Hernán Cortés

33

Hernán Cortés : biography

1485 – 02 December 1547

Ancestors

Ancestors of Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca

Departure for the New World

An engraving by 19th century artist William Holl

Plans were made for Cortés to sail to the Americas with a family acquaintance and distant relative, Nicolás de Ovando, 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 from 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 of Cadiz, Palos, Sanlucar, and Seville, listening to the tales of those returning from the Indies, who told of discovery and conquest, gold, Indians, and strange unknown lands. He finally left for Hispaniola in 1504 where he became a colonist.Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1992. 4th ed. p.73

Arrival

Cortés reached Hispaniola in a ship commanded by Alonso Quintero, who tried to deceive his superiors and reach the New World before them in order to secure personal advantages. Quintero’s mutinous conduct may have served as a model for Cortés in his subsequent career. The history of the conquistadores is rife with accounts of rivalry, jockeying for positions, mutiny, and betrayal.

Upon his arrival in 1504 in Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola, the 18-year-old Cortés registered as a citizen, which entitled him to a building plot and land to farm. Soon afterwards, Nicolás de Ovando, still the governor, gave him an encomienda and made him a notary of the town of Azua de Compostela. His next five years seemed to help establish him in the colony; in 1506, Cortés took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba, receiving a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his efforts from the leader of the expedition.

Cuba

In 1511, Cortés accompanied Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, an aide of the Governor of Hispaniola, in his expedition to conquer Cuba. Velázquez was appointed as governor. At the age of 26, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer with the responsibility of ensuring that the Crown received the quinto, or customary one fifth of the profits from the expedition.

The Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, was so impressed with Cortés that he secured a high political position for him in the colony. He became secretary for Governor Velázquez. Cortés was twice appointed municipal magistrate (alcalde) of Santiago. In Cuba, Cortés became a man of substance with an encomienda to provide Indian labor for his mines and cattle. This new position of power also made him the new source of leadership, which opposing forces in the colony could then turn to. In 1514, Cortés led a group which demanded that more Indians be assigned to the settlers.

As time went on, relations between Cortés and Governor Velázquez became strained.Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 45–46 This all began once news of Juan de Grijalva, establishing a colony on the mainland where there was a bonanza of silver and gold, reached Velázquez; it was decided to send him help. Cortés was appointed Captain-General of this new expedition in October 1518, but was advised to move fast before Velázquez changed his mind. With Cortés’s experience as an administrator, knowledge gained from many failed expeditions, and his impeccable rhetoric he was able to gather six ships and 300 men, within a month. Predictably, Velázquez’s jealousy exploded and decided to place the leadership of the expedition in other hands. However, Cortés quickly gathered more men and ships in other Cuban ports.

Cortés also found time to become romantically involved with Catalina Xuárez (or Juárez), the sister-in-law of Governor Velázquez. Part of Velázquez’s displeasure seems to have been based on a belief that Cortés was trifling with Catalina’s affections. Cortés was temporarily distracted by one of Catalina’s sisters but finally married Catalina, reluctantly, under pressure from Governor Velázquez. However, by doing so, he hoped to secure the good will of both her family and that of Velázquez.Sanderson Beck,