Hernán Cortés - Spanish Conqueror

Hernán Cortés - Spanish Conqueror
Hernán Cortés - Spanish Conqueror
Famed for his ruthlessly brilliant leadership in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortés (Hernando [or Fernando] Cortez) occupies a peculiar position in Mexican national memory, remembered by all but revered by none. A contemporary of Niccolò Machiavelli, Cortés through his exploits in Mexico earned the reputation as one of the early modern era’s most Machiavellian of historical actors.

Born in Medellín, Estremadura, Spain, in 1485, of minor nobility, his mother related to the family of Francisco Pizarro, Cortés studied briefly at the University of Salamanca before opting for a life of militarism and adventure in the recently discovered Americas.

In 1504, he journeyed to Hispaniola, and soon after, from 1511, participated in the conquest of Cuba under Governor Diego Velázquez. His successes earned him a substantial encomienda, sufficient to provide a steady stream of revenue for the rest of his life, though his adventures and conquests had only begun.

In 1518, after much behind the scenes maneuvering by Cortés, Governor Velásquez appointed him to head an exploratory expedition to the Mexican mainland. Over the next three years (1519–21), Cortés revealed the extraordinary courage, ambition, single-minded determination, and political cunning for which he became justly renowned. Time and again, faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, he managed to turn the political and military tide to his favor.


Among his most brilliant maneuvers were his swift recognition and deft exploitation of the political divisions between the Aztecs and their subject polities; his keen perception of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II’s psychological weaknesses and the stratagems he devised to exploit them; his instillation of a sense of unity of purpose and inevitability of victory among his men; his winning over of members of the Narváez expedition sent by Governor Velázquez to bring him to heel; and his successful representation of himself to King Charles V and the court as a loyal subject acting only on behalf of church and king.

This latter capacity is especially apparent in the five lengthy letters Cortés dispatched to King Charles from 1519 to 1526, reporting on and justifying his actions. After reducing Tenochtitlán to rubble, he continued the conquests, sending expeditions north, west, and south into northern Central America.

His appointment as governor and captain-general of New Spain in 1522 was considered the high point of his life, along with his admission into the Order of Santiago in 1525. In 1524–26, he headed an expedition overland through the Maya zones into Honduras, along the way executing his prisoner, the Aztec lord Cuautemoc, in 1525.

The expedition a disaster, he returned to Mexico City in 1526 only to find that his enemies had gained power at his expense. Journeying to Spain (1528–30), he was appointed marqués of the Valley of Oaxaca by King Charles, who granted him the colony’s largest encomienda (of 23,000 Indians), making him one of the richest men in all of Spain’s dominions.

Upon his return to New Spain in 1530, his enemies again had gained the upper hand, including (from 1535) Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, among others, against whom he spent years in fruitless squabbling and defending himself in a long series of accusations and judicial inquiries.

After embarking on an expedition to the Pacific and discovering and naming California in the late 1530s, he once again returned to Spain in 1540 to continue to press his claims, was largely ignored by the court, and died.

Insights into Cortés’s political and military brilliance during the conquest of Mexico, and his political shortcomings later in life, can be gleaned from his five letters, along with the narrative of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and a range of other accounts.