Article abstract: Cortés skillfully led a small band of Spaniards and numerous Indian allies to the heart of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (later Mexico City), and within two years he boldly conquered the powerful Aztec Empire. His most lasting contribution has been to western exploration and conquest of the New World.
Hernán Cortés came from a Spanish region, Extremadura, where so many of the New World conquistadors originated. Although Cortés was born into a Spanish noble (Hidalgo) family, his parents—Martín Cortés de Monroy, an infantry captain, and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano—were of limited means. At the age of fourteen, Hernán was sent to school in Salamanca to prepare for a career in law. Cortés soon abandoned his studies and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Spanish army, serving in Naples. In 1504, at the age of nineteen, hamstrung by what he perceived as limited possibilities in the Old World, the restless youth, like so many of his class, decided to board a ship bound for the Spanish Indies.
In many ways, the impressionable Cortés was a product of his times. Renaissance Spain was undergoing tremendous ferment during the last decades of the fifteenth century. For more than seven centuries, Spanish Catholics had fought an epic struggle against Islamic Moors called the reconquista (reconquest), and in 1492, under the recently unified leadership of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, the Moors’ final stronghold, Granada, fell. The reconquista markedly influenced succeeding generations of Iberians: It united Spain’s divided kingdoms and regions into a strong nation-state with a powerful army; it rallied the country together under the banner of Catholicism—the young nation would embrace the faith with such religious fervor that it would take on the responsibility of defender of the Church throughout Europe and the New World; and it opened up economic possibilities for those Hidalgos who fought for the Crown and were rewarded for their efforts. Militarism, the rise of a Spanish national identity, the Catholic faith, and the seemingly unlimited potential for personal aggrandizement imbued succeeding generations of Hidalgos with a sense of commitment, purpose, and service to their Crown.
In the same year that Granada fell, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, opening new military, religious, and economic possibilities for the expansion-minded Spanish state and for ambitious Hidalgos such as Cortés. Cortés secured a position as a notary on the island of Santo Domingo in the Caribbean and was given a small grant of Indians who provided labor and commodity tribute (encomienda). For six years, Cortés profited from his Indians, but once again he grew restless. In 1511, he joined Diego Velázquez’s military conquest of Cuba, serving as a clerk to the treasurer. Rewarded by the conquistador Velázquez, who subsequently became governor of the island, Cortés was rewarded with another encomienda in Cuba and a government position. In Santiago de Baracoa, Cuba, Cortés attended to his bureaucratic duties, became a prominent local merchant, raised cattle, and had his encomienda Indians mine gold.
Just when it appeared that Cortés would settle down and tend to his thriving business concerns, reports began filtering back to Cuba from advance scouting expeditions of a fabulous Aztec Empire on the Caribbean mainland. In 1519, Governor Velázquez commissioned the thirty-four-year-old Cortés to lead an expedition to the Mexican mainland. As Cortés outfitted his expedition with men, ships, and provisions, Velázquez had second thoughts about Cortés’ arrogant, pretentious manner. Fearing that he could not control his ambitious commander, Velázquez ordered the commission revoked. When Cortés learned that the governor planned to rescind his orders, he quickly set sail from Cuba on February 18, 1519, with 550 Spaniards, several Cuban Indians and black slaves, a few small cannons, sixteen horses, several mastiff dogs, and eleven small ships.
Cortés’ two-year assault on the heavily populated Aztec Empire, against almost insurmountable odds, was one of the most formidable challenges of the age of exploration and conquest. Driven by the traits shared by all reconquista Hidalgos—religious zeal, dedication to the Crown, and a healthy lust for glory and gold—Cortés, both in his personal correspondence and in his riveting speeches to his men, evinced a single-minded obsession: to conquer the Aztecs or die trying. Chroniclers describe the conquistador as a man of average height, pale complexion, and a muscular frame. The standard that he carried into battle was particularly appropriate; fashioned of black velvet, embroidered with gold, with a red cross laced with blue-and-white flames, its motto was emblazoned in Latin: “Friends, let us follow the Cross; and under this sign, if we have faith, we shall conquer.” From the moment the expedition landed off the coast of Yucatán until the final assault on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521, Cortés stayed true to that motto and never considered retreating or compromising.
Although the enemy enjoyed an overwhelming numerical superiority—the population of Tenochtitlán has been estimated at eighty thousand in 1519—Cortés was able to take advantage of a number of favorable factors. First, Cortés shrewdly perceived that many of the Indian subject provinces chafed under and bitterly resented Aztec rule. The Spanish invasion signified—to Indians such as the Tlaxcalans and later the Tarascans—a fortuitous opportunity to ally themselves with the foreign invaders, to overturn onerous Aztec tribute and to regain their independence. These subject populations not only provided Cortés with literally thousands of warriors but also complicated matters politically for the Aztec emperor Montezuma II. The emperor, who was coronated in 1503, had squelched serious rebellions throughout his reign. Yet, after more than a century of Aztec imperial rule, subject provinces who had...
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