Cortés, Hernán or Cortez, Hernando (1485-1547), Spanish explorer and conqueror of the Aztec Empire
of Mexico.
Cortés was born in Medellín, Extremadura. He studied law at the University of Salamanca, but cut short
his
university career in 1501 and decided to try his fortune in the New World. He sailed for Santo Domingo in
the
spring of 1504. In 1511 he joined the Spanish soldier and administrator Diego Velázquez in the conquest
of
Cuba, and subsequently became alcalde (mayor) of Santiago de Cuba. In 1518 he persuaded Velázquez, who
had
beco1me governor of Cuba, to give him the command of an expedition to Mexico. The mainland had been
discovered the year before by the Spanish soldier and explorer Francisco Fernández de Córdoba and
subsequently by Juan de Grijalva, nephew of Velázquez.
On February 19, 1519, Cortés, with a force of some 600 men, fewer than 20 horses, and 10 field pieces,
set sail
from Cuba, despite the cancellation of his commission by Velázquez, who had become suspicious that
Cortés,
once in a position to establish himself independently, would refuse to recognize his authority. Cortés
sailed along
the coast of Yucatán and in March 1519 landed in Mexico, subjugating the town of Tabasco; the artillery
of the
Spaniards, the ships, and particularly the horses filled the natives with awe. From the natives of
Tabasco Cortés
learned of the Aztec Empire and its ruler, Montezuma II.
Cortés took numerous captives, one of whom, Malinche (baptized Marina), became his mistress; out of
loyalty to
him she acted as the interpreter, guide, and counselor for the Spaniards. Finding a better harbor a
little north of
San Juan, the Spaniards moved there and established a town, La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (now Veracruz).
Cortés organized an independent government, and renouncing the authority of Velázquez, acknowledged only
the supreme authority of the Spanish crown. In order to prevent those of his small force who opposed this
movement from deserting him and carrying the news to Cuba, Cortés destroyed his fleet.
After negotiations with Montezuma, who tried to persuade Cortés not to enter the capital city of
Tenochtitlán,
Cortés started his famous march inland. He overcame the native Tlascalans and then formed an alliance
with
them against the Aztecs, their enemies. From that time until the conquest was achieved, the Tlascalans
continued to be the most important of all the native allies of the Spaniards.
Montezuma pursued an irresolute policy during Cortés's march, and finally determined not to oppose the
Spanish invaders but to await their arrival at the Aztec capital and to learn more about their purposes.
On
November 8, 1519, Cortés and his small force, with some 600 native allies, entered the city and
established
headquarters in one of its large communal dwellings. Because of an Aztec prophecy about the return of
Quetzalcoatl, a legendary god-king who was light skinned and bearded, Cortés was believed to be a god and
was
received with honor. The Spanish soldiers were allowed to roam through the city at their pleasure and
found
much gold and other treasures in the storehouses. Despite the amicable reception given the Spaniards,
Cortés
had reason to believe that attempts would be made to drive him out. To safeguard his position, he seized
Montezuma as hostage and forced him to swear allegiance to Charles I, king of Spain, and to provide a
ransom
of an enormous sum in gold and jewels. Meanwhile Velázquez dispatched an expedition under the Spanish
soldier Panfilo de Narváez to Mexico. In April 1520, Cortés received word that Narváez had arrived on the
coast. Leaving 200 men at Tenochtitlán under the command of Pedro de Alvarado, an explorer who had also
been with Grijalva, Cortés marched with a small force to the coast, entered the Spanish camp at night,
captured
Narváez, and induced the majority of the Spaniards to join his force.
Meanwhile harsh rules by Alvarado had aroused the Aztecs in the capital. An Aztec revolt against the
Spaniards
and their own imprisoned ruler, Montezuma, was under way when Cortés returned to the city. He was allowed
to
enter with his followers and to join Alvarado, but thereupon was immediately surrounded and attacked. At
Cortés's request Montezuma addressed the Aztecs in an attempt to quell the revolt. The Aztec ruler was
stoned,
and he died three days later. The Spanish and their allies were driven out of the city by a group of
Aztecs led by
Montezuma's nephew Guatemotzín on a dark, rainy night, the famous Noche Triste (“Sad Night”), June 30,
1520. The Aztecs pursued the retreating Spanish troops and at Otumba, on July 7, 1520, after defeating a
very
large force of Aztecs, Cortés finally reached Tlaxcala. There,