Hernan Cortes

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Hernán Cortés

Hernán(do) Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca (1485December 2, 1547) was the conquistador who conquered Mexico for Spain. He was known as Hernando or Fernando Cortés during his lifetime and signed all his letters Fernán Cortés.


Early life

Cortés was born in Medellín, in the province of Extremadura, in the Kingdom of Castile in Spain in 1485, the only child of Martín Cortés and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, he was second cousin to Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca empire of modern-day Peru (not to be confused with another Francisco Pizarro who joined Cortés to conquer the Aztecs).

Cortés took classes at Salamanca but bitterly disappointed his parents by returning home in 1501 at age 16, rather than studying law like his grandfather. He had a choice between seeking fame and glory in a war in Italy, or trying his luck in the Spanish colonies of the New World.

Arrival in the New World

Due to setbacks, Cortés did not arrive in the New World until 1506. He took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba and was granted a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his efforts. This was the encomienda that had worked so well in the conquest of the Canaries (eliminating the indigenous Guanches) but would prove devastating in the New World.

Expeditions to Yucatán by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517 and Juan de Grijalva in 1518 had returned to Cuba with small amounts of gold, and tales of a more distant land where gold was said to be abundant. Cortés eagerly sold or mortgaged all his lands to buy ships and supplies and arranged with the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, another distant relative and his father-in-law, to lead an expedition, officially to explore and trade with the rumored new lands to the west. Governor Velázquez forbade him to invade the mainland (a privilege he reserved for himself), but calling upon what law he had studied and his famous powers of persuasion, Cortés tricked Governor Velázquez into inserting a clause about emergency measures that might have to be taken without prior authorization, "in the true interests of the realm." At the last minute, the Governor, sensing that Cortés was too ambitious for his own good, changed his mind. He sent a messenger to Cortés with a letter saying that he was no longer the captain of the expedition, but Cortés' brother-in-law killed the messenger and told him what the letter said. Thus warned, Cortés organized his expedition and set sail on the morning of January 18, 1519, just as Velázquez arrived at the dock in person to remove him.

Cartas de Relacion

It is important to note that Cortes' personal account of the conquest of Mexico is known by his letters to the King of Spain or cartas de relacion. As one specialist describes them, "Cartas de relación have enjoyed an unequaled popularity among students of the Conquest of Mexico. Historians, sociologists, and political scientists use them to glean information about the Aztec empire and the clash between the European and Indian cultures. However, as early as the sixteenth century doubt has been cast on the historicity of these Conquest accounts. It is generally accepted that Cortés does not write a true “history,” but rather combines history with fiction. That is to say, in his narrative Cortés manipulates reality in order to achieve his overarching purpose of gaining the favor of the king. Cortés applies the classical rhetorical figure of evidentia as he crafts a powerful narrative full of “vividness” that moves the reader and creates a heightened sense of realism in his letters." [1] (http://academics.georgiasouthern.edu/international/pages/SECOLAS/CAFryer.htm)

Beginning his campaign

After leaving Cuba with 11 ships, 500 men, and 15 horses, Cortés stopped briefly in the Yucatán, where there was little gold, but the priceless gift of two translators. One of these was the woman whom Cortes called Dona Marina, sometimes called "La Malinche," later made legendary in book and film (even if she was not, as conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in his account "The True History of the Conquest of New Spain," an Aztec princess sold into Mayan slavery). The other was a shipwrecked Spaniard, a priest named Geronimo de Aguilar who had learned a Mayan dialect during seven years of slavery, though he proved less and less useful as it became apparent that Marina was trilingual: she spoke Maya, Nahuatl (the language of the Mexica/Aztecs), and a dialect of Nahautl spoken only to and in front of the Mexica/Aztec emperor.

Cortés landed his party in a location he named La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, now known as Veracruz ("True Cross") on Holy Thursday March 4. By establishing a municipality, he could "reluctantly" proceed to claim land for King Charles V of Spain by popular mandate of the city magistrates he had appointed, all conveniently friends of his.

The local Totonac from Cempoala greeted him with gifts of food, feathers, gold – and women. He learned that the land was ruled by the great lord in the city of Tenochtitlán. Soon ambassadors from the Mexica/Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II arrived with additional gifts, apparently hoping to keep him at a distance by satisfying him with gold. It had the opposite effect. In his letters to Charles V, Cortés claims to have learned at this point that he was suspected of being Quetzalcoatl or an emissary of Quetzalcoatl, a legendary god-king that controlled lightning who was predicted to one day return to reclaim his city in a One-Reed year on the Mexica calendar. (One-Reed was, in this particular 52-year "century," 1519, adding to the extraordinary luck of this conquistador.) However, there is much doubt as to the truth of this legend. While Quetzalcoatl was a mythic god whom the Mexica saw as a tie to the earlier Toltec peoples from whom they claimed descent, there is little evidence supporting a Pre-Hispanic myth alleging his "return." Current scholarship on this topic is complex, and no consensus has been reached. Some argue that this Cortés-Quetzalcoatl connection was a post-colonial retelling by the Mexica to account for the Conquest. Some argue that this was a natural evolution from the Mexica concept of cosmology, in which (it is asserted) time is cyclical; therefore, the Mexica must have believed that events in the past would be repeated in the future (such as Quetzalcoatl's return). (This concept of Mexica cosmology is convincingly argued against by historian Ross Hassig in his book Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico.) Finally, some assert that the myth was a fabrication of the Spanish, used both to assert the inevitability of the outcome of the Conquest and to forge a link between the ancient gods and Christ (to whom Quetzalcoatl was often implicitly compared).

While some of the expedition wanted to get such gold as they could by trade or theft and then return to Cuba, Cortés had seen the results of this sort of plunder and had plans to build a working empire of his own. He ordered all his fleet scuttled (not burned as legend has it), except for one small ship with which to communicate with Spain, effectively stranding the expedition in Mexico and ending all thoughts of loyalty to the Governor of Cuba. Cortés then led his band inland towards the fabled Tenochtitlán.


Cortés arrived at Tlaxcala, a small independent state within the empire's sphere of influence. The Tlaxcaltecas attacked his troops, but Spanish crossbows, broadswords, battle axes, horses, war dogs and firearms quickly won the battle. Cortés said that if the men of Tlaxcala would accept Christianity, become his allies and vassals to his lord, he would forgive their disrespect and overthrow their nemesis, Emperor Moctezuma. Cortés' "lord" was Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to whom he made his case by letters, over the head of Velázquez, who, in turn, was trying to make a case over the head of Diego Colón, son of Christopher Columbus and thus Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Otherwise, Cortés threatened, he would kill everyone in their entire nation. The Tlaxcaltecas agreed; Cortés then continued his march with some 2,000 Tlaxcalteca warriors and perhaps as many more porters. He also purchased cotton armour, seeing how much more effective than chain mail it was against Indian arrows.

After Cortés arrived in Cholula, the second largest city of the Empire, La Malinche relayed a rumor that the locals planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep. Although he did not know if this was true or not, Cortés ordered a pre-emptive strike to serve as a lesson: the Spaniards seized and killed the local nobles, set fire to the city and killed an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 of the inhabitants. Cortés then sent a message ahead to Moctezuma that the lords of Cholula had treated him with disrespect and had to be punished, but if Moctezuma treated him with respect and gifts of gold, the Aztecs need not fear his wrath. Terror was one of his many powerful tools, though much of his military genius can be ascribed to La Malinche, who had her own motives for revenge.

Missing image
Meeting place of Montezuma and Hernan Cortes

On November 8, 1519, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan. At this time it is believed that the city was one of the largest in the world; in Europe, only Constantinople was larger. The most common estimates put the population at around 60,000 to over 300,000 people.

Aztec ruler Moctezuma II, thinking Cortés to be the returning god Quetzalcoatl, welcomed Cortes with great pomp. Meanwhile, other Aztec nobles were in dismay at the royal submissive attitude and planned a successful, but temporary, rebellion which resulted in driving Cortes and his allies out of Tenochtitlan. Popular tales say that he wept under a tree the night of his defeat La Noche Triste. However, Cortes came back and put a naval siege to the city. The siege lasted months. Much of the city was destroyed by smallpox. In fact, a third of the inhabitants of the entire valley died in less than six months by the new disease brought from Europe. Cannons did the rest. Despite the valiant resistance, the city fell on August 13, 1521. Decomposed bodies littered the destroyed city and bloated corpses floated in canals and the lake

The rest of the city was either destroyed, dismantled or buried as Mexico City was built on top of it. Some of the remaining ruins of Tenochtitlan's main temple, the Templo Mayor, were excavated in the 1970's and are now open to visitors. Mexico City's Zócalo is located at the location of Tenochtitlan's original central plaza and market, and many of the original calzadas still correspond to modern streets in the city. Some of the conquistadores had traveled as widely as Venice and Constantinople, and many said that Tenochtitlan was as large and fine a city as any they had seen.

Although many popular histories insist that Cortés was a uniquely brilliant military strategist, the "great man" myth of Cortés drastically overshadows the actual process of conquest. While Cortés can be credited with successfully identifying the complexities of local indigenous politics, especially the animosity felt by many native groups towards the Mexica-Aztec Empire, the use of native allies was hardly a new concept. This tactic was one which Cortés had experienced and adopted from earlier conquests in the Caribbean. Additionally, the use of terror and the capturing of native leaders reappear over and over in Spanish conquest history and were not unique inventions of Cortés. Even his attempt to justify his conquest of the Mexican mainland — a right held by the governor of Cuba — through the founding of Veracruz and an appeal directly to Emperor Charles V had been used by other conquistadors interested in usurping the right of conquest. Ultimately, Cortés and the conquest of Mexico should not be viewed as a brilliant military feat but instead as the successful implementation of multiple conquest strategies derived from almost thirty years of conquest experience in the Caribbean. In addition, as stated above, smallpox turned out to be his greatest ally.

After the fall of the city, Cortes imprisoned the royal families of the valley. Among other important figures, he personally tortured and killed Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec Emperor; Coanacoch the King of Texcoco and Tetlepanquetzal, King of Tlacopan (February 28, 1525). He wanted to get from them the location of the Moctezuma gold treasure and expected to avoid another Aztec rebellion. Bernal Diaz del Castillo tell us that other Spaniards supported him on his brutal decision. The execution eventually had to be carried on by Tlaxcallan soldiers. He married one of the daughters of emperor Moctezuma and gave the other noble women to his men.

Later life

When Cortés returned to New Spain from Honduras, barely alive, he was greeted with joy by a desperate, lawless population. He served a term as Governor-General of "New Spain of the Ocean Sea" (as Juan de Grijalva had named Mexico before Cortés ever saw it), bringing stability and surprising civil rights to the country. He kept his explorations and eventually was the first European to set foot on the lower california. The Sea of Cortes is named after him.

While he was away, the Castilian bureaucrats began to arrive, undoing all his work, and he left his eldest and favorite son, La Malinche's child Martín Cortés, with a relatively large fortune, eventually returning to Europe to fight in Italy with the same son. In return for his efforts in expanding the still young Spanish Empire, Cortés was rewarded by being named the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, a noble title and senorial estate which was passed down to his descendents until 1811. Cortés's states were mismanaged by abusive colonial administrators when he returned to Spain. Cortés sided with local Indians in a lawsuit. The Indians documented the abuses in the Huexotzinco Codex. Cortés was one of the first Spaniards to attempt to grow sugar in Mexico and one of the first to import African slaves to early colonial Mexico. At the time of his death his estate contained at least 200 slaves who were either native Africans or of African descent. Cortés died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville province, on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at age 62. Like Columbus, he died a wealthy but embittered man; he had not become the great Caesar of Charles V's Western Empire. His last battle in 1541 was a Spanish attack on Algiers.

He left his many mestizo and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. It is extremely difficult to characterize this particular conquistador – his unspeakable atrocities, his tactical and strategic awareness, the rewards for his Tlaxcalteca allies along with the rehabilitation of the nobility (including a castle for Moctezuma's heirs in Spain that still stands), his respect for Indians as worthy adversaries and family members. In Mexico today he is condemned as a modern-day damnatio memoriae.

Further reading

Primary sources

  • Hernán Cortés, Letters – available as Letters from Mexico translated by Anthony Pagden (1986) ISBN 0300090943
  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain – available as The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521 ISBN 030681319X
  • The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel Leon-Portilla ISBN 0807055018

Secondary sources

See also

External links


Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Art)
    • Architecture (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Architecture)
    • Cultures (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Cultures)
    • Music (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Music)
    • Musical Instruments (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/List_of_musical_instruments)
  • Biographies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Biographies)
  • Clipart (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Clipart)
  • Geography (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Geography)
    • Countries of the World (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Countries)
    • Maps (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Maps)
    • Flags (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Flags)
    • Continents (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Continents)
  • History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History)
    • Ancient Civilizations (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Ancient_Civilizations)
    • Industrial Revolution (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Industrial_Revolution)
    • Middle Ages (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Middle_Ages)
    • Prehistory (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Prehistory)
    • Renaissance (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Renaissance)
    • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
    • United States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/United_States)
    • Wars (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Wars)
    • World History (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/History_of_the_world)
  • Human Body (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Human_Body)
  • Mathematics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Mathematics)
  • Reference (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Reference)
  • Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Science)
    • Animals (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Animals)
    • Aviation (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Aviation)
    • Dinosaurs (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Dinosaurs)
    • Earth (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Earth)
    • Inventions (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Inventions)
    • Physical Science (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Physical_Science)
    • Plants (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Plants)
    • Scientists (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Scientists)
  • Social Studies (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Social_Studies)
    • Anthropology (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Anthropology)
    • Economics (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Economics)
    • Government (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Government)
    • Religion (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Religion)
    • Holidays (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Holidays)
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Solar_System)
    • Planets (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Planets)
  • Sports (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Sports)
  • Timelines (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Timelines)
  • Weather (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Weather)
  • US States (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/US_States)


  • Home Page (http://academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php)
  • Contact Us (http://www.academickids.com/encyclopedia/index.php/Contactus)

  • Clip Art (http://classroomclipart.com)
Personal tools