Hernán Cortés

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Historical figures

Hernán(do) Cortés
Hernán Cortés in a contemporary rendition
Born 1485
Medellín, Extremadura, Spain
Died December 2, 1547
Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville Spain
Occupation Mayor of Baracoa Cuba, Conquistador, Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca

Hernán(do) Cortés, Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca ( 1485– December 2, 1547) was the conquistador who became famous for leading the military expedition that initiated the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. Cortés was part of the generation of European colonizers that began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Cortés was known as Hernando or Fernando Cortés during his lifetime and signed all his letters Fernán Cortés.

Born in Medellin, Extremadura, in Castile, to a family of lesser nobility, Cortés as a young man chose to win a livelihood in the New World. He went to Hispaniola and later to Cuba, where he received an encomienda and for a period became mayor of a small town. In 1519 he was elected captain of the third expedition to the mainland, an expedition which he partly funded. His enmity with the governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez resulted in the latter calling back the expedition in the last moment, an order which was ignored by Cortés in an act of disobedience. Arriving on the continent Cortés executed a successful strategy of allying with some indigenous peoples against others. He also successfully used a native woman, Doña Marina, as interpreter and later she became mother of a son to Cortés. When the Governor of Cuba sent emissaries to arrest Cortés he fought them and won and used the extra troops as reinforcements. Instead he wrote letters directly to the king asking to be acknowledged for his successes instead of punished for mutiny. When the Aztec empire was overthrown Cortés was awarded the title of Marques del Valle de Oaxaca, while the more prestigious titles of Viceroy was given to relatives of the king. Cortés returned to Spain where he died peacefully but embittered.

Due to the controversial undertakings of Cortés and the scarcity of reliable sources of information about him it has become difficult to assert anything definitive about his personality and motivations. Early heroification of the conquistadors did not encourage deep examination of Cortés. Later reconsideration of the conquistadors' character in the context of modern anti-colonial sentiment and greatly expanded concern for human rights, as typified by the Black Legend, also did little to expand our understanding of Cortés as an individual. As a result of these historical trends, descriptions of Cortés tend to be simplistic, and either black or rosy coloured.

Early life

Cortés was born in Medellín, in the province of Extremadura, in the Kingdom of Castile in Spain in 1485. His father, Martín Cortés de Monroy, was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but slender means. His mother was Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, Hernan 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).

Hernan Cortés is described as a sickly child by his biographer, chaplain, and friend Francisco López de Gómara. At the age of fourteen, Cortés was sent to study at the University of Salamanca. This was the great centre of learning of the country and while accounts vary as to the nature of Cortés' studies, his later writings and actions suggest he studied Law and probably Latin.

After two years, Cortés, tired of schooling, returned home to Medellín, much to the annoyance of his parents, who had hoped to see him equipped for a profitable legal career. However, those two years at Salamanca, plus his long period of training and experience as a notary, first in Seville and later in Hispaniola, would give him a close acquaintance with the legal codes of Castile that was to stand him in good stead in justifying his unauthorized conquest of Mexico.

At this point in his life, Cortés was described by Gómara as restless, haughty, and mischievous. This was probably a fair description of a sixteen-year-old boy who had returned home only to find himself frustrated by life in his small provincial town.

By this time, news of the exciting discoveries of Columbus in the New World was streaming back to Spain. Cortés and his family must have been well aware of the potential it might hold for a young adventurous man.

Spanish colonization of the Americas
History of the conquest

Inter caetera


Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado
Hernán Cortés
Juan Ponce de León
Francisco de Montejo
Francisco Pizarro
Diego de Almagro
Hernando de Soto
Sebastián de Belalcázar
Pedro de Valdivia

Preparing to depart for the New World

Plans were made in 1502 for Cortes to sail to the Americas with a family acquaintance, Nicolas de Ovando, the newly appointed governor of Hispaniola, but an injury sustained while hurriedly escaping from the bedroom of a married woman of Medellín prevented him from making the journey. Instead, he spent the next year wandering the country, probably spending most of his time in the heady atmosphere of Spain's southern ports, listening to the tales of those returning from the Indies, who told of discovery and conquest, gold, Indians and strange unknown lands.

Arrival in the New World

Cortés did not arrive in the New World until 1503. He finally succeeded in reaching Hispaniola in a ship commanded by Alonso Quintero, who tried to deceive his superiors and reach the New World before them in order to secure personal advantages. Quintero's mutinous conduct may have served as a model for Cortés in his subsequent career. The history of the conquistadors is rife with accounts of rivalry, jockeying for position, mutiny, and betrayal.

In 1503 at the age of eighteen, Cortés sailed in a convoy of merchant ships bound for Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola. Upon his arrival, he registered as a citizen, which entitled him to a building plot and land for cultivation. Soon afterwards, Ovando, still the governor, gave him a repartimiento of Indians and made him a notary of the town of Azuza. His next five years seem to have served to establish him in the colony, though he managed to contract syphilis from Indian women in the area, a disease which until that time had been unknown in the Old World but which wrought great havoc after its introduction there. In 1506 he took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba and got a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his effort.

Cortés in Cuba

In 1511, he accompanied Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, an aide of the governor of Hispaniola, in his expedition to conquer Cuba. At the age of 26, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer with the responsiblity of insuring that the Crown received the quinto, or customary one-fifth of the profits from the expedition.

The governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, was so impressed with Cortés that he secured a high political position for him in the colony. Cortés continued to build a reputation as a daring and bold leader. He became secretary for Governor Velázquez. Cortes was appointed mayor ( alcalde) of Santiago. In Cuba, Cortés became a man of substance with a repartimiento of Indians, mines and cattle. In 1514, Cortés led a group that wanted more natives for the settlers.

As time went on, relations between Cortés and governor Velázquez became, to put it mildly, strained. The governor twice jailed the young cavalier although each time Cortés managed to escape.

Cortés also found time to become romantically involved with Catalina Xuárez (or Juárez), the sister-in-law of Governor Velázquez. Part of Velázquez' displeasure seems to have been based on a belief that Cortés was trifling with Catalina's affections. Cortés was temporarily distracted by one of Catalina's sisters but finally married Catalina reluctantly under pressure from Governor Velázquez. However, by doing so, he hoped to secure the good will of both her family and that of Velázquez.

Looking Beyond Cuba

It was not until he had been almost 15 years in the Indies, that Cortés began to look beyond his substantial status as mayor of the capital of Cuba and as a man of affairs in the thriving colony.

The invasion of Mexico

The Aztec world
Aztec society

Nahuatl language
Aztec philosophy
Aztec calendar
Aztec religion
Aztec mythology
Aztec entheogenic complex
Human sacrifice in Aztec culture

Aztec history

Aztec army
Aztec codices
Aztec Triple Alliance
Spanish conquest of Mexico
Siege of Tenochtitlan
La Noche Triste
Hernán Cortés

Hueyi Tlatoani

Tenoch ( 1325– 1376)
Acamapichtli ( 1376– 1395)
Huitzilíhuitl ( 1395– 1417)
Chimalpopoca ( 1417– 1427)
Itzcóatl ( 1427– 1440)
Moctezuma I ( 1440– 1469)
Axayacatl ( 1469– 1481)
Tízoc ( 1481– 1486)
Auítzotl ( 1486– 1502)
Moctezuma II ( 1502– 1520)
Cuitláhuac ( 1520)
Cuauhtémoc ( 1520– 1521)

The most notable achievement of Cortés career was the invasion of Mexico and conquest of the Aztec empire. In 1518 Velázquez put him in charge of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, Velázquez changed his mind and tried to revoke his order to prevent the brash Cortés from stealing all the glory that might come from the expedition.

The decisive battle in this campaign was the siege of Tenochtitlan. Cortés' victory over the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan enabled the eventual Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Cortés married one of the daughters of Emperor Montezuma II and gave the other noble women to his men.

In an incident that would become a mark of infamy, Cortés literally put Cuauhtémoc's feet to the fire to force him to reveal where the remaining Aztec gold was hidden. This cruelty was futile, however, because the greater part of the Mexican treasures had already passed into the hands of the Spaniards. Some of this treasure was lost during the panicked escape from Tenochtitlan during La Noche Triste.

Appointment to governorship of Mexico

Because of his conquests and all the gold and jewels he had collected, Cortés was very popular back home in Spain. King Charles I of Spain, who had become Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519, appointed Cortés governor and captain general of the newly conquered territory. Cortés received the title Marques del Valle de Oaxaca (Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley) in 1528.

Cortés 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.

Cortés initiates the construction of Mexico City

Cortés began the construction of Mexico City on the Aztec ruins and brought many Spaniards over to live there. It soon became the most important European city in North America. He managed the founding of new cities and appointed men to extend Spanish rule to all of Mexico or New Spain. Cortés also supported efforts to convert the indigenous people to Christianity and sponsored new explorations.

Cortés the farmer

Cortés spent the next seven years establishing peace among the Indians of Mexico and developing mines and farmlands.

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's wife dies under suspicious circumstances

His wife Catalina eventually joined him in Mexico City but it was not a happy reunion. After all, his infidelities with both native and European women were well-known to her. One night in his palace she complained about her Indian servants but Cortés cut her off with the shout, "Your Indians? They are not under any circumstance your Indians but mine." Shortly afterward she was found dead, having "fallen" from her bedroom window. She might have been murdered or committed suicide.

Death of Cuauhtémoc

The execution of Cuauhtémoc on the journey to Honduras was another instance of the misconception by Cortés of aboriginal conditions. It is not at all unlikely that the Mexican chieftain was party to a plan to exterminate the Spaniards while they were floundering through the forests and swamps. Cortés had Cuauhtémoc hanged over the strong objections of his men. Another account by Bernal Diaz del Castillo tells us that other Spaniards supported him on his decision to execute Cuauhtémoc. The execution eventually had to be carried out by Tlaxcallan soldiers.

Sworn testimony at Cortés' many subsequent trials (for murdering his legal wife, etc.) has abundant testimony from friends and enemies alike that this crime ruined Cortés. He never forgave himself and seems to have gone somewhat mad. In the end he was said to have remarked, "I didn't want it this way."

Deteriorating relations with the Spanish government

Many historical sources have conveyed an impression that Cortés was unjustly treated by the Spanish Crown, and that he received nothing but ingratitude for his role in establishing New Spain. This picture is the one Cortés presents in his letters and in the later biography written by Gomara. However, there may be more to the picture than this. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Cortés' own greed and vanity may have played a part in his deteriorating position with the King

"Cortés personally was not ungenerously rewarded, but he speedily complained of insufficient compensation to himself and his comrades. Thinking himself beyond reach of restraint, he disobeyed many of the orders of the Crown, and, what was more imprudent, said so in a letter to the emperor, dated 15 October 1524 (Ycazbalceta, "Documentos para la Historia de México", Mexico, 1858, I). In this letter Cortés, besides recalling in a rather abrupt manner that the conquest of Mexico was due to him alone, deliberately acknowledges his disobedience in terms which could not fail to create a most unfavourable impression."

In 1522 The Crown appointed Cortés governor of New Spain, but also, much to the dismay of Cortés, four royal officials were appointed at the same time to assist him in his governing — in effect submitting him to close observation and administration. In 1523, the Crown (possibly influenced by Cortés' enemy, Bishop Fonseca), sent a military force under the command of Juan de Garay to conquer and settle the northern part of Mexico, the region of Pánuco. This was another setback for Cortés who mentions this in his fourth letter to the King in which he describes himself as the victim of a conspiracy by his archenemies Diego Velázquez, Diego Columbus and Bishop Fonseca as well as Juan Garay. The influence of Garay was effectively stopped by this appeal to the King who sent out a decree forbidding Garay to interfere in the politics of New Spain, causing him to give up without a fight.

Cortés suspected of conspiring to secede from Spain

In 1524, the treachery in Honduras of Cristobal de Olid, an old supporter of Diego Velázquez, sent Cortés into a rage and he issued a decree to arrest Velázquez, the Governor of Cuba, whom Cortés was sure was behind Olid's treason. This excessive action, however, served to further estrange the Spanish government which was already beginning to feel anxious about Cortés rising power. In response, the government sent a special Juez de residencia, Luis Ponce de León, to conduct a full inquiry into Cortés activities. A few days after Cortés returned from the expedition to Honduras, where Cortés defeated de Olid, Ponce de Leon suspended Cortés from his office of governor of New Spain. Cortés went to Spain in 1528 where he was awarded the title "Marques del Valle de Oaxaca" and was confirmed in his land holdings and vassals, but he was not reinstated as governor and was never again given any important office in the administration of New Spain.

Cortés accused of murdering his first wife

At a time when there was a strong suspicion in court circles of an intended rebellion by Cortés, a charge was brought against him that cast a fatal blight upon his character and plans. He was accused of murdering his first wife. The proceedings of the investigation were kept secret. No report, either exonerating or condemning Cortés, was published. Had the Government declared him innocent, it would have greatly increased his popularity; had it declared him a criminal, a crisis would have been precipitated by the accused and his party. Silence was the only safe policy, but that silence is suggestive that grave danger was feared from his influence.

Emperor Charles V with Hound (1532), a painting by the 16th century artist Jakob Seisenegger.
Emperor Charles V with Hound (1532), a painting by the 16th century artist Jakob Seisenegger.

Cortés appeals to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor

Cortés was once quoted as saying that it was "more difficult to contend against (his) own countrymen than against the Aztecs." Governor Diego Velázquez continued to be a thorn in his side, teaming up with Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, chief of the Spanish colonial department, to undermine him at court.

Cortés's fifth letter to Charles V attempts to justify his conduct and concludes with a bitter attack on “various and powerful rivals and enemies” who have “obscured the eyes of your Majesty.” Unfortunately, he was not dealing simply with a king of Spain, but with an emperor who ruled most of Europe and who had little time for distant colonies, except insofar as they contributed to his treasury.

In 1521, year of the Conquest, Charles V was attending to matters in his German domains and Spain was ruled by Bishop (later Pope) Adrian of Utrecht, who functioned as regent. Velázquez and Fonseca persuaded the regent to appoint a commissioner with powers to investigate Cortés's conduct and even arrest him.

The Spanish bureaucrats sent out a commission of inquiry under Licentiate Luis Ponce de León. Ponce de León arrived to conduct a residencia of Cortes but fell ill and died shortly after his arrival. Before he died, he appointed Marcos de Aguilar as alcalde mayor. The aged Aguilar also became sick and appointed Alonso de Estrada governor.

Cortés, suspected of poisoning them, refrained from taking over the government. Estrada sent Diego de Figueroa to the south; but de Figueroa raided graveyards and extorted contributions, meeting his end when the ship carrying these treasures sunk.

In August 1527 a royal decree arrived confirming Estrada as governor. Albornoz persuaded him to release Salazar and Chirinos. When Cortes complained angrily after one of his adherent's hand was cut off, Estrada ordered him exiled. Cortes sailed for Spain in 1528 to appeal to Emperor Charles V.

First return to Spain

In 1528, Cortes returned to Spain to appeal to the justice of his master, Charles V. He presented himself with great splendor before the court. By this time Charles V had returned and Cortés forthrightly responded to his enemy's charges. Denying he had held back on gold due the crown, he showed that he had contributed more than the quinto (one-fifth) required. Had he spent lavishly to rebuíld Tenochtitlán, damaged during the siege that brought down the Aztec empire? Of course he had, and the rebuilt Tenochtitlán was now more magnificent than any city in Europe, a true jewel in the Spanish crown.

He was received by Charles with every distinction, and decorated with the order of Santiago. 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.

Mismanagement of Cortés's property during his absence

Cortés's property was mismanaged by abusive colonial administrators while he was in Spain. Cortés sided with local Indians in a lawsuit. The Indians documented the abuses in the Huexotzinco Codex.

Return to Mexico

Cortés returned to Mexico in 1530 with new titles and honours, but with diminished power, a viceroy having been entrusted with the administration of civil affairs, although Cortés still retained military authority, with permission to continue his conquests. This division of power led to continual dissension, and caused the failure of several enterprises in which Cortés was engaged.

On returning to Mexico, Cortés found the country in a state of anarchy. Furthermore, there were so many accusations made against him—even that he had murdered his first wife, Catalina, who had died that year—that, after reasserting his position and reestablishing some sort of order, he retired to his estates at Cuernavaca, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Mexico City. There he concentrated on the building of his palace and on Pacific exploration.

Remaining in Mexico between 1530 and 1541, Cortés quarreled with the greedy, brutal Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and disputed the right to explore the territory that is today California with Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy.

Exploration of Baja California

In 1536, Cortés explored the northwestern part of Mexico and discovered the Baja California peninsula. Cortés also spent time exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico. The gulf that separates the Baja California peninsula from Mexico is named the Sea of Cortes. This was the last major expedition by Cortés.

Later life and death

Second return to Spain

After his exploration of Baja California, Cortés returned to Spain in 1541, hoping to confound his enemies. On his return he was utterly neglected, and could scarcely obtain an audience.

On one occasion he forced his way through a crowd that surrounded the emperor's carriage, and mounted on the footstep. The emperor, astounded at such audacity, demanded of him who he was. "I am a man," replied Cortés proudly, "who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities."

Expedition against Algiers

The emperor finally permitted Cortés to join himself and his fleet commanded by Andrea Doria at the great expedition against Algiers in 1541, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire and was used as a base by the notorious Turkish corsair Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha who was also the Admiral-in-Chief of the Ottoman Fleet. During this unfortunate campaign, which was his last, he served with great bravery. Cortés was almost drowned in a storm that hit his fleet while he was pursuing Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, who managed to defeat Andrea Doria and the fleet of Charles V for a second time after the Battle of Preveza.

It may be that had the advice of Cortés been followed that undertaking would have had a less disastrous end; but he was not even consulted. Had his advice been heeded, the Spanish arms might have been saved from disgrace, and Europe delivered nearly three centuries earlier from the scourge of the Barbary pirates.

Final Days and Death

Having spent a great deal of his own money to finance expeditions, he was now heavily in debt. In February 1544 he made a claim on the royal treasury, but was given a royal runaround for the next three years. Disgusted, he decided to return to Mexico in 1547. When he reached Seville, he was stricken with dysentery. He 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 left his many mestizo and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. He requested in his will that his remains eventually be buried in Mexico. Before he died he had the Pope remove the "natural" status of three of his children (legitimizing them in the eyes of the church), including Martin, the son he had with Doña Marina (also known as La Malinche), said to be his favorite.

Assessment of Cortés

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.

Cortés's place in Mexican history

In Mexico today, Cortés is condemned as a modern-day damnatio memoriae. In all of Mexico only the castle in the centre of Cuernavaca city bears his name. Muralists depict him as a deformed monster with the face of Evil Incarnate. . While originally the gulf of California was named "El mar de Cortez" by its discoverer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, the official name after the independence became "El o de California".

His body has been moved more than eight times. Since his body arrived in Mexico in 1567, it has been moved several times to avoid destruction. Today, (and unknown to most Mexicans) it is in the "Templo de Jesús" in Mexico City with the only statue of Cortez in Mexican territory, a statue by Manuel Tolsa. In 1981 the statue and the body were in danger of destruction by a nationalistic group, after the statue was made public by President Lopez Portillo, so access has to be restricted.

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