Hernán Cortés


Hernán Cortés : biography

1485 – 02 December 1547

A few days after Cortés’s 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 sank. Albornoz persuaded Alonso de Estrada to release Salazar and Chirinos. When Cortés complained angrily after one of his adherent’s hand was cut off, Estrada ordered him exiled. Cortés sailed for Spain in 1528 to appeal to King Charles.

First return to Spain (1528)

In 1528, Cortés returned to Spain to appeal to the justice of his master, Charles V. Juan Altamirano and Alonso Valiente stayed in Mexico and acted as Cortés’ representatives during his absence. Cortés presented himself with great splendor before Charles V’s court. By this time Charles had returned and Cortés forthrightly responded to his enemy’s charges. Denying he had held back on gold due the crown, he showed that he had contributed more than the quinto (one-fifth) required. Indeed, he had spent lavishly to rebuild Tenochtitlán, damaged during the siege that brought down the Aztec empire.

He was received by Charles with every distinction, and decorated with the order of Santiago. In return for his efforts in expanding the still young Spanish Empire, Cortés was rewarded in 1529 by being named the "Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca" (Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley), a noble title and senorial estate which was passed down to his descendants until 1811. The Oaxaca Valley was one of the wealthiest region of New Spain, and Cortés had 23 000 vassals. Although confirmed in his land holdings and vassals, he was not reinstated as governor and was never again given any important office in the administration of New Spain. During his travel to Spain, his property was mismanaged by abusive colonial administrators. He sided with local natives in a lawsuit. The natives documented the abuses in the Huexotzinco Codex.

Return to Mexico

Emperor Charles V with Hound (1532), a painting by the 16th century artist [[Jakob Seisenegger.]] Cortés returned to Mexico in 1530 with new titles and honors, but with diminished power. Although Cortés still retained military authority and permission to continue his conquests, viceroy Antonio de Mendoza was appointed in 1535 to administer New Spain’s civil affairs. This division of power led to continual dissension, and caused the failure of several enterprises in which Cortés was engaged.

On returning to Mexico, Cortés found the country in a state of anarchy. There was a strong suspicion in court circles of an intended rebellion by Cortés, and a charge was brought against him that cast a fatal blight upon his character and plans. He was accused of murdering his first wife. The proceedings of the investigation were kept secret. No report, either exonerating or condemning Cortés, was published. Had the Government declared him innocent, it would have greatly increased his popularity; had it declared him a criminal, a crisis would have been precipitated by the accused and his party. Silence was the only safe policy, but that silence is suggestive that grave danger was feared from his influence.

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.