Hernando Cortez



Cortez is one of the great villains of revisionist history, frequently presented as the archetype of the grasping, blood-thirsty, Spanish Conquistador. Most of the original biographies of him, however, portray him as a courageous, noble, and charismatic leader and a brilliant military strategist. He was all of this and more. There is less conflict between these dramatic portrayals than meets the eye—both, after all, are dramatic—and Cortez was a striking character. There is nothing unusual about a remarkable protagonist being considered a champion by some and a malefactor by others—it is the nature of heroism.

Cortez arrived in Hispaniola in 1504 and assumed work as a notary. Two years later he took part in the conquest of Cuba and for much of the following decade attached himself to Velasquez, the governor of the newly conquered island. Cortez was granted an encomienda, but he distinguished himself primarily as a clerk, secretary, and provisioner. His close associate with Velasquez gave him power and influence, and his natural abilities as an organizer made him an invaluable assistant.

In 1518 Cortez was given charge of a major expedition to the mainland. He was exceedingly well connected and Velasquez was so astonished at his rapid success in raising men and ships, that he attempted to revoke his charter. Velasquez feared he would lose control and credit for the expedition, but Cortez got wind of the matter and launched immediately. From the beginning, therefore, the expedition of Cortez was a desperate, independent, and arguably mutinous venture. When he famously burned his ships upon arrival on the mainland, Cortez already knew that his only hope for credit instead of censure was brilliant success.

Cortez embarked with over 500 men and 11 ships. His first stop was the Yucatan Peninsula where he picked up a Spaniard who had been living with the Indians for many years to serve as a translator, and heard stories of the Aztec's gold. He then sailed for Veracruz, where after a short battle with the Tabascos, he was awarded 20 women. One of these women, call Dona Marina by the Spanish, spoke the Aztec language, and would become an invaluable translator, advisor, and companion to Cortez. It was at this point that Cortez built a fort and burned his ships. With 400 of his 500 soldiers he set forth to conquer the Aztec Empire of over a million warriors.

Cortez was told that there were two tribes that lay between he and the Aztecs. The peaceful Cholulans and the war-like and incorrigible Tlaxcalans. He knew it would be fatal to leave enemies behind him so he approached the Tlaxcalans first. They were enemies of the Aztecs, but they would have nothing to do with the Spaniards, and prepared for war. They Tlaxcalans tried ambush, fought ferociously, and refused the Spaniards entreaties for peace until they were thoroughly beaten. At that point, they submitted, and became the Spaniards' most loyal and valuable allies. Cortez now approached Cholulan territory. They made peace offerings to the Spaniards, but on later reports that the Cholulans planned to destroy them by treachery, Cortez ordered a massacre of the entire population. These incidents epitomize a great deal of Cortez's character. He admired and rewarded courage and forth-rightness, but abhorred cowardice and treachery. He could be magnanimous or utterly merciless.

By the time Cortez arrived an Tenochtitlan, his reputation preceded him. Within a month Cortez had Montezuma in his power, but did not use any violence against the Aztecs. Cortez hoped to conquer the Aztecs peacefully by conversion of the natives, and coercion of the ruling class. After three months of patient negotiation, however, Cortez's enemy Velasquez sent a large army to overcome and arrest him. As soon as Cortez heard this he took half of his forces to the coast. Cortez struck by night, completely defeated the new arrivals, and to add insult to injury, talked the greater part of Velasquez's men into joining him in the march back to Tenochtitlan. In the month that Cortez was gone, however, the Spaniards had committed a massacre against the Aztecs, and the whole city was in arms on his arrival. Cortez tried to maintain calm, but to no avail. The Spanish army had to sneak out of Tenochtitlan under the cover of night, but they were discovered, and a desperate battle ensued. The Spaniards were surrounded and outnumbered dozens to one. A third of their number were killed and many more injured. This was the famous La Noche Triste.

During the following weeks Cortez turned a thorough disaster into victory by sheer force of will. The Spaniards were exhausted from their long retreat and the Aztecs were in hot pursuit. They met again in open battle, outnumbered 20 to 1, but Cortez and his men fought with such ferocious vigor, throwing themselves into the heart of the Aztec army, they caused a broad panic. In spite of the heavy losses of La Noche Triste, this victory restored the Spaniard's aura of invincibility. They retreated to the Tlaxcalan camp and began negotiating with other tribes to join their cause against the Aztecs. Of great importance was their alliance with an exiled Aztec prince who agreed to fight on the side of the Spaniards.

After months of preparation, Cortez descended on the city, this time with thousands of Indian allies. The Aztecs were widely hated by the conquered tribes, and once they believed the Spaniard could prevail against their enemies, they flocked to join Cortez. Cortez made great efforts to negotiate a peaceful surrender and preserve the city, but the Aztec were determined to fight to the death. The city was so well fortified that the Spaniards needed to destroy it brick, by brick. Only after suffering unbearable hardships, and the complete destruction of their city, did the Aztecs submit.

After his terrific victory, Cortez did his best to justify his actions to the Spanish crown. He was awarded wealth and some honors, but denied the governorship of the new province. Cortez had powerful enemies among the West Indian governors so he never gained the official recognition or political power he believed was his due. This was possibly unfortunate for the natives because Cortez sincerely valued his Indian allies, and sought to protect them, where as the Spanish governors were anxious to enslave as many of them as possible. Cortez used what influence he had to try to safeguard the natives who had served him. He had several Indian wives whom he treated considerably better than his first Spanish wife, and he recognized and provided for all of his Indian children.

Key events during the life of Hernando Cortez:

Born in Castile to a family of low ranking aristocrats.
Arrived in Hispaniola. Worked as a Notary.
Took part in the conquest of Cuba. Received an estate of land and Indians.
Accompanied Velasquez, the newly appointed governor of Cuba.
Became secretary to Velasquez in Cuba.
Cortez given command of an expedition to the Yucatan.
Velasquez revoked the Charter of Cortez, but he left anyway.
March: Fought the natives at Tabasco and received twenty women, including Marina.
July: Stationed himself at Veracruz, burned ships to prevent retreat.
Sept: Defeated Tlaxcalan warriors and made them allies.
Oct: Massacred Cholulan, thought to be planning treachery against Spaniards.
Nov: Arrived at Tenochtitlan. Audience with Montezuma.
Montezuma imprisoned by the Spaniards within the city of Tenochtitlan.
May: Cortez defeats Navarez. Incorporates his army.
June: La Noche Triste, retreat of Spaniards from Tenochtitlan.
July: Battle of Otumba, Spaniard defeat Atzecs in open battle.
May: Beginning of the siege of Tenochtitlan.
August: Fall of Tenochtitlan.
Led an expedition to Honduras.
Returned to Spain to appeal to Charles V.
Returned to Mexico.
Returned to Spain to make a claim on the Royal Treasury.
Died in Spain.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Hernando Cortez  in  A Child's History of Spain  by  John Bonner
Spaniards Conquer Mexico  in  America First—100 Stories from Our History  by  Lawton B. Evans
Beautiful City of the Floating Islands  in  The Men Who Found America  by  Frederick Winthrop Hutchinson
Cortes Conquers the Aztec Empire  in  The Story of Mexico  by  Charles Morris
Early Days of a Famous Cavalier  in  Historical Tales: Spanish American  by  Charles Morris
Famous Retreat of Cortez  in  Historical Tales: Spanish American  by  Charles Morris
The Conquest of Mexico  in  A Short History of Mexico  by  Arthur Howard Noll
Voyage of Hernando Cortez  in  Young Folks' History of Mexico  by  Frederick A. Ober
Montezuma  in  Brave Men and Brave Deeds  by  M. B. Synge
Finding of Mexico  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
Cortes Explores and Conquers Mexico  in  A Book of Discovery  by  M. B. Synge

Book Links
Mexico  by  M. D. Kelly
Hernando Cortes  by  Frederick Ober
Boys' Prescott  by  Helen Ward Banks

Image Links

Cortez in Battle
 in Famous Men of Modern Times
Hernando cortes
Hernando cortes
 in Back Matter

The kind King Montezuma wanted peace, and said that he would give the Spaniards more gold if they would only go back to their own country.
 in The Men Who Found America

Portrait of Cortes
 in Mexico

He fought boldly in the front rank
 in Mexico

The whole army knelt in the mud and confessed their sins
 in Mexico

'There is our mark! Follow and support me!'
 in Mexico

Cortes and his men at the gap
 in Mexico

You will deal with me, Malintzin, as you list.'
 in Mexico

They knelt on the rocky track
 in Stories from the Crusades

Cortes and his men on the hills overlooking the Mexican capital
 in The Story of Mexico

Hernando Cortes
 in The Story of Mexico

Cortes at the Battle of Otumba
 in The Story of Mexico

 in Young Folks' History of Mexico

Meeting of Cortez and Montezuma
 in Young Folks' History of Mexico

Hernando CortÚs
 in Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico

Hernando Cortez
 in Builders of Our Country: Book I

Montezuma's Appeal
 in Brave Men and Brave Deeds

Hernando Cortes, conqueror of Mexico
 in A Book of Discovery

Short Biography
Dona Marina Indian slave woman who acted as consort, advisor, and translator for Cortez during his conquest of Mexico.
Montezuma Ruler of the Aztec empire at the time of the Spanish conquest. Captured by the Spanish and killed during revolt.
Diego Velasquez Conquered Cuba for Spain, and was its first governor. First a supporter, then a rival of Cortez.
Alvarado Chief lieutenant and second in Command to Cortez during the conquest of Mexico.
Bernal Diaz Conquistador who accompanied Cortez on the conquest of Mexico, and wrote an account of the incidents.
Antonio Mendoza First Viceroy of Mexico,
Ixtlil of Tezcuco Nephew of Montezuma who made an alliance with Cortez, and ruled as the last king of the Aztec.
Charles V 16th century Hapsburg Emperor who ruled Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and parts of Italy.