A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF HERNANDO CORTES

By Tim Lambert

Hernando Cortes was born in 1485 into a noble family in Spain (he is sometimes called Hernan). Cortes was an educated man and for a time he studied law at Salamanca University. In 1504 when he was 19 Cortes sailed to the Spanish colony of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In 1511 Cortes took part in an expedition to conquer Cuba. Then in 1519 Cortes led an expedition to the Mexican mainland.

Hernando Cortes only had about 600 men yet he managed to conquer the Aztecs. The Spaniards had several advantages. They had guns. They also had horses (animals unknown to the Aztecs). The sight of a Spanish cavalry charge was terrifying. Also the Spanish had steel armor and weapons (steel was unknown to the Aztecs). Furthermore the Aztecs were handicapped by their unwillingness to kill the Spaniards. They wanted to capture, their enemies not kill them in battle, so they could be sacrificed later. Worse, the people the Aztecs ruled hated their masters. They were willing to join the Spaniards in order to destroy the Aztecs.

Most of all the Aztecs were handicapped by their beliefs. They believed that their god Quetzalcoatl had once left Mexico by sea and promised to return one day. According to legend Quetzalcoatl would return from the east in the year one reed. (The Aztecs measured time in cycles of 52 years. One year of the cycle was one reed). By an astonishing coincidence one reed fell on 1519 - the year Hernando Cortes arrived.

The Aztec emperor Montezuma feared that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl. He dared not attack a god and so took no action against the Aztecs. By the time the Aztecs realized the truth it was too late.

Montezuma sent Cortes presents including gold and warned him not to approach Tenochtitlan. However the rich gifts merely whetted the Spaniards appetite. They made Cortes determined to capture the capital and take its treasures.

When the Spaniards arrived Montezuma welcomed them as friends and housed them in a palace in the city. However after a week Hernando Cortes took the emperor hostage. Cortes demanded that Montezuma come with him and stay with the Spaniards - or face death. The emperor gave in and from that moment he was a Spanish puppet.

Although the Spaniards were very impressed by the engineering and architecture of Tenochtitlan they strongly disapproved of the idolatry and human sacrifice. Cortes ordered the Aztecs to stop the sacrifices, which made them very angry.

Then the governor of Cuba sent a force to Mexico to arrest Cortes. So Cortes went to the coast to meet them. Cortes managed to deal with this threat but meanwhile in Tenochtitlan Spanish soldiers provoked a rebellion when they tried to stop an important ceremony.

Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan and he found the Spaniards there besieged in their palace. Cortes made Montezuma go out to talk to his people but they stoned him. The Conquistadors were forced to retreat from the city at night. So many Spaniards died in the retreat that they called it la noche triste (the night of sadness). However the Spaniards eventually reached the coast.

Hernando Cortes gathered reinforcements then marched on Tenochtitlan again. When he reached lake Texcoco Cortes built boats and armed them with cannons. The boats then sailed across the lake to attack the city (which was built on an island). The Spaniards were also helped by smallpox, which broke out among the Aztecs. (The Spaniards brought European diseases to which the Aztecs and had no resistance). Eventually the Spaniards captured Tenochtitlan and burned it.

The Spaniards were now in control of Mexico, which they called New Spain. Cortes was appointed its first governor. However Cortes returned to Spain in 1541. Hernando Cortes died in 1547. He was 62.

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