Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca (1485–December 2, 1547) was a Spanish conquistador who led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the King of Castile, in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish colonizers that began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
Born in Medellín, Extremadura, Spain, to a family of lesser nobility, Cortés chose to pursue a livelihood in the New World. He went to Hispaniola and later to Cuba, where he received an encomienda and, for a short time, became alcalde (magistrate) of the second Spanish town founded on the island. In 1519, he was elected captain of the third expedition to the mainland, an expedition which he partly funded. His enmity with the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, resulted in the latter recalling the expedition at the last moment, an order which Cortés ignored. Arriving on the continent, Cortés executed a successful strategy of allying with some indigenous peoples against others. He also used a native woman, Doña Marina, as interpreter; she would later bear Cortés a son. When the Governor of Cuba sent emissaries to arrest Cortés, he fought them and won, using the extra troops as reinforcements. Cortés wrote letters directly to the king asking to be acknowledged for his successes instead of punished for mutiny. After he overthrew the Aztec empire, Cortés was awarded the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, while the more prestigious title of Viceroy was given to a high-ranking nobleman, Antonio de Mendoza. Cortés returned to Spain in 1541 where he died peacefully but embittered.
Because of the controversial undertakings of Cortés and the scarcity of reliable sources of information about him, it has become difficult to assert anything definitive about his personality and motivations. Early lionizing of the conquistadors did not encourage deep examination of Cortés. Later reconsideration of the conquistadors' character in the context of modern anti-colonial sentiment and greatly expanded concern for human rights, as typified by the Black Legend, also did little to expand our understanding of Cortés as an individual. As a result of these historical trends, descriptions of Cortés tend to be simplistic, and either damning or idealizing.
Hernán Cortés is described as a pale, sickly child by his biographer, chaplain, and friend Francisco López de Gómara. At the age of 14, Cortés was sent to study at the University of Salamanca. This was Spain's great center of learning, and while accounts vary as to the nature of Cortés' studies, his later writings and actions suggest he studied Law and probably Latin.
After two years, Cortés, tired of schooling, returned home to Medellín, much to the irritation of his parents, who had hoped to see him equipped for a profitable legal career. However, those two years at Salamanca, plus his long period of training and experience as a notary, first in Seville and later in Hispaniola, would give him a close acquaintance with the legal codes of Castile that was to stand him in good stead in justifying his unauthorized conquest of Mexico.
At this point in his life, Cortés was described by Gómara as restless, haughty, and mischievous. This was probably a fair description of a sixteen-year-old boy who had returned home only to find himself frustrated by life in his small provincial town.
By this time, news of the exciting discoveries of Columbus in the New World was streaming back to Spain.
Plans were made in 1504 for Cortés to sail to the Americas with a family acquaintance and distant relative, Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres, the newly appointed governor of Hispaniola (currently Haiti and the Dominican Republic), but an injury he sustained while hurriedly escaping from the bedroom of a married woman of Medellín prevented him from making the journey. Instead, he spent the next year wandering the country, probably spending most of his time in the heady atmosphere of Spain's southern ports, listening to the tales of those returning from the Indies, who told of discovery and conquest, gold, Indians and strange unknown lands.
It was not until he had been almost 15 years in the Indies, that Cortés began to look beyond his substantial status as mayor of the capital of Cuba and as a man of affairs in the thriving colony. He missed the first two expeditions, under the orders of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and then Juan de Grijalva, sent by Diego Velázquez to Mexico in 1517-1518.
In 1518 Velázquez put him in command of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, due to the old gripe between Velázquez and Cortés, he changed his mind and revoked his charter. Cortés ignored the orders and went ahead anyway, in February 1519, in an act of open mutiny. He landed along with 600 men in the Yucatan Peninsula, in Mayan territory . There, he met Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had survived from a shipwreck and joined the troops . Jeronimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan priest, had learnt Maya during his captivity, and could thus translate for Cortés. In March 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown. He then won a battle against the Natives of Tabasco, during which he received from the vanquished twenty young indigenous women, among whom was La Malinche, his future mistress, who knew both the Nahuatl language and Maya, thus enabling Hernán Cortés to communicate in both.
In July 1519, his men took over Veracruz: by this act, Cortés dismissed the authority of the governor of Cuba to place himself directly under the orders of Charles V . Leaving a hundred men in Veracruz, Cortès marched on Tenochtitlan in mid-August 1519, along with 600 men, 15 horsemen, 15 cannons, and hundreds of indigenous carriers and warriors . On the way to Tenochtitlan, Cortés made alliances with native American tribes such as the Nahuas of Tlaxcala, the Tlaxcaltec (defeated in a battle and then made allies), and the Totonacs of Cempoala. In October 1519, Cortés and his men, accompanied by about 3,000 Tlaxcalteca, marched to Cholula, the second largest city in central Mexico. Cortés, either in a pre-meditated effort to instill fear upon the Aztecs waiting for him at Tenochtitlan or (as he later claimed when under investigation) wishing to make an example when he feared native treachery, infamously massacred thousands of unarmed members of the nobility gathered at the central plaza, then partially burning down the city.
By the time he arrived in Tenochtitlan the Spaniards had a large army. On November 8, 1519, they were peacefully received by the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. The latter deliberately let Cortés enter the heart of the Aztec Empire, hoping to get to know their weaknesses better and to crush them later . He gave lavish gifts in gold to the Spaniards which enticed them to plunder vast amounts of gold. In his letters to Charles V, Cortés claims to have learned at this point that he was considered by the Aztecs to be either an emissary of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl or Quetzalcoatl himself — a belief which has been contested by a few modern historians . But quickly Cortès learned that Spaniards on the coast had been attacked, and decided to take Moctezuma into hostage in his own house, requesting him to swear allegiance to Charles V.
Meanwhile, the Governor of Cuba sent another expedition, lead by Pánfilo de Narváez, to oppose Cortès, arriving in Mexico in April 1520 with 1,100 men . Cortès henceforth decided to leave Tenochtitlan to fight Narváez, whom he overcame despite his numerical inferiority . In Mexico, one of Cortès' lieutenants Pedro de Alvarado, committed a massacre in the Main Temple, triggering a local rebellion. Cortès speedily returned to Mexico and proposed an armistice, attempting to support himself on Moctezuma, but the latter was killed by his subjects on July 1, 1520, and Cortès decided to flee for Tlaxcala. During the Noche Triste (30 June-1st July 1520), the Spaniards managed a narrow escape from Tenochtitlan across the causeway, while their backguard was being massacred. Much of the treasure looted by Cortés was lost (as well as his artillery) during this panicked escape from Tenochtitlan . After a battle in Otumba, they managed to reach Tlaxcala, after having lost 870 men . With the assistance of their allies, Cortès' men finally prevailed with reinforcements arriving from Cuba. Cortés began a policy of attrition towards the island city of Tenochtitlan cutting off supplies and subduing the Aztecs' allied cities thus changing the balance, and organizing the siege of Tenochtitlan, destroying the city.
In January 1521, Cortès countered a conspiracy against him, headed by Villafana, who was hanged . Finally, with the capture of Cuauhtémoc, the Tlatoani (ruler) of Tenochtitlan, on 13 August 1521, the Aztec Empire disappeared. From 1521 to 1524, Cortés personally governed Mexico .
Many historical sources have conveyed an impression that Cortés was unjustly treated by the Spanish Crown, and that he received nothing but ingratitude for his role in establishing New Spain. This picture is the one Cortés presents in his letters and in the later biography written by Gomara. However, there may be more to the picture than this. Cortés' own greed and vanity may have played a part in his deteriorating position with the King
King Charles I of Spain, who had become Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519, appointed Cortés governor and captain general of the newly conquered territory, dubbed "New Spain of the Ocean Sea". But also, much to the dismay of Cortés, four royal officials were appointed at the same time to assist him in his governing — in effect submitting him to close observation and administration. Cortés initiated the construction of Mexico City, destroying Aztec temples and buildings and then rebuilding on the Aztec ruins what soon became the most important European city in the Americas. Cortès managed the founding of new cities and appointed men to extend Spanish rule to all of New Spain, imposing the encomienda land tenure system in 1524 . He also supported efforts to evangelize the indigenous people to Christianity and sponsored new explorations. He then spent the next seven years establishing peace among the Indians of Mexico and developing mines and farmlands. Cortés was one of the first Spaniards to attempt to grow sugar in Mexico and one of the first to import African slaves to early colonial Mexico. At the time of his death his estate contained at least 200 slaves who were either native Africans or of African descent .
In 1523, the Crown (possibly influenced by Cortés' enemy, Bishop Fonseca), sent a military force under the command of Juan de Garay to conquer and settle the northern part of Mexico, the region of Pánuco. This was another setback for Cortés who mentions this in his fourth letter to the King in which he describes himself as the victim of a conspiracy by his archenemies Diego Velázquez, Diego Columbus and Bishop Fonseca as well as Juan Garay. The influence of Garay was effectively stopped by this appeal to the King who sent out a decree forbidding Garay to interfere in the politics of New Spain, causing him to give up without a fight.
From 1524 to 1526, Cortès headed an expedition to Honduras where he defeated Cristóbal de Olid, who had claimed Honduras as his own under the influence of the Governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez. Fearing that Cuauhtémoc might head an insurrection in Mexico, he brought him with him in Honduras and hanged him during the journey. Raging over Olid's treason, Cortès issued a decree to arrest Velázquez, whom he was sure was behind Olid's treason. This, however, only served to further estrange the Spanish Crown which was already beginning to feel anxious about Cortés' rising power.
Cortés's fifth letter to Charles V attempts to justify his conduct and concludes with a bitter attack on “various and powerful rivals and enemies” who have “obscured the eyes of your Majesty.” Unfortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor had little time for distant colonies (much of Charles's reign was taken up with wars with France, the German protestants and the expanding Ottoman Empire), except insofar as they contributed to finance his wars. In 1521, year of the Conquest, Charles V was attending to matters in his German domains and Spain was ruled by Bishop (later Pope) Adrian of Utrecht, who functioned as regent. Velázquez and Fonseca persuaded the regent to appoint a commissioner with powers, (a Juez de residencia, Luis Ponce de León), to investigate Cortés's conduct and even arrest him. Cortés was once quoted as saying that it was "more difficult to contend against (his) own countrymen than against the Aztecs." Governor Diego Velázquez continued to be a thorn in his side, teaming up with Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, chief of the Spanish colonial department, to undermine him at court.
A few days after Cortès' return from his expedition, Ponce de León suspended Cortés from his office of governor of New Spain. The Licentiate then fell ill and died shortly after his arrival, appointing Marcos de Aguilar as alcalde mayor. The aged Aguilar also became sick and appointed Alonso de Estrada governor, who was confirmed in his functions by a royal decree in August 1527. Cortés, suspected of poisoning them, refrained from taking over the government. Estrada sent Diego de Figueroa to the south; but de Figueroa raided graveyards and extorted contributions, meeting his end when the ship carrying these treasures sunk. Albornoz persuaded Alonso de Estrada to release Salazar and Chirinos. When Cortes complained angrily after one of his adherent's hand was cut off, Estrada ordered him exiled. Cortes sailed for Spain in 1528 to appeal to Emperor Charles V.
After reasserting his position and reestablishing some sort of order, Cortés retired to his estates at Cuernavaca, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Mexico City. There he concentrated on the building of his palace and on Pacific exploration. Remaining in Mexico between 1530 and 1541, Cortés quarreled with Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and disputed the right to explore the territory that is today California with Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy. In 1536, Cortés explored the northwestern part of Mexico and discovered the Baja California peninsula. Cortés also spent time exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico. The Gulf of California was originally named the Sea of Cortes by its discoverer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539. This was the last major expedition by Cortés.
On his return he was utterly neglected, and could scarcely obtain an audience. On one occasion he forced his way through a crowd that surrounded the emperor's carriage, and mounted on the footstep. The emperor, astounded at such audacity, demanded of him who he was. "I am a man," replied Cortés proudly, "who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities."
Like Columbus, he died a wealthy but embittered man. He left his many mestizo and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. He requested in his will that his remains eventually be buried in Mexico. Before he died he had the Pope remove the "natural" status of three of his children (legitimizing them in the eyes of the church), including Martin, the son he had with Doña Marina (also known as La Malinche), said to be his favorite.
He married twice: firstly in Cuba to Catalina Juárez Marcaida, who died at Coyoacán in 1522, without issue, and secondly in 1529 to doña Juana Ramírez de Arellano de Zúñiga, daughter of don Carlos Ramírez de Arellano, 2nd Count of Aguilar and wife the Countess doña Juana de Zúñiga, and had:
The muralist Diego Rivera depicts him as deformed and a bit seasick. However, many landmarks still bear his name, from the castle in the city of Cuernavaca to some street names throughout the republic.
The only authentic monuments are in the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Mexico City are at the pass between the volcanoes Ixccahiautl and Popocatepetl where Cortes took his soldiers on their march to Mexico City. It is known as the Paso de Cortes.
His and his family crypt is at the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Mexico City. However, his body has been moved more than eight times to avoid destruction. Today, (and unknown to most Mexicans) it is in the "Templo de Jesús" in Mexico City with the only statue of Cortés in Mexican territory, a statue by Manuel Tolsá. In 1981 the statue and the body were in danger of destruction by a nationalistic group, after the statue was made public by President López Portillo, so access had to be restricted.
As one specialist describes them...
"The Cartas de relación have enjoyed an unequaled popularity among students of the Conquest of Mexico. Cortés was a good writer. His letters to the emperor, on the conquest, deserve to be classed among the best Spanish documents of the period. They are, of course, coloured so as to place his own achievements in relief, but, withal, he keeps within bounds and does not exaggerate, except in matters of Indian civilization and the numbers of population as implied by the size of the settlements. Even there he uses comparatives only, judging from outward appearances and from impressions.
Historians, sociologists, and political scientists use them to glean information about the Aztec empire and the clash between the European and Indian cultures. However, as early as the sixteenth century doubt has been cast on the historicity of these Conquest accounts. It is generally accepted that Cortés does not write a true “history,” but rather combines history with fiction. That is to say, in his narrative Cortés manipulates reality in order to achieve his overarching purpose of gaining the favor of the king. Cortés applies the classical rhetorical figure of evidentia as he crafts a powerful narrative full of “vividness” that moves the reader and creates a heightened sense of realism in his letters."
His first letter is lost, and the one from the municipality of Vera Cruz has to take its place. It was published for the first time in volume IV of "Documentos para la Historia de España", and subsequently reprinted. The first carta de relación is available online at
The Segunda Carta de Relacion, bearing the date of 30 October, 1520, appeared in print at Seville in 1522. The "Carta tercera", 15 May, 1522, appeared at Seville in 1523. The fourth, 20 October, 1524, was printed at Toledo in 1525. The fifth, on the Honduras expedition, is contained in volume IV of the Documentos para la Historia de España. The important letter mentioned in the text has been published under the heading of Carta inédita de Cortés by Ycazbalceta. A great number of minor documents, either by Cortés or others, for or against him, are dispersed through the voluminous collection above cited and through the Colección de Documentos de Indias, as well as in the Documentos para la Historia de México of Ycazbalceta. There are a number of reprints and translations of Cortés's writings into various languages.