Hernando Cortez was most famous for his conquests and explorations in the area today known as Mexico. Cortez was a handsome and charismatic man with strong ambitions all of which aided him in his lust for gold and glory.
Cortez was born in the southwestern Spanish town of Medellín in 1488. His family was of minor nobility in Spain so Cortez was an independently wealthy man. In 1499, when Cortez was 14, he went to school at the University of Salamanca and was on track to enjoy a prosperous yet unremarkable life as a lawyer. But Cortez was not suited for a conventional life in Spain and he soon left the comfortable confines of law school to pursue adventure in the newly conquered island of Hispaniola.
Cortez found the army in the new world much to his liking and he quickly rose through the ranks. In 1511, Diego Velasquez led a group of 300 Spanish soldiers to conquer the island of Cuba. Cortez was among them and did so well that he was appointed “Mayor-Judge” of the new colony of Santiago de Cuba.
This success fueled Cortez’s ambition. When Mexico was discovered in 1518 by Juan de Grijavlva, Cortez immediately proposed an exploratory expedition. Velasquez turned him down; however, as he feared Cortez would pursue personal gain instead of the mission. This conflict began a bitter rivalry between Cortez and his superior officer which would flare up in the future.
A year later, Cortez finally amassed the resources needed and set sail for Mexico. With a force of five hundred and fifty Spaniards, nearly three hundred Indians, thirteen horses and ten brass cannon, he hoped to find as much treasure as he could and take it by force. On March 4, 1519, the flotilla of ten ships landed on the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Cortez moved west along the coast until he made his more permanent landing where he founded the city of Vera Cruz. Along the way, Cortez acquired a native slave girl and quickly made her into his mistress and closest advisor. Cortez baptized her with the name Donna Marina(she is often referred to as “la Malinche”). It has been proposed by many historians that Cortez’s conquests could not have been carried out without Marina’s help.
Soon, word reached Cortez of a wealthy empire in the interior of Mexico, the Aztecs. With the promise of gold, Cortez struck out in search of the Aztec Empire. To prevent any thoughts of retreat, and to make sure Velasquez didn’t catch wind of his plans, Cortez burned his ships.
Cortez’s incursion could not have come at a better time for him as his arrival in Mexico coincided with an Aztec prophesy. Aztec mythology called for the return of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl, the creator of humanity. Cortez’s weapons were absolutely terrifying to the Aztecs. So too were his horses, as no native of Mexico had ever seen a horse before. Because of these impressive and terrifying assets, Cortez was able to unwittingly convince the Aztecs that he was indeed the mighty god, Quetzalcoatl.
On August the 16th, 1519, the march on the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, began. The trip was perilous and crossed several mountains, and Cortez had to use his ruthless leadership skills to fend off numerous native attacks. The Tlaxcalans and the Cholulans tried their hand at fighting Cortez, but they suffered massive losses. If they couldn’t beat Cortez they decided to do the next best thing and join him in taking on the Aztecs. The minor Indian tribes of Mexico despised the harsh rule of the Aztecs who dominated the entire region. Cortez’s band finally reached the magnificent city on November 18, 1519. The Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, gave Cortez an elaborate welcome at the gate. Cortez was awed by the untold riches of Tenochtitlán. The city, which is modern day Mexico City, was located on an island in the middle of an enormous lake. It had wide avenues and massive step-pyramid temples to the various bloodthirsty Aztec gods. Most importantly for Cortez, it was filled with gold.
Because of Cortez’s masquerade and ruthless reputation amongst the Indian tribes of the area, the Spaniards were grudgingly treated very well. Montezuma showered them with gifts and lavish quarters. Even with all the hospitality shown, tensions were very high between the Spaniards and Aztecs. Before long, news reached Cortez that a band of Aztecs had raided his settlement at Vera Cruz. In retaliation, Cortez took Montezuma and several other Aztec noblemen prisoner. Cortez tried to rule the Aztecs through Montezuma to grab as much wealth as possible.
At this time, Cortez also received word that his old boss Velasquez had sent an expedition to put a stop to Cortez’s self serving mission. To counter this, Cortez went out to challenge the 1,400 man force led by Pánfilo de Narváez. Cortez defeated this force and convinced them to join his pursuit of wealth. Pánfilo was imprisoned.
Upon his return to Tenochtitlán, Cortez found the situation near the boiling point. The man he had left in command, Pedro de Alvarado, had angered the Aztec hosts through his cruelty. On June 30, 1520, the Aztecs opened hostilities and cut off any escape routes from the city. In an attempt to pacify the Aztecs, Cortez forced Montezuma to go before his people and tell them to stand down. The people would not listen, however, and Montezuma was met with rocks and arrows. Some accounts say that Montezuma died from the wounds he sustained from the stoning. Other accounts say that he was killed by the Spaniards since the once mighty emperor was no longer of any use to Cortez. Either way, the Spanish found themselves cut off in the middle of a hostile city with provisions running dangerously low. Cortez attempted a night break out but the Aztecs discovered them and an extremely bloody battle ensued. As many as 600 conquistadors were killed as many were weighed down with the gold loot they had stolen. Several thousand Indian warriors also died. The night was so terrible that it is known as the night of tears or “noche triste.”
After his retreat back to the coast, Cortez immediately regained control of his men and his native allies. Through charisma and intimidation, Cortez was able to rally his troops and the following year they marched back to Tenochtitlán and laid siege to it. This time around the Aztecs were not as strong as the Spanish had left a deadly surprise when they left: small pox. The plague ravaged Aztecs were no match for Cortez’s well trained and well armed conquistadors, as well as his thousands of native allies. Cortez used prefabricated boats to land on the south shore of the island and fought his way street by street. Finally, the new Aztec leader, Cuautemoc, surrendered his forces to Cortez. The Spaniards promptly began looting the city for any gold they could find. Cortez’s Indian allies also ran amok, taking brutal revenge for the years of harsh Aztec rule.
With the Aztecs vanquished, Cortez continued on several more exploratory expeditions from northern Mexico to Central America. Despite his great successes, Cortez had made some powerful enemies with his brash and insubordinate tendencies. These enemies made it so that Cortez would never gain any political power within the framework of the Spanish Empire. Rich yet neglected, Cortez died quietly near Seville on December 2, 1547.
Hernando Cortez remains a highly controversial person to this day. Many point to his fearsome cruelty and endless greed as marks of his evil character. What is truly telling, however, is that there is no monument to Hernando Cortez anywhere in Mexico.