Hernán Cortés: The Conquest of Mexico

La MalincheWhen Cortés and his men entered Mexico, they came across an abandoned village. They found and captured a native, who led them to the rest of his people. Christian relics indicated the presence of Spanish soldiers, most likely from the previous two expeditions. After threatening the natives, Cortés and his men continued to sail up the Yucatan coast.

A month later, the expedition reached Tabasco. Cortés officially claimed this land in the name of Spain. The natives responded by attacking the Spanish. They received gunfire and a cavalry charge in return. The Spanish soldiers then captured Tabasco. The natives regrouped and attacked again in a conflict called the Battle of Cintla. Although the natives had some advantages, such as lighter armor, the Spanish managed a victory. The Tabascans then pledged loyalty to the Spanish; from this, Cortes gained his interpreter, Malintzin.

The expedition continued into Mexico, heading toward Tlaxcala. Cortés met ambassadors of Moctezuma II, the ruler of Tenochtitlan, here. Tenochtitlan was the center of the Mexica (Aztec) empire. A popular myth is that the natives believed that their god, Quetzalcoatl, was meant to return to the earth as a light-skinned, bearded entity; Cortés was initially thought to be Quetzalcoatl. While it is unlikely that the Mexica legitimately thought Cortés was their god, it is likely that Moctezuma saw Cortés as a threat to his power. Cortés attempted to send gifts of beads and trinkets to the natives, which only served to insult them. Nevertheless, Moctezuma told his ambassadors to keep Cortés where he was; he had no interest in meeting him.

Meanwhile, the Spanish expedition was splitting apart. Some of the men supported Diego Velázquez; others wanted to remain with Cortés. At this point, Cortés was beginning to show his arrogance. He insisted that Velázquez had no authority over him; allowed his men to trade with natives; and called himself the captain-general of a new colony at Veracruz.

Cortés and his men marched on Tlaxcala in August/September 1519. The Tlaxcalans initially fought the Spanish, although they eventually became allies when they realized the Spanish could defeat their rulers in Tenochtitlan. A Tlaxcalan chief gave information to Cortés about the Aztec empire.

MoctezumaCortés and his men marched to Tenochtitlan. Moctezuma emerged to meet Cortés, who bowed and delivered gifts to the Aztec ruler. They temporarily established an uneasy friendship, which ended when Cortés took Moctezuma hostage. While Spanish soldiers took over Tenochtitlan, Spanish priests began to destroy traces of native religion. Meanwhile, Velázquez sent Panfilo de Narváez to arrest Cortés. He failed in this mission; instead he and his men suffered wounds in battle and were then arrested.

Cortés was caught in the center of the conflict. The natives were revolting, placing the Spanish in a precarious position. Finally, on June 30, 1520, Cortés and his men evacuated Tenochtitlan. They attempted to take gold and treasures with them. Several hundred Spanish soldiers were lost to a number of native attacks.

More than a year later, in August 1521, Cortés and his men launched another attack on Tenochtitlan. They recaptured the city. Cortés became the governor of New Spain; he launched more expeditions from his newly established Mexico City, built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. After he was removed as governor, he spent some time in Spain before returning to the Americas. He died of dysentery in Spain in 1547.


Cortés' Early Life