Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar (ca. 1465-1523) was a Spanish conqueror who founded Cuba and was indirectly responsible for the conquest of Aztec Mexico and Mayan Yucatán.

Cuéllar near Segovia was the birthplace of Diego Velázquez. He is known to have fought in Italy as a young man and to have reached America with the second expedition of Columbus. Settling in Hispaniola, he became a prominent landholder. During the governorship there of the Second Admiral, Diego Columbus, Velázquez was sent, in 1511, with three or four ships and about 300 men to conquer Cuba, whose insularity had recently been demonstrated by Sebastián de Ocampo. He was soon followed by his trusty henchman Pánfilo de Narváez and the priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, who acted as chaplain of the expedition. The conquest proved easy, for the natives of Cuba were not warlike; Narváez ranged the length of the island, slaughtering and capturing many.

As governor, Velázquez seized the first opportunity to break away from the authority of Diego Columbus and hold Cuba directly from the Castilian crown. By 1515 he and his followers had founded Baracoa (near the original landing site), Bayamo, Santiago, Puerto Príncipe, Sancti Spíritus, and Havana. He parceled out the Indians in encomiendas to friends he favored, including Hernán Cortés, and encouraged colonists to come to the island. Except for his harsh treatment of the natives, he was considered an able administrator.

Exploration of Mexico

Becoming interested in reports of mainland to the west, Velázquez sent out fleets in 1517 and 1518, the first commanded by Francisco Hernández de Cordóba and the second by Juan de Grijalva. Córdoba rounded Yucatán, and Grijalva followed the coast to Tamaulipas and heard reports of the Aztec empire.

Disappointed at the failure of his first two commanders to accomplish more, Velázquez in 1519 prepared a larger armada with about 450 fighting men and sent it under the order of Cortés. The latter founded Veracruz on the Mexican Gulf and straightway followed Velázquez's own example by repudiating his authority. The angered governor had just been granted the title adelantado by the Crown and felt that this gave him ample authority to discipline an unruly subordinate.

Velázquez raised another force, variously estimated at from 900 to 1, 400 strong, and sent it under Narváez to arrest Cortés. He would evidently have gone in person had not his unwieldy bulk unfitted him for the fatigues involved. The brave but slipshod Narváez allowed himself to be surprised and defeated by Cortés, who imprisoned him at Veracruz and persuaded the entire army of newcomers to join his own expedition.

Velázquez complained bitterly to the Castilian court and obtained an order for the arrest of Cortés, but the Aztec conquest and the resulting riches ultimately spoke louder than legal complaints. A new order came from Spain bidding Velázquez to keep his hands off Mexico. He saw his last hopes vanish and soon died of a broken heart, as one writer says, or, more prosaically, of an apoplectic stroke.

Further Reading on Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar

All biographies of Cortés contain some account of Velázquez. Carl O. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (1966), is a favorable discussion of Velázquez's administration of Cuba. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, translated by Alfred P. Maudsley (5 vols., 1908-1916), has much to say about Velázquez but mostly in connection with Cortés. A lively, colorful account of the Spanish and other explorers of the era is Louis Booker Wright, Gold, Glory, and the Gospel: The Adventurous Lives and Times of the Renaissance Explorers (1970).

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