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Cortés Created New Order in Mexico
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
During the early part of the sixteenth century, the Aztec Empire was at the height of its power. It seems inconceivable that one man along with a group of soldiers and mercenaries would all but destroy this great empire in only two years' time. But it did happen, and the man responsible for this was Hernán Cortés.
Cortés was born in Medellin, Estremadura, Spain, in 1485 of a noble family with little personal wealth. Sent to the University of Salamanca at the age of 14 to study law, Cortés took an interest in sailing to the West Indies, leaving his studies after only two years. Determined to prove himself, Cortés in 1504 embarked on his first voyage to the New World.
When Cortés arrived on the island of Santo Domingo, he immediately participated in campaigns that would defeat such tribes as the Amihuayahua and Guacayarima. In 1511, he joined Captain Diego Velázquez in conquering Cuba. During his service with Velázquez in 1518, he won a commission to sail west to Mexico, whose mainland had been reached a year before by Francisco Fernández de Córdoba and later by Juan de Grijalva, nephew to Velázquez.
Suspecting that Cortés would probably refuse to recognize the Cuban governor's authority upon reaching Mexico, Velázquez attempted to stop the expedition, to no avail. Cortés left Cuba with 11 ships, 600 men, 16 horses, and some field cannon. Landing in Mexico in March 1519, he easily took the town of Tabasco, so awed were the natives at the armor, weapons, and especially the horses, which they had never before seen.
At Tabasco he was given a slave girl named Malinche who became his mistress, guide and translator. Moving north to Villa Rica de la Veracruz later that year, Cortés did exactly what Velázquez had feared: he renounced his former commander and acknowledged only the Spanish crown. To curb the restlessness of some of his crew, he burned his own ships so that no one could leave the mainland.
Cortés then proceeded to march into towns with the reading of the requirimento, a long formal Latin decree commanding the natives to accept Christianity and Spanish sovereignty in return for peace. Overcoming the native Tlascalans, Cortés learned of their enemy, the great Aztec Empire.
The Spanish passed through the Sierra Madre mountains and met with Montezuma II, the ruler of the Aztecs, who tried to persuade Cortés not to enter the capital city of Tenochtitlán. But on November 8, 1519, Cortés, his men and hundreds of Indian allies entered the Aztec capital.
Many Aztecs believed he was their exiled god, Quetzalcoatl, who had sailed away with a promise of return. Both were tall with light skin and a beard, and the natives received Cortés with honor, allowing him free range of the city where the Spaniards found evidence of great wealth. Cortés knew he would be driven out of the city once his true intentions of conquest were known, so he took Montezuma II hostage, forcing him to declare allegiance to King Charles I of Spain and to pay an enormous ransom of gold and precious gems.
Cortés left 200 men at Tenochtitlán while he met an expedition on the coast led by Pánfilo de Narváez who was trying to stop Cortés' march on Mexico. Narváez failed to suppress the conqueror, and, in fact, most of his men joined Cortés. The Aztecs had risen against Pedro de Alvarado, who was in charge of the capital, and Cortés was surrounded and attacked upon his return to Tenochtitlán. When Montezuma attempted to calm the rebellious Aztecs, he was hit by a stone and died three days later.
Cuauhtemoc, Montezuma's nephew, led the advance against Cortés and his forces on a rainy June 30, 1520, known as la noche triste ('the night of sadness'). The Aztec destroyed the island city's bridges and chased the Spanish into the canals, where a majority of them drowned.
Cuitlahuac, Montezuma's successor, ruled only a few months before dying of disease, and Cuauhtemoc became the next Aztec ruler.
Over the next year, Cortés would conspire with enemies of the Aztec Empire, including the Totonacs. The Totonacs held a great animosity towards the Aztecs, primarily because the Aztec Empire enslaved their sons and daughters. In exchange for food, the Totonacs agreed to help the Spanish defeat the Aztec Empire. Nearly a year after la noche triste, Cortés had his soldiers, the Totonacs and thousands of other mercenaries, stormed the capital of Tenochtitlán and after three months of battle, Cortés seized control of the Aztec Empire again.
Cortés razed Tenochtitlán and built Mexico City on the site.
Declaring himself Conqueror of New Spain, Cortés expanded his reign of power into Honduras in 1524, and later discovered the peninsula of Baja California. In 1536, Cortés relinquished governorship of New Spain to Antonio de Mendoza and returned to Spain to lead a new expedition into Algiers.
The Cortés Expedition into Algiers in 1541 was considered a failure, and he returned to Spain, retiring in Seville where he died on December 2, 1547.
Hernán Cortés was no doubt a very complex man. Consumed by his ambitions, he destroyed one great empire and helped create another. With his conquest of Mexico, a new people would be born: the mestizo. The natives would be Christianized. The Spanish would colonize half a continent. A new World had truly begun.