cortes to communicate with the natives. Hernan continued his advance into the interior of Mexico and recruited more soldiers and horses along the way.
- He came close to Tabasco where he encountered hostile natives. He soundly defeated them in battle and received twenty women among other things from the defeated natives. This would be of little significance if not for acquiring the woman La Malinche who became a future mistress of his and spoke the Aztec and Mayan language fluently. Cortes had now acquired a way to communicate with the great empire of Mexico.
- It was from her that Cortes learned of the vast wealth of the Aztecs. With this information he set his sites on the conquest of the great civilization.
- In July of 1519 Cortes made a controversial move and took over Vera Cruz by the authority of King Charles I and ignored the authority of the Governor of Cuba. He began to push for a meeting with Montezuma, but Montezuma continued to reject the audience. Cortes then took 600 of his men and began to march towards Tenochtitlan where Montezuma was located. He strategically began forming alliance with many of the enemies that the Aztec people had oppressed. By applying European realpolitik to the New World he united the enemy tribes and increased his numbers. When he reached the Aztec capital Montezuma allowed them to come in.
- Cortes and the Spanish saw the great treasures that the Aztecs had in their possessions. Cortes then wrote to Charles I and told him of the great riches and the natives opinion of him. Shortly after, the Aztecs attacked the Spanish along the coast which resulted in Cortes taking Montezuma hostage in retaliation and making him swear allegiance to Charles I of Spain.
- Upon hearing that Cortes ignored his command, Velazquez sent Panfilo de Narvaez to find and capture Cortes. He arrived in Mexico with 1,100 men and was confronted and defeated by Cortes despite his superior numbers. Hernan Cortes then convinced Narvaez to join him in the conquest of the Aztecs in which Narvaez obliged.
- All was going well for Cortes until one of his lieutenants committed the massacre in the Main Temple which slaughtered many innocent natives. This provoked a local rebellion and without the leadership of Cortes the Spanish were forced to leave the town.
- Cortes was forced to modify his tactics and use the divide and conquer strategy to defeat the Aztecs. He was able to surround the capital city of Tenochtitlan and cut off their supplies.
- Here he would fight a war of attrition and with his superior weapons he could easily hold the Aztecs in place. However, he needed to focus his efforts on the allies of the Aztecs and avoid fighting them as a whole unit.
- He began capturing individual Aztec ally cities one after another. This effectively shifted the balance of power to the Spaniards and led to the defeat of the Aztecs.
Hernan Cortes Facts: Legacy and Death
- After conquering the Aztecs Cortes was given the governorship of Mexico. He put in place many economic reforms and began exporting sugar to Spain.
- He also began to repair the relations with the natives and enter into a short-time of peace. Cortes then began to evangelize the people of the region and converted many to Christianity. He also began to export African slaves to Mexico. He began founding cities and expanding the influence of the Spanish Crown all over the New World. He would be the first to establish what would become known as New Spain.
- He also developed mines and farmlands which allowed him to create more exports which increased the wealth of the region.
- His success was short-lived as his rivals Diego Velazquez and Diego Columbus began to push back against his power. They influenced many in Spain who were also alarmed of Cortes’ rising power. They were fearful of his rise and believed that he may be able to rival the crown of Spain. Cortes then defeated Cristobal de Olid who claimed Honduras under the influence Cortes’ rival Velazquez.
- In response, Cortes issued a decree to arrest Velazquez which did nothing but hurt his cause as it further raised alarm over his growing power. Luis Ponce de Leon then arrested Cortes and had him tried. He then suspended Cortes as governor of New Spain. In response Hernan Cortes sailed back to meet with King Charles I. Unfortunately King Charles I (also King Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) was in the middle of conflict between England, France and the rising Ottoman Empire which left little time to deal with Cortes.
- Cortes did gain an audience and was given many titles and accolades by King Charles.
- He then returned to Mexico with less governorship but much military power. When he returned he returned to a state of anarchy in which he was able to gain control of and create order. shortly after he retired from public life to his estate in which he continued explorations. After many years of rivals and accusations Cortes once again returned to have an audience with the Emperor, but this time he was cut off. In disgust he forced his way to the Emperors carriage and said, “I am a man who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities.”
- Hernan Cortes participated in a few more public events and then retired to his estate in much debt. He died of pleurisy on December 2, 1547. He died a wealthy man and left his wife and mistresses and children much in his will.
- While he was arguably the most successful Spanish Conquistador Spain ever had most of his recognition came posthumously. He was always in a constant struggle with inferior minds that could not keep up with him except to launch accusations.