Hernán Cortés (c. 1485-1547) conquered the Aztecempire in Mexico and became the most famous of the Spanish conquistadores.
Hernán Cortés was born in Medellin. His parents were of the small landed gentry of the region. As a youth, he studied Latin for 2 years at the University of Salamanca, but lured by tales of new discoveries in America, he abandoned student life and in 1504 sailed for the New World.
Cortés settled initially on the island of Santo Domingo (Hispaniola) but in 1511 joined an expedition to Cuba, where he became a municipal official and an intimate friend of Diego Velázquez, the governor of the island. When Velázquez determined to dispatch an expedition to Mexico, he named Cortés for the command, but Velázquez soon came to suspect Cortés of excessive ambition and determined to relieve him. Cortés, aware of this danger, managed to slip away with part of his followers before the governor could formally confront him. After meeting with other recruits, on Feb. 18, 1519, Cortés departed for Mexico with over 600 Spanish soldiers, sailors, and captains, some 200 Indian auxiliaries, and 16 horses.
Cortés's route took him first to Yucatán and thence up the Mexican coast to the vicinity of the modern city of Veracruz, where he founded a town, Villa Rica de Veracruz, which became the base for the conquest. There he arranged to have the municipal council—which he had appointed—name him captain general and principal judge, an act which gave him at least quasilegal status. He also negotiated alliances with adjacent Indian tribes and gathered intelligence about the Aztecs.
War with the Aztecs
In August 1519 Cortés struck inland for Tenochtitlán, an island city in Lake Texcoco and the capital of the Aztec confederation ruled by Montezuma II. The most consequential episode in the march was an alliance which Cortés negotiated with the Tlascala, an Indian nation hostile to the Aztecs. In early November the expedition reached the shores of Lake Texcoco. Montezuma, unsure of the intentions of the Spaniards and, indeed, of whether they were gods or men, had offered no overt resistance to their approach and now invited them into Tenochtitlán.
The Spaniards were treated as not entirely welcome guests, and Cortés responded by seizing Montezuma as hostage. At this time Cortés was faced with the arrival of an expedition sent by Governor Velázquez to chastise him. Cortés hastened to the coast to meet the newcomers and, after a surprise attack on them, induced them to join his forces. Upon returning to Tenochtitlán, however, he found the inhabitants in arms and his forces beleaguered in their quarters. Judging the situation to be hopeless, on the night of June 30, 1520, he led his forces from the city to refuge with his Tlascala allies.
In Tlascala, Cortés rebuilt his forces with newly arrived Spaniards and Indian auxiliaries. In May 1521 he began an attack on Tenochtitlán supported by a small navy which had been built in Tlascala, transported to Lake Texcoco, and reassembled. After 75 days of bitter street fighting, on August 13 the city fell to the Spaniards.
Founding of Mexico
Success won legal status for Cortés. On Oct. 15, 1522, Emperor Charles V appointed him governor and captain general of New Spain, the name applied by the Spaniards to the conquered region. It also provided Cortés with an opportunity to display new dimensions of his abilities. He rebuilt Tenochtitlán as the Spanish city of Mexico and dispatched his lieutenants in all directions to subdue other Indian groups. Within a short time most of what is now central and southern Mexico was brought under Spanish rule. Cortés encouraged the introduction of European plants and animals. He vigorously supported the conversion of the native population to Christianity, and his government was marked by consideration for the physical welfare of the Indians.
The great conqueror's days of glory, however, were short. The Emperor was jealous of powerful and popular captains beyond his immediate control and soon began to withdraw or undermine the governmental powers conceded to Cortés. Royal officials were appointed to oversee the treasury of New Spain, royal judges arrived to dispense justice, and in 1526 he was deprived of the governorship. Cortés spent 2 years (1528-1530) in Spain defending himself against his enemies and attempting unsuccessfully to recover his administrative authority. He returned, retaining only the honorific military office of captain general but with the title of marquis of the valley of Oaxaca, which conferred on him a vast estate in southern Mexico.
Cortés remained in Mexico for the next 10 years, managing his estate and undertaking new expeditions which he hoped would recoup his power. His efforts were unsuccessful and in 1540 he returned to Spain, where he lived as a wealthy, honored, but disappointed man until his death in 1547. In compliance with his will, his remains were returned to Mexico, where they repose today in the church of the Hospital of Jesus in Mexico City, an institution which he himself had founded.
Cortés was unquestionably a man of immense abilities. As a conquistador, he displayed an exceptional combination of leadership, audacity, tenacity, diplomacy, and tactical skill. But he was more than a conqueror. He had a vision of a "New Spain" overseas and his statesmanship was instrumental in laying its foundations.
Further Reading on Hernán Cortés
The Letters of Cortés was edited by F. A. MacNutt in three volumes in 1908. The best studies of Cortés are F. A. MacNutt, Fernando Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico (1909); Salvador de Madariaga, Hernán Cortés, Conqueror of Mexico (1942), a fictionalized biography; and H. R. Wagner, The Rise of Fernando Cortés (1944). A useful contemporary account is Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, translated by A. P. Maudslay (5 vols., 1908-1916). The best single work on the conquest of Mexico is still W. H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843; many later editions). See also R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503-1541 (1967).