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Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes was responsible for an important part of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas. Learn more about him.

Hernan Cortes Monroy Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, is one of the most famous Spanish conquerer of all time. He was responsible for an important part of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent Spanish colonization of the Americas, particularly in the region now known as Mexico. One of Hernan Cortes’s accomplishments was having led the Spanish expedition that would overthrow the powerful Aztec Empire.

Hernan Cortes was born in1485 in the town of Medellín, in the Kingdom of Castile in what is modern day Extremadura. His father was an infantry captain of good ancestry, but the family made a very modest livelihood. Hernan set off to study at the prestigious University of Salamanca when he was 14 years old, but returned home after only having completed two years. About this time, news of Columbus’s discoveries of the New World was reaching Spain.

By the age of 19, Hernan Cortes made plans to sail to the Spanish colonies of the New World. He arrived to Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola in 1504 and became a colonist. Once there, the governor of Hispaniola, and distant relative of Cortes’s, appointed him as a notary in Azua de Compostela. Hernan Cortes, along with Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, helped to conquer the rest of Hispaniola and Cuba for which he was duly compensated.

Velazquez, who had become the Governor of Cuba, would name Cortes as his secretary, a position of power, and appoint him twice as the municipal magistrate of Santiago. The Spanish conqueror had successfully secured wealth, power and a reputation as a daring and bold leader in Cuba.

Power struggles and Cortes’s relationship with Velázquez’s sister-in-law, Catalina, strained their relationship. In 1518, Velázquez substituted Cortes at the last minute as the commander of an expedition to Mexico. In an open act of defiance, Hernan Cortes rounded up 11 ships, 500 men, horses and cannons and headed to the Yucatan Peninsula, part of the Mayan territory, which he claimed for the Spanish crown in March of 1519. Obtaining help from various sources along the way, Cortes proceeded to conquer Tabasco where he would acquire help from an indigenous woman called La Malinche, the future mother of his son Martín. With her help as a translator, Hernan Cortes learned of the rich Aztec Empire.

In July 1519, Cortes and his men took over Veracruz and in mid-August continued on towards Tenochtitlan. They made alliances along the way with various native tribes who would help the Spaniards take over Cholula, the second largest city in Mexico. Moctezuma II, the Azctec Emperor, received the Spanish army peacefully on November 8th, 1519 and showered them with lavish gifts; possibly because they believed that Hernan Cortez was an emissary of the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl. The Spanish conqueror took the Aztec Emperor hostage and demanded that he swear allegiance to the Spanish crown.

While trying to conquer the Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes would face several battles and setbacks, including an expedition sent by Velázquez to oppose him, before receiving reinforcements from Cuba. The Spanish conquistador then seized the city of Tenochtitlán, destroyed it and captured the Aztec leader Cuauhtémoc. On August 13, 1521, the Aztec Empire collapsed.

The new territory was dubbed “New Spain” and Emperor Charles I appointed Cortes as captain general and chief justice of the land. Hernan Cortes went on to and actively colonize the land, rebuild the newly named “Mexico City” and evangelize the native population.

Throughout the time that Cortes governed Mexico he continued to suffer from bitter rivalries with fellow countrymen that would strain his relationship with the Spanish crown. Eventually Hernan would lose his title and be exiled. He then sailed to Spain to plea with Emperor Charles V, who decorated the conquistador in 1529 with the Order of Santiago and the noble title of Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley but did not restore him to a position of power.

Cortes returned to Mexico and settled down. From 1530 to 1541 he dedicated himself to exploring the northwestern part of Mexico where he would discover the Baja California Peninsula.

In 1541, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes returned to Spain where he was met with little recognition for his contributions to the Spanish colonization of the New World. Disgusted and embittered by the treatment he received, in 1547 he decided to return to Mexico, but died of dysentery in Seville on December 2, 1547.