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.
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.
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.
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.