Hernán(do) Cortés, Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca (1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish explorer, military commander, and colonizer whose daring conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico for Spain in 1521 led to the eventual subjugation and effective elimination of native American culture in Mesoamerica.
Cortés adopted methods in the conquest of Mexico like those of other Conquistadors, including torture, the capture of indigenous leaders, and large-scale destruction of lives and property in the quest for gold and other riches. Nevertheless, many argue that he dealt with the natives more humanely than did his successors. Cortes was an efficient soldier and administrator who demonstrated relative restraint during the conquest, sought to make peace with Indian tribes, resisted slavery, issued edicts against human sacrifice, and sought peaceful conversion of Indians to the Christian faith. Cortés hoped to acquire a productive province informed by Christian principles, not a slave state administered by rapacious overlords.
Spanish conquest of the New World was justified morally through self-serving arguments for Christianizing indigenous peoples and politically through the grandiose division of the known world between Spain and Portugal by Pope Alexander VI at the Treaty at Tordesillas in 1494. Later Spanish colonial administrations largely dismissed Mesoamerican cultural achievements, while dispossessing them of their lands, languages, and heritage. Conquest was also aided by the diseases the Spanish introduced for which indigenous Americans had no immunity.
While acknowledging the widespread human suffering and cultural destruction of the colonial process, one can nevertheless assess protagonists like Hernan Cortes on the basis of their motives and deeds within the given context in which they played their part.
Cortés was born in Medellín, in the province of Extremadura, in the Kingdom of Castile in Spain in 1485. His father, Martín Cortés de Monroy, was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but slender means. His mother was Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, Hernan was second cousin to Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca Civilization of modern-day Peru (not to be confused with another Francisco Pizarro who joined Cortés to conquer the Aztecs).
Cortés is described as a sickly child by his biographer, chaplain, and friend Francisco López de Gómara. At the age of 14, Cortés was sent to study at the University of Salamanca. This was the great center of learning of the country and while accounts vary as to the nature of Cortés' studies, his later writings and actions suggest he studied law and probably Latin.
After two years, Cortés, tired of schooling, returned home to Medellín, much to the annoyance of his parents, who had hoped to see him equipped for a profitable legal career. However, those two years at Salamanca, plus his long period of training and experience as a notary—first in Seville and later in Hispaniola—would give him a close acquaintance with the legal codes of Castile that was to stand him in good stead in justifying his unauthorized conquest of Mexico.
At this point in his life, Cortés was described by Gómara as restless, haughty, and mischievous. This was probably a fair description of a 16-year-old boy who had returned home only to find himself frustrated by life in his small provincial town. By this time, news of the exciting discoveries of Columbus in the New World was streaming back to Spain. Cortés and his family must have been well aware of the potential it might hold for a young adventurous man.
Plans were made in 1502 for Cortés to sail to the Americas with a family acquaintance, Nicolas de Ovando, the newly appointed governor of Hispaniola, but an injury sustained while hurriedly escaping from the bedroom of a married woman of Medellin prevented him from making the journey. Instead, he spent the next year wandering the country.
In 1503 at the age of 18, Cortés sailed in a convoy of merchant ships bound for Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola. He finally 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 conquistadors is rife with accounts of rivalry, jockeying for position, mutiny and betrayal.
Upon his arrival, Cortés registered as a citizen, which entitled him to a building plot and land for cultivation. Soon afterwards, Ovando, still the governor, gave him a repartimiento of Indians and made him a notary of the town of Azuza. His next five years seem to have served to establish him in the colony, though he managed to contract syphilis from Indian women in the area, a disease which until that time had been unknown in the Old World but which wrought great havoc after its introduction there. In 1506 he took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba and got a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his effort.
In 1511, he accompanied Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, an aide of the governor of Hispaniola, in his expedition to conquer Cuba. At the age of 26, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer, with the responsibility of making sure the king of Spain got one-fifth of the profits from gold and slaves.
The governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, was so impressed with Cortés that he secured a high political position for him in the colony. Cortés continued to build a reputation as a daring and bold leader and became secretary for Governor Velázquez. Cortés was appointed mayor (alcalde) of Santiago. In Cuba, Cortés became a man of substance with a repartimiento of Indians, mines and cattle. In 1514, Cortés led a group that wanted more natives for the settlers. As time went on, relations between Cortés and governor Velázquez became strained. The governor twice jailed the young cavalier, although each time Cortés managed to escape.
Cortés also found time to become romantically involved with Catalina Xuárez (or Juárez), the sister-in-law of Velázquez. Part of Velázquez' 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 Velázquez. However, by doing so, he secured the good will of both her family and of Velázquez. 
It was not until he had been almost 15 years in the West Indies that Cortés began to look beyond his substantial status as mayor of the capital of Cuba and man of affairs in the thriving colony.
In 1517 Cuban governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, commissioned a fleet of three ships under the command of Hernández de Córdoba to sail west and explore the Yucatán peninsula. Córdoba reached the coast and the Mayans at Cape Catoche invited the Spaniards to land. Córdoba took two prisoners whom he named Melchor and Julian to be interpreters. On the western side of the Yucatán, the Spaniards were attacked at night by Maya chief Mochcouoh (Mochh Couoh). Twenty Spaniards were killed. Córdoba was mortally wounded and only a remnant of his crew returned to Cuba.
The year after the ill-fated Córdoba expedition, Governor Velázquez decided to commission another expedition under the leadership of his nephew Juan de Grijalva. Grijalva's expedition of four ships sailed south along the coast of Yucatan to the Tabasco region, a part of the Aztec empire.
Even before Grijalva returned to Cuba, Velázquez decided to send a third and even larger expedition to explore the Mexican coast. Cortés, then one of Velázquez's favorites, was named as the commander, a decision which created much envy and resentment among the Spanish contingent in the Cuban colony. Velázquez's instructions to Cortés, in an agreement signed on October 23, 1518, were to lead an expedition to initiate trade relations with the indigenous coastal tribes.
One account suggests that Governor Velázquez wished to restrict the Cortés expedition to being a pure trading expedition. Invasion of the mainland was to be a privilege reserved for himself. However, by calling upon the knowledge of the law of Castile that he gained while a student in Salamanca and by utilizing his famous powers of persuasion, Cortés was able to maneuver Governor Velázquez into inserting a clause into his orders which enabled Cortés to take emergency measures without prior authorization if such were deemed "in the true interests of the realm." Perceiving this to be the opportunity of a lifetime, Cortés embarked on this enterprise zealously and energetically. He began assembling a fleet of eleven ships and a force of well-armed men.
Cortés ostentatiously invested a considerable part of his personal fortune to equip the expedition. Cortés committed the greater part of his assets and went into debt to borrow additional funds when his assets ran out. Governor Velázquez personally contributed nearly half the cost of the expedition.
The ostentatiousness of his endeavor probably added to the envy and resentment of the Spanish contingent in Cuba who were also keenly aware of the opportunity that this assignment offered for fame, fortune, and glory. Velázquez himself must have been keenly aware that whoever conquered the mainland for Spain would gain fame, glory, and fortune to eclipse anything that could be achieved in Cuba. Thus, as the preparations for departure drew to a close, the governor became suspicious that Cortés would be disloyal to him and try to commandeer the expedition for his own purposes, namely to establish himself as governor of Mexico, independent of Velázquez' control.
For this reason, Velázquez sent Luis de Medina with orders to replace Cortés. However, Cortés' brother-in-law had Medina intercepted and killed. The papers that Medina had been carrying were sent to Cortés. Thus warned, Cortés accelerated the organization and preparation of his expedition.
He was ready to set sail on the morning of February 18, 1519 when Velázquez arrived at the dock in person, determined to revoke Cortés' commission. But Cortés, pleading that "time presses," hurriedly set sail thus literally beginning his conquest of Mexico with the legal status of a mutineer.
Cortés' contingent consisted of 11 ships carrying about 100 sailors, 530 soldiers (including 30 crossbowmen and 12 harquebusiers), a doctor, several carpenters, at least eight women, a few hundred Cuban Indians and some Africans, both freedmen and slaves.
Cortés spent some time at Cozumel, trying to convert the locals to Christianity and achieving mixed results. While at Cozumel, Cortés heard reports of other white men living in the Yucatan. Cortés sent messengers to these reported castilianos, who turned out to be the survivors of the 1511 shipwreck, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero.
Aguilar petitioned his Mayan chieftain to be allowed leave to join with his former countrymen, and he was released and made his way to Cortés' ships. According to Bernal Díaz, Aguilar relayed that before coming he had unsuccessfully attempted to convince Guerrero to leave as well. Guerrero declined on the basis that he was by now well-assimilated with the Maya culture, had a Maya wife and three children, and he was looked upon as a figure of rank within the Mayan settlement of Chetuma where he lived..
Although Guerrero's later fate is somewhat uncertain, it appears that for some years he continued to fight alongside the Mayan forces against Spanish incursions, providing military counsel and encouraging resistance; it is speculated that he may have been killed in a later battle.
Aguilar, now quite fluent in Yucatec Maya as well as some other Mesoamerican languages, would prove to be a valuable asset for Cortés as a translator—a skill of particular significance to the later conquest of the Aztec Empire which would be the end result of Cortés' expedition.
Later in the voyage a young woman, La Malinche, would be given to Cortés as a slave by the Chontal Maya inhabitants of the Tabasco coast. La Malinche spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and a regional lingua franca, as well as Chontal Maya, which was also understood by Aguilar. Cortés would be able to use the two of them to communicate with the central Mexican peoples and the Aztec court.
After leaving Cozumel, Cortés continued round the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and landed at Potonchanon, where there was little gold. However, Cortés discovered a far more valuable asset in the form of a woman whom Cortés called Doña Marina. She is often known as Malinche and also sometimes called "Malintzin" or Mallinali. Later, the Aztecs would come to call Cortés "Malintzin" by dint of his close association with her.
Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote in his account The True History of the Conquest of New Spain that Doña Marina was "an Aztec princess sold into Mayan slavery." Although she was not an Aztec princess, Cortés had stumbled upon one of the keys to realizing his ambitions. He would speak to Gerónimo de Aguilar in Spanish, who would then translate into Mayan for Malinche. Malinche would then translate from Mayan to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. With this pair of translators, Cortés could now communicate to the Aztecs quite effectively.
Christened Marina by Cortés, she later learned Spanish, became Cortés' mistress and bore him a son. To some of her own people, her name would be referred in Spanish as "La Malinche", which became a term that denotes a traitor to one's people. To this day, the word malinchista is used by Mexicans to denote one who apes the language and customs of another country. La Malinche was later made legendary through depictions in book and film.
Cortés landed his expedition force at the natural harbor on the coast of the modern day state of Veracruz. He learned of an indigenous settlement called Cempoala and marched his forces there. On their arrival in Cempoala, they were greeted by 20 dignitaries and cheering townsfolk. Cortés quickly persuaded the Totonac chief Xicomecoatl (also known as King Chicomacatt) to rebel against the Aztecs.
Faced with imprisonment or death for defying the governor if he returned to Cuba, Cortés' only alternative was to continue on with his enterprise in the hope of redeeming himself with the Spanish Crown. To do this, he directed his men to establish a settlement called La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. The legally-constituted "town council of Villa Rica" then promptly offered him the post of captain-general.
By getting himself elected as chief administrative officer, Cortés was able to renounce his obligation as a subordinate of Governor Velásquez. Ironically, Velásquez had used this same legal mechanism to free himself from Columbus' authority in Cuba.
The Totonacs helped Cortés build the town of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz which was his starting point for his attempt to conquer the Aztec empire. This settlement eventually grew into the city now known as Veracruz ("True Cross").
Cortés learned that the land was ruled by Moctezuma II, the huey tlatoani in the city of Tenochtitlan. Initially, the Aztecs offered little resistance to the advances of the conquerors. In fact, ambassadors from Moctezuma II soon arrived with additional gifts. In his letters to Charles V, Cortés claims to have learned at this point that he was considered by the Aztecs to be either an emissary of Quetzalcoatl, a legendary god-king who controlled lightning and who, according to a prophecy, would return on a day in one of the One-Reed years to reclaim his city, or Quetzalcoatl himself. The Pre-Columbian calendar was divided into 52 year periods or cycles. Every 52nd year was a "Ce-Acatl" or One-Reed year; 1519, the year of Cortés' arrival, was a One-Reed year, further attesting to Cortés as Quetzalcoatl.
While Quetzalcoatl was a mythic god whom the Mexica saw as a tie to the earlier Toltec peoples from whom they claimed descent, there is little known evidence supporting a pre-Hispanic myth alleging his "return." Ironically, Cortés does not mention the alleged "god worship" episode in his letters to King Charles V of Spain. He may not even have known about it.
Primary accounts of the event indicate that both the Aztec and Spanish were under some impression that Cortes was in fact Quetzalcoatl. Indigenous sources specify that towers or small mountains were seen from a distance floating towards them from the eastern sea. In addition to this account further descriptions explain that the men who arrived from this direction had lighter skin, long beards, and shorter hair on their heads. The acknowledgment of Spanish arrival motivated Moctezuma to send gifts as he truly believed that the foretold Aztec divinity had arrived to the lands of the great empire.
The Spaniards also provided primary accounts that sustained their awareness as the perceived Aztec divinity. In Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, he outlined that Moctezuma explained to them that he truly believed that they were those whom his Aztec ancestors had prophesied about. Moctezuma elaborated about the arrival of those from the “direction of the sunrise” who would have tremendous military success and rule over them and the domains in which the inhabit .
Modern scholarship has begun to question this version of events, however. Some argue that this Cortés-Quetzalcoatl connection was a post-colonial retelling by the Mexica to account for the Conquest. Some argue that this was a natural evolution from the Mexica concept of cosmology, in which (it is asserted) time is cyclical; therefore, the Mexica must have believed that events in the past would be repeated in the future (such as Quetzalcoatl's return). Finally, some assert that the myth was a fabrication of the Spanish, used both to assert the inevitability of the outcome of the Conquest and to forge a link between the ancient gods and Christ (to whom Quetzalcoatl was often implicitly compared).
Noted Aztec scholars like Ross Hassig of the University of Oklahoma have argued that Quetzalcoatl was actually a religious order of priests during the previous Toltec era. This order of priests, under the tutelage of its leader—Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl—is famous for its exile into the eastern area of Mexico (what is now known as Yucatán). It may have been thought, then, that the Spaniards were of the lineage of that "Order of Quetzalcoatl," and hence, deserved serious diplomatic accommodations.
Those of his men still loyal to the Governor of Cuba conspired to seize a ship and escape to Cuba, but Cortés moved swiftly to quash their plans. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to scuttle his ships, on the pretext that they were no longer seaworthy. There is a popular misconception that Cortés burned the ships instead of scuttling them. This may have come from a mistranslation of the version of the story written in Latin.
With all of his ships scuttled except for one small ship with which to communicate with Spain, Cortés effectively stranded the expedition in Mexico and ended all thoughts of loyalty to the Governor of Cuba. Cortés then led his band inland towards the fabled Tenochtitlan. The ship was loaded with the Royal Fifth (the King of Spain claimed 20 percent of all spoils) of the Aztec treasure they had obtained so far in order to speed up Cortés' claim to the governorship.
In addition to the Spaniards, Cortés force now included 40 Cempoalan warrior chiefs and 200 other natives whose task it was to drag the cannon and carry the supplies. The Cempoalans were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail as they marched towards Tenochtitlan.
Cortés arrived at Tlaxcala, a confederacy of about 200 towns, but without central government. Their main city was Tlaxcala. After almost a century of fighting the flower wars, a great deal of hatred and bitterness had developed between the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs. The Aztecs had already conquered much of the territory around Tlaxcala. It is possible that the Aztecs left Tlaxcala independent in order to have a constant supply of war captives to sacrifice to their gods.
The Tlaxcalans initially greeted the Spanish with hostile action and the two sides fought a series of skirmishes, which eventually forced the Spaniards up onto a hill where they were surrounded. Bernal Diaz del Castillo describes the first battle between the Spanish force and the Tlaxcalteca as surprisingly difficult. He writes that they probably would not have survived, had not Xicotencatl the Elder persuaded his son, the Tlaxcallan warleader, Xicotencatl the Younger, that it would be better to ally with the newcomers than to kill them.
On September 18, 1519, Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala and was greeted with joy by the rulers, who already saw the Spanish as a possible ally against the Aztecs. Due to a commercial blockade by the Aztecs, Tlaxcala was poor, lacking, among other things, both salt and cotton cloth, so they could only offer Cortés and his men food and women. Cortés stayed 20 days in Tlaxcala. It was there that he could appreciate for the first time the way of life of the inhabitants of Mesoamerica. Cortés seems to have won the true friendship of the old leaders of Tlaxcala, among them Maxixcatzin and Xicotencatl the Elder, although he could not win the confidence of Xicotencatl the Younger. The Spaniards agreed to respect parts of the city, like the temples, and only took what was offered to them freely. During this time Cortés talked about the benefits of Christianity and legends say that he convinced the four leaders of Tlaxcala to become baptized. Maxixcatzin, Xicotencatl the Elder, Citalpopocatzin and Temiloltecutl received the names of Don Lorenzo, Don Vicente, Don Bartolomé and Don Gonzalo.
It is difficult to know if they understood the Catholic faith. In any event, they apparently had no problems in adding the new god "Dios" (in Spanish), the lord of the heavens, to their already complex pantheon of gods.
An exchange of gifts was made and thus began the alliance between Cortés and Tlaxcala.
Meanwhile Mexican ambassadors continued to press Cortés to leave Tlaxcala, the "city of poor and thieves" and go to the neighboring city of Cholula, which was under Aztec influence. Cholula was one of the most important cities of Mesoamerica, the second largest, and probably the most sacred. Its huge pyramid made it one of the most prestigious places of the Aztec religion. However, it appears that Cortés perceived Cholula as a military power rather than a religious center.
The leaders of Tlaxcala urged Cortés to go instead to Huexotzingo, a city allied to Tlaxcala. Cortés, who had not yet decided to start a war by going to Huexotzingo, decided to make a compromise. He accepted the gifts of the Mexica ambassadors, but also accepted the offer of the Tlaxclateca to provide porters and warriors. He sent two men, Pedro de Alvarado, and Bernardino Vázquez de Tapia, on foot (he did not want to spare any horses), directly to Tenochtitlan, as ambassadors. On October 12, 1519, Cortés and his men, accompanied by about 3,000 Tlaxcalteca, marched to Cholula.
There are contradictory reports of what happened at Cholula. Moctezuma had apparently tried to stop the advance of Cortés and his troops, and it seems that he ordered the leaders of Cholula to try to stop him. Cholula had a very small army, since as a sacred city, they put their confidence in their prestige and their gods. Unfortunately, they were playing by Native American rules, not Spanish rules. According to the chronicles of the Tlaxcalteca, the priest of Cholula expected to use the power of Quetzalcoatl against them. But La Malinche relayed to Cortés a rumor that the locals planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep and appropriate precautions were taken.
Although he did not know if the rumor was true or not, Cortés ordered a pre-emptive strike to serve as a lesson, urged on by the Tlaxcalans, the enemies of the Cholulans. The Spaniards seized and killed many of the local nobles. After Cortés arrived to Cholula he seized their leaders Tlaquiach and Tlalchiac and then ordered the city set afire. The troops started in the palace of Xacayatzin, and then on to Chialinco and Yetzcoloc. In his letters, Cortés claimed that in three hours time his troops killed 3,000 people and burned the city. Another witness, Vazquez de Tapia, claimed the death toll was as high as 30,000.
The Azteca and Tlaxclateca histories of the events leading up to the massacre differ. The Tlaxcalteca claimed that their ambassador Patlahuatzin was sent to Cholula and had been tortured by the Cholula. Thus, Cortés was avenging him by attacking the Cholula.
The Aztec version put the blame on the Tlaxcalteca claiming that they resented Cortés going to Cholula instead of Huexotzingo.
The massacre had a chilling effect on the other Mesoamerican cultures and on the Mexica themselves. The tale of the massacre inclined the other cultures in the Aztec empire to submit to Cortés' demands rather than risk the same fate.
Cortés then sent emissaries to Moctezuma with the message that the people of Cholula had treated him with disrespect and had therefore been punished. Cortés' message continued that the Aztecs need not fear his wrath if Moctezuma treated him with respect and gifts of gold.
It took nearly three months for Cortés and his men to reach the outskirts of Tenochtitlan, the island capital city of the Aztecs, located at the center of modern Mexico City. It is believed that the city was one of the largest in the world at that time. Of all the cities in Europe, only Constantinople was larger than Tenochtitlan. The most common estimates put the population at around 60,000 to over 300,000 people.
According to the Aztec chronicles recorded by Sahagún, the Aztec ruler welcomed him with great pomp. A fragment of the greetings of Moctezuma say:
"My lord, you have become fatigued, you have become tired: to the land you have arrived. You have come to your city: México, here you have come to sit on your place, on your throne. Oh, it has been reserved to you for a small time, it was conserved by those who have gone, your substitutes…. This is what has been told by our rulers, those of whom governed this city, ruled this city. That you would come to ask for your throne, your place, that you would come here. Come to the land, come and rest: take possession of your royal houses, give food to your body."
According to Sahagún's manuscript, Moctezuma personally dressed Cortés with flowers from his own gardens, the highest honor he could give, although probably Cortés did not understand the significance of the gesture.
Many historians are skeptical of Sahagun's account that Moctezuma personally met Cortés on the Great Causeway, because of the many proscriptions and prohibitions regarding the emperor vis-à-vis his subjects. For instance, when Moctezuma dined, he ate behind a screen so as to shield him from his court and servants. There were various restrictions on seeing and touching his person. Given Mexica feelings towards the dirty, rude, and unwashed Spaniard, it seems highly unlikely that Moctezuma would have personally met them as they came into the city: to do so would have been to profane himself in front of his people.
This contradiction between "the arrogant emperor" and the "humble servant of Quetzalcoatl" has been problematic for historians to explain and has led to a lot of speculation. All the proscriptions and prohibitions regarding Moctezuma and his people had been established by Moctezuma, and were not part of the traditional Aztec customs. Those prohibitions had already caused friction between Moctezuma and the pillis (upper classes). There is even an Aztec legend in which Huemac, the legendary last lord of Tollan Xicotitlan, instructed Moctezuma to live humbly, and eat only the food of the poor, to divert a future catastrophe. Thus, it seems out of character for Moctezuma to violate rules that he himself had promulgated.
Moctezuma had the palace of his father Auítzotl prepared to house the Spanish and their 3000 native allies. Cortés asked Moctezuma to provide more gifts of gold to demonstrate his fealty as a vassal of Charles V. Cortés also demanded that the two large idols be removed from the main temple pyramid in the city, the human blood scrubbed off, and shrines to the Virgin Mary and Saint Christopher be set up in their place. All his demands were met. Cortés then seized Moctezuma in his own palace and made him his prisoner as insurance against Aztec revolt, and demanded an enormous ransom of gold, which was duly delivered.
Knowing that their leader was in chains and being required to feed not just a band of Spaniards but thousands of their Tlaxcalteca allies, the populace of Tenochtitlan began to feel a strain weighing upon them.
At this point, Cortés received news from the coast that a much larger party of Spaniards under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez had arrived. Narváez had been sent by Governor Velázquez not only to supersede Cortés, but to arrest him and bring him to trial in Cuba for insubordination, mutiny and treason.
Cortés' response was arguably one of the most daring of his many exploits. Some describe it as absolutely reckless but he really had few other options. If arrested and convicted, he could have been executed. Leaving only one hundred and forty men under Pedro de Alvarado to hold Tenochtitlan, Cortés set out against Narvaez, who had nine hundred soldiers, whereas Cortés, reinforced as he approached the coast, mustered about two hundred and sixty. With this much smaller force, Cortés surprised his antagonist by means of a night attack during which Cortés' men took Narváez prisoner.
The move was a desperate one, but the secret of Cortés' success lay in his marvellously quick movements, for which Narváez was not prepared, as well as in his rapid return to the plateau, by which he surprised the Indians who held Alvarado and his people at their mercy.
The desperate defense of the Spaniards in the absence of Cortés would have been unavailing had the latter not moved quickly. In contrast with that lightning-like quickness, but equally well adapted to the necessities of the case, was the methodical investment and capture of the Tenochtitlan, showing the flexibility of the Cortés in adapting his tactics to various situations.
When Cortés told the defeated soldiers about the city of gold, Tenochtitlan, they agreed to join him. (Narváez lost an eye, but an even worse fate awaited him during the exploration of Florida, where he was killed.) Cortés then had to lead the combined forces on an arduous trek back over the Sierra Madre Oriental. Years later, when asked what the new land was like, Cortés crumpled up a piece of parchment, then spread it part way out: "Like this", he said.
Meanwhile, other Aztec nobles were in dismay at the royal submissive attitude and planned a successful, but temporary, rebellion which resulted in driving Cortés and his allies out of Tenochtitlan.
When Cortés returned to the city, he found that Alvarado and his men had attacked and killed many of the Aztec nobility during a festival. Alvarado's explanation to Cortés was that Alvarado had learned that the Aztecs planned to attack the Spanish garrison in the city once the festival was complete, and so he had launched a preemptive attack. Considerable doubt has been cast by different commentators on this explanation, which may have been self-serving rationalization on the part of Alvarado, who may have attacked out of fear (or greed) where no immediate threat existed. In any event, the population of the city rose en masse after the Spanish attack.
The Aztec troops besieged the palace housing the Spaniards and Moctezuma. The people of Tenochtitlan chose a new leader, Cuitláhuac. Cortés ordered Moctezuma to speak to his people from a palace balcony and persuade them to let the Spanish return to the coast in peace. Moctezuma was jeered and stones were thrown at him, injuring him badly. Moctezuma died a few days later (accounts as to who was actually guilty of his death do not agree; Aztec informants in later years insisted that Cortés had him killed.) After his death Cuitláhuac was elected as Tlatoani.
The Spaniards and their allies had to flee the city, as the population of Tenochtitlan had risen against them and the Spanish situation could only deteriorate. They took all the gold they could carry; Bernal Diaz relates that the men formerly of Narvaez' contingent particularly loaded themselves down. Because the Aztecs had removed the bridges over the gaps in the causeways that linked the city to the mainland, Cortés' men constructed a portable bridge with which to cross the openings. On the rainy night of July 1, 1520, the Spaniards and their allies set out for the mainland via the causeway to Tlacopan. They placed the bridge unit in the first gap, but at that moment their movement was detected and Aztec forces attacked, both along the causeway and by means of canoes on the lake. The Spanish were thus caught on a narrow road with water on two sides. The retreat quickly turned into chaos. The Spanish discovered that they could not remove their bridge unit from the first gap, and so had no choice but to leave it behind. The bulk of the Spanish infantry, left behind by Cortés and the other horsemen, had to cut their way through the masses of Aztec warriors opposing them. Many of the Spaniards, weighed down by gold, drowned in the causeway gaps or were killed by the Aztecs. Much of the wealth the Spaniards had acquired in Tenochtitlan was lost in this manner. During the escape, Alvarado is alleged to have jumped across one of the narrower channels. The channel is now a street in Mexico City, called "Puente de Alvarado" (Alvarado's Bridge). (Because it seemed that Alvarado crossed an invisible bridge in order to escape.)
In this retreat the Spaniards suffered heavy casualties, losing probably more than 600 of their own number and several thousand Tlaxcalan warriors. It is said that Cortés, upon reaching the mainland at Tlacopan, wept over their losses. This episode is called "La Noche Triste" (The sad night), and the old tree ("El árbol de la noche triste") where Cortés allegedly cried is still a monument in Mexico.
The Aztecs pursued and harassed the Spanish, who, guided by their Tlaxcalan allies, moved around Lake Zumpango toward sanctuary in Tlaxcala. On 8 July 1520, the Aztecs attempted to destroy the Spanish for good at the battle of Otumba. Although hard-pressed, the Spanish infantry was able to hold off the overwhelming numbers of enemy warriors, while the Spanish cavalry under the leadership of Cortés charged through the enemy ranks again and again. When Cortés and his men killed one of the Aztec leaders, the enemy broke off the battle and left the field. The Spanish were able then to complete their escape to Tlaxcala. There they were given assistance and comfort, since almost all of them were wounded, and only 20 horses were left. The Aztecs sent emissaries and asked the Tlaxcalteca to turn over the Spaniards to them, but the people of Tlaxcala refused.
While the flower wars had started as a mutual agreement, the Tlaxcala and the Aztecs had become entangled in a true war. The Aztecs had conquered almost all the territories around Tlaxcala, closing off commerce with them. The Tlaxcalteca knew it was just a matter of time before the Aztecs tried to conquer Tlaxcala itself. Therefore, most of the Tlaxcalan leaders were receptive when Cortés, once his men had the chance to recuperate, proposed an alliance to conquer Tenochtitlan. Xicotencatl the Younger, however, opposed the idea, and instead connived with the Aztec ambassadors in an attempt to form a new alliance with the Mexicans, since the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs shared the same language and religion. Finally the elders of Tlaxcala accepted Cortés' offer under stringent conditions: they would not be required to pay any form of tribute to the Spaniards, they should receive the city of Cholula in return, they would have the right to build a fortress in Tenochtitlan, so they could have control of the city, and they would receive a share of the spoils of war.
Cortés knew that without this alliance the Spanish had little chance of surviving, especially if the Tlaxcalteca decided to join the Mexica. He accepted in the name of His Catholic Majesty, Charles V. Unfortunately for the Tlaxcalteca, the Spanish had no intentions of turning over the city of Tenochtitlan to them. While Tlaxcalteca troops continued to help the Spaniards after the fall of Tenochtitlan and the region received better treatment, the Spanish would be the new rulers and would eventually disown the treaty. Forty years after the conquest, the Tlaxcalteca would have to pay the same tributes as any of the other indigenous cultures.
The joint forces of Tlaxcala and Cortés proved to be formidable. One by one they took over most of the cities under Aztec control, some in battle, others by diplomacy. At the end, only Tenochtitlan and the neighboring city of Tlatelolco remained unconquered.
Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan and mounted a siege of the city that relied on cutting the causeways from the mainland, while controlling the lake with armed brigantines constructed by the Spanish. The siege of Tenochtitlan lasted months. The besiegers cut off the supply of food and destroyed the aqueduct carrying water to the city. Even worse, many of the inhabitants of the city were also being ravaged by the effects of smallpox, which was spreading rapidly across most of Mexico, killing hundreds of thousands. In fact, a third of the inhabitants of the entire valley died in less than six months from the new disease brought from Europe. Cannons, horse cavalry, and starvation did the rest. Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, despite the valiant resistance, fell on August 13, 1521 when the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, surrendered to Cortés. Still the Spaniards asked for a last tribute to secure peace: gold, food and women of fair skin.
The city had been almost totally destroyed by fire and cannon shot during the siege, and once it finally fell the Spanish continued its dismantlement, as they soon began to establish the foundations of what would become Mexico City on the site. Meanwhile the surviving Aztec people were forbidden to live in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding isles. The survivors went to live in Tlatelolco.
The Fall of Tenochtitlan is usually referred to as the main episode in the process of the conquest of Mesoamerica. However, this process was much more complex and took longer than the three years that it took Cortés to conquer Tenochtitlan. The Council of the Indies was constituted in 1524 and in 1535, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain named Antonio de Mendoza the first viceroy of New Spain. The name "New Spain" had been suggested by Cortés and was later confirmed officially by Mendoza.
Even after the fall of Tenochtitlan, most of the other Mesoamerican cultures were intact. The Tlaxcalteca expected to get their part of the treaty; the Purepechas and Mixtecs were happy at the defeat of their longtime enemy, and possibly other cultures were equally pleased.
It took almost 60 years of wars for the Spaniards to conquer Mesoamerica and almost 170 years to completely subdue the Yucatán. During this time three separate epidemics that took a heavy toll on the Native Americans, killing almost 75 percent of the population and causing the collapse of Mesoamerican cultures. Some believe that Old World diseases like smallpox caused the death of 90 to 95 percent of the native population of the New World.
It seems that Cortés' intention was to maintain the basic structure of the Aztec empire under his leadership, and at first it seemed the Aztec empire could survive. The upper Aztec classes, at first, were considered as noblemen (to this day, the title of Duke of Moctezuma is held by a Spanish noble family). The upper classes learned Spanish, and several learned to write in European characters. Some of their surviving writings are crucial in our knowledge of the Aztecs. Also, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and some, like Bernardino de Sahagún, decided to learn as much as they could of the Aztec culture.
But soon all that changed. To pay off the Spanish army that captured Mexico the soldiers and officers were granted large areas of land and the natives who lived on them as a type of feudalism. Although officially they could not become slaves, the system, known as encomienda, became a system of oppression and exploitation of natives, although its originators may not have set out with such intent.
In short order, the upper echelons of patrons and priests in the society lived off the work of the lower classes. Due to some horrifying instances of abuse against the indigenous peoples, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas suggested importing black slaves to replace them. La Casas later repented when he saw the even worse treatment given to the black slaves. The other discovery that perpetuated this system was extensive silver mines discovered at Potosi in Peru and other places that were worked for hundreds of years by forced native labor and contributed most of the wealth that flowed to Spain. Spain spent enormous amounts of this wealth hiring mercenaries to fight the Protestant Reformation.
The conquistadors brought with them many priests, and the population was converted rapidly, or at least, nominally so. Because of their success in administrating the territories of reconquered Al-Andalus in Spain, the Catholic Church operated almost as an arm of the Spanish government.
It soon became apparent that most of the natives had adopted "the god of the heavens," as they called it, as just another one of their many gods. While it was an important god, because it was the god of the conquerors, they did not see why they had to abandon their old beliefs. As a result, a second wave of missionaries began a process attempting to completely erase the old beliefs, and thus wiped out many aspects of Mesoamerican culture. Hundreds of thousands of Aztec codices were destroyed, Aztec priests and teachers were persecuted, and the temples and statues of the old gods were destroyed.
The Aztec education system was abolished and replaced by a very limited church education. Even some foods associated with Mesoamerican religious practice, such as amaranto, were forbidden. Eventually, the Indians were not only forbidden to learn of their cultures, but also were forbidden to learn to read and write in Spanish. In some areas, some of the natives were declared minors, and forbidden to learn to read and write, so they would always need a Spanish man in charge of them to be responsible of their indoctrination.
Unlike the English-speaking colonists of North America, the majority of the Spanish colonists were single men who married or made concubines of the natives, and were even encouraged to do so by Queen Isabella during the earliest days of colonization. As a result of these unions, as well as concubinage and secret mistresses, a vast class of people known as "Mestizos" and mulattos came into being. But even if mixes were allowed, the white population tried, largely successfully even today, to keep their status via a caste system.
Because of his conquests and all the gold and jewels he had collected, Cortés was very popular back home in Spain. King Charles I of Spain, who had become Holy Roman emperor in 1519, appointed Cortés governor and captain general of the newly conquered territory. Cortés received the title “Marques del Valle de Oaxaca” (Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley) in 1528.
Cortés served a term as governor-general of "New Spain of the Ocean Sea" (as Juan de Grijalva had named Mexico before Cortés ever saw it), bringing stability and surprising civil rights to the country. He began the construction of Mexico City on the Aztec ruins and brought many Spaniards over to live there. It soon became the most important European city in North America. He managed the founding of new cities and appointed men to extend Spanish rule to all of Mexico, which was renamed Nueva España New Spain. Cortés also supported efforts to convert Indians to Christianity and sponsored new explorations. He spent the next seven years establishing peace among the Indians of Mexico and developing mines and farmlands.
Cortés was one of the first Spaniards to attempt to grow sugar in Mexico and one of the first to import African slaves to early colonial Mexico. At the time of his death his estate contained at least two hundred slaves who were either native Africans or of African descent.
In 1524, his restless urge to explore and conquer took Cortés south to the jungles of Honduras. Cortés took off on an expedition through Guatemala to Honduras to punish a fellow Spaniard who had betrayed him, and with his departure all shadow of personal authority left Mexico. The two arduous years that he spent on this disastrous expedition damaged his health and his position.
The execution of Cuauhtémoc on the journey to Honduras was another instance of the misconception by Cortés of aboriginal conditions. It is not at all unlikely that the Mexican chieftain was party to a plan to exterminate the Spaniards while they were floundering through the forests and swamps, but Cortés had an exaggerated conception of the power and influence of Cuauhtémoc's office. Cortés had Cuauhtémoc hanged over the strong objections of his men. Another account by Bernal Diaz del Castillo says that other Spaniards supported him on his decision to execute Cuauhtémoc, which was carried out by Tlaxcallan soldiers.
Notarized testimony at his subsequent trials (as abundant testimony from friends and enemies alike that this act ruined Cortés. He never forgave himself and in the end he was said to have remarked, "I didn't want it this way."
The impression has prevailed that Cortés was treated by the Spanish government with base ingratitude. It is true that a few years after 1521 an unfavorable change took place in his relations with Charles V and his government. The change never led to an absolute break, but it caused a gradual curtailing of his power which Cortés felt very keenly.
While lavishly contributing his own means at the outset, Cortés made his conquest avowedly as a Spanish subject, for and in behalf of Spain and its monarch. Mexico became a Spanish colony through his instrumentality, but it was the duty of the Spanish government to care for it.
Cortés was not ungenerously rewarded, but he speedily complained of insufficient compensation to himself and his comrades. Thinking himself beyond reach of restraint, he disobeyed many of the orders of the crown, and, what was more imprudent, said so in a letter to the emperor, dated October 15, 1524  In this letter, Cortés, besides recalling in a rather abrupt manner that the conquest of Mexico was due to him alone, deliberately acknowledges his disobedience in terms which could not fail to create a most unfavorable impression.
In 1522 the crown, as was its prerogative, sent two Mexico officers to investigate the condition of affairs, and to report on the conduct of Cortés. To this he could not object, as it was an established custom. The commissioner, Tapia, charged with the investigation, was so hampered by the officers of Cortés that he did not even reach the valley of Mexico, but returned without carrying out his orders. Cortés himself, while keeping at a distance, treated him with the utmost courtesy, but rendered all action on his part impossible. A second commissioner, Luis Ponce de León, was sent in 1526 with discretionary and very dangerous powers. He died at Mexico soon after his arrival, in a manner that leaves little doubt of foul play, although the historian William H. Prescott discredits it, but Prescott did not have access to the documentary material that has since been unearthed.
By 1528, the Spanish government was worried that Cortés was getting out of control in the Americas. His property was seized by the officials he had left in charge, and reports of the cruelty of their administration and the chaos it created aroused concern in Spain.
A number of minor charges were brought against Cortés, and they appear to have been substantiated. They could not fail to create grave suspicion, because they presented the picture of a conspiracy, the object of which was to make Cortés the independent ruler of Mexico. Under such circumstances the least that could be expected was the elimination of Cortés from the government of the new province.
The situation was a very critical one for the crown. Cortés held the country and its resources, and controlled a body of officers and men who had, in 1520, expressed to the emperor in writing their admiration for their captain, and dwelt in the strongest terms on the obligations under which his achievements had placed the mother country. It is true, in case of a clash, Spain might have counted upon the support of the inhabitants of the Antilles, but the military reputation of Cortés had become so great that the selection of a leader against him would have been very embarrassing. Hence a conflict had to be avoided as long as possible. Cortés' position was gradually undermined; titles and honors were conferred upon him, but not the administrative authority he coveted. At the same time his attention was insensibly directed to explorations outside of America, to the much-desired Moluccas or Spice Islands.
At a time when there was almost a certainty in court circles in Spain of an intended rebellion by Cortés, a charge was brought against him that cast a fatal blight upon his character and plans—he was accused of the murder of his first wife. Relatively recently discovered evidence leaves no doubt that Catalina Xuarez was strangled by her husband. The proceedings of the investigation were kept secret. No report, either exonerating or condemning Cortés, was published. Had the government declared him innocent, it would have greatly increased his popularity; had it declared him a criminal, a crisis would have been precipitated by the accused and his party. Silence was the only safe policy. But that silence is a strong indication that grave danger was apprehended from his influence.
Cortés was once quoted as saying that it was "more difficult to contend against (his) own countrymen than against the Aztecs." Governor Velázquez continued to be a thorn in his side, teaming up with Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, chief of the Spanish colonial department, to undermine him at court.
Cortés' fifth letter to Charles V attempts to justify his conduct and concludes with a bitter attack on “various and powerful rivals and enemies” who have “obscured the eyes of your Majesty.” It was his misfortune that he was not dealing simply with a king of Spain, but with an emperor who ruled most of Europe and who had little time for distant colonies, except insofar as they contributed to his treasury.
In 1521, year of the conquest, Charles V was attending to matters in his German domains and Spain was ruled by Bishop Adrian of Utrecht (later pope), who functioned as regent. Velázquez and Fonseca persuaded the regent to appoint a commissioner with powers to investigate Cortés' conduct and even arrest him.
The Spanish bureaucrats sent out a commission of inquiry under Licentiate Luis Ponce de León. Ponce de León arrived to conduct a residencia of Cortés but fell ill and died shortly after his arrival. Before he died, he appointed Marcos de Aguilar as alcalde (mayor). The aged Aguilar also became sick and appointed Alonso de Estrada governor.
Cortés, suspected of poisoning them, refrained from taking over the government. Estrada sent Diego de Figueroa to the south; but de Figueroa raided graveyards and extorted contributions, meeting his end when the ship carrying these treasures sunk.
In August 1527 a royal decree arrived confirming Estrada as governor. Albornoz persuaded him to release Salazar and Chirinos. When Cortés complained angrily after one of his adherent's hand was cut off, Estrada ordered him exiled. Cortés sailed for Spain in 1528 to appeal to Emperor Charles V.
In 1528, Cortés returned to Spain to appeal to the justice of his master, Charles V. He presented himself with great splendor before the court. Cortés forthrightly responded to his enemy's charges, denying he had held back on gold due the crown and showing that he had contributed more than the quinto (one-fifth) required. He said he spent lavishly to rebuild Tenochtitlán, damaged during the siege that brought down the Aztec empire and the rebuilt Tenochtitlán was now more magnificent than any city in Europe, a true jewel in the Spanish crown.
He was received by Charles with every distinction, and decorated with the order of Santiago. In return for his efforts in expanding the still young Spanish Empire, Cortés was rewarded by being named the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, a noble title and senorial estate which was passed down to his descendents until 1811.
Cortés' properties were mismanaged by abusive colonial administrators while he was in Spain. The Indians documented the abuses in the Huexotzinco Codex and Cortés sided with local Indians in a lawsuit.
Cortés returned to Mexico in 1530 with new titles and honors, but with diminished power, a viceroy having been entrusted with the administration of civil affairs, although Cortés still retained military authority, with permission to continue his conquests. This division of power led to continual dissension, and caused the failure of several enterprises in which Cortés was engaged.
On returning to Mexico, Cortés found the country in a state of anarchy. Furthermore, there were so many accusations made against him that, after reasserting his position and reestablishing some sort of order, he retired to his estates at Cuernavaca, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Mexico City. There he concentrated on the building of his palace and on Pacific exploration.
Remaining in Mexico between 1530 and 1541, Cortés quarreled with the greedy, brutal Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and disputed the right to explore the territory that is today California with Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy. In 1536, Cortés explored the northwestern part of Mexico and discovered the Baja California peninsula. Cortés also spent time exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico, the last major expedition by Cortés. The gulf that separates the Baja California peninsula from Mexico is named the Sea of Cortes.
After his exploration of Baja California, Cortés returned to Spain in 1541, hoping to confound his enemies. On his return he was utterly neglected, and could scarcely obtain an audience.
On one occasion he forced his way through a crowd that surrounded the emperor's carriage, and mounted on the footstep. The emperor, astounded at such audacity, demanded of him who he was. "I am a man," replied Cortés proudly, "who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities."
The emperor finally permitted him to join the great expedition against Algiers in 1541. During this unfortunate campaign, which was his last, he served with great bravery. Cortés was almost drowned in a storm that hit his fleet while he was pursuing Barbary pirates.
It may be that had the advice of Cortés been followed that undertaking would have had a less disastrous end; but he was not even consulted. Had his advice been heeded, the Spanish arms might have been saved from disgrace, and Europe delivered nearly three centuries earlier from the scourge of organized piracy.
Having spent a great deal of his own money to finance expeditions, he was now heavily in debt. In February 1544 he made a claim on the royal treasury, but was given a royal runaround for the next three years. Disgusted, he decided to return to Mexico in 1547. When he reached Seville, he was stricken with dysentery. He died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville province, on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at age 62.
Like Columbus, he died a wealthy but embittered man. He left his many mestizo and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. He requested in his will that his remains eventually be buried in Mexico.
Before he died he had the pope remove the "natural" status of three of his children (legitimizing them in the eyes of the church), including Martin, the son he had with Doña Marina (also known as La Malinche), said to be his favorite.
It is extremely difficult to characterize this particular conquistador—his uncharacteristic acts of brutality, his tactical and strategic awareness, the rewards for his Tlaxcalteca allies along with the rehabilitation of the nobility (including a castle for Moctezuma's heirs in Spain that still stands), his respect for Indians as worthy adversaries and family members.
Cortés sought to pacify, not provoke; to appease with gifts, not oppress with guns. He hoped to acquire a productive province, not a slave state. Orders to his troops were explicit. No one was to "vex or offend" the natives. Women and children must always be spared. Only food, and that scrupulously paid for, might be taken. Looting and rape were punishable by death.
It must be remembered that Cortés' small army, however brave, could never have prevailed against hundreds of thousands of hostile foes. Only in the first few battles were they without allies. Cortés' policy of friendship allowed him to use the internal dissensions of the Aztec Empire to destroy it. In so doing, he made himself the champion of the vast majority of the Indians of New Spain. He was their friend and protector, and he never lost their love and respect. Whether these friendships were genuine or strategic, a tactic of divide and rule, though, is an open question.
Cortés hoped to avoid the errors that had been made in the islands. His letters to Charles V are filled with warnings and pleas. He begged that only settlers be allowed in New Spain, not adventurers "intent on consuming the country's substance and then abandoning it." He asked for humble priests who would convert by pious example, not high prelates who would "dispose of the gifts of the Church and waste them in pomp and other vices." He recommended that lawyers be banned on the grounds that they encouraged contention in order to profit from the ensuing litigation. Most of all, he deplored the practice of repaying services to the crown with Indian slaves to work land grants, yet he had no other way of rewarding his own followers.
Charles V was not interested. He obviously believed his insistence on the conversion of the natives, thus ensuring their Heavenly reward, was quite enough and considered enslavement a small price to pay for such favors. Nor did he accede to any other request. The troublesome Cortés was soon replaced with a governing committee which exiled him.
Cortés' fall from grace was a black-letter day for the natives and they knew it. Had he chosen defiance, according to Francisco López de Gómara he would have had the support of natives as well as of the Spanish. When Cortés returned from Honduras after having been reported dead he found his lands confiscated, his treasury looted and his home occupied by enemies. The Indians greeted him with wild rejoicing and his fellow Spaniards were willing to join him in ousting the usurpers.
Instead, Cortés meekly sailed for Spain, hoping to clear his name with the Emperor. He succeeded and was fobbed off with a title and huge land grants, complete with thousands of slaves. He was graciously allowed to retain the office of captain general and continue his profitable conquests for the crown, but denied any say in their administration. Cortés was forced to watch as men like Nuño de Guzmán destroyed all he had hoped to build.
The way Indians were treated varied from one part of the Americas to another. However, they were generally treated better in the Kingdom of New Spain than in Peru. With great vision, Cortés tried to preserve the monuments of the Aztecs and funded the construction of schools and hospitals out of his own pocket, providing for them in his will.
While Cortés can be credited with successfully identifying the complexities of local indigenous politics, especially the animosity felt by many native groups towards the Mexican-Aztec Empire, the use of native allies was hardly a new concept. This tactic was one which Cortés had experienced and adopted from earlier conquests in the Caribbean. Additionally, the use of terror and the capturing of native leaders reappear over and over in Spanish conquest history and were not unique inventions of Cortés. Even his attempt to justify his conquest of the Mexican mainland—a right held by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez—through the founding of Veracruz and an appeal directly to Emperor Charles V had been used by other conquistadors interested in usurping the right of conquest.
It must be remembered that when Velasquez conquered Cuba he did so with the authority of the governor of Santo Domingo, Diego Columbus. But when he established the city of Santiago, he formed a town council with which he resigned his offices from Columbus and established himself as governor of Cuba under the Spanish crown. The crown gave him the legal authority once it recognized the fait accompli. It was a precedent that Velasquez would subsequently come to regret.
Ultimately, Cortés and the conquest of Mexico should be viewed not just as a brilliant military feat but instead as the successful implementation of multiple strategies derived from almost 30 years of Spanish conquest experience in the Caribbean. In addition, as stated above, smallpox turned out to be his greatest ally.
Cortés' personal account of the conquest of Mexico is narrated in his five letters addressed to Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. These five letters, or cartas de relación, are Cortés' only writings.
As one specialist describes them:
Hernán Cortés’ Cartas de relación have enjoyed an unequaled popularity among students of the Conquest of Mexico. Cortés was a good writer. His letters to the emperor, on the conquest, deserve to be classed among the best Spanish documents of the period. They are, of course, coloured so as to place his own achievements in relief, but, withal, he keeps within bounds and does not exaggerate, except in matters of Indian civilization and the numbers of population as implied by the size of the settlements. Even there he uses comparatives only, judging from outward appearances and from impressions.
Historians, sociologists, and political scientists use them to glean information about the Aztec empire and the clash between the European and Indian cultures. However, as early as the sixteenth century doubt has been cast on the historicity of these Conquest accounts. It is generally accepted that Cortés does not write a true “history,” but rather combines history with fiction. That is to say, in his narrative Cortés manipulates reality in order to achieve his overarching purpose of gaining the favor of the king. Cortés applies the classical rhetorical figure of evidentia as he crafts a powerful narrative full of “vividness” that moves the reader and creates a heightened sense of realism in his letters.
His first letter is lost, and the one from the municipality of Vera Cruz has to take its place. It was published for the first time in volume IV of "Documentos para la Historia de España," and subsequently reprinted. The first carta de relación is available online.
The "Segunda Carta de Relacion," bearing the date of Oct. 30, 1520, appeared in print at Seville in 1522. The "Carta tercera," May 15, 1522, appeared at Seville in 1523. The fourth, October 20, 1524, was printed at Toledo in 1525. The fifth, on the Honduras expedition, is contained in volume IV of the "Documentos para la Historia de España." The important letter mentioned in the text has been published under the heading of "Carta inédita de Cortés" by Ycazbalceta. A great number of minor documents, either by Cortés or others, for or against him, are dispersed through the voluminous collection above cited and through the "Colección de Documentos de Indias," as well as in the "Documentos para la Historia de México" of Ycazbalceta. There are a number of reprints and translations of Cortés' writings into various languages.
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