CORTEZ, Hernando (1485-1547)

The Spanish soldier Cortez is known as the conqueror of Mexico. He was born in the small town of Medellin in southwestern Spain.

When Cortez was about 18, he sailed for the island of Hispaniola, then the Spanish headquarters in the West Indies. He was a soldier and a farmer before he sailed under Diego Velasquez to help conquer Cuba in 1511. Velasquez became the governor, and Cortez was elected alcalde (mayor-judge) of Santiago.

When Juan de Grijalva in 1518 reported his discovery of Mexico, Velasquez picked Cortez to establish a colony there. Velasquez soon suspected Cortez of ambitions beyond his orders and canceled the expedition. Cortez, however, assembled men and equipment and set sail. He rounded the peninsula at Yucatan and touched Mexico on the coast of what is now the state of Tabasco. During a battle with Indians there he took many captives, including a young Aztec princess to whom he gave the Spanish name Marina. She became his interpreter, adviser, and lover.

Cortez continued up the coast. On April 21, 1519, he landed near the site of Veracruz. There, to prevent all thought of retreat, he burned his ships. Leaving a small force on the coast, Cortez led the remainder into the interior. The warlike Tlaxcalans attacked--300 Indians to every Spaniard. After three battles, the Indians became allies of the Spaniards.

On Nov. 8, 1519, Cortez reached Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) and was graciously received by Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. Soon after Cortez established headquarters in the capital he learned the Aztecs had plundered Veracruz. Swiftly he seized Montezuma and forced him to surrender the attackers. Then he had them executed.

Meanwhile Velasquez had sent 1,400 soldiers to arrest Cortez and bring him back to Cuba. Cortez defeated this army and enlisted most of the survivors under his banner. He returned to the Aztec capital.

The leader of the garrison there had slaughtered 600 Mexican nobles. As Cortez and his men reached the heart of the city, they were attacked by thousands of Aztec warriors. Montezuma was brought out to pacify his people, but they stoned him, and later he died of his wounds. Cortez' army was surrounded and apparently doomed, but he and three others managed to get to the chieftain of the Aztecs and killed him, seizing his banner. Dismayed by this apparent "miracle," the Aztecs withdrew. With fewer than 500 of his men left alive, Cortez in July 1520 made his way back to his Tlaxcalan allies.

Cortez besieged Tenochtitlan again, from ships, the following May. On Aug. 13, 1521, Guatemoc, the new Aztec emperor, surrendered. This was the end of the great empire of the Aztecs.

Cortez spent the next seven years establishing peace among the Indians of Mexico and developing mines and farmlands. In 1528 he went home and was received with great honor by Charles V; but he had no skill for court politics. When he returned to Mexico he went merely as a military commander. He explored Lower California from 1534 to 1535 and served against the pirates of Algiers in 1541. The same year he led an expedition against the Mayas of Yucatan. He died near Seville on Dec. 2, 1547.

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