Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, was a Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain.
Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, was born around 1485 in Medellín, Spain. He came from a lesser noble family in Spain. Some reports indicate that he studied at the University of Salamanca for a time. He first set sail to the New World at the age of 19. Cortés later joined an expedition to Cuba.
In 1504, Cortés left Spain to seek his fortune in New World. He traveled to the island of Santo Domingo, or Hispaniola. Settling in the new town of Azúa, Cortés served as a notary for several years.
He joined an expedition of Cuba led by Diego Velázquez in 1511. There, Cortés worked in the civil government and served as the mayor of Santiago for a time.
Cortés reached 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 conquistadores is rife with accounts of rivalry, jockeying for positions, mutiny, and betrayal.
Upon his arrival in 1504 in Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola, the 20-year-old Cortés registered as a citizen, which entitled him to a building plot and land to farm. Soon afterwards, Nicolás de Ovando, still the governor, gave him an encomienda and made him a notary of the town of Azua de Compostela. His next five years seemed to help establish him in the colony; in 1506, Cortés took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba, receiving a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his efforts from the leader of the expedition.
In 1518, he set off to explore Mexico.
In 1511, Cortés accompanied Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, an aide of the Governor of Hispaniola, in his expedition to conquer Cuba. Velázquez was appointed Governor of New Spain. At the age of 26, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer with the responsibility of ensuring 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. He became secretary for Governor Velázquez. Cortés was twice appointed municipal magistrate (alcalde) of Santiago. In Cuba, Cortés became a man of substance with
an encomienda to provide Indian labor for his mines and cattle. This new position of power also made him the new source of leadership, which opposing forces in the colony could then turn to. In 1514, Cortés led a group which demanded that more Indians be assigned to the settlers.
As time went on, relations between Cortés and Governor Velázquez became strained. This began once news of Juan de Grijalva, establishing a colony on the mainland where there was a bonanza of silver and gold, reached Velázquez; it was decided to send him help. Cortés was appointed Captain-General of this new expedition in October 1518, but was advised to move fast before Velázquez changed his mind.
With Cortés’s experience as an administrator, knowledge gained from many failed expeditions, and his impeccable rhetoric he could gather six ships and 300 men, within a month. Predictably, Velázquez’s jealousy exploded and decided to place the leadership of the expedition in other hands. However, Cortés quickly gathered more men and ships in other Cuban ports.
Cortés also found time to become romantically involved with Catalina Xuárez (or Juárez), the sister-in- law of Governor Velázquez. Part of Velázquez’s 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.
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. He missed the first two expeditions, under the orders of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and then Juan de Grijalva, sent by Diego Velázquez to Mexico in 1518.
Conquered the Aztecs
In 1518, Velázquez put Cortés in command of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, due to the old argument between the two, Velázquez changed his mind and revoked Cortés’s charter. He ignored the orders and, in an act of open mutiny, went anyway in February 1519. He stopped in Trinidad, Cuba, to hire more soldiers and obtain more horses. Accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses, and a small number of cannon, Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mayan territory. There he encountered Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish Franciscan priest who had survived a shipwreck followed by a period in captivity with the Maya, before escaping. Aguilar had learned the Chontal Maya language and was able to translate for Cortés.
In March 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown. 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
Among these women was La Malinche, his future mistress and mother of his son Martín. Malinche knew both the Nahuatl language and Chontal Maya, thus enabling Cortés to communicate with the Aztecs through Aguilar. At San Juan de Ulúa on Easter Sunday 1519, Cortés met with Moctezuma II’s Aztec Empire governors Tendile and Pitalpitoque.
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 King Charles. In order to eliminate any ideas of retreat, Cortés scuttled his ships.
Cortés became allies with some of the native peoples he encountered, but with others he used deadly force to conquer Mexico. He fought Tlaxacan and Cholula warriors and then set his sights on taking over the Aztec empire. He marched to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital and home to ruler Montezuma II. Cortés took Montezuma hostage and his soldiers raided the city. Cortés left the city after learning that Spanish troops were coming to arrest him for disobeying orders.
After facing off against Spanish forces, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán to find a rebellion in progress. The Aztecs eventually drove the Spanish from the city, but Cortés returned again to defeat them and take the city in 1521. King Charles I of Spain (also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) appointed him the governor of New Spain the following year.
After his victory over the Aztecs, Cortés faced challenges to his authority and position. He traveled to Honduras in 1524 to stop a rebellion against him in the area. Back in Mexico, Cortés found himself removed from power. He traveled to Spain to plead his case to the king, but he was not reappointed to his governorship.
In 1540, Cortés retired to Spain. He spent much of his later years seeking recognition for his achievements and support from the Spanish royal court. Cortés died in Spain in 1547.