HERNÁN CORTÉS—The Conqueror
By Herbert W. Piekow
Hernándo Cortez Pizarro was born into a noble but poor Spanish family in 1485. Like the Aztec Emperor, Motcezuma II, there are several accepted spellings for his name. As a child Cortéz was often ill and at the age of 14 his parents sent him to the University of Salamanca, to study law. He was not a particularly good student and after a few years he returned home; one source says he failed at his studies, another says his studies helped him in later years. His biographer, chaplain and friend Franciso Lopéz de Gomara, says that Cortéz was a restless, haughty and mischievous youth.
Like so many young men of the time Cortéz heard the stories of recently discovered countries of the New World and he fantasized about joining the ranks of those making names and fortunes in these new and fascinating places. These dreams were shared by his distant cousin Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca Empire. I believe that the Spanish King Charles V, later crowned Holy Roman Emperor, was anxious to relieve his Spanish kingdom of unemployed soldiers after the expulsion of the Moors. No country wants brigands of ex-soldiers roaming close to home and the recently discovered Americas provided the perfect outlet for Hernan Cortéz and the other adventurers and dreamers.
When Cortéz was seventeen he was to sail to Hispaniola, now Haiti and The Dominican Republic, with a distant relative who was the newly appointed governor. However, Cortéz suffered a severe injury just before the ship was to sail. He sustained his nearly fatal injury while fleeing for his life from a jealous husband, whose wife Cortéz had just seduced in the man´s home. Actually Cortéz liked his women and at the time of his death he had thirteen children that were recognized by the church and entitled to a share of his vast estates as set out in his will.
The funny thing is that he was only married twice and his first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances, did not have any “issue.” The man was busy with many conquests, not just those of vast territories; so even if he had not become a famous explorer and conqueror of empires he would have had an adventurous life.
His first wife was Catalina Juárez, the sister-in-law of Cuba´s Governor Velázquez for whom Cortéz was now the secretary. I quote from Quo Historia, “Doña Catalina, quien murió misteriosamente después de un altercado con su esposo.” It was suspected that Cortéz poisoned his wife but despite an inquest, many years later, the results were never made public because both the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchy realized if Cortéz were to be exonerated then his status would increase and if he were found guilty of murdering his wife, then the support of those in power would have been for a man of immoral character.
Cortéz lived in Cuba for 15 years where he accumulated a sizeable estate of land, slaves, cattle and mines. He was twice appointed Mayor of Santiago, at the time Cuba´s Capitol. At the same time he was secretary to Governor Velázquez. At the age of 33 Cortéz was appointed Captain-General to explore the mainland, where there was reported to be much wealth. Between October 1518 and February 1519 Cortéz had organized 11 ships, 700 men, 15 horsemen and 15 cannon, but Governor Velázquez had become jealous and fearful of Cortéz´s rising status and issued orders for the exploration party to disband.
Cortéz defied the direct order and by March 1519 Cortéz had claimed parts of what is now lower Mexico, formerly Mayan country, for the King of Spain. By July his men took over Veracruz and Cortéz boldly dismissed the authority of his sponsor the Governor of Cuba and placed himself and his men directly under orders of Charles V, the King of Spain.
In August of 1519 Cortéz left Veracruz, but before he left for the Aztec capitol he ordered his ships burned and at that point he knew he must either succeed or perish. As he marched on Moctezuma´s capitol of Tenochititlan his own troops were accompanied by a small army of Tlaxclteca, who were mortal enemies of the ruling Aztecs. At the start there were 2,000 porters and 3,000 armed warriors; more would join the forces along the route. The Tlaxclteca had a blood score to settle with the Aztecs and they respected the armed men on horseback with their rolling cannon.
On November 8, 1519 Cortéz and his followers were peacefully received by the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. It is not clear why Cortéz had thousands of unarmed members of the nobility, who had gathered at the central plaza, massacred and then partially burned the city. Later under investigation Cortéz claimed he feared treachery and wished to make an example of the slaughtered men, women and children. Moctezuma was taken prisoner and held captive in his own palace.
Meanwhile Governor Velázquez had sent an army of 1,100 men to bring Cortéz back to Cuba in chains. Somehow, even without modern communications, news like this travels fast and Cortéz reacted by leaving 200 men in the Aztec Capitol while he returned to Veracruz where he surprised and defeated the stronger force. Cortéz must have had a smooth tongue with the men as well as the women because he persuaded his would be captors to join him in conquering what he now called New Spain or Mexico.
Cortéz returned to Moctezuma´s capitol to find the city in armed rebellion against the Spanish. On the night of June 30, 1520, known as Noche Triste, Cortéz barely escaped the Aztec retribution and massacre; in fact he lost 870 men, all his cannon and most of the Aztec treasures he had been given or looted. A little over a year later, August 13, 1521, at the age of 36 Cortéz reconquered the Aztec Capitol and brought an end to their once great empire.
Actually the city´s more than 300,000 inhabitants had been reduced to approximately 40,000 through collapse of their food, water and sanitation system. The remaining citizens were suffering with smallpox and their respected Emperor Moctezuma had died the previous year; their infrastructure had disintegrated.
From 1521 until 1524 Cortéz governed New Spain and set in place the encomienda land tenure system, supported efforts to evangelize the indigenous people to Christianity and sponsored new explorations. He directly oversaw the destruction of Aztec temples and the construction of new Spanish buildings, churches and palaces. His expeditions north discovered the Sea of Cortéz, the Baja and California.
He spent years trying to establish peace among the Indians of Mexico, developing farmlands and mines. He was one of the first Spaniards to grow sugar in Mexico and to import African slaves. In 1529 Cortéz was named “Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca,” a noble title with a vast estate which was passed down to his descendants until 1811.
It is interesting that much of Hernán Cortéz´s life is documented but these same writings must be subjected to analysis. Cortéz himself wrote five letters directly to his king but these cartas de relacion are letters justifying his actions. Cortéz is quoted as saying it was “more difficult to contend against (his) own countrymen than against the Aztecs.” His first letter is lost but the remaining four give us his version of his adventures, conquests and administration in behalf of the Spanish crown. Scholars say, “It is generally accepted that Cortéz does not write a true “history,” but rather combines history with fiction to gain the favor of the king. “
Cortéz´s own biographer was both his chaplain and friend and so the accounts, as related by Francisco López de Gómara are biased accounts as related by Cortéz. The third biographer is Bernal Diaz del Castillo who was a part of the Cortéz army but he dictated his accounts as an old man many years after the fact and by the time the wealth of New Spain had distorted much of the reality.
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