Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador, or conqueror, who’s finest remembered for conquering the Aztec Empire in 1521 and claiming Mexico for Spain. He additionally helped colonize Cuba and have become a governor of New Spain, an unlimited space that included giant elements of North, Central and South America, in addition to a number of Pacific island archipelagos.
“Like many explorers we learn about at the moment, Hernán (also called Hernando) Cortés’s function within the Age of Exploration was influential however controversial,” stated Erika Cosme, previously the executive coordinator of schooling and digital providers at The Mariners’ Museum and Park (opens in new tab) in Newport Information, Virginia. “He was a wise, bold man who wished to applicable new land for the Spanish crown, convert Native inhabitants to Catholicism and plunder the lands for gold and riches.”
Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellín, Spain. He was the one son of noble mother and father, although his household was not rich. He was apparently a intelligent however troublesome little one and was the supply of a lot anxiousness to his mother and father, based on Britannica (opens in new tab). Cortés’ secretary, who wrote a historical past of Cortés’ New World expedition that contained some biographical data, described the conquistador, generally, as ruthless, haughty, mischievous and quarrelsome.
At age 14, Cortés was despatched to check regulation on the College of Salamanca in Spain, however he was sad and craved a lifetime of motion, so he dropped out after two years. Cortés grew to become fascinated with tales of Christopher Columbus’ New World explorations.
Columbus and his expedition members had been the primary Europeans to see the West Indies after they landed at San Salvador Island within the Bahamas and explored different islands in 1492. Columbus had set sail hoping to discover a path to Asia or India. He wished to revenue from and hasten commerce for nutmeg, cloves and pomander (a ball of aromatic spices) from the Indonesian “Spice Islands,” and pepper and cinnamon from India, which had been in excessive demand, Cosme informed Stay Science.
Nonetheless, Columbus’ expedition failed to achieve its meant vacation spot and as an alternative stumbled upon the Americas, which had been utterly unknown to Europeans on the time. (Columbus was initially satisfied he’d reached Asia, which is why the area is named the “West Indies,” based on Britannica.) Reviews of Columbus’ journey brought on a wave of pleasure in Spain and Europe, and several other extra expeditions got down to discover this “New World” within the following years.
Cortés was desirous to be a part of the dynamic motion. “For particular person explorers, gaining public fame might doubtlessly make them wealthy,” Cosme stated. In accordance with the Thought Firm (opens in new tab), an internet site that covers historical past and science, many of those explorers had been bold males who had been skilled troopers or had been mercenaries and infrequently acted on their very own initiative moderately than in search of funding from the Spanish Crown. Consequently, their expeditions had been usually privately funded. On the similar time, they might not merely resolve to mount an expedition with out official sanction; they needed to search authorization from colonial officers.
Cortés determined to hunt fortune and journey in Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). In 1504, at age 19, Cortés set sail for the New World.
Within the Caribbean
Cortés spent seven years on Hispaniola, dwelling within the city of Azua and dealing as a notary and farmer. In 1511, he joined Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar’s expedition to overcome Cuba, which was occupied by not less than two main Native American teams, the Taíno and the Guanahatabey. After the conquest, Cortés served as a clerk to the treasurer and later as mayor of Santiago, a city which had been established after the conquest and served because the island’s capital for a quick time till the institution of Havana in 1515. Cortés’ time in Cuba made him rich as a result of he was capable of purchase enslaved folks and have them work the land he had acquired. He was capable of buy a home in Santiago and acquire appreciable affect among the many colonists, based on Britannica (opens in new tab).
Regardless of his success, Cortés was hungry for extra energy. In 1518, he satisfied Velázquez, who was by that point the governor of Cuba, to grant him permission to steer an expedition to Mexico, which the Spanish had come into contact with earlier that 12 months. Velázquez appointed Cortés’ captain-general of the expedition, based on Britannica (opens in new tab), however quickly grew more and more jealous of Cortés’ energy and affect. Velázquez canceled the voyage on the final minute, however Cortés ignored his orders and set sail with 11 ships and greater than 500 males.
Arrival in Mexico
In February 1519, Cortés’ ships reached the Mexican coast at Yucatán, which was the area of Mayan-speaking peoples. The Spanish had been desirous to settle within the area, and Cortés was additionally occupied with changing Native Individuals to Christianity. “His view on the Indigenous folks was just like the vast majority of Europeans of that day — they had been inferior culturally, technologically and religiously,” Cosme stated. In Cozumel, an island off the Yucatán coast that was one of many first locations the Spaniards landed, Cortés discovered of varied rituals, “together with human sacrifice of the Natives to their many gods,” Cosme stated. “He and his males eliminated and destroyed the pagan idols, and changed them with crosses and figures of the Virgin Mary.”
Cortés’ power then continued crusing west to Tabasco, the place it encountered resistance from Native warriors. The Spanish power overpowered them, and the Natives surrendered. Not solely did the Spaniards’ armaments — metal weapons, arquebuses and crossbows — show superior within the conflict, however so did Cortes’ horses. He introduced 16 horses alongside on the expedition; the Indigenous folks weren’t acquainted with them and had been reportedly fearful of the beasts. Bernal Díaz del Castillo (opens in new tab), a soldier who marched with Cortés and later wrote a historical past of the expedition known as “The True Historical past of the Conquest of New Spain (opens in new tab),” described the Natives’ encounter with the horses: “The Indians, who had by no means seen any horses earlier than, couldn’t suppose in any other case than that horse and rider had been one physique. Fairly astounded at this to them so novel a sight, they quitted the plain and retreated to a rising floor.”
The Natives supplied the Europeans with meals, provides and 20 girls, together with an interpreter known as Malintzin (also called La Malinche or Doña Marina). La Malinche grew to become an necessary determine in Cortés’ life and legacy.
“She grew to become bilingual, talking Aztec and Mayan languages, which made her very helpful to Cortés,” Cosme stated. “She finally discovered Spanish and have become Cortés’ private interpreter, information and mistress. She truly had a reasonably excessive standing for each a girl and a Native throughout this time and place among the many Spaniards.”
Díaz described La Malinche as (opens in new tab) “a wonderful lady and high-quality interpreter all through the wars in New Spain, Tlaxcala and Mexico … This lady was a useful instrument to us within the conquest of New Spain. It was, by means of her solely, below the safety of the Almighty, that many issues had been completed by us: with out her we by no means ought to have understood the Mexican language, and, upon the entire, have been unable to surmount many difficulties.”
Cortés and La Malinche had a baby collectively named Martín, who is typically known as “El Mestizo.” He was one of many first youngsters of blended Indigenous and Spanish heritage. Ultimately, in 1522, Cortés’ Spanish spouse, Catalina Suarez, got here to Mexico. After her arrival, historians are not sure if Cortés continued to acknowledge La Malinche or Martín, Cosme stated. “It might appear his need to keep up his popularity and standing among the many Spanish group was stronger than his have to be a husband and father to Malinche and Martín.” Nonetheless, Catalina died below mysterious circumstances quickly after arriving, and finally Cortés took one other Spanish spouse when he returned briefly to Spain in 1528, based on Britannica.
After a number of months in Yucatán, Cortés sailed west once more. On the southeastern coast of what’s now Mexico, he based Veracruz, the place he dismissed the authority of Velázquez and declared himself below orders from King Charles I of Spain. He disciplined his males and skilled them to behave as a cohesive unit of troopers, and ready them for the lengthy march to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. And in an act that signified his fierce willpower, he burned his ships to make retreat unimaginable, although some students have disputed this story. (opens in new tab)
Díaz associated how Cortés exhorted his troopers on the eve of their lengthy march. “Cortes then adduced many stunning comparisons from historical past, and talked about a number of heroic deeds of the Romans,” Díaz wrote “We answered him, every person, that we’d implicitly observe his orders, because the die had been forged, and we, with Caesar, when he had handed the Rubicon, had now no alternative left; moreover which, the whole lot we did was for the glory of God and his majesty the emperor.”
Conquering the Aztecs
Cortés had heard of the Aztecs (also called the Mexica) and knew that they, and their chief Montezuma II (additionally spelled Moctezuma), had been a major power in Mexico. In accordance with Britannica, the Aztec Empire dominated a big swath of what’s at the moment fashionable Mexico and elements of central America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Aztecs had been completed warriors, engineers, artisans and agriculturalists identified for making a thriving society that dominated over a surrounding, usually hostile amalgam of varied Native Individuals with totally different languages and cultures. Though the Aztecs had been considered one of many small teams within the Valley of Mexico, they’d expanded aggressively throughout the fifteenth century by conquering their neighbors, based on World Historical past Encyclopedia (opens in new tab). At first, the Aztecs had dominated with the assistance of two different cities within the area, Texcoco and Tlacopan, a confederation generally known as the Triple Alliance. Ultimately, nonetheless, the Aztecs got here to dominate the Triple Alliance and dominated alone.
“Cortés arrived within the nice Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán [on Nov. 8] in 1519,” Cosme stated. “Though he was kindly acquired by the Aztec emperor Montezuma, Cortés’ intentions had been much less benevolent.” He got down to rule them.
Tenochtitlan was the non secular and political heart of the Aztec Empire. It was a lot bigger than many European cities of the time and hosted a inhabitants of about 400,000 folks, based on Britannica (opens in new tab). (By comparability, the town of Paris within the sixteenth century had an estimated inhabitants of 225,000, based on the web site Statista (opens in new tab).) It had been based in A.D. 1325 on two small islands in the course of Lake Texcoco and was related to the mainland by a number of broad causeways. Within the coronary heart of the town was the temple district, which boasted the Nice Temple, or Hueteocalli because the Aztecs known as it. This imposing construction, which loomed above the encircling metropolis, was devoted to 2 Aztec gods: Huitzilopochtli, the battle god, and Tláloc, the rain god. Different outstanding buildings included the pyramid of Tezcatlipoca, a creator god, and the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” and the god of artwork and studying who was related to the planet Venus.
Díaz described the awe Tenochtitlan impressed among the many Spaniards upon arriving: “Once we gazed upon all this splendor without delay, we scarcely knew what to suppose, and we doubted whether or not all that we beheld was actual. A collection of huge cities stretched themselves alongside the banks of the lake, out of which nonetheless bigger ones rose magnificently above the waters. Innumerable crowds of canoes had been plying in all places round us; at common distances we regularly handed over new bridges, and earlier than us lay the good metropolis of Mexico in all its splendor.”
In some accounts, Cortés’ arrival coincided with an necessary Aztec prophecy. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was set to return to Earth. On this interpretation, Montezuma was hesitant to confront the Spanish for concern of angering the returned god. Nonetheless, this interpretation has been disputed by many fashionable students who’ve argued that it’s basically a fantasy that was propagated a few years after the conquest (opens in new tab) as a method for Europeans to justify their actions and foster the notion that the Aztecs noticed the Spanish as superior.
Montezuma despatched out envoys to fulfill the conquistador as he neared the capital. The Spanish fired pictures from their arquebuses and cannons, which shocked the Natives and additional intimidated them.
Cortés entered the town, and at first the assembly between the 2 leaders, although tense, was peaceable. Montezuma gave the conquistador presents of gold. However issues modified rapidly. Cortés took Montezuma hostage and sacked the town. La Malinche helped Cortés manipulate Montezuma and rule Tenochtitlán by means of him. “It’s also stated that she knowledgeable Cortés of an Aztec plot to destroy his military,” Cosme stated.
The Spanish military had assist sacking the town. Although Cortés enslaved a lot of the Native inhabitants, different Indigenous teams had been elementary to his success, based on Cosme. Amongst them had been the folks of Tlaxcala, who helped him regroup and take Tenochtitlán. “The Aztecs weren’t all the time widespread rulers amongst their subjected cities. When Cortés discovered of this, he was in a position to make use of this to his benefit,” Cosme stated. “Xicotencatl, a ruler within the metropolis Tlaxcala, noticed an ally in Cortés and a chance to destroy the Aztec Empire. They shaped an allegiance, and Cortés was given a number of thousand warriors so as to add to his ranks. Whereas the Spaniards nonetheless had superior weaponry — cannons, weapons, swords — the extra data on Aztec preventing kinds and defenses given by Xicotencatl, plus the extra males, gave Cortés a useful edge.”
The siege of Tenochtitlán
Whereas Cortés held Tenochtitlán by means of Montezuma, a Spanish power from Cuba landed on the coast of Mexico within the spring of 1520. It had been despatched by Velázquez to unseat Cortés. When Cortés heard of this, he took a power of Spanish and Tlaxcalan troopers and marched on the brand new Spanish power, based on World Historical past Encyclopedia. Cortés defeated the Spanish power, however when he returned to Tenochtitlán he discovered the Aztecs had launched a significant assault on the Spanish garrison.
At first, Cortés tried to quell the assault by forcing Montezuma to deal with the Aztec forces that had gathered. However, by now, the Aztecs had been distrustful of their king. In an occasion that’s nonetheless debated by students, Montezuma was killed. It’s unclear whether or not he was killed by his personal forces — some accounts have him being stoned by his warriors — or by the Spanish, based on the Thought Firm (opens in new tab). Within the Aztec accounts, Montezuma survives the assault by his warriors however is later strangled to dying by the Spanish.
Cortés and his males fled the town. However their retreat was pricey they usually suffered vital losses, together with a lot of the plunder they’d stolen from the town.
Nonetheless, the Spanish had been there lengthy sufficient to begin a smallpox epidemic in Tenochtitlán. One in all Cortés’ males contracted smallpox from a member of the power from Cuba. That soldier died throughout the Aztec riot, and when his physique was looted, an Aztec caught the illness, which unfold like wildfire as a result of the Aztec folks had no immunity to it, based on Historical past.com (opens in new tab). Between one-quarter and one-half of the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, together with Aztecs and different Native Individuals, succumbed to the illness, based on Suzanne Alchon, a historian and creator of the guide A Pest within the Land, New World Epidemics in a World Perspective (opens in new tab) (College of New Mexico Press, 2003).
With assist from the folks of Tlaxcala, Cortés’ military regrouped and returned to Tenochtitlán on June 25, 1520. They discovered that the town’s society had crumbled. Nonetheless, the Aztec warriors, below their new chief Cuauhtemoc, resisted the Spanish and a protracted siege ensued. Lastly, after 93 days of siege, the Aztecs, weakened by illness, starvation and having incurred vital losses following many pitched battles, surrendered, based on World Historical past Encyclopedia. This give up unleashed a storm of violence, looting, rape and carnage because the Spanish and their Tlaxacalan allies descended on the town.
As soon as the town fell, Cortés started constructing Mexico Metropolis on the ruins. It rapidly grew to become a pre-eminent metropolis within the Spanish colonies, and plenty of Europeans got here to dwell there. To reward his success, King Charles I of Spain appointed Cortés governor of New Spain.
The conquest of Mexico by the Spanish resulted in 1525, although some Aztecs and their allies continued to withstand the Spanish based on World Historical past Encyclopedia (opens in new tab). Nonetheless, the change to Spanish rule had large and long-lasting penalties. Most of the Indigenous folks had been now pressured into the function of subservience and a brand new, virtually caste-like social order was created with the Spanish occupying the very best positions of energy and the Indigenous folks the bottom. This social dynamic would characterize Mexico for hundreds of years.
In 1524, Cortés organized an expedition to Honduras, part of central America that had not but been conquered by the Spanish. He stayed for 2 years, establishing a metropolis and appointing a governor, however when he returned to Mexico, he discovered that the allies he had left in Mexico Metropolis had turned in opposition to him, based on Britannica. He discovered himself faraway from energy, and accused of illegally enriching himself. Cortés traveled to Spain to plead with the king, however he was by no means once more appointed to governorship. In Spain, he married for a second time, to a Spanish noblewoman named Dona Juana de Zuniga, a union that produced three youngsters.
The king did enable him to return to Mexico, albeit with a lot much less authority. Cortés explored the northern a part of Mexico and found Baja California for Spain within the late 1530s. In 1540, he retired to Spain and spent a lot of his final years in search of recognition and rewards for his achievements.
Annoyed and embittered, Cortés determined to return to Mexico. Earlier than he might go, nonetheless, he died in 1547 of pleurisy, an irritation of the tissues that line the lungs and chest cavity.
Cortés is a controversial determine, particularly in Mexico, due to his therapy of Natives. Sadly, “when it got here to the Indigenous folks, Cortés was not distinctive in his therapy and mindset,” Cosme stated. “He enslaved a lot of the Native inhabitants, and most of the Indigenous folks had been worn out from European illnesses equivalent to smallpox. Each eventualities would sadly develop into a standard theme amongst many explorers’ interactions with Natives.”
Nonetheless, Cortés was necessary in reshaping the world. “Cortés’ victory secured new and worthwhile land and alternatives for the Spanish monarch. He helped oversee the constructing of Mexico Metropolis, which remains to be Mexico’s capital at the moment,” Cosme stated. “He opened the door for additional exploration and conquest of Central America to the south, and finally led to the acquisition of California towards the north.”
Initially printed on Stay Science on Sept. 28, 2017 and up to date on July 5, 2022.