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Hernán Cortés

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Hernán Cortés
Hernan Fernando Cortes.jpg
Hernán Cortés
Born Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro
Medellín, Castile
Died December 2, 1547
Castilleja de la Cuesta, Castile
Nationality Banner of arms crown of Castille Habsbourg style Castilian
Other names Hernando Cortés
Occupation Conquistador
Known for Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire
Children Martín Cortés, 2nd Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Martín Cortés (son of doña Marina)
Hernan Cortes Signature.svg

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca (Spanish pronunciation: /erˈnaŋ korˈtes de monˈroj i piˈθaro/; 1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish colonizers that began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Born in Medellín, Spain, to a family of lesser nobility, Cortés chose to pursue a livelihood in the New World. He went to Hispaniola and later to Cuba, where he received an encomienda and, for a short time, became alcalde (magistrate) of the second Spanish town founded on the island. 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 de Cuéllar, resulted in the recall of the expedition at the last moment, an order which Cortés ignored. Arriving on the continent, Cortés executed a successful strategy of allying with some indigenous peoples against others. He also used a native woman, Doña Marina, as an interpreter; she would later bear Cortés a son. When the Governor of Cuba sent emissaries to arrest Cortés, he fought them and won, using the extra troops as reinforcements. Cortés wrote letters directly to the king asking to be acknowledged for his successes instead of punished for mutiny. After he overthrew the Aztec Empire, Cortés was awarded the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, while the more prestigious title of Viceroy was given to a high-ranking nobleman, Antonio de Mendoza. In 1541 Cortés returned to Spain, where he died peacefully but embittered, six years later.

Because of 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 lionizing of the conquistadors did not encourage deep examination of Cortés. Later reconsideration of the conquistadors' character in the context of modern anti-colonial sentiment also did little to expand understanding of Cortés as an individual. As a result of these historical trends, descriptions of Cortés tend to be simplistic, and either damning or idealizing.

Conquest of Mexico

Ruta de Cortés

Map depicting Cortés's invasion route

In 1518 Velázquez put him in command of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, due to the old gripe between Velázquez and Cortés, he changed his mind and revoked his charter. Cortés ignored the orders and went ahead anyway, in February 1519, in an act of open mutiny. Accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses and a small number of cannons, he landed in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mayan territory.[1] There, he encountered Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish Franciscan priest who had survived a shipwreck a period in captivity of the local Maya before escaping.[1] Aguilar, had learned the Chontal Maya language during his captivity, and could thus translate for Cortés. In March 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown. He stopped in Trinidad to hire more soldiers and obtain more horses. Then he proceeded to Tabasco, where he met with resistance and won a battle against the natives. He received twenty young indigenous women from the vanquished natives and he converted them all to Christianity.[2] Among these women was La Malinche, his future mistress and mother of his child Martín. Malinche knew both the Nahuatl language and Chontal Maya, thus enabling Cortés to communicate with the Aztecs via Aguilar. Through La Malinche, Cortés learned from the Tabascans about the wealthy Aztec Empire.


Cortés scuttling fleet off Veracruz coast

In July 1519, his men took over Veracruz: by this act, Cortés dismissed the authority of the Governor of Cuba to place himself directly under the orders of Charles V.[1] In order to eliminate any ideas of retreat, Cortés scuttled his ships. In Veracruz, he met some of the tributaries of the Aztecs and asked them to arrange a meeting with Moctezuma II, the tlatoani (ruler) of the Aztec Empire.[3] Moctezuma repeatedly turned down the meeting, but Cortés was determined. Leaving a hundred men in Veracruz, Cortès marched on Tenochtitlan in mid-August 1519, along with 600 men, 15 horsemen, 15 cannons and hundreds of indigenous carriers and warriors.[1] On the way to Tenochtitlan, Cortés made alliances with indigenous peoples such as the Nahuas of Tlaxcala, the Tlaxcaltec, who had surrounded the Spanish and about 2,000 porters on a hilltop and the Totonacs of Cempoala. In October 1519, Cortés and his men, accompanied by about 3,000 Tlaxcalteca, marched to Cholula, the second largest city in central Mexico. Cortés, either in a pre-meditated effort to instill fear upon the Aztecs waiting for him at Tenochtitlan or (as he later claimed when under investigation) wishing to make an example when he feared native treachery, massacred thousands of unarmed members of the nobility gathered at the central plaza, then partially burned the city.

Cortez & La Malinche

Cortes and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519

By the time he arrived in Tenochtitlan the Spaniards had a large army. On November 8, 1519, they were peacefully received by Moctezuma II.[4] Moctezuma deliberately let Cortés enter the Aztec capital, the island city of Tenochtitlan, hoping to get to know their weaknesses better and to crush them later.[1] He gave lavish gifts in gold to the Spaniards which, rather than placating them, excited their ambitions for plunder. In his letters to Charles V, Cortés claimed to have learned at this point that he was considered by the Aztecs to be either an emissary of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl or Quetzalcoatl himself — a belief which has been contested by a few modern historians.[5] But quickly Cortès learned that several Spaniards on the coast had been killed by Aztecs while supporting the Totonacs, and decided to take Moctezuma as a hostage in his own palace, indirectly ruling Tenochtitlan through him.[6]

Meanwhile, Velasquez sent another expedition, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, to oppose Cortés, arriving in Mexico in April 1520 with 1,100 men.[1] Cortés left 200 men in Tenochtitlan and took the rest to confront Narvaez. He overcame Narváez, despite his numerical inferiority, and convinced the rest of Narvaez's men to join him.[1] In Mexico, one of Cortés's lieutenants Pedro de Alvarado, committed The massacre in the Main Temple, triggering a local rebellion.[7] Cortés speedily returned to Tenochtihlan. On July 1, 1520 Moctezuma was killed (the Spaniards claimed he was stoned to death by his own people; other claim he was murdered by the Spanish once they realized his inability to placate the locals. Faced with a hostile population, Cortés decided to flee for Tlaxcala. During the Noche Triste (30 June-1 July 1520), the Spaniards managed a narrow escape from Tenochtitlan across the Tlacopan causeway, while their backguard was being massacred. Much of the treasure looted by Cortés was lost (as well as his artillery) during this panicked escape from Tenochtitlán.[1] After a battle in Otumba, they managed to reach Tlaxcala, after having lost 870 men.[1] With the assistance of their allies, Cortés's men finally prevailed with reinforcements arriving from Cuba. Cortés began a policy of attrition towards Tenochtitlan, cutting off supplies and subduing the Aztecs' allied cities. The siege of Tenochtitlán ended with Spanish victory and the destruction of the city.[8]

In January 1521, Cortés countered a conspiracy against him, headed by Antonio de Villafana, who was hanged for the offense.[1] Finally, with the capture of Cuauhtémoc, the Tlatoani (ruler) of Tenochtitlán, on 13 August 1521, the Aztec Empire disappeared, and Cortés was able to claim it for Spain, thus renaming the city Mexico City. From 1521 to 1524, Cortés personally governed Mexico.[1]

Disputed interpretation of his life

There are relatively few sources to the early life of Cortés; his fame arose from his participation in the conquest of Mexico and it was only after this that people became interested in reading and writing about him. Probably the best source is his letters to the king which he wrote during the campaign in Mexico, but they are written with the specific purpose of putting his efforts in a favourable light and so must be read critically. Another main source is the biography written by Cortés's private chaplain Lopez de Gómara, which was written in Spain several years after the conquest. Gómara never set foot in the Americas and knew only what Cortés had told him, and he had an affinity for knightly romantic stories which he incorporated richly in the biography. The third major source is written as a reaction to what its author calls "the lies of Gomara", the eyewitness account written by the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo does not paint Cortés as a romantic hero but rather tries to emphasize that Cortés's men should also be remembered as important participants in the undertakings in Mexico. In the years following the conquest more critical accounts of the Spanish arrival in Mexico were written. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies which raises strong accusations of brutality and heinous violence towards the Indians; accusations against both the conquistadors in general and Cortés in particular. The accounts of the conquest given in the Florentine Codex by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún and his native informants are also less than flattering towards Cortés. The scarcity of these sources has led to a sharp division in the description of Cortés's personality and a tendency to describe him as either a vicious and ruthless person or a noble and honorable cavalier.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 Bernard Grunberg, "La folle aventure d'Hernan Cortés", in L'Histoire n°322, July–August 2007
  2. Crowe, John A. The Epic of Latin America. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1992. 4th ed. p.75
  3. Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 53-54
  4. Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 82, 86
  5. Restall, Matthew (2003). Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford University Press; Townsend, Camilla (2003). "Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico." American Historical Review 108, no. 3: 659-687.
  6. Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 88-89
  7. Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 91-92
  8. Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 108-143

Related reading

Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy 2008 ISBN 978-0-553-80538-3
  • Myth and Reality: The Legacy of Spain in America by Jesus J. Chao. Culture/Society Opinion. February 12, 1992. The Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston
  • Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America. 4th ed. New York: University of California P, 1992.
  • Hernando Cortés by Jacobs, W.J., New York, N.Y.:Franklin Watts, Inc. 1974.
  • The World's Greatest Explorers: Hernando Cortés. Chicago, by Stein, R.C., Illinois: Chicago Press Inc. 1991.
  • León-Portilla, Miguel (Ed.). The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Ángel María Garibay K. (Nahuatl-Spanish trans.), Lysander Kemp (Spanish-English trans.), Alberto Beltran (illus.) (Expanded and updated edition ed.). Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5501-8. 
  • Maura, Juan Francisco."Cobardía, falsedad y opportunismo español: algunas consideraciones sobre la "verdadera" historia de la conquista de la Nueva España" Lemir (Revista de literatura medieval y del Renacimiento) 7 (2003): 1-29.
  • Passuth, László. The Rain God cries over Mexico
  • Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest Oxford University Press (2003) ISBN 0-19-516077-0
  • 'Fisher, M. and Richardson, K. Hernando Cortés
  • Hernando Cortés Crossroads Resource Online.
  • Tzvetan Torodov (1996) The Conquest of America (1996) ISBN 0-06-132095-1
  • Thomas, Hugh (1993). Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico ISBN 0-671-51104-1
  • White, Jon Manchip, (1971) Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire ISBN 0-7867-0271-0

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Hernán Cortés. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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