Hernán Cortés Essay - Critical Essays

Cortés, Hernán


Hernán Cortés 1485–1547

(Variations on first name include Hernándo, Fernán, and Fernándo) Spanish conquistador and New World chronicler.

Cortés is chiefly known as the conqueror of the Aztec empire and the founder of colonial Mexico. His significance in American historiography has been largely informed by his correspondence, or, Cartas de relatión (1519–1526) that he wrote to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain) recounting various stages of the Mexican conquest. As a firsthand account of one part of the conquest of the Americas, these letters are a valuable resource not only for historical data, but also for what they reveal of the conquistador mentality.

Biographical Information

Cortés was born in the Spanish town of Medellin in approximately 1484. His father, Martín Cortés de Monroy, was a minor aristocrat without titled lands who nonetheless provided his son with the opportunity, as part of the gentry, to participate in Spain's growing colonial enterprise. After studying law for two years at the University of Salamanca, Cortés abandoned his scholarly pursuits in 1504 and travelled to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, where he worked as a notary. He accompanied Diego Velázquez in his conquest of Cuba in 1511 and served as his secretary for the next seven years. During this period he married Catalina Xuárez, who was related to Velázquez by marriage. In 1518, Velázquez put Cortés in charge of an expedition to explore the Mexican coast. Ignoring Velázquez's orders to confine his activities to exploration and trade, Cortés set out to conquer the powerful Aztec empire. After making an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, traditional enemies of the Aztecs, Cortés proceeded to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, where he was received as an emissary of Charles V by the Aztec leader Montezuma II. Cortés took Montezuma prisoner and for some time was able to rule through him. During an Aztec uprising in 1520, however, Montezuma was slain, either by the Spanish or by his own people, and Cortés and his men were forced out of the city with heavy losses. After a protracted siege, during the course of which the city was virtually razed, Cortés finally defeated the Aztecs in 1521. The next year the emperor named him governor of Mexico, or

"new Spain." Following an abortive expedition into Honduras, Cortés was suspended from the office of governor in 1526. Two years later he returned to Spain to seek redress from the Emperor. Although the Emperor conferred on him the title of Marquis and confirmed his claim to the considerable wealth he had acquired in the New World, Cortés was not reappointed governor. He returned to Mexico that year, but never again exercised political power. In 1540 he retired to Spain, where he died in 1547.

Major Works

Cortés's letters to Charles V provide a detailed account of his activities in Mexico from 1519 to 1526. Compilations of these Cartas de relatión usually include five letters, although the first of these is actually a letter from the municipal council of Vera Cruz, the first city established by Cortés in Mexican territory, describing the foundation of the city and presenting the Spanish monarch with all the treasure (instead of the customary royal fifth) acquired thus far in the conquest. This letter is generally included in place of Cortés's own first letter, of which no copy exists. In fact, despite references to this first letter in Cortés's later correspondence, some scholars doubt its existence. The letter from the municipal council emphasizes Cortés's services to the crown and portrays Cortés's immediate superior, Governor Velázquez of Cuba, as a self-interested official who sought to restrict Cortés's activities to trade and exploration in order to enhance his own wealth and power at the expense of the Crown's interest in acquiring new territories. In the subsequent letters written by Cortés, the conquistador continued to describe and justify his actions while staking his claim to hold his authority directly from the king. The second letter describes events from the war against and alliance with the Tlaxcalans through the noche triste ("sad night") of July 10, 1520, during which Cortés lost over half his army during the flight from Tenochtitlán. The third letter records the siege and reconquest of the city, while the fourth letter describes Cortés's administration of the conquered territories. These four letters were published in Spain during Cortés's lifetime, helping to establish his reputation as one of the great conquistadors. His final letter, concerning his disastrous expedition to Honduras in 1526, reflects his experience of bureaucratic controls that greatly constricted his authority in New Spain, and differs markedly from the earlier letters in tone and content; it was not published until the nineteenth century.

Critical Reception

Though he is assured a position in history as the conqueror of Mexico, Cortés's reputation is a subject of continuing debate. Until the twentieth century, Cortés's letters fulfilled their apparent purpose of perpetuating their author's fame and glory. However, changing attitudes towards colonialism during the course of the twentieth century have brought a réévaluation of Cortés's historical role, with many historians emphasizing his ruthless methods and his destruction of a flourishing civilization. This historical re-visioning has been accompanied by a focus on the letters as literary artifacts rather than as objective descriptions of the conquest of Mexico. Jonathan Loesberg (1983), for instance, looks at various rhetorical strategies employed by Cortés in his letters to establish his right to make decisions independent of his immediate superior, the governor of Cuba. Anthony Pagden (1971) also discusses ways in which Cortés seeks in his letters to reinforce both his authority and his reputation. In a similar vein, Stephanie Merrim (1986) examines how Cortés, in constructing his persona as narrator and agent in his Letters, seeks to present himself as a model subject and military leader in the service of the emperor. Inga Clendinnen (1991), on the other hand, finds in Cortés's letters indications of cultural miscommunications that contributed to the vulnerability of the Aztecs in the face of the Spanish invasion.

Principal Works

Cartas de relatión de la conquista de Méjico [Letters from Mexico] (letters) 1519–1526


The North American Review (essay date 1843)

SOURCE: "Despatches of Hernando Cortés" in The North American Review, Vol. LVII, No. 121, October, 1843, pp. 459–90.

[The following excerpt provides a detailed historical overview of Cortés's expedition to Mexico from 1518 to 1524, as well as extracts from Cortés 's letters to the Emperor.]

As the memoirs of a hero written by himself, the work before us possesses an interest of the same character with that of the Anabasis of Xenophon and the Commentaries of Cœsar; and though the Spanish leader may not claim the high literary rank which the Greek and Roman generals have attained as classical historians, we are not to conclude that Cortés has any occasion,...

(The entire section is 5844 words.)

J. Bayard Morris (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: An introduction to Hernándo Cortés: Five Letters 1519-1526, translated by J. Bayard Morris, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1928, pp. ix-xlvii.

[In the following excerpt, Morris attempts to counter the charges of barbarism that have frequently been levelled against Cortés and briefly reviews the style and contents of the five Cartas de relación.]

"Conquest" has always been held an ugly word: so much so that even conquerors themselves have been wary of it. The Norman William crossed the channel, as he announced, to assume a kingdom which was his by right of a rival's oath. Alaric the Goth led his barbarian mercenaries southward to the sack of Rome with...

(The entire section is 3446 words.)

Jonathan Loesberg (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Narratives of Authority: Cortés, Gómara, Diaz," in Prose Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3, December, 1983, pp. 239-63.

[In the following excerpt, Loesberg examines the rhetorical means by which Cortés, in his Letters, seeks to consolidate his authority and to justify his actions.]

(The entire section is 3683 words.)

Carlos Fuentes (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Spanish Captain's Story," in The Guardian Weekly, Vol. 135, No. 26, December 28, 1986, p. 22.

[In the following essay, Fuentes examines what he sees as the "democratic essence of Machiavellianism " that prompted the actions and writings of men like Cortés.]

Hernan Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, was seven years old when Columbus set foot in the New World. He came from a modest family in a modest town of barren Extremadura. At nineteen, he left home for the Indies. His Spanish inheritance was a vine and a beehive. In the New World, he conquered an empire nine times the size of Spain.

The letters sent by Cortes to Emperor Charles V...

(The entire section is 1229 words.)

Stephanie Merrim (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Ariadne's Thread: Auto-Biography, History, and Cortés' Secunda Carta-Relacion," in Dispositio, Vol. XI, Nos. 28-29, 1986, pp. 57-83.

[The following excerpt examines the importance of the intended audience in relation to the construction of the narrative "I" in Cortés's Second Letter.]

In his mandate to Cortés to undertake the exploration of Tierra Firme, Governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez encharged his former secretary to submit a "muy complida e entera relación" of all that he saw, discovered and learned. This relación was to be relayed to Velazquez so that he, in turn, could "facer entera y verdadera relación al Rey nuestro Señor,...

(The entire section is 8487 words.)

Inga Clendinnen (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: '"Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty': Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico," in Representations, Vol. 33, Winter, 1991, pp. 65-100.

[In the following excerpt, Clendinnen exposes the miscommunications, arising from unbridgeable cultural differences between the Indians and the Spanish, that facilitated the conquest of Mexico.]

The conquest of Mexico matters to us because it poses a painful question: How was it that a motley bunch of Spanish adventurers, never numbering much more than four hundred or so, was able to defeat an Amerindian military power on its home ground in the space of two years? What was it about Spaniards, or about Indians, that made so awesomely...

(The entire section is 9250 words.)

Further Reading

Alonso, Manuel Moreno. "The Dialogue of the Dead between Hernán Cortés and William Penn, and the Romantic Image of the Conquistador in England." BHS LXVI, No. 2 (April 1989): 141-54.

Examines the literary appropriation of the figure of Cortés in terms of changes in the way his character and actions were perceived in eighteenth-century England.

Ardura, Ernesto. "Hernán Cortez and the Mexican Iliad." Américas 18, No. 8 (August, 1966): 23-31.

Portrays Cortés as a hero of epic proportions in his pursuit of the conquest of Mexico.

Elliot, J. H....

(The entire section is 309 words.)