Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Hernando Cortes Before His Chance Came


Seven years before Columbus discovered America, there was born to Martin and Catelina Cortes, in the town of Medellin, in the south of Spain, a little son named Hernando, who was to grow up into a remarkable man. He was born on the same day as Luther, and someone has remarked that Hernando Cortes did as much to maintain the Catholic faith as Martin Luther did to destroy it.

Spain in this end of the fifteenth century was under the rule of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, whose marriage in 1479 had united these two kingdoms into one Spain, from which they determined to drive out the Moors who had held Grenada for many years. They were busy with this work when Hernando Cortes was born and were still at it when Columbus applied to Spain for help in discovering the New World.

Martin Cortes was a Captain of Infantry. He and his wife, Catelina, though not very rich were very much respected. The little Hernando was not strong at first but his mind was quick and ready for adventure. We may imagine the little lad listening with eager eyes and fast-beating heart to the stories about the brave Columbus whom the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, had sent across the unknown seas to discover a new world.

When Hernando was fourteen he was sent to Salamanca to study. His father, seeing his cleverness, thought to make a lawyer of him. But the boy, who was to grow into a man of wonderful intelligence and power in action, did not show any great love for books. He idled through two years of college and then went home again, much to the disappointment of his parents. All that he carried back of learning was a little Latin and the capability of writing good prose and poor verse.

The next year he spent at home, enjoying life more than did those with whom he lived, for he was most ingenious in inventing mischief. The very spirit of adventure which carried him to such heights as a man was, in a self-willed, undisciplined boy, a constant source of trouble to the quiet, well-ordered household of the Cortes family.

At seventeen Hernando decided he would follow his father's profession and enter the army. His parents, tired of his idle life, consented to his enlisting under the Great Captain, Gonsalvo de Cordova, who had made himself famous in the war against the Moors.

Medellin, however, was near the southern seaports of Spain which had sent off many explorers, and their influence was very alluring. After Hernando had obtained permission to be a soldier, he decided that he would rather try his fortune in the New World which seemed to promise certain glory to any man brave enough to adventure its perils. He made ready to sail in a splendid armament fitting out at that time, but at the last moment, in climbing a high wall one night during one of his foolish escapades, he loosened a stone which fell on him and bruised him so severely that he was in bed at the time the fleet sailed.

Two years more he stayed at home doing no better than before until, when he was nineteen, another squadron of vessels sailed from Spain to the West Indies. This time Hernando Cortes sailed with it. It was 1504 and Isabella, the good queen, died this same year.

The commander of the vessel on which Cortes sailed was Alonso Quintero, a man without much notion of loyalty or honor. When the little fleet touched at the Canary Islands to take in supplies, Quintero got what he wanted as quickly as possible and then sailed out of harbor thinking to steal a march on the other vessels and reach Hispaniola first, that he might sell his goods without the competition of his companions. He did not accomplish much, however, for he ran into a storm that dismasted his ships and sent him back to the Canaries to refit. The squadron were generous enough to wait until Quintero was sea-worthy and they made the voyage together.

Quintero was scarcely worthy of their kindness. As they came finally near their journey's end, Quintero one dark night again ran away from the rest of the fleet, still meaning to get to Hispaniola ahead of the others. Again he met storms and head winds which drove him completely from his course and he lost his reckoning. For many days the boat was knocked about on an unknown sea until all the crew grew rather frightened and very indignant at their captain. At last one morning a white dove lighted on their topmast and brought them fresh courage for they knew land was not far away. Some of the men who later wrote Cortes' life thought the dove was sent as a special miracle to save Cortes from destruction. However that may be, the bird flew and the ship followed until it reached the island of Hispaniola, where Quintero received what he deserved in finding that all the rest of the squadron had arrived long before him and made their market while he was tossing on the seas.

The Governor of Hispaniola was named Ovando. Cortes had known him in Spain and went directly to him on landing. Ovando was away, but his secretary welcomed Cortes and told him he was sure to receive a liberal grant of land as an estate to settle on.

This promise did not greatly please Cortes.

"I came to get gold," he said in disgust, "not to till the soil like a peasant."

However, when the Governor returned and convinced Cortes that more gold was to be got by farming than by foraging, Cortes accepted the estate which Ovando bestowed on him, with a number of Indians as slaves, and settled down to country life.

This distribution of Indians among the Spaniards as slaves had been forbidden by Queen Isabella but it was still carried on. A commission of Friars sent to St. Domingo to inquire into the treatment of Indians justified the use of natives as slaves on the ground that the Indians would not work unless forced to, and that unless they came into contact with the whites by work, they could not be converted to Christianity. The commission tried to protect the slaves by just laws, but they were really at the mercy of their masters.

Cortes settled down on his estate and was appointed notary of the town of Aqua. Although he was a magistrate, he did not outgrow all at once his wild ways which took him into trouble more than once.

He had a taste of Indian warfare also in expeditions under Diego Velasquez, Ovando's lieutenant, who was sent to suppress several Indian insurrections. It gave Cortes a chance to study Indian tactics and to understand the toils and hardships of Indian warfare.

At length in 1511 Velasquez was sent from Hispaniola to take possession of Cuba. Velasquez was of noble birth and had had a good deal of experience in war. He is described as being "covetous of glory and somewhat more covetous of wealth." Those traits are apt to make a man suspicious and jealous, and Cortes in later years found Velasquez to be both. For the time, however, Cortes stood high in Velasquez's favor.

The natives of Cuba were as mild as the Indians of Hispaniola and were easily conquered. Only one chief resisted. When he was finally defeated and taken, Velasquez ordered him to be burned alive. The Spaniards urged him to become a Christian that he might at his death go to heaven. But the chief answered that he had no wish to go to a white man's heaven and meet again beings capable of such cruelty.

Cortes through all this campaign showed that however idle his life might so far have been he had the qualities of a pioneer soldier of fortune—always active, brave and gay, and a great favorite with his companions. His deeper qualities were still hidden but they were there under his gay outside ready to show when hard deeds called for them.

After Cuba was conquered, St. Jago in the southeast corner became its capital. Velasquez was made Governor of the island and Cortes was appointed one of his secretaries. By generous grants of land, Velasquez encouraged men to settle on the island, to cultivate the soil and to raise sugar-cane. He also worked the gold mines.

Cortes settled down on the large estate in Cuba which Velasquez gave him. He soon fell in love with a Spanish girl in the neighborhood, Catalina Xivarez, and was much annoyed when Velasquez disapproved of the affair. This brought about a quarrel between him and Velasquez. Cortes, joining the party of those who were fretting against Velasquez's rule, opened his house as their meeting place.

After a good deal of grumbling, these discontented ones determined to take their grievances to those higher authorities in Hispaniola who had given Velasquez his commission as Governor. As the voyage from Cuba to Hispaniola must be made in an open boat across a wide arm of the sea, they chose the boldest of their number for the errand. Cortes, who did not know the meaning of fear, agreed to go.

But in the meantime the matter had come to the ears of the Governor. He seized Cortes at once and put him in irons. The colonial governors had almost unlimited authority in those days as they were so far from home that they could either cover up their deeds or offer so big a bribe to their king that he was content to pass over their high-handed doings.

Velasquez would have hanged Cortes if he had not been afraid of Cortes' friends. Cortes did not stay long in prison. By his own ingenuity he unlocked the fetters on his legs, and with the irons themselves broke open the window of his jail. As he was up only one story he easily dropped to the street without being seen and ran to the nearest church to claim privilege of sanctuary.

The Governor, though angry that his prisoner had escaped, respected the holiness of the church and did not arrest Cortes while he was in it. But he had a guard ready close by, and one day Cortes grew impatient at doing nothing and stepped out a few paces from his place of protection. He was standing carelessly in front of the church when one of the guard sprang on him from behind and held his arms while the others bound him.

This time Velasquez determined to send Cortes at once to Hispaniola to be tried. His feet again fettered, he was carried on board a vessel which was lying in harbor ready to sail the next morning to Hispaniola. But Cortes did not mean to go. Little by little, with tremendous patience, not minding the pain it caused, he worked his feet free of the irons. He reached deck without being observed—perhaps his guards were not very anxious to see—and dropped over the vessel's side into a yawl-boat that floated underneath. Then very quietly he rowed away to shore. As he drew near the bank the waves ran so high that, afraid to trust his boat among them, he leaped into the water and swam the rest of the distance. It was a hard fight but Cortes was strong and a good swimmer and reached land in safety. Tired as he was after his effort, he did not stop to rest but went at once to the same church which had sheltered him before.

Some of the men who have written Cortes' life say that one night, tired of inactivity, Cortes went directly to the camp where Velasquez was at that time stationed and, completely armed, forced himself into Velasquez' presence. The Governor, though rather startled at seeing his enemy in arms before him, listened to what Cortes had to say. They had a hot dispute over his treatment of Cortes but the quarrel, according to the storyteller, ended in such perfect friendship that when one of the guard came to tell Velasquez that his prisoner had again escaped from the church, he found Governor and prisoner asleep in one bed. More creditable history, however, has it that by the help of Catalina Xivarez' family, Cortes married the girl and finally became reconciled to the Governor.

Though Cortes was not put back into his position of secretary, he received a large estate in the neighborhood of St. Jago. For the next few years he remained with his wife on his land and gave all his energy to farming, stocking his plantation with different kinds of cattle, some of them brought by him into Cuba for the first time. He worked his gold mines, too, with such success that he grew rich. More saving than he had been in the old days, he did not spend all he made but gathered together little by little quite a fortune. Perhaps he was already planning what he would do with it; but whether he was or not, it was ready, and when his great chance came he did not have to refuse it because he was too poor to take advantage of it.

For there was coming now to Cortes the chance that would make him a great man.