Hernán Cortés

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Hernán Cortés : biography

1485 – 02 December 1547

It was not until he had been almost 15 years in the Indies, that Cortés began to look beyond his substantial status as mayor of the capital of Cuba and as a man of affairs in the thriving colony. He missed the first two expeditions, under the orders of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and then Juan de Grijalva, sent by Diego Velázquez to Mexico in 1518.

Later life and death

Second return to Spain

After his exploration of Baja California, Cortés returned to Spain in 1541, hoping to confound his angry civilians, who had brought many lawsuits against him (for debts, abuse of power, etc.).

On his return he was utterly neglected, and could scarcely obtain an audience. On one occasion he forced his way through a crowd that surrounded the emperor’s carriage, and mounted on the footstep. The emperor, astounded at such audacity, demanded of him who he was. "I am a man," replied Cortés proudly, "who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities."

Expedition against Algiers

The emperor finally permitted Cortés to join him and his fleet commanded by Andrea Doria at the great expedition against Algiers in the Barbary Coast in 1541, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire and was used as a base by Hayreddin Barbarossa, a famous Turkish corsair and Admiral-in-Chief of the Ottoman Fleet. During this unfortunate campaign, which was his last, Cortés was almost drowned in a storm that hit his fleet while he was pursuing Barbarossa.

Last years and legacy

Having spent a great deal of his own money to finance expeditions, he was now heavily in debt. In February 1544 he made a claim on the royal treasury, but was given a royal runaround for the next three years. Disgusted, he decided to return to Mexico in 1547. When he reached Seville, he was stricken with dysentery. He died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville province, on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at the age of 62.

Like Columbus, he died a wealthy but embittered man. He left his many mestizo and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. He requested in his will that his remains eventually be buried in Mexico. Before he died he had the Pope remove the "natural" status of three of his children (legitimizing them in the eyes of the church), including Martin, the son he had with Doña Marina (also known as La Malinche), said to be his favourite.

After his death his body has been moved more than eight times for several reasons. On December 4, 1547 he was buried in the mausoleum of the Duke of Medina in the church of San Isidoro del Campo, Sevilla. Three years later (1550) due to the space being required by the duke, his body was moved to the altar of Santa Catarina in the same church. In his testament, Cortés asked for his body to be buried in the monastery he had ordered to be built in Coyoacan in México, ten years after his death, but the monastery was never built. So in 1566, his body was sent to New Spain and buried in the church of "San Francisco de Texcoco", where his mother and one of his sisters were buried.

In 1629, Don Pedro Cortés fourth "Marquez del Valle, his last male descendant, died, so the viceroy decided to move the bones of Cortés along with those of his descendant to the Franciscan church in México. This was delayed for nine years, while his body stayed in the main room of the palace of the viceroy. Eventually it was moved to the Sagrario of Franciscan church, where it stayed for 87 years. In 1716, it was moved to another place in the same church. In 1794, his bones were moved to the "Hospital de Jesus" (founded by Cortés), where a statue by Tolsa and a mausoleum were made. There was a public ceremony and all the churches in the city rang their bells.

In 1823, after the independence of México, it seemed imminent that his body would be desecrated, so the mausoleum was removed, the statue and the coat of arms were sent to Palermo, Sicily, to be protected by the Duke of Terranova. The bones were hidden, and everyone thought that they had been sent out of México. In 1836, his bones were moved to another place in the same building. It was not until 1947 that they were rediscovered thanks to the discovery of a secret document by Lucas Alaman. His body put in charge of the "Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia" INAH; it was authenticated and then restored to the same place, this time with a bronze inscription and his coat of arms. In 1981, when a copy of the bust by Tolsa was put in the church, there was a failed attempt to destroy his bones.