Cortés, Hernán (c. 1484–1547)

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Cortés, Hernán (c. 1484–1547)

Hernán Cortés (Fernando, Hernando; b. ca. 1484; d. 2 December 1547), conqueror of Mexico. Hernán Cortés was born in Medellín, Spain, in the province of Extremadura. Best known for his conquest of the Aztecs (Mexica) of central Mexico, he is also renowned for his famous Cartas de relación. Cortés was often depicted as a psychological and tactical master, but his greatest achievement was neither military nor literary; instead, it lay in his understanding that successful conquest was dependent upon successful colonization.

Cortés studied law at the University of Salamanca. While he probably did not become a bachiller, his activities and writings betray legal knowledge, especially of the siete partidas, which aided him in the process of conquest.

Seeking wealth and power, Cortés sailed for Hispaniola in 1504. After briefly serving as a notary in Hispaniola, he joined Diego Velázquez in the conquest of Cuba, where he assumed the position of alcalde and in about 1515 married Catalina Suárez Marcaida. By 1517, he had acquired both an encomienda and several gold mines. Having shown little interest in the early exploratory voyages of Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva, he was nevertheless chosen to lead an expedition to find Grijalva in late 1518. By the time Cortés was ready, Grijalva had returned. Cortés, nevertheless, set forth on what became a mission of trade and exploration to the Yucatán in November 1519.

With an army of 508 soldiers, Cortés set out on an expedition that was primarily intended for trade, but he also was instructed to evangelize the Indians and to take possession of any new lands discovered, two tasks he undertook with zeal. He was not instructed to colonize, however. In April 1519 Cortés reached what is now Veracruz, where he learned of a rich and powerful ruler, Motecuhzoma II, who was located inland but who held domain over a vast area extending to the coastal region. The subsequent events of Cortés's conquest of the Aztec king's domain were defined by Cortés's unshakable desire to deliver that empire to the kingdom of Castile.

Cortés also learned that Motecuhzoma and his army had many enemies who might be turned against the Mexica. But to carry out such a project, both to find Motecuhzoma and to make alliances with native groups, would take time and material resources. Expanding upon the orders of Pánfilo de Narváez, an ally of Velázquez, Cortés established a town with a cabildo (Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz) and placed the town directly under the king's authority.

Now in open rebellion against Velázquez, Cortés and his army destroyed their own ships to cut their means of connection to Cuba. Meanwhile, envoys carrying gold and examples of elaborate Mexica featherwork had been dispatched to Spain, seeking royal sanction of Cortés's actions. Velázquez sent a representative to Spain to brand Cortés a traitor and organized an army to move against him. By August 1519, Cortés and most of his army had set forth, moving west to find Motecuhzoma and the capital of his empire, the island city Tenochtitlán. By September, Cortés had reached Tlaxcala. He may have heard that the Tlaxcalans were longtime enemies of the Mexica and thus been motivated to find and make allies of them. It took fierce fighting to subdue the Tlaxcalans, but by late September, Cortés had formed a critical alliance with Tlaxcala. After next pacifying Cholula, Cortés was ready to march into the heart of the Valley of Mexico. Having negotiated with emissaries of Motecuhzoma several times during the march west, Cortés could not be persuaded against entering the heart of Mexica territory, and Cortés and Motecuhzoma met in early November.

While we can never know precisely what occurred during the first meetings of the representatives of these two very different societies, the ultimate outcome was the imprisonment of Motecuhzoma by the Spaniards. Cortés decisively beat back the forces of Pánfilo de Narváez sent by Velázquez and thereby gained needed reinforcements. The entire conquest project, however, was almost ruined by the slaughter at the Great Temple by Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés's lieutenant, and his forces. Cortés, meanwhile, released Motecuhzoma's brother, Cuitlahuac, who immediately rallied the Mexica in violent opposition to the Spanish.

The situation deteriorated so badly that Cortés decided that retreat was necessary. On the so-called Noche Triste many Spanish soldiers lost their lives. Revealingly, Cortés's accounts also lament the gold that was lost that night. Retreating to Tlaxcala in July 1520, Cortés prepared for a final siege of Tenochtitlán. He ordered the building of thirteen brigantines to blockade the island capital, and set forth for Texcoco on 28 December. Over the next months, the Spanish soldiers conducted a series of assaults on Indian towns surrounding Tenochtitlán to pacify the area and to increase the size of their allied Indian forces. Once the ships were ready, Cortés undertook the final assault, which was achieved by blockade, massive force, and great destruction of life and property. Tenochtitlán fell in August 1521.

Salvador de Madariaga, one of Cortés's biographers, says that he was conquered by his own conquest; the events of the sixteen years after it bear this out. While he was consolidating his leadership of New Spain, he received official recognition as its legitimate conqueror and governor. But many of his soldiers nursed grievances, other Spaniards were jealous and resentful, and his wife died under mysterious circumstances.

Cortés embarked on further territorial expansion, sending Pedro de Alvarado to conquer Guatemala and Cristóbal de Olid to conquer Honduras. Alvarado succeeded but with little gain; Olid, with Velázquez's encouragement, rebelled against Cortés's authority. Olid's betrayal prompted Cortés to set off on an illfated expedition to Honduras. Royal authorities became disturbed by his willingness to take the law into his own hands, and his absence from Mexico City provided an opening for his enemies to move against his followers, thus strengthening the royal conviction to bring New Spain under its own firm control.

In 1529, after personal entreaties from Cortés, who had traveled to Spain, Charles V granted him the title marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, twenty-two encomienda towns, and the right to entail his estate. While he returned again to Mexico in the mid-1530s, he never again held the governorship. Thus to others fell the task of solidifying the territorial gains and administrative structures Cortés had put in place. Dogged by lawsuits and investigations, the marqués spent much of his latter years defending himself. Brilliant, active, and cruel, Cortés was the conqueror of the largest single community pacified in the New World. He died in Spain still seeking the status and riches he believed he had been denied.

See alsoEncomienda; Explorers and Exploration: Spanish America; Motecuhzoma II; Spanish Empire.


Salvador De Madariaga, Hernan Cortés, Conqueror of Mexico (1942).

Henry R. Wagner, The Rise of Fernando Cortés (1944).

Eulalia Guzmán, Relaciones de Hernán Cortés a Carlos V sobre la invasión de Anáhuac (1958).

Bernal Díaz Del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, translated by J. M. Cohen (1963).

Francisco López De Gómara, Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, translated and edited by Lesley B. Simpson (1966).

Hernan Cortés, Letters from Mexico, translated and edited by Anthony Pagden (1971), pp. xiff.

Additional Bibliography

López de Gómara, Francisco. Historia de la conquista de México. México, D.F.: Editorial Océano de México, 2003.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003.

Schwartz, Hugh. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

                                       Susan Kellogg

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Cortés, Hernán (c. 1484–1547)

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