Hernán Cortés

Also known as: Hernan Cortes, Hernando Cortes, Hernando Cortez

Birth: c. 1484
Death: 1547
Nationality: Spanish
Occupation: conqueror
Source: Historic World Leaders. Gale Research, 1994.

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"We were always victorious and killed great numbers of the enemy, for every day a multitude of people came to join our forces." HERNÁN CORTÉS

Conqueror of the Aztec empire, who helped to establish the economy and social relations of colonial Mexico.


Born some time around 1484 in the town of Medellín on the banks of Spain's Guadiana River, Hernán Cortés was the son of an impoverished minor nobleman named Martín Cortés de Monroy. As an hidalgo, or lesser aristocrat without titled lands, Martín Cortés de Monroy ranked well below the titled counts, dukes, marquises, and other grandes of Spain. There was little which he, himself, could provide his son, other than an exalted sense of family honor.

From the time of his birth until the time of his departure for the Americas in 1504, nothing is absolutely certain concerning the life of Hernán Cortés. Some chroniclers of that period wrote that Cortés enrolled at the University of Salamanca, eventually receiving a bachelor of law degree. It is far more likely, given his father's relative poverty, that he spent a year in a notary's office in Valladolid. As a trained notary, Cortés would have been familiar with some of the details of Spanish law since notaries were responsible for drawing up wills and all sorts of business and matrimonial contracts. This training in Spanish legalism made Cortés one of the most educated of the conquistadors, and it made him a man who was able to justify his conquest of the Aztec empire on the basis of Spanish legal precedent.

After whatever legal training he did receive, Cortés initially planned to serve in the Italian Wars being fought by Spain in that period. For reasons that will never be known, he changed his mind, and, in 1504, left for the recently discovered Americas. Today historians only can speculate as to his precise motivation, but, as with later European emigrants, the hope of a better life beckoned.

Cortés arrived on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where the first permanent Spanish settlement of Santo Domingo had been founded by Christopher Columbus's brother Bartholomew in 1496. Soon after his arrival he was made a notary of the recently founded town of Azúa. He served there for five or six years, until, in 1511, he accompanied Diego Velázquez in his conquest of Cuba. He started life on Cuba as Governor Velázquez's secretary, and in 1514 he built a house in Santiago de Cuba, where he settled with Catalina Xuárez, whom he may have been reluctant to marry. Though some report that he was happy with Catalina, others paint a less idyllic scene. A friend of Catalina's named María Hernández later recounted that Cortés physically abused Catalina, and that Catalina told her that some morning she would be found dead. Bernal Díaz, who later soldiered with Cortés in Mexico, wrote that even though Cortés had a worthy number of conquered Indians who labored for him in a system of tribute payment called encomienda, he and his wife lived well beyond their means and were in debt: "He spent on his person, on finery for his newly married wife, and on entertaining guests who had come to stay with him." In a society which valued ostentation and the sharing of one's wealth with one's followers, Cortés was trying to live as a great nobleman. Twice he served as alcalde mayor (governor) of Santiago, and entertaining throngs of people at his table would have been a way to cement alliances. In the long run, his expenditures proved to be a sound investment, but they may have contributed to frictions with Catalina, who brought no great wealth to the marriage.

Opportunity struck in 1518, when Velázquez appointed Cortés to head the third expedition to explore the newly discovered Mexican coast. When Velázquez drew up his instructions on October 23, Cortés was given permission only to explore the Mexican coast and trade, but he used all his skill as a notary to create a legal loophole which would allow him to take any measures conforming to "the service of God and their highnesses" in the event of an unexpected emergency. Cortés knew that he now had the room to maneuver as he saw fit.

He left Santiago on November 18, 1518. Purchasing provisions on other Caribbean islands, Cortés's fleet reached the Yucatán channel on February 18, 1519. He had 11 ships and over 500 soldiers of fortune and sailors, including his chief lieutenants Diego de Ordaz, Gonzalo de Sandoval, Cristóbal de Olid, and Pedro de Alvarado. Among the common adventurers was the future chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

After arriving on the coast of the Yucatán, Cortés and these men proceeded to Tabasco. Along the way, he had dealings with the coastal Maya Indians, demonstrating a diplomatic ability which would serve him well vis-à-vis the Aztec empire. He also acquired the slave Malintzin, or Malinche, as a valuable translator. Malintzin, who was soon baptized Doña Marina, spoke Mayan and her native Aztec language, Nahuatl. By all accounts, she quickly learned Spanish as well. She gained a great deal of respect among the patriarchal conquistadors, both as Cortés's avowed lover on the expedition, and as a woman who, according to Bernal Díaz, "betrayed no weakness."

The Founding of Veracruz

Through the Indians of Tabasco and Doña Marina, Cortés learned of the powerful Aztec tributary union of the interior. This led to his setting sail for the region which the Spaniards would dub Villa Rica de la Veracruz (Rich Town of the True Cross). There Cortés and his men founded a city, making themselves its voting citizens, or vecinos. In actuality, Veracruz was nothing but a set of foundations mapping out the intended structures which symbolized civilization to the Spaniards: a church, a marketplace, and a pillory and gallows. In search of improved social standing, he and his men were also self-proclaimed missionaries of the gospel: hence the new town's name, embracing both material and spiritual ends.

It was in the Veracruz region that Cortés first encountered actual representatives of the Aztec empire. Gifts were exchanged, and Cortés inquired concerning the Aztecs' chief city and its "chief speaker," or tlatoani, Moctezuma II. In actuality the Aztec "empire" was a forced confederacy which created new enemies with every conquest. The Aztecs believed that the very existence of the universe was dependent on sacrificing the precious hearts of warriors to the sun, and this led to the fighting of "flower wars" in which the taking of captives was far more vital than the outright slaying of enemies on the battlefield. Aztec victory in the flower wars meant that the vanquished would pay regular tribute, including sacrificial humans, but that they could continue to rule themselves as they otherwise chose. The tribute served as a basis of wealth for the Aztecs' magnificent city of Tenochtitlán, but it also served as a source of hatred among those upon whom the Aztecs preyed. When Cortés's small force of Spaniards finally reached Tenochtitlán, it would be bolstered by thousands of Amerindian allies who impatiently had awaited an opportunity to topple Aztec might. Cortés's genius lay in his ability to manipulate these circumstances with the aid of his translator Doña Marina.

Before leaving Veracruz, Cortés acted to legitimize his cause in the eyes of King Charles I of Spain (who was also the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of the Germanies). He wrote at least one letter detailing the founding of Veracruz as an act by men loyal to the Crown, who only desired to repudiate the self-interested Velázquez by placing themselves directly under royal authority as voting townsmen. To demonstrate his sincerity, Cortés sent this letter to Spain with all the gold and jewels brought as gifts by Moctezuma's envoys, and with the traditional royal fifth of booty acquired thus far. Then Cortés scuttled all the ships, except for the one needed to return to Spain with Cortés's gifts and representatives. The march inland proceeded with no possibility of retreat remaining.

On the march, Cortés and his men developed an image of themselves as knights-errant sent by God to save the indigenous population of Mexico from the brutalities of the Aztec empire and the "demons" who demanded human sacrifice. Stopping at a number of Amerindian towns, the Spanish noted fine masonry, skillfully woven cloth, irrigated and fertile fields, but, according to Bernal Díaz, they were "greatly shocked" by the presence of pyramid temples with "walls and altars all splashed with blood and the victims' hearts laid out before the idols." They would use these aspects of Mexican Indian culture to justify their own bloody massacres, starting with the Tlaxcalan campaign.

Upon arriving at Tlaxcala, Cortés and his conquistadors were faced with massive opposition. In a battle fought September 5, 1519, one Spaniard died, while 60 were wounded. The conquistadors lost heart at this point, blaming Cortés for scuttling their ships and eliminating all chance of escape. According to Bernal Díaz, Cortés convinced his men to remain steadfast by means of a speech, saying:

If God helps us, far more will be said in future history books about our exploits than has ever been said about those of the past. For, I repeat, all our labours are devoted to the service of God and our great Emperor Charles.

When 17 emissaries from the Tlaxcalan captain Xicotencatl appeared to be spies, Cortés returned them to their lord with the hands of some and the thumbs of others cut off. After this, for whatever reason, Xicotencatl chose to deal with Cortés, appearing at his quarters and vehemently denouncing the oppression of the Aztecs and their tlatoani Moctezuma. When Cortés left Tlaxcala to continue his march to Tenochtitlán, he had 1,000 Tlaxcalan allies with him, but this doubling of his forces did not prevent his panicking on the way at the important religious center of Cholula. Fearing rumors of another attack, Cortés staged a massacre of Cholulan warriors as they gathered unprepared in a plaza. Despite his brave words, a sense of overwhelming odds and encirclement was beginning to wreak havoc with Cortés's nerves.

Since, on the coast, Cortés had exchanged gestures of peaceful diplomacy with Moctezuma's emissaries, on November 8, 1519, Moctezuma II received Cortés in Tenochtitlán as the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It also is known that the wonders of Cortés's guns and horses piqued the tlatoani's curiosity. However, Moctezuma was not the only one to be left in awe at the accoutrements of a strange and alien culture. In his second letter to Charles V, Cortés described the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán as a city full of markets, commerce, shops, and very wide main streets. He was amazed by the agricultural abundance and variety which he saw, and he concluded by admitting his confusion that a non-Christian and "barbarous" people could live such a civilized existence:

I will say only that these people live almost like those in Spain, and in as much harmony and order as there, and considering that they are barbarous and so far from the knowledge of God and cut off from all civilized nations, it is truly remarkable to see what they have achieved in all things.

Cortés told Moctezuma that Charles V wanted to make Catholic Christians of the Aztecs, thereby saving the souls of his new vassals. Moctezuma listened politely, presented gifts to these men who still appeared to be ambassadors, and then provided them with lodging. Cortés, fearing the fact that he was surrounded by Aztec warriors, took the tlatoani captive in his palace. According to Cortés, Moctezuma willingly submitted to Spanish authority. This seems unlikely, however, just as it seems unlikely that he took the Spaniards for gods (after all, Spanish men and horses already had been slain). Both Bernal Díaz and Cortés stated that Moctezuma was treated honorably, but he proved a worthless hostage. The tlatoani was an elected position, and, as Moctezuma had been captured, the leading Aztec nobles elected a new tlatoani to rid their city of men who now clearly were seen as invaders.

At this time, Cortés also had to contend with more than 1,000 Spaniards sent by Velázquez to take him prisoner since the Cuban governor feared that Cortés had reached beyond the authority delegated to him. While he was absent from Tenochtitlán in a successful attempt to convert Velázquez's forces, his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado ordered a massacre of unarmed Aztec priests and warriors as they celebrated a feast in honor of their god Huitzilopochtli. Upon returning to Tenochtitlán, Cortés found that he immediately had to bid a hasty retreat. In the process, Moctezuma either was slain by his own people as he pleaded for peace, or was strangled at Cortés's order (Spanish and Aztec sources differ on this point). On the night of July 10, 1520, la noche triste (the sad night), Cortés led his men out of Tenochtitlán, with thousands of hostile Aztec warriors flanking him on all sides. According to Bernal Díaz, "Here Cortés showed himself the brave man that he was," but casualties were still high on the retreat. It appears that the Aztecs rejected their unwillingness to kill outright, learning from Spanish practice. Of some 1,300 Spaniards and well over 2,000 Tlaxcalans, more than 860 Spaniards and 1,000 Tlaxcalans were killed and sacrificed.

Knowing well that if he returned to Cuba a failure Velázquez would easily imprison him, Cortés successfully rallied his forces for an assault on Tenochtitlán by means of protracted siege. In this venture, he was aided by an unseen ally, for while the Spaniards were still in the city, a black man in Cortés's party had contracted smallpox, a disease quite common to Europeans and Africans but unknown to native Americans. Without immunities, the population of Tenochtitlán was decimated by the disease. In fact, smallpox took the life of the immediate successor to Moctezuma's title, Cuitláhuac, and he was replaced during the siege by the last tlatoani, Cuauhtémoc.

The Aztecs Surrender

In late April 1521, the final struggle for Tenochtitlán began. This time Cortés was joined by thousands of Amerindians who finally saw an opportunity to overthrow Aztec dominance. Fighting now proceeded from street to street and house to house, destroying the once proud city and its people. Cortés later wrote Charles V that he tried repeatedly to persuade the Aztecs to surrender, but nothing could alter their will to resist. In his own words, "We could not but be saddened by their determination to die." Finally, on August 23, 1521, Cuauhtémoc and his starving people surrendered in the ruins of their city.

Tenochtitlán was rebuilt as Mexico City, and Cortés rewarded his followers by distributing the labor of conquered Amerindian peasants in the system known as encomienda. The Spaniards thereby replaced Aztec dominance with their own brand of imperialism, but Cortés did conceive of it as an imperialism with rules and limits. To him, encomienda was a system which required limits so that peasants were allowed time to produce food and goods for their own upkeep. Calling Mexico "New Spain," Cortés envisioned an ordered land where Amerindian peasants served both Spanish and Amerindian lords, with his chief native American allies and relatives of Moctezuma, upon their baptism, being granted encomiendas like Spaniards. New Spain was to be a society with classes, but race did not prevent the Amerindian nobility from being recognized as an elite. Intermarriage was encouraged early on, and Cortés himself recognized and provided for the illegitimate son he had by Doña Marina; since he could not marry her (his wife Catalina arrived in New Spain three months after Tenochtitlán's fall), he provided for Marina's marriage to his lieutenant Juan Jaramillo. Then, soon after her arrival, Catalina died under mysterious circumstances, discoloration being found on her throat. Servants murmured of murder and allegations were raised, but Cortés never was prosecuted formally.

On October 15, 1522, Charles V officially appointed Cortés the governor of New Spain, thereby legitimizing all of Cortés's maneuvers against his immediate superior Velázquez. Two years later, in 1524, Cortés decided to march to Honduras to quash a rebellion against his rule--one which was initiated by Cristóbal de Olid, the very same lieutenant he had sent to subdue Honduras. The Honduras expedition was a parody of Cortés's previous success. Cristóbal de Olid was dead and his faction defeated before Cortés's arrival on the coast of Hibueras. On the way there, Cortés seemingly learned of a plot by his hostage Cuauhtémoc to initiate an Indian revolt. This led to Cortés's execution of the last tlatoani on the road to Honduras, though Aztec sources accuse Cortés of having no evidence of a planned revolt and simply wishing to be rid of this legitimate ruler of his people. In any event, after being racked by hunger and suffering, the remnants of this futile expedition returned to Mexico City in June 1526. There, Cortés discovered that his followers had put down a revolt led by the old Velázquez faction among his conquistadors--a group which had felt cheated at the distribution of the spoils of victory. The tone of Cortés's fifth and final letter to Charles V describes a man chastened and chastised, who no longer believed that he was capable of moving heaven and earth by the good graces of his God. He wrote of his being a man who feared that the emperor would dispossess him of all his newfound wealth and glory; and of his desire to return to his native Spain, but in a state "so that I shall not arrive . . . begging for alms."

A few days after his return to Mexico City, the royal judge Luis Ponce de León arrived to conduct a residencia, suspending Cortés from the office of governor during the proceedings. The Spanish residencia was both an audit of accounts and an inquiry into the doings of royal officials. Above all else, it was the chief means by which the crown retained its control over men who hoped to maintain their status and wealth in Spanish society. Frustrated by the interminable investigations, Cortés decided to seek redress before the emperor in person, setting sail for Spain in March 1528. There he married Doña Juana de Zúñiga, a woman of old noble lineage who added to his standing in a way the humble Catalina Xuárez never could have. Eventually he had three daughters and a son by Doña Juana--the son, Don Martín, inheriting the lion's share of what his father had to bestow. In Spain, Charles V confirmed the personal wealth Cortés had acquired as conqueror of New Spain and bestowed upon him the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, but he did not reappoint him as governor. When Hernán Cortés returned to Mexico in 1530, he was able to enjoy his wealth, which was considerable, but he saw political power placed in the hands of university-trained bureaucrats and noblemen from old families.

Stripped of political authority, Cortés found solace in the fact that he had acquired status, wealth, and an inheritable title. Not only did he collect tribute in the form of gold dust, textiles, maize, poultry, and other goods, but he also engaged in the wholesaling of tribute he collected, diversifying his business activities so as not to suffer an irreparable loss in any one area. In the Oaxaca and Michoacán districts he used forced labor to pan gold, and in the Taxco area he mined silver. Cortés also raised a large number of cattle and hogs, as well as growing grain, fruits, and vegetables on large diversified estates called haciendas. Near Tehuantepec he had herds of approximately 10,000 wild cattle which supplied tallow and hides for export to Panama and Peru. By 1528, he was worth some 500,000 gold pesos, and by the time of his death in 1547, he was still receiving some 30,000 gold pesos annually in encomienda tribute payments.

Cortés retired to Spain in 1540. The very next year he joined a royal expedition against Moslem Algiers, losing a great deal of his investment, but not his life, when the fleet was destroyed by a storm. Then the old warrior lived out his remaining years following the court of Charles V on its endless peregrinations. He died on December 2, 1547, and his last desire was to be interred where he had first met Moctezuma II, and where he later had tried to make amends for his deceptions. According to his secretary Francisco López de Gómara:

Cortés founded a hospital in Mexico [the Hospital de Jesús], where in his will he directed that his bones be sent. . . . He ordered a school built there, and a nunnery at Coyoacán. He endowed each of these foundations with four thousand ducats a year (the rent of his houses in Mexico), and two thousand more toward the support of the pupils.

A self-made grande, he performed the acts of charity and social reciprocity expected of a Spanish marquis. In his life, Cortés had used the tension inherent in the Aztec empire to help bring about its downfall. In his death, he confirmed his acceptance of the social order espoused by the Spanish empire. His life's ambition had been to be recognized and honored within his own culture. In this, Cortés succeeded.

Name variations: Due to the lack of any fixed orthography in the Europe of his time, Cortés's first name appears as "Hernán," "Fernán," "Hernándo," and "Fernando." Born around 1484 in the town of Medellín in Spain; died on December 2, 1547; son of an impoverished minor nobleman named Martín Cortés de Monroy; married: Catalina Xuárez.


* 1504 Arrived on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola
* 1511 Aided Diego Velázquez in the conquest of Cuba
* 1519 Met the Aztec tlatoani Moctezuma II
* 1520 Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies retreated from Tenochtitlán
* 1521 Aztecs surrendered to Cortés
* 1522 Appointed governor of "New Spain" by Charles V
* 1524-26 Honduras expedition proved futile
* 1530 Made Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca
* 1540 Retired to Spain
* 1547 Died on December 2


* Clendinnen, Inga. "`Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty': Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico," in Representations 33 (Winter 1991).

* Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by Anthony Pagden. Yale University Press, 1986.

* Díaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. Translated by J. M. Cohen. Penguin, 1963.

* Keen, Benjamin, and Mark Wasserman. A History of Latin America. 3rd ed. 1988.

* Lacroix, Jorge Gurría. Itinerary of Hernán Cortés. 2nd ed. Ediciones Euroamericanas, 1973.

* López de Gómara, Francisco. Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary. Translated and edited by Lesley Byrd Simpson. University of California Press, 1964.

* McAlister, Lyle N. Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

* Wagner, Henry R. The Rise of Fernando Cortés. Kraus, 1969.

* White, Jon Manchip. Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire: A Study in the Conflict of Cultures. Hamish Hamilton, 1971.

" Hernán Cortés." Historic World Leaders. Gale Research, 1994.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC