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Cortés was born in Medellín, in the province of Extremadura, in the Kingdom of Castile in Spain in 1485, the only child of Martín Cortés and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, he was second cousin to 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).
Cortés took classes at Salamanca but bitterly disappointed his parents by returning home in 1501 at age 16, rather than studying law like his grandfather. He had a choice between seeking fame and glory in a war in Italy, or trying his luck in the Spanish colonies of the New World.
I Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca (1485–December 2, 1547) metung yang conquistador ibat Espania a migumpia king pamaniakup king Imperiung Aztec para kang Charles V, ari ning Castilla ampong Holy Roman Emperor, aniang umpisa ning kalabing anam a siglu o dilanua. Kayabe ya i Cortés king dai o henerasiun da areng talasakup a Castilang migumpis king mumuna nang dake ning pamaniakup da king Americas deng Castila. 
Mibait ya king Medellín, Extremadura, king Castilla, king metung a pamiliang ibat kareng mababang ranggung mapia (lesser nobility), at pinili nang manintunan king Bayung Yatu (New World). Minta ya king Hispaniola at kaibat king Cuba, nung nu ya mekatanggap encomienda, at sinaguli yang meging alcalde (mayor) ning metung a malating balen. Aniang 1519, mepili yang capitan ning katlung pamaglakbe (expedition) king kalibutnan a labuad (mainland), metung a pamaglakbe nung nu metung ya kareng migpondu. Uli ning pamipate na king gobernador ning Cuba, i Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, a yang meging sangkan ning pamagkansela king pamaglakbe, bageng e na síkasung Cortés. Karas na king kontinenti, pepaliari neng Cortés ing metung a matagumpeng pamamaralan o taktika nign pamakikampi kareng aliwang tubung lahi laban kareng aliwa. Aniang migparala yang tubud ing Gobernador ning Cuba ba neng parakap i Cortés, lebanan na la at simbut, kapamilatan da reng karagdagang sundalus antimong pandagdag king kayang puersa. Sinulat yang diretsu king ari i Cortés ba lang makilala deng kayang tagumpe lipat ning miparusan uli ning pamagalsa (mutiny). Kaibat neng pepabagsak ing imperiung Aztec, pigkalubanan deng bansag a Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca i Cortés, kabang mibie ne man king matas a ranggung mapia, i Antonio de Mendoza, ing mas prestihiyosung bansag a Virrey o Viceroy. Mibalik ya king Espania i Cortés aniang 1541, nung nu ya meteng payapa dapot maki sukal a lub.
Uling kareng kontrobersial a dapát nang Cortés ampo ing kakulangan kareng apagtiwalan a pikuanan impormasiun tungkul kaya, e malaguang sumabing bageng siguradu o malino tungkul king kayang pangatau o kapagnasan (motivation). Uling pamurian do aniang minuna deng conquistador, e re pekasuri ing tungkul kang Cortés. Aniang belikan da kaibat ing karelang ugali king kontekstu ning makabayung panamdam laban king kolonialismu ampo ing misnang meragul a pamangalang king katulirang pantau (human rights), alimbawa ketang w:Black Legend (Leyenda Negra o Matuling a Alamat, e murin miragdagan ing beluan tamu tungkul kang Cortés anting metung a tau o indibidual. Uling kareng pamagbayung deti king pamanigaral king amlat, masiadu lang simpli deng pamaglarawan kang Cortés, at papalto reng masiadung marok o masiadung mayap.
Who Was La Malinche?
La Malinche was a key figure in the conquest of the Aztecs. But was she a heroine or a traitor? It depends on whom you ask.
The main players in the Spanish–Aztec War (1519–21) are well known: Hernán Cortés and Montezuma. Lesser-known, though no less important, is a brilliant and multilingual exiled Aztec woman who was enslaved, then served as a guide and interpreter, then became Cortés’s mistress. She was known as Doña Marina, Malintzin, and more widely as La Malinche.
There’s little comprehensive documentation about La Malinche. What historians know has been stitched together through mentions of her in various contemporary writings. While Cortés himself referred to her just briefly in his letters, and only identified her as an interpreter, scholar Cordelia Candelaria writes in Frontiers:
her paramount value to the Spaniards was not merely linguistic…She was an interpreter/liaison who served as a guide to the region, as an advisor on native customs and beliefs, and as a competent strategist. It appears that her least significant role to Cortés was that most often expected of women: her function as his mistress.
La Malinche was born Malinal, the daughter of an Aztec cacique (chief). This gave her an unusual level of education, which she would later leverage as a guide and interpreter for the Spanish. After her father’s death, she was sold to slavers by her mother. Her mother then staged a funeral to explain her daughter’s sudden disappearance.
According to Candelaria, the traders eventually sold Malinal to a cacique in Tabasco, where she lived until Cortés arrived in 1519. The cacique presented Cortés with a group of young women to serve him, including Malinal. She quickly distinguished herself. The Spanish gave her the respectful name “Doña Marina,” while the Aztecs attached an honorary addendum of -tzin to her name, making her Malintzin.
Throughout Cortés’s travels, Malintzin became indispensable as a translator, not only capable of functionally translating from one language to the other, but of speaking compellingly, strategizing, and forging political connections. Candelaria cites two moments when La Malinche directly saved the Spanish conquistadors from destruction—once, in Tlaxcala, “her astute observations led her to uncover an indigenous conspiracy against Cortés.” Another time, La Malinche befriended an old woman who led her to crucial information about a dangerous impending attack from Montezuma. Candelaria writes:
Armed with this information Cortés decided to change his plans and to circumvent Cholula before proceeding directly to Tenochtitlan. The change astonished the natives and further persuaded them of the Spaniards’ mystical powers…On these and other occasions, La Malinche’s presence made the decisive difference between life or death.
Integral as she was to Spain’s success, La Malinche is a controversial figure. Candelaria quotes T. R. Fehrenbach as saying , “If there is one villainess in Mexican history, she is Malintzin. She was to become the ethnic traitress supreme.” But Candelaria argues that history has been unduly harsh on La Malinche, refusing to see her in the context of the time. She notes, “La Malinche was bred to serve and to obey.”
Even La Malinche’s role as Cortés’s mistress, for which she has been much maligned, is complex. Scholar Kristina Downs explains in Western Folklore that La Malinche was given to Cortés originally as a slave, and there is no indication that their relationship involved love or even enthusiasm.
Additionally, La Malinche may not have been immune to the air of mysticism surrounding the Spanish. Candelaria points out that if Montezuma himself wasn’t sure of their mortality or immortality, then “surely La Malinche experienced the same uncertainty. She may have seen herself as a divinely selected participant in a most fateful destiny.”
Once a Week
Most crucially, Candelaria points out that La Malinche’s act of turning her back on her own people makes more psychological sense when we consider that, at a young age, she had been sold by her own mother into slavery. Candelaria asks, “What else could this outcast from the Aztecs, ‘her own people,’ have done?”
La Malinche left no records of her own life. What we know of her depends entirely on secondhand accounts, or historians’ interpretations. What all the stories of Malinche’s life—both damning and sympathetic—ultimately reveal is a particularly intelligent and resourceful woman, betrayed, enslaved, buffeted between two empires, somehow emerging as a historical giant in her own right.
Links on Hernando Cortes - History
The Spanish–born conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) and his troop of soldiers were the first Europeans to see the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. His eyewitness account of the city is one of the few ever written. It comes from a letter that Cortés wrote to his emperor, Charles V, recounting his journey through Aztec Mexico. Cortés's regard for the city, its commerce and citizens was both frankly admiring and politically astute. For Cortés's military conquest was only quasi–legal, and he needed to hold out the promise of a spectacular booty—like Tenochtitlan—to ensure the king's support.
European readers became well acquainted with this vision of Tenochtitlan in the 16th century—the letter was first published in Spanish in 1522 and then in a Latin translation in Nuremberg in 1524. It quickly became a best seller, with other editions published in Italian and French. The map that accompanied it was likewise revised and reissued and can be seen in the Vistas gallery it is entitled "Map of Tenochtitlan from Cortés' Second Letter."
Hernán Cortés's letter offers a sense of what inhabitants of Tenochtitlan could encounter as they walked its streets. The enormous markets held everything from produce to pottery, and Cortés describes both the wide range of goods for sale and those who oversaw such selling. He also invokes Spanish practices and cities as points of comparison, evoking for his European readers places they might know (or could more easily imagine).
By 1521, however, Tenochtitlan and its markets were razed, rebuilt and renamed. Spain's on–going effort to limit access to pre–Hispanic and Conquest era history—including a ban on republication of this letter by Cortés—induced a kind of historical amnesia in the colonies. After the widespread destruction of the Conquest, and the demographic collapse of native peoples, 17th–century residents of Mexico City had only limited understanding of the pre–Hispanic period and its practices. It was only in the 19th century, after Independence, that this letter was published in Mexico and local knowledge of pre–Hispanic Tenochtitlan became more accessible. See a map of Tenochtitlan in the Vistas Gallery.
Hernando Cortes and the Aztec Civilization
This course will look at the Spanish Conquistador, Hernando Cortes, focusing upon his expedition to Mexico. The course will begin with lectures introducing the Mexica civilization, followed by an introduction to the Spanish enterprise in the New World. Connections will be made so that students will understand how the Conquistadors knew of Mexico and of their great wealth, and how Hernando Cortes came to be chosen as the leader of the expedition to find and conquer this people. This course will survey in some depth the collision of the Spanish Conquistadors with the Mexica civilization under Montezuma II. Primary sources are often quoted or paraphrased to bring the students into the spirit of the times. The persons of Hernando Cortes and Montezuma II are often viewed and compared in this struggle. The person of Malinche is also occasionally discussed, as she provided a great advantage to the Spanish. The many twists and turns in this drama are truly fascinating, and illustrative of many aspects of human nature. Other topics are explored as they add light to the story, such as the weaponry of the Spanish then, famous art representations, and the travel, water and food distribution of the Mexica within the city of Tenochtitlan. The coverage will also include the many military battles fought by Hernando Cortes, not only against the Mexica, but against other people groups in the area. There are several lectures at the end that will treat the legacy and conclusions of the conflict between the Spanish Conquistadors and the Mexica people. The course comprises 34 video lectures, using voice narration with over 500 Powerpoint slides. Frequently there are supplementary videos, web links, or additional Powerpoint slides to enhance the coverage. The time to complete the video lectures is about 4 ¼ hours. The course is intended for those High School age and up (though serious Junior High School students will benefit also), and requires just the ability to view and hear video lectures.
The vast inequity of numbers — 650 Europeans versus millions of Aztecs — outweighed any advantage conferred by the Europeans’ few horses and cumbersome guns. Of greater consequence, however, was the fact Aztec military tactics emphasized capturing their enemies alive for later sacrifice rather than killing them on the battlefield. While hugely outnumbered, the more aggressive Conquistadors thus had a superior game plan. (Although given his slim resources, Cortés typically preferred bluffing to battle.)
Visitors pass a wall of ancient stone skulls representing sacrificial victims, excavated at Templo Mayor, in central Mexico City, on Aug. 7, 2015. Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Aided by native interpreters, Cortés quickly discerned the fault in Moctezuma’s empire and allied himself with tribes eager, but unable on their own, to overthrow Tenochtitlan’s hegemony. In this way he added hundreds of thousands of motivated warriors to his meagre band of adventurers. And he carefully exploited the coincidences between his arrival and Quetzalcoatl’s foretold return to sow doubt in his opponent’s mind. So despite the sophistication of Aztec society and politics, Cortés outmatched Moctezuma on his home turf in diplomacy, tactics and intelligence gathering. In fact the ruler’s reaction to Cortés’ slow but steady march to Tenochtitlan roughly conforms with the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Moctezuma variously tried to ignore the invaders, dissuade them, bribe them with gold to get them to leave and then ambush and kill them. When nothing worked, he fell into a depression that allowed Cortés to walk into the great city unopposed. “If Moctezuma had been more energetic and determined, he could have quite easily pushed Cortés back into the sea,” reflects Lyons.
Hernán Cortés: Master of the Conquest
On Aug. 13, 1521, Cortés and his reinforced army swarmed across the causeways of Tenochtitlan to complete the conquest he had begun less than three years earlier.
Lebrecht Music & Arts Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo
On Aug. 13, 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés received the surrender of Cuauhtémoc, ruler of the Aztec people. The astonishing handover occurred amid the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the shattered capital of a mighty empire whose influence had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and extended from central Mexico south into parts of what would become Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. After an 80-day siege Cortés had come to a terrible resolution: He ordered the city razed. House by house, street by street, building by building, his men pulled down Tenochtitlan’s walls and smashed them into rubble. Envoys from every tribe in the former empire later came to gaze on the wrecked remains of the city that had held them in subjection and fear for so long.
But how had Cortés accomplished his conquest? Less than three years had passed since he set foot on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, yet he had destroyed the greatest power in Mesoamerica with a relative handful of men. His initial force comprised 11 ships, 110 sailors, 553 soldiers—including 32 crossbowmen and 13 bearing harquebuses (early firearms)—10 heavy guns, four falconets and 16 horses. The force size ebbed and flowed, but he never commanded more than the 1,300 Spaniards he had with him at the start of the final assault.
On its face such a victory would suggest Cortés was a commander of tremendous ability. Yet scholars of the period have long underrated his generalship, instead attributing his success to three distinct factors. First was the relative superiority of Spanish military technology. Second is the notion smallpox had so severely reduced the Aztecs that they were unable mount an effective resistance. And third is the belief Cortés’ Mesoamerican allies were largely to credit for his triumph.
That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes doesn’t mean Cortés’ victories came easy
The conquistadors’ military technology was unquestionably superior to that of every tribe they encountered. The warriors’ weapons and armor were made of wood, stone and hide, while those of the Spaniards were wrought of iron and steel. Atlatls, slings and simple bows—their missiles tipped with obsidian, flint or fish bone—could not match the power or range of the crossbow. Clubs and macuahuitls—fearsome wooden swords embedded with flakes of obsidian—were far outclassed by long pikes and swords of Toledo steel, which easily pierced warriors’ crude armor of cotton, fabric and feathers. And, finally, the Spaniards’ gunpowder weapons—small cannon and early shoulder-fired weapons like the harquebus—wreaked havoc among the Mesoamericans, who possessed no similar technology.
The Spaniards also benefitted from their use of the horse, which was unknown to Mesoamericans. Though the conquistadors had few mounts at their disposal, tribal foot soldiers simply could not match the speed, mobility or shock effect of the Spanish cavalry, nor were their weapons suited to repelling horsemen.
When pitted against European military science and practice, the Mesoamerican way of war also suffered from undeniable weaknesses. While the tribes put great emphasis on order in battle—they organized their forces into companies, each under its own chieftain and banner, and understood the value of orderly advances and withdrawals—their tactics were relatively unsophisticated. They employed such maneuvers as feigned retreats, ambushes and ambuscades but failed to grasp the importance of concentrating forces against a single point of the enemy line or of supporting and relieving forward assault units. Such deficiencies allowed the conquistadors to triumph even when outnumbered by as much as 100-to-1.
Deeply ingrained aspects of their culture also hampered the Aztecs. Social status was partly dependent on skill in battle, which was measured not by the number of enemies killed, but by the number captured for sacrifice to the gods. Thus warriors did not fight with the intention of killing their enemies outright, but of wounding or stunning them so they could be bound and passed back through the ranks. More than one Spaniard, downed and struggling, owed his life to this practice, which enabled his fellows to rescue him. Further, the Mesoamerican forces were unprepared for lengthy campaigns, as their dependence on levies of agricultural workers placed limits on their ability to mobilize and sustain sufficient forces. They could not wage war effectively during the planting and harvest seasons, nor did they undertake campaigns in the May–September rainy season. Night actions were also unusual. The conquistadors, on the other hand, were trained to kill their enemies on the field of battle and were ready to fight year-round, day or night, in whatever conditions until they achieved victory.
That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes does not mean Cortés’ victories came easy. He engaged hundreds of thousands of determined enemies on their home ground with only fitful opportunities for reinforcement and resupply. Two telltale facts indicate that his success against New World opponents was as much the result of solid leadership as of technological superiority. First, despite his sparse resources, Cortés was as successful against Europeans who possessed the same technology as he was against Mesoamerican forces. Second, Cortés showed he could prevail against the Aztecs even when fighting at a distinct disadvantage.
Cortés proclaimed his victories in letters to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and included this detailed map of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. (Le Monde.fr)
In April 1520, as the position of the conquistadors in Tenochtitlan became increasingly precarious, then Aztec ruler Montezuma II—whom the Spaniards had held hostage since the previous November—was informed Cortés’ ships had arrived at Cempoala on the Gulf Coast bearing the Spaniard’s countrymen, and he encouraged the conquistador to depart without delay. While Cortés’ troops were elated at what they assumed was impending deliverance, the commander himself rightly suspected the new arrivals were not allies. They had been sent by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, governor of Cuba, whose orders Cortés had disobeyed in 1519 to launch his expedition, and their purpose was to punish rather than reinforce.
Reports from the coast indicated the fleet comprised 18 ships bearing some 900 soldiers—including 80 cavalrymen, 80 harquebusiers and 150 crossbowmen—all well provisioned and supported by heavy guns. The captain-general of the armada was Pánfilo de Narváez, a confidant of Velázquez, who made no secret of his intention to seize Cortés and imprison him for his rebellion against the governor’s authority.
Cortés could not afford to hesitate and thus allow Narváez time to gather strength and allies. Yet to march out of Tenochtitlan to engage the new arrivals also presented significant risks. If Cortés took his entire force, he would have to abandon the Aztec capital. Montezuma II would reassume the throne, and resistance would no doubt congeal and stiffen, making re-entry a matter of blood and battle, in contrast to the tentative welcome he had initially received. But to leave behind a garrison would further reduce the size of the already outnumbered force he would lead against Narváez. With the swift decision of the bold, a factor indeterminable by numerical calculation, the Spanish commander chose the latter course.
Cortés marched out with only 70 lightly armed soldiers, leaving his second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, to hold Tenochtitlan with two-thirds of the Spanish force, including all of the artillery, the bulk of the cavalry and most of the harquebusiers. Having done all he could to gain an edge over Narváez by feeding his couriers misinformation and undermining the loyalty of his officers with forwarded bribes of gold, Cortés marched with all speed. He crossed the mountains to Cholula, where he mustered 120 reinforcements, then marched through Tlaxcala and down to the coast at Veracruz, picking up another 60 men. Though still outnumbered more than 3-to-1, Cortés brought all his craft, daring and energy to bear and, in a rapid assault amid heavy rain on the night of May 27, overwhelmed his foes. Narváez himself was captured, while most of his men, enticed by stories of Aztec riches, readily threw in their lot with Cortés. Soon after his surprise defeat of Narváez, the bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage.
The bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage
On his return to Tenochtitlan, Cortés discovered Alvarado had indulged in an unprovoked massacre of the Aztecs, stirring the previously docile populace to murderous fury. The Spaniards quickly found themselves trapped and besieged in the capital, and hard fighting in the streets failed to subdue the enemy. Not even Montezuma could soothe his people, who met their emperor’s appeal for peace with a shower of stones that mortally wounded him. With the Spanish force growing short of food and water, and losing more men by the day, Cortés decided to withdraw from the city on the night of June 30–July 1. After a brutal running fight along a causeway leading to shore, the column was reduced to a tattered remnant, leaving Cortés with no more than one-fifth of the force he had originally led into Tenochtitlan. The overnight battle—the worst military disaster the conquistadors had suffered in the New World—would go down in Spanish history as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”).
The debacle left Cortés with few materiel advantages. Only half of his horses survived, and the column had lost all of its powder, ammunition and artillery and most of its crossbows and harquebuses during the retreat. Yet the Spanish commander managed to hold together his flagging force. Skirting north to avoid a cluster of hostile villages, he headed toward Tlaxcala, home city of his Mesoamerican allies.
Over the days that followed Aztec skirmishers shadowed Cortés’ retreating column, and as the Spaniards neared the Tlaxcalan frontier, the skirmishers joined forces with warriors from Tenochtitlan and assembled on the plain of Otumba, between the conquistadors and their refuge. The trap thus set, on July 7 the numerically superior Aztecs and beleaguered Spaniards met in a battle that should easily have gone in the Mesoamericans’ favor. Again, however, Cortés turned the tables by skillfully using his remaining cavalry to break up the enemy formations. Then, in a daring stroke, he personally led a determined cavalry charge that targeted the enemy commander, killing him and capturing his colors. Seeing their leader slain, the Aztecs gradually fell back, ultimately enabling the conquistadors to push their way through. Though exhausted, starving and ill, they were soon among allies and safe from assault.
One long-standing school of thought on the Spanish conquest attributes Cortés’ success to epidemiological whim—namely that European-introduced smallpox had so ravaged the Aztecs that they were incapable of mounting a coherent defense. In fact, Cortés had defeated many enemies and advanced to the heart of the empire well before the disease made its effects felt. Smallpox arrived in Cempoala in 1520, carried by an African slave accompanying the Narváez expedition. By then Cortés had already defeated an army at Pontonchan won battles against the fierce, well-organized armies of Tlaxcala entered the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan and taken its ruler hostage.
Smallpox had ravaged the populations of Hispaniola and Cuba and indeed had equally disastrous effects on the mainland, killing an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the population of central Mexico. But as horrific as the pandemic was, it is by no means clear that smallpox mortality was a decisive factor in the fall of Tenochtitlan or the final Spanish victory. The disease likely reached Tenochtitlan when Cortés returned from the coast in June 1520, and by September it had killed perhaps half of the city’s 200,000 residents, including Montezuma’s successor, Cuitláhuac. By the time Cortés returned in the spring of 1521 for the final assault, however, the city had been largely free of the disease for six months. The conquistadors mention smallpox but not as a decisive factor in the struggle. Certainly they saw no perceptible drop in ferocity or numbers among the resistance.
On the subject of numbers, some scholars have suggested the conquest was largely the work of the Spaniards’ numerous Mesoamerican allies. Soon after arriving in the New World, Cortés had learned from the coastal Totonac people that the Aztec empire was not a monolithic dominion, that there existed fractures of discontent the conquistadors might exploit. For nearly a century Mesoamericans had labored under the yoke of Aztec servitude, their overlords having imposed grievous taxes and tributary demands, including a bloody harvest of sacrificial victims. Even cities within the Valley of Mexico, the heart of the empire, were simmering cauldrons of potential revolt. They awaited only opportunity, and the arrival of the Spaniards provided it. Tens of thousands of Totonacs, Tlaxcalans and others aided the conquest by supplying the Spaniards with food and serving as warriors, porters and laborers. Certainly their services sped the pace of the conquest. But one cannot credit them with its ultimate success. After all, had the restive tribes had the will and ability to overthrow the Aztecs on their own, they would have done so long before Cortés arrived and would likely have destroyed the Spaniards in turn.
For his overthrow of the Aztec empire Hernán Cortés earned royal appointment as governor of the conquered territory, dubbed New Spain. (AKG-Images)
To truly assess the Spanish victory over the Aztecs, one must also consider the internal issues Cortés faced—logistical challenges, the interference of hostile superiors, factional divides within his command and mutiny.
Cortés established coastal Veracruz as his base of operations in Mexico and primary communications link to the Spanish empire. But the tiny settlement and its fort could not provide him with additional troops, horses, firearms or ammunition. As Cortés’ lean command suffered casualties and consumed its slender resources, it required reinforcement and resupply, but the Spanish commander’s strained relations with the governor of Cuba ensured such vital support was not forthcoming. Fortunately for himself and the men of his command, Cortés seems to have possessed a special genius for conjuring success out of the very adversities that afflicted him.
After defeating the Narváez expedition, Cortés integrated his would-be avenger’s force with his own, gaining men, arms and equipment. When the Spaniards lay exhausted in Tlaxcala after La Noche Triste, still more resources presented themselves. Velázquez, thinking Narváez must have things well in hand, with Cortés either in chains or dead, had dispatched two ships to Veracruz with reinforcements and further instructions both were seized on arrival, their crews soon persuaded to join Cortés. Around the same time two more Spanish vessels appeared off the coast, sent by the governor of Jamaica to supply an expedition on the Pánuco River. What the ships’ captains didn’t know is that the party had suffered badly and its members had already joined forces with Cortés. On landing, their men too were persuaded to join the conquest. Thus Cortés acquired 150 more men, 20 horses and stores of arms and ammunition. Finally, a Spanish merchant vessel loaded with military stores put in at Veracruz, its captain having heard he might find a ready market for his goods. He was not mistaken. Cortés bought both ship and cargo, then induced its adventurous crew to join his expedition. Such reinforcement was more than enough to restore the audacity of the daring conquistador, and he began to lay plans for the siege and recovery of Tenochtitlan.
While the ever-resourceful Cortés had turned these occasions to his advantage, several episodes pointed to an underlying difficulty that had cast its shadow over the expedition from the moment of its abrupt departure from Cuba—Velázquez’s seemingly unquenchable hostility and determination to interfere. Having taken leave of the governor on less than cordial terms, Cortés was perhaps tempting fate by including of a number of the functionary’s friends and partisans in the expedition. He was aware of their divided loyalties, if not overtly concerned. Some had expressed their personal loyalty to Cortés, while others saw him as their best opportunity for enrichment. But from the outset of the campaign still other members of the Velázquez faction had voiced open opposition, insisting they be permitted to return to Cuba, where they would undoubtedly report to the governor. Cortés had cemented his authority among the rebels through a judicious mixture of force and persuasion.
But the problem arose again with the addition of Narváez’s forces to the mix. While headquartered in Texcoco as his men made siege preparations along the lakeshore surrounding Tenochtitlan, Cortés uncovered an assassination plot hatched by Antonio de Villafaña, a personal friend of Velázquez. The plan was to stab the conquistador to death while he dined with his captains. Though Cortés had the names of a number of co-conspirators, he put only the ringleader on trial. Sentenced to death, Villafaña was promptly hanged from a window for all to see. Greatly relieved at having cheated death, the surviving conspirators went out of their way to demonstrate loyalty. Thus Cortés quelled the mutiny.
Whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership
But hostility toward the conquistador and his “unlawful” expedition also brewed back home in the court of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Cortés’ absence his adversaries tried every means to undermine him, threatening his status as an agent of the crown and seeking to deny him the just fruits of his labors. The commander was forced to spend precious time, energy and resources fighting his diplomatic battle from afar. Even after successfully completing the conquest, Cortés received no quarter from his enemies, who accused him of both defrauding the crown of its rightful revenues and fomenting rebellion. On Dec. 2, 1547, the 62-year-old former conquistador died a wealthy but embittered man in Spain. At his request his remains were returned to Mexico.
Setting aside long-held preconceptions about the ease of the conquest of Mexico—which do disservice to both the Spanish commander and those he conquered—scholars of the period should rightfully add Cortés to the ranks of the great captains of war. For whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership. As master of the conquest, Cortés demonstrated fixity of purpose, skilled diplomacy, talent for solving logistical problems, far-sighted planning, heroic battlefield command, tactical flexibility, iron determination and, above all, astounding audacity. MH
Justin D. Lyons is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Ohio’s Ashland University. For further reading he recommends Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, by Ross Hassig The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519–1521, by Charles M. Robinson III and Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico, by Hugh Thomas.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Discoverer of the Pacific
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was a Spanish conquistador and explorer of the early colonial era. He is credited with leading the first European expedition to discover the Pacific Ocean (which he referred to as the "South Sea"). He was a popular leader among his people for the way he manipulated Indigenous populations, cultivating strong ties with some local groups while destroying others.
Cortes Meets Montezuma
When the Aztec ambassadors brought to Tenochtitlan the news that Cortes, heedless of Montezuma's wishes, was already over the mountains, and moving across the plains to Mexico, the Emperor, beside himself with terror and anxiety, shut himself up and refused to eat, finally convinced that the Spaniards were indeed sent by the gods to overturn the might of his mountain empire, which had been so secure until these strange white beings had invaded his land.
Despondently Montezuma summoned his nobles in council. Cacama, the King of Tezcuco, not knowing how he was to hate the white men later, advised the Emperor to receive Cortes courteously as ambassador of a foreign prince. Cuitlahua, the Emperor's brother, urged him to gather his forces and drive back the white men before they set foot in the kingdom. Hopelessly Montezuma disregarded both suggestions.
"Of what avail is resistance when the gods have declared against us?" he answered, and prepared to send one more embassy to Cortes almost at his gates.
Cacama himself headed this embassy which was to invite Cortes to Tenochtitlan. He was a young fellow, only twenty-five, strong and straight. He traveled in a litter decorated with gold and gems and covered with green plumes.
Cacama found Cortes in the town of Ajotzinco on Lake Chalco, where the natives were entertaining the Spaniards most hospitably. He told Cortes that he came from Montezuma to bid him welcome to Tenochtitlan, and, as proof of Montezuma's friendship, Cacama gave Cortes three large pearls. Cortes in return gave the Indian prince a chain of cut glass, which was as valuable to him as were the pearls to the Spanish general. Then with many assurances of friendship, Cacama went back to Tenochtitlan and Cortes resumed his march.
The way lay along the southern shore of Lake Chalco, through beautiful woods, cultivated fields and orchards of fruit trees unknown to the white men. Finally they came to a great stone dyke five miles long, which separated the fresh water of Lake Chalco from an arm of the salt lake of Tezcuco. In its narrowest part, the dyke was only a lance's length in breadth, but in its widest, eight horsemen could ride abreast. The white men crossed it with eyes open for all the strange sights about them: the floating gardens, rising and falling with the swell of the lake the canoes filled with Indians, darting hither and thither like swallows the many small towns built out on piles far into the lake and looking, at a distance, "like companies of wild swans riding quietly on the waves." Halfway across the dyke, they found a good-sized town, with buildings which stirred great admiration in the Spaniards. They stopped for refreshment and here, so near to the imperial city, Cortes heard no more of Montezuma's cruelty and oppression, only of his power and riches.
After this brief rest, the white men went on. Their march was made difficult by the swarms of curious Indians who, finding the canoes too far away for a complete view of the strangers, climbed up on the causeway to gaze at them. Cortes had to clear a way through the crowd for his troops before they could leave the causeway and reach Iztapalapan, the city of Montezuma's brother, Cuitlahua, on the shores of Lake Tezcuco.
Cuitlahua had invited many neighboring caciques to help him receive Cortes with proper ceremony. The Spaniards were welcomed with gifts and then invited to a banquet in Cuitlahua's palace, before they were assigned their quarters.
Cortes greatly admired Cuitlahua's city, especially the prince's big garden. It was laid out regularly and watered in every corner by canals which connected it with Lake Tezcuco. The garden was filled with shrubs and vines and flowers delightful to smell and see. It had fruit trees, too in one corner was an aviary of brilliant song birds in another a huge stone reservoir stocked with fish. The reservoir was almost five thousand feet in circumference and the stone walk around it was broad enough for four persons to walk abreast.
"In the city of Iztapalapan, Cortes took up his quarters for the night. We may imagine what a crowd of ideas must have pressed on the mind of the conqueror, as, surrounded by these evidences of civilization, he prepared with his handful of followers to enter the capital of a monarch, who, as he had abundant reason to know, regarded him with distrust and aversion. This capital was now but a few miles distant, distinctly visible from Iztapalapan. And as its long lines of glittering edifices, struck by the rays of the evening sun, trembled on the dark-blue waters of the lake, it looked like a thing of fairy creation, rather than the work of mortal hands. Into this city of enchantment Cortes prepared to make his entry on the following morning." [Prescott's Conquest of Mexico ]
It was on the 8th day of November, 1519, that Cortes started on the march that was to take him into the City of Mexico. The general with his cavalry was in the van behind him came his few hundreds of infantry—weather-beaten and disciplined by the summer's campaign next, was the baggage while the six thousand Tlascalans closed the rear. The little army marched back along the southern shore of Lake Tezcuco until it reached the great causeway of Iztapalapan, which ran across the lake straight north to the very heart of the City of Mexico. The dyke was broad enough for ten horsemen to ride abreast Cortes and his army, as they advanced, still wondered at the strange, beautiful sights about them. Less than two miles from the capital the dyke was cut by a shorter dyke running in from the southwest, and at the point where this dyke joined the main causeway of Iztapalapan there was built across the causeway a stone fortification twelve feet high, which could be entered only by a battlemented gateway. It was called the Fort of Xoloc.
At Xoloc Cortes was met by a body of Aztec nobles who, in their holiday dress, came to welcome him. As each noble separately had to greet Cortes, and as there were several hundred of them, the troops had time to get acquainted with the Fort of Xoloc. Later they grew to know it even better.
After the ceremony was over, the army went on along the dyke of Iztapalapan, and presently came to a canal cut through the causeway and spanned by a wooden drawbridge. To Cortes, as he walked over it, must have come the question whether getting out of Mexico would be as easy as getting in.
There was not much time to wonder about the future, however, for now Montezuma, the great Emperor, lord of Anahuac, was coming forth to meet Cortes. In the midst of a throng of great men, preceded by three officers of state bearing golden wands, came Montezuma's royal litter shining with gold, shaded by a canopy of brilliant feather work, adorned with jewels and fringed with silver, and borne on the shoulders of his nobles who, barefooted, walked with humble, downcast eyes.
The royal train halted and Montezuma descended. His attendants spread down a cotton carpet, that his royal feet might not touch the earth, and over this, supported on one side by Cuitlahua and on the other by Cacama, Montezuma came to greet Cortes.
He was about forty years old—six years older than Cortes. His dark, melancholy eyes gave a serious expression to his copper-colored face, with its straight hair and thin beard. He moved with the dignity of a great prince, and as he passed through the lines of his own subjects, they cast their eyes to the ground in humility.
As Montezuma approached, Cortes threw his reins to a page and dismounted, and with a few of his chief men went forward to meet the Emperor. The two great men looked at each other with a keen interest.
Montezuma very graciously welcomed Cortes to his city, and Cortes answered with great respect, adding many thanks for all the Mexican's gifts. He hung on Montezuma's neck a cut glass chain and, except for the interference of two shocked nobles, he would have embraced him.
Montezuma appointed Cuitlahua to escort the Spaniards to their quarters in the city, while he himself entered his litter and was carried back to his palace, followed by the Spaniards with colors flying and music playing. Thus Cortes triumphantly entered Tenochtitlan.
The Spaniards looked around them with the keen interest of people in a place of which they have heard much and see now for the first time. As they had entered by the southern causeway, they were marching through the broad avenue which led from the Iztapalapan dyke straight to the great temple in the center of the city. The houses on this street belonged to the nobles and were built of red stone with broad, flat roofs defended by the parapet which turned every housetop into a fort. Wonderful gardens surrounded the houses and sometimes were laid out on the roofs.
The streets were crowded with people, as eager to see the Christians as the Christians were to see them. The Indians were awed by the white faces and the glittering armor and the horses, but they had only anger for the Tlascalans. The white men might be gods, but the Tlascalans were the Aztecs' bitterest enemies, and it was not pleasant to Aztec eyes to see their foes walking confidently through the Mexican city.
The procession, crossing many bridges where the canals cut the avenue at various places, came at length to the heart of the City of Mexico, the great square, from which ran the four broad avenues. North, south and west these avenues ran to the three causeways that joined the city to the neighboring mainland. The avenue running east stopped at the lake front. In the center of the square stood the great temple in its courtyard surrounded by a high wall cut by a gate opposite each avenue. The temple itself was, excepting the sacred temple of Cholula, the largest and most important of the land.
Opposite the temple, on the southwest corner of the great square, was the royal palace which Montezuma had erected. On the west side was the old royal palace built fifty years before by Montezuma's father, Axayacatl. This palace was given to the Spanish army for their quarters.
Montezuma was in the courtyard of the palace of Axayacatl waiting to receive Cortes and his train. He took from a vase of flowers a chain made of shells ornamented with gold and joined by links of gold, and as he threw it over Cortes' head, he said, "This palace belongs to you, Malinche, and to your brethren. Rest after your fatigue, for you have much need to do so, and in a little while I will visit you again."'
Then he and his followers withdrew, and the white men were left with their allies in their palace in Tenochtitlan. Through much danger and untold hardships, in the face of Montezuma's commands, they had reached his city, and he had housed them in a royal palace. The Spaniards must have wondered that night if the thing were real or if they were in a dream.