Hernán Cortés


Conquistador and conqueror of the Aztec Empire. Born in Estramadura, Cortés studied at a fairly high level at Salamanca but, at age 19, he left for the Caribbean to try his hand as a plantation farmer in Hispaniola. He first fought in the New World with a conquistadore army that brutally occupied Cuba in 1511. There, he witnessed a mindless slaughter of Indians. A decade later he said he was determined to avoid repeating this error when he invaded Mexico. It was not moral sensibility that drove him to that conclusion: his preference was to instead exploit Indian labor within the encomienda system. He left Cuba on February 18, 1519, under orders from the governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez, to conquer Mexico. He had just 11 ships carrying 550 men, 16 horses, some war dogs (mastiffs), and 10 brass cannon. They landed on the Tabasco coast where they allied with the Totonac people, a coastal tribe that was nominally a vassal of the Aztec. They supplied 20 young girls and women slaves to Cortés, who took “La Malinche” as his interpreter and mistress. Cortés moved up shore, then paused for four months to reconnoiter the Aztec position. Bypassing his superiors in Cuba, he sent a ship laden with gold and a secret letter written directly to Charles V, asking for the concession of the conquest of Mexico. Meanwhile, he mishandled two Aztec tax collectors, the first representatives of that empire he met. Puzzled, Emperor Moctezuma (Motechuzoma) II sent an embassy bearing gifts of gold, religious costumes, and food. Cortés thereafter received orders from Diego Velásquez, who had learned of his insubordinate correspondence with Charles V, to return to Cuba. Cortés disregarded the command and instead made his base camp at a site he named Vera Cruz (“The True Cross”). From there he gathered more intelligence from the Totonac and other tribes. He learned that many tribes and cities were fiercely opposed to the Aztecs and hated their submission to a tribute system that exploited them economically and took people from their communities for ritual sacrifice in the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán. Indian warriors willing to fight alongside Cortés were thus legion. In the Spanish telling, Cortés added thousands of Mesoamerican slingers and javelin throwers to his tiny army. From the vantage point of the Totonac and other Indians, they added small but unique Spanish military capabilities to an armed rebellion they were preparing to rid themselves of the Aztecs.

Before moving inland Cortés sank his remaining ships to show there was no going back and to leave his reluctant men no choice but to follow. On August 16, 1519, he started for Tenochtitlán 150 miles inland, across a range of volcanoes. Over the mountains, he arrived at Tlaxcalan, an independent city-state 70 miles from Tenochtitlán which the Aztecs had never been able to conquer. An army came out to crush the strangers and their Indian allies. In a sharp battle, Spanish discipline and firepower won the day: arquebuses and muskets broke up loose Tlaxcalan lines before their warriors could approach to hurl stones and javelins. The 16 Spanish lancers then further deformed the Indian ranks and picked off their leaders. Then the Spanish foot charged, shoulder-to-shoulder with swords and pikes, slashing and stabbing hundreds of warriors to death before they could swing heavy obsidian clubs in reply. Armor and steel, but even more discipline and ferocity, won over the Mesoamerican style of warfare that emphasized individual heroism in loose, lightly armed formations, and taking an enemy alive so he could be sacrificed later. This victory at Tlaxcalan was a key moment in the conquest because the Tlaxcalans immediately allied with Cortés. They, too, thought his unusual military skills could be used against the hated Aztecs. Tlaxcalan henceforth provided tens of thousands of dedicated, veteran Indian warriors. And it became the key forward base and logistical center for the Spanish for the next two years. Reinforced with 3,000 more Mesoamerican allies, Cortés reached the Aztec tributary city of Cholollan (modern Cholula). Moctezuma tried a stratagem: the Spanish were invited into the city where a trap was laid of missile troops hidden on the rooftops, with ditches filled with sharp stakes to impale riders and horses. But the trick was betrayed so that Cortés struck first, killing Cholollan troops and commanders without mercy.

Moctezuma was unable to muster his full army because it was harvest season. Instead, he made a fatal-and fateful-decision: he invited Cortés, the conquistadores, and 3,000 Tlaxcalan warriors into Tenochtitlán, which the expedition reached on November 8. Possibly, Moctezuma hoped to arrange a second, larger Cholollan-style trap, using urban confinement to neutralize the demonstrated superiority of the Spanish in the field. Far less likely is the widely popular legend that he lost confidence due to belief in an old prophesy that Cortés appeared to fulfill, which foretold of a feared, pale Aztec deity (Quetzalcoatl), who would return from the east to reclaim his Aztec kingdom. The allied intruders were quartered in an older palace, off the ritual square at the city center. After two weeks, Cortés feared such a trap and decided to spring his own first. He asked for an audience with Moctezuma, whom he seized and kept prisoner for six months, effectively decapitating the regime and paralyzing its response. The Aztec nobility obeyed Moctezuma’s initial command to bring the city’s gold to the conquistadores, to whom they also brought food and women. Doubt about the superiority, let alone quasidivinity, of their guests grew as they watched the Spaniards eat, rut, and defecate as did other men, and exhibit an extraordinary lust for gold. A crisis for Cortés came when he led most of his men back to the coast to fend off a rival force of 900 conquistadores from Cuba. This group knew of the planned conquest, had orders to arrest Cortés, and intended to take their share of gold. Cortés attacked by surprise, killing a few and capturing their leader (Pánfilo de Narváez). With oratory laced with Crusader ecstasy and promised plunder, he persuaded the survivors to join his little army and together they returned to Tenochtitlán. However, so cruel was the occupation of the man he left in charge in the city, Pedro de Alvarado, so insatiable was the Spanish lust for gold, and so numerous the murders of priests and Aztec nobles they committed (probably on the orders of Cortés), the Aztecs at last rebelled. But first they shrewdly let Cortés re-enter the city, which he did against the advice of his Mesoamerican allies.

On June 24, 1520, the Aztecs cut the causeways that led to the city, trapping 1,200 Spanish and about 2,000 Tlaxcalans, along with mounds of hoarded gold in the temple and palace complex. The First Siege of Tenochtitlán lasted a week. After several sorties failed, on the night of June 30, Cortés led an effort to sneak out of the city which ended in a desperate flight that left half his men dead or trapped in the temple complex, surrounded by tens of thousands of enraged Aztecs. As Cortés pulled out from Tenochtitlán he left it burning and Moctezuma dead (whether from errant Aztec missiles or Spanish strangulation is unclear). Streams of Spanish and Tlaxcalan blood literally flowed down the temple steps as men left behind or cut off were captured and ritually sacrificed for all to see. The remnant fled with Cortés down the causeway, fighting off thousands of pursing Aztec warriors en route to a dramatic stand at Otumba. The Aztecs were by now in full roar: they had killed enough Spaniards, in battle or by ritually cutting out their hearts, to know they faced not demi-gods but mere men who bled, screamed, died, or ran in fear like other men. Their horses, too, were demystified by death and dismemberment.

Cortés lost 70 percent of his horses and 65 percent of his men. The Tlaxcalans suffered as heavily, and in far greater numbers. In the Spanish accounts, it was now that Cortés proved himself an exceptional leader with qualities of strategic foresight, tactical brilliance, and above all, thorough ruthlessness and pitiless single-mindedness of purpose. He spent the rest of 1520 gathering a new anti-Aztec alliance from surrounding cities, and awaiting the successive arrival at Vera Cruz of seven squadrons of ships bringing new cannons, arquebuses, crossbows, powder, and shot. With the weapons came more conquistadores, some intent on revenge for dead brothers or fathers, others keen to crusade against the rumored pagan “empire of cannibals.” The smallpox that came with the Spanish now decimated Aztec ranks, killing Cuitláhuac as well. This reduced the numbers of warriors the Spanish faced and may have undermined Aztec morale, but it also ravaged the Tlaxcalans and other tribes allied with the Spanish. Cortés busied some men with raids against Aztec tributaries, cutting off supplies to Tenochtitlán. Others he set to building 14 brigantines, using timber and struts from the wreaks at Vera Cruz. He then had these small ships dismantled and hauled to the shores of Lake Texcoco by thousands of Mesoamerican porters. The 500 Spaniards Cortés had left after Otumba were reinforced by 400-500 fresh arrivals at Vera Cruz, who brought much-needed fresh horses and more arquebuses and cannon. This still left him mainly reliant on Tlaxcalan warriors who were determined to overthrow the Aztecs. Some Indians adapted their weapons to make them more lethal, for instance, switching to copper-tipped arrows with metal obtained from the Spanish. The second expedition-was it a Spanish assault with Indian allies or the reverse?-arrived at the foot of the causeways across Lake Texcoco on April 28, 1521. The aqueducts were quickly broken, cutting off Tenochtitlán from its supply of food and fresh water. The brigantines went into the lake to destroy the Aztec war canoes. This was quickly accomplished. The Second Siege of Tenochtitlán now began. It lasted three months. On August 13, 1521, the third and last Aztec leader to face the Spanish assault and Indian vassal rebellion, the boy-emperor Cuauhtémoc, surrendered the city.

Cortés subsequently became governor of the conquered Aztec lands and one of the richest men of the Age. He ruled cruelly, in accordance with his nature: he was an unimaginative, brutal kleptocrat with no regard for the welfare of the Indian population, except an instrumental concern with Indian welfare such that the encomienda system was sustainable. Tenochtitlán was razed so that a Christian citadel of the Spanish Empire in America, Mexico City, might be built atop its ruins. Cortés called in Franciscan priests and other religious radicals to destroy the last temples and indoctrinate Mesoamericans with the usual Catholic pieties. Those Indians who survived were weakened morally as well as physically by pandemic diseases, and were also politically weak and divided. They were effectively enslaved by Spanish settlers who hurried to Mexico following the conquest, many of whom demonstrated even less conscience than did Cortés. The native economy was destroyed, its riches plundered and exported to buy estates or pay royal taxes in Spain. Central Mexico would take centuries to recover from the decimation.

Cortés led several more expeditions to expand “Spanish America,” including to Central America in 1524 (during which he had Cuauhtémoc murdered), and later to Baja California. In 1528 he returned to Spain to regain his Mexican governorship, which had been taken from him by a royal appointee. He was unsuccessful, but received a captaincy, a noble title, and a huge land grant in Mexico along with tens of thousands of encomienda forced laborers. Ever the conquistador, he did not rest content in landed wealth. He later fought in Africa, joining the Habsburg attack on Algiers in 1541. He died of dysentery, amidst his riches, in Spain.

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