Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spanish conquistador, responsible for the audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico in 1519. With a force of 600 Spanish soldiers he was able to conquer a vast Empire that had tens of thousands of warriors. He did it through a combination of ruthlessness, guile, violence and luck.
Like many of those who would eventually become conquistadores in the Americas, Cortés was born in the Castilian province of Extremadura, in the small city of Medellín. He came from a respected military family but was a rather sickly child. He went to the distinguished University of Salamanca to study law but dropped out before long. By this time, tales of the wonders of the New World were being told all over Spain, appealing to teens like Cortés. He decided to head to Hispaniola to seek his fortune.
Cortés was fairly well educated and had family connections, so when he arrived in Hispaniola in 1503 he soon found work as a notary and was given a plot of land and a number of natives to work it for him. His health improved and he trained as a soldier, and took part in the subjugation of those parts of Hispaniola that had held out against the Spanish. He became known as a good leader, an intelligent administrator, and a ruthless fighter. It was these traits that made Diego Velázquez select him for his expedition to Cuba.
Velázquez was tasked with the subjugation of the island of Cuba. He set out with three ships and 300 men, including young Cortés, who was a clerk assigned to the treasurer of the expedition. Ironically, also along on the expedition was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who would eventually describe the horrors of the conquest and denounce the conquistadores. The conquest of Cuba was marked by a number of unspeakable abuses, including massacres and the burning alive of native chief Hatuey. Cortés distinguished himself as a soldier and administrator and was made mayor of the new city of Santiago. His influence grew, and he watched in 1517-1518 as two expeditions to conquer the mainland met with failure.
In 1518 it was Cortés’ turn. With 600 men, he began one of the most audacious feats in history: the conquest of the Aztec Empire, which at that time had tens if not hundreds of thousands of warriors. After landing with his men, he made his way to Tenochtitlán, capital of the Empire. Along the way, he defeated Aztec vassal states, adding their strength to his. He reached Tenochtitlán in 1519 and was able to occupy it without a fight. When Governor Velázquez of Cuba sent an expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez to rein in Cortés, he had to leave the city to fight. He defeated Narváez and added his men to his own.
Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán with his reinforcements, but found it in a state of uproar, as one of his lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, had ordered a massacre of Aztec nobility in his absence. Aztec Emperor Moctezuma was killed by his own people while trying to placate the crowd and an angry mob chased the Spanish from the city in what became known as the Noche Triste, or “sad night.” Cortés was able to regroup, re-take the city and by 1521 he was in charge of Tenochtitlán for good.
Cortés never could have pulled off the defeat of the Aztec Empire without a great deal of good luck. First of all, he had found Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest who had been shipwrecked on the mainland several years before and who could speak the Maya language. Between Aguilar and a woman slave named Malinche who could speak Maya and Nahuatl, Cortés was able to communicate effectively during his conquest.
Cortés also had amazing luck in terms of the Aztec vassal states. They nominally owed allegiance to the Aztec, but in reality hated them and Cortés was able to exploit this hatred. With thousands of native warriors as allies, he was able to meet the Aztecs on strong terms and bring about their downfall.
He also benefited from the fact that Moctezuma was a weak leader, who looked for divine signs before making any decisions. Cortés believed that Moctezuma thought that the Spanish were emissaries from the God Quetzalcoatl, which may have caused him to wait before crushing them.
Cortés’ final stroke of luck was the timely arrival of reinforcements under the inept Pánfilo de Narváez. Governor Velázquez intended to weaken Cortés and bring him back to Cuba, but after Narváez was defeated he wound up providing Cortés with men and supplies that he desperately needed.
From 1521 to 1528 Cortés served as governor of New Spain, as Mexico came to be known. The crown sent administrators, and Cortés himself oversaw the rebuilding of the city and exploration expeditions into other parts of Mexico. Cortés still had many enemies, however, and his repeated insubordination caused him to have very little support from the crown. In 1528 he returned to Spain to plead his case for more power. What he got was a mixed bag: he was elevated to noble status and given the title of Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley, one of the richest territories in the New World. He was also, however, removed from the governorship and would never again wield much power in the New World.
Cortés never lost the spirit of adventure. He personally financed and led an expedition to explore Baja California in the late 1530’s and fought with royal forces in Algiers in 1541. After that ended in a fiasco, he decided to return to Mexico, but instead died of pleuritis in 1547 at the age of 62.
In his bold but ghastly conquest of the Aztecs, Cortés left a trail of bloodshed that other conquistadores would follow. The “blueprint” that Cortés established – dividing native populations against one another and exploiting traditional enmities – was one followed later by Pizarro in Peru, Alvarado in Central America and other conquests in the Americas.
Cortés’ success in bringing down the mighty Aztec Empire quickly became the stuff of legend back in Spain. Most of his soldiers had been peasants or younger sons of minor nobility back in Spain and had little to look forward to in terms of wealth or prestige. After the conquest, however, any of his men who had survived were given generous lands and plenty of native slaves, in addition to gold. These rags-to-riches stories drew thousands of Spanish to the New World, each of whom wished to follow in Cortés’ bloody footprints.
In the short run, this was (in a sense) good for the Spanish crown, because native populations were quickly subjugated by these ruthless conquistadores. In the long run, however, it proved disastrous because these men were the wrong sort of colonizers: they were not farmers or tradesmen, but soldiers, slavers and mercenaries who abhorred honest work.
One of Cortés’ lasting legacies was the encomienda system that he instituted in Mexico. The encomienda system, a left over relic from the days of the reconquest, basically “entrusted” a tract of land and any number of natives to a Spaniard, often a conquistador. The encomendero, as he was called, had certain rights and responsibilities. Basically, he agreed to provide religious education for the natives in exchange for labor. In reality, the encomienda system amounted to little more than legalized, enforced slavery and made the encomenderos very wealthy and powerful. The Spanish crown would eventually regret allowing the encomienda system to take root in the New World, as it later proved very difficult to get rid of once reports of abuses began piling up.
In modern Mexico, Cortés is often a reviled figure. Modern Mexicans identify as closely with their native past as with their European one, and they see Cortés as a monster and butcher. Equally reviled (if not more so) is the figure of Malinche, or Doña Marina, Cortés’ Nahua slave/consort. If not for Malinche’s language skills and willing assistance, the conquest of the Aztec Empire would almost certainly have taken a different path.