Hernan (also Hernando or Fernando) Cortes was born in Medellin, Estramadura, in Spain in 1485 to a family of minor nobility. Cortes was sent to study law at the University of Salamanca. In 1501 He left school to fight in a military expedition but became ill and was forced to stay behind. In 1504 he left to seek fortune in the West Indies, eventually joining Diego Velazquez in the conquest of Cuba.
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Velazquez was a Spanish soldier and administrator who would later become governor of Cuba. Cortes persuaded Velazquez to give him the command of an expedition to Mexico. And this is the beginning of Cortes’ legacy. Cortes set out to Mexico on February 19, 1519, with about 600 men and 20 horses; despite the fact that Velazquez revoked his permission for the expedition in fear Cortes would not recognize his authority once in position. One month later in March, Cortes and his entourage landed in Mexico conquering the town of Tabasco. Cortes learned of the Aztec Empire from the natives of Tabasco who were at awe with the Spaniards.
Meanwhile, the Cubans heard that Cortes was wanted back in Spain so they told him to return but Cortes would not obey. Cortes organized an independent government, and renounced the authority of Velazquez, acknowledging only the supreme authority of the Spanish crown. Two of his men were caught trying to take the boat back to Spain and were killed. After negotiations with Montezuma who was trying to persuade Cortes otherwise, Cortes started his famous march inland. Upon entrance of Tenochtitlan Cortes and his army overcame the Tlascalans and then formed an alliance with them against the Aztecs, their enemies.
Cortes and his army at this time entered the Aztec capital city where Cortes was greeted and welcomed with honor. Apparently there was a prophecy about the return of Quetzalcoatl, a legendary god-king who was light skinned and bearded. Despite the welcomed reception Cortes believed that attempts would be made to drive him out and in return he imprisoned Montezuma and forced him to swear allegiance to Charles I, king of Spain. In June, fighting erupted in the capital. One night was named “Noche Trista” meaning sad night in Spanish, because Cortes came back and helped kill over 10,000 Aztecs and in the act, thousands of Spaniards died. Suddenly, Cortes started conquering many villages and brutally killing many Aztecs. By August 13, 1521 Tenochititlan became Mexico City and all citizens were required to support the Spanish. In Mexico City, things became more Spanish. Many Africans were brought over as slaves and even some women came there. A government was started and in 1524, 30,000 people lived in Mexico City. This whole new empire was then renamed New Spain. Meanwhile Cortes was busy killing the natives who had previously lived in the Americas. He even sent some of his highest men on their own missions as commanders. Cortes himself headed South.
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In 1522 Cortes conquered Michoacan, a territory near the volcano. By 1526, he had conquered all of present-day Mexico and Central America. But in 1527, the Spanish officials kicked Cortes out of Mexico. In 1528, Cortes finally got back to Spain and was amazed at his popularity. The people of his hometown Toledo called him the Captain-General of New Spain. But even this great welcome would not hold Cortes in Spain. Cortes was granted permission to return to Mexico in 1530 married, and moved to the town of Cuernavaca into a huge castle. There he found himself constantly being checked on in his activities, property was being kept from him, and his rights constantly being infringed on. Needless to say he did not like it there and after living there for a few years, he moved back to Toledo, Spain in 1540. He remained there until his death in 1547. He had lived an exciting but brutal life, but had been bored for his last many years and was glad to die.
Gomara, Francisco Lopez de. Cortes, The Life of the Conqueror by his Secretary, Los Angles: University California Press, 1965
Johnson, William. Cortes, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1975
Smith, Peter. The Liberators of Mexico, Gloucester: John Anthony Caruso, 1967