Hernán Cortés

27

Hernán Cortés : biography

1485 – 02 December 1547

Early life

Cortés was born in 1485 in the town of Medellín, in modern day Extremadura, Spain. His father, Martín Cortés de Monroy, born in 1449 to Rodrigo or Ruy Fernández de Monroy and his wife María Cortés, was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but slender means. Hernán’s mother was Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, Hernán was the second cousin once removed of Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca Empire of modern-day Peru (not to be confused with another Francisco Pizarro who joined Cortés to conquer the Aztecs), through her parents Diego Altamirano and wife and cousin Leonor Sánchez Pizarro Altamirano, first cousin of Pizarro’s father.Machado, J. T. Montalvão, Dos Pizarros de Espanha aos de Portugal e Brasil, Author’s Edition, 1st Edition, Lisbon, 1970. Through his father, Hernán was a twice distant relative of Nicolás de Ovando, the third Governor of Hispaniola. His paternal grandfather was a son of Rodrigo de Monroy y Almaraz, 5th Lord of Monroy, and wife Mencía de Orellana y Carvajal.

Hernán Cortés is described as a pale, sickly child by his biographer, chaplain, and friend Francisco López de Gómara. At the age of 14, Cortés was sent to study at the University of Salamanca in west-central Spain. This was Spain’s great center of learning, and while accounts vary as to the nature of Cortés’s studies, his later writings and actions suggest he studied Law and probably Latin.

After two years, Cortés, tired of schooling, returned home to Medellín, much to the irritation of his parents, who had hoped to see him equipped for a profitable legal career. However, those two years at Salamanca, plus his long period of training and experience as a notary, first in Seville and later in Hispaniola, would give him a close acquaintance with the legal codes of Castile that helped him to justify his unauthorized conquest of Mexico.

At this point in his life, Cortés was described by Gómara as restless, haughty and mischievous. This was probably a fair description of a 16-year-old boy who had returned home only to find himself frustrated by life in his small provincial town. By this time, news of the exciting discoveries of Christopher Columbus in the New World was streaming back to Spain.

Conquest of Mexico

Map depicting Cortés’s invasion route In 1518 Velázquez put him in command of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, due to the old gripe between Velázquez and Cortés, he changed his mind and revoked his charter. Cortés ignored the orders and went ahead anyway, in February 1519, in an act of open mutiny. Accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses and a small number of cannons, he landed in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mayan territory.Bernard Grunberg, "La folle aventure d’Hernan Cortés", in L’Histoire n°322, July–August 2007 There, he encountered Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish Franciscan priest who had survived a shipwreck a period in captivity of the local Maya before escaping. Aguilar, had learned the Chontal Maya language during his captivity, and could thus translate for Cortés. In March 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown. He stopped in Trinidad to hire more soldiers and obtain more horses. Then he proceeded to Tabasco, where he met with resistance and won a battle against the natives. He received twenty young indigenous women from the vanquished natives and he converted them all to Christianity.Crowe, John A. The Epic of Latin America. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1992. 4th ed. p.75 Among these women was La Malinche, his future mistress and mother of his child Martín. Malinche knew both the Nahuatl language and Chontal Maya, thus enabling Cortés to communicate with the Aztecs via Aguilar. Through La Malinche, Cortés learned from the Tabascans about the wealthy Aztec Empire.

In July 1519, his men took over Veracruz: by this act, Cortés dismissed the authority of the Governor of Cuba to place himself directly under the orders of King Charles. In order to eliminate any ideas of retreat, Cortés scuttled his ships. In Veracruz, he met some of the tributaries of the Aztecs and asked them to arrange a meeting with Moctezuma II, the tlatoani (ruler) of the Aztec Empire.Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. Longman Group UK Limited, 1994, pp. 53–54 Moctezuma repeatedly turned down the meeting, but Cortés was determined. Leaving a hundred men in Veracruz, Cortès marched on Tenochtitlan in mid-August 1519, along with 600 men, 15 horsemen, 15 cannons, and hundreds of indigenous carriers and warriors. On the way to Tenochtitlan, Cortés made alliances with indigenous peoples such as the Nahuas of Tlaxcala, the Tlaxcaltec, who had surrounded the Spanish and about 2,000 porters on a hilltop and the Totonacs of Cempoala. In October 1519, Cortés and his men, accompanied by about 3,000 Tlaxcalteca, marched to Cholula, the second largest city in central Mexico. Cortés, either in a pre-meditated effort to instill fear upon the Aztecs waiting for him at Tenochtitlan or (as he later claimed when under investigation) wishing to make an example when he feared native treachery, massacred thousands of unarmed members of the nobility gathered at the central plaza, then partially burned the city.