Of impoverished origins, Hernando Cortz was the Spanish conquistador who, beginning in 1519, led a small force of Spanish soldiers against the Aztec Empire of Mexico. With his native allies, mostly consisting of Aztec subject peoples, Cortz vanquished the mighty Aztecs in a two-year campaign. In the process, he became the ruler of a vast territory, stretching from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Intrigues at the Spanish court of Charles V, however, led to Cortz's dismissal as governor of Mexico, and he was forced to return to Spain to defend his reputation.
Cortz was born in 1485 to a noble, but poor, family in the Extremadura region of Spain. At the age of 14, he was sent to study at the University of Salamanca, Spain's finest, where he earned a reputation as intelligent but also ruthlessly ambitious and quarrelsome. Upon graduating, Cortz first gravitated toward a military career.
In 1503, at the age of 19, however, he became convinced by tales of Christopher Columbus's journeys to the Western Hemisphere to set sail for Hispaniola the base of Spain's incipient American empire. After working as a farmer and legal official for a half-dozen years, he joined Diego Velzquez's expedition to conquer the island of Cuba. Rising through the ranks, Cortz became mayor of the Cuban capital at Santiago; he also received a repartimiento, or gift of land with native peoples as slaves.
An able administrator, Cortz soon won the respect of Velzquez, who chose him in 1518 to lead an expedition to establish a settlement on the eastern coast of the mainland, near present-day Tabasco, Mexico. Early the following year, Cortz set sail with six ships and 300 men. Known for his diplomatic abilities, he soon won over the local natives, gaining intelligence from them about a great inland empire.
He then sailed up the coast, establishing the city of Veracruz as his base of operations. While Cortz had not received his government's approval to conduct warfare, he soon turned his 300 settlers into a cohesive military unit. To ensure their loyalty, he burned his ships, making it impossible for anyone to return to Hispaniola or Cuba.
To survive, he told his men, they would have to conquer the territory. Cortz's expedition used a mixture of force backed by horses, guns, and armor and diplomacy with the native peoples they encountered as they marched inland. Those who resisted were attacked; those who cooperated, many of them disgruntled subject peoples of the Aztecs, were incorporated into the Spanish force.
In November 1519, Cortz entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitln, with several hundred Spaniards and about 1,000 Tlaxcaltecs, the Aztecs' chief enemies. There, he was greeted with great respect by the emperor Montezuma II, who may have believed Cortz an incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl. Fearing a trap, Cortz made Montezuma II his prisoner.
Meanwhile, other Spaniards began to hear of Cortz's success and started to plot against him. In 1520, an expedition from Cuba led by Pnfilo de Narvez landed in Mexico. Cortz quickly defeated Narvez's forces and made the survivors part of his own army.
During his absence, however, the Aztecs had risen in rebellion, laying siege to the Spanish garrison at Tenochtitln. With great loss of life to the Spaniards, Aztecs, and Tlaxcaltecs, Cortz managed to lift the siege and move his forces out of the city. After a period of regrouping, he marched again on Tenochtitln in December 1520.
Following eight months of siege laying and street fighting, Cortz had once again conquered the Aztec capital. He became absolute ruler of Mexico, rebuilding the city and renaming it Mexico City. Still, he remained restless, setting off on an ill-fated, two-year expedition to conquer Central America in 1524.
While away, underlings seized his property and began to abuse his Aztec subjects. All of this news eventually reached Spain, where members of the court had convinced Charles V that Cortz, 8,000 miles distant, had too much power and was likely to establish Mexico as his own independent kingdom. To counter this talk, he sent five lengthy letters pledging his loyalty.
An envoy was sent to investigate, but he died soon after arriving, leading to rumors that Cortz had him poisoned. In 1528, Cortz felt compelled to return to Spain, with a fabulous treasure in tow. Impressed, Charles V did not punish him, but he did not give him the governorship of Mexico that Cortz so desired.
Instead, Charles V offered him lowlier titles and property in Mexico. Upon his return to the New World, Cortz settled on his plantations near Cuernavaca, about 30 miles south of Mexico City. Legal problems over land and titles continued to plague him.
He returned to Spain, where he died in 1547. James Ciment See also: Aztec; Montezuma II; New Spain; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Johnson, William Weber.
Cortz. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. Prescott, William Hickling.
History of the Conquest of Mexico. 3 vols. Chicago: Hooper, Clarke, 1843.
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