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Hernando Cortes

Conqueror of Mexico (1485-1547)

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Cortex, HERNANDO, conqueror of Mexico, b. at Medellin in Spain c. 1485; d. at Castilleja de la Cuesta near Seville, December 2, 1547. He was married first to Catalina Xuarez, from which marriage there was no issue, and, after her death, to Dona Juana de Zuniga, niece of the Duke of Bejar. From this union there sprang four children, one son (Martin) and three daughters. His parents were Martin Cortes de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, both of honorable extraction, belonging to the middle class of nobility, but not wealthy. They sent their son to school at Salamanca when he was fourteen years of age, but study was irksome to him, his restless and ambitious temper chafed under restraint, and he returned home much to the displeasure of his parents. As he was the only son, they looked upon him as their hope and future support, and had wished that he would adopt the profession of the law. Dissatisfied at home Cortes turned his eyes to the newly discovered Western world, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to embark for the West Indies with Ovando, succeeded in reaching Espanola in a craft commanded by one Quintero, who signalized himself during the voyage by trying to deceive his superiors and reach the New World before them in order to secure personal advantages. It may be that the example of Quintero was a school for Cortes in his subsequent career. The life Cortes led in the Antilles was that of the military man of his time, with intervals of rest on such estates as he gradually acquired. He was a favorite of both Ovando and Velazquez, but he quarrelled with the latter, deceived him and made him a mortal enemy. The consequences were very serious, for Velazquez was Governor of Cuba and a man of influence at court. The conduct of Cortes during his stay in the Antilles (1504-1519) revealed, besides military aptitude (which he had small opportunity of displaying), shrewdness, daring (in his dealings with Velazquez), and no excess of scruples in morals.

In 1517 Cordova reached the coast of Yucatan, while commanding a modest expedition despatched by Velazquez. He was mortally wounded and only a remnant of his crew reached Cuba again, bringing back news of the superior culture of the people they had met. Another expedition was determined upon, and was carried out the year following under the leadership of Grijalva. It touched the coast of Mexico, and brought home metallic objects and evidences of superior culture. Ere Grijalva had come back, Velazquez determined to send a third and more numerous squadron to the Mexican coast. Cortes, then one of Velazquez’s favorites, was named as the commander, a choice which created no little envy. Cortes entered into the enterprise with zeal and energy, sacrificing with too much ostentation a considerable part of his fortune to equip the expedition. Eleven vessels were brought together, maimed with well-armed men, and horses and artillery were embarked. At the last moment Velazquez, whose suspicions were aroused by the actions of Cortes, instigated by his surroundings, attempted to prevent the departure. It was too late; Cortes, after the example set by Quintero, slipped away from the Cuban coast and thus began the conquest of Mexico. His life from the time he sailed on his momentous undertaking in 1519 is so intimately linked with the history of Mexico, that the reader may be referred for additional details to the articles Mexico. Aztecs. and Pedro de Alvarado.

As a soldier Cortes put to use in Mexico the Indian mode of warfare he had observed in the Antilles, and it enabled him to achieve an unbroken success in the open field. Indian defensive tactics from buildings and walls were new to him, but he quickly saw both their strong and their weak points, and his reduction of the island settlement of Tenochtitlan was no small feat. He recognized at an early date the Indian method of proceeding by decoy and ambush, and this led to his success against the tribe of Tlaxcals. He was very quick in detecting devices and stratagems, even in time of apparent peace, and in adopting and executing measures to defeat them. One of the most remarkable instances is what has been called the “massacre of Cholula”. When Cortes was at the large Indian settlement of Tlaxcals and had perfected an alliance with that people, some Indians from the neighboring tribe of Cholula urged him to visit their home. He was warned not to go, since the visitors did not express the wish of their kindred, who were bitterly opposed to dealing with the Spaniards. Though unacquainted with the character of the natives, he marched to Cholula, but noticed that a trap was being set for him. He prevented the outbreak by an attack on the Indians, and after a short struggle forced them into submission.

The most daring of his exploits, and one that may be qualified as absolutely reckless although successful, was his march on Narvaez who, with a much superior force of Spaniards, had landed on the gulf coast with orders from Velazquez, not only to supersede Cortes, but to capture him and bring him to trial in Cuba for disobedience and treason towards the governor. Leaving only one hundred and forty men under Alvarado to hold an Indian settlement of twenty thousand souls, he set out against Narvaez, who had nine hundred soldiers, while Cortes, rein-forced as he approached the coast, mustered about two hundred and sixty. With these he surprised his antagonist and took him prisoner. The move was a desperate one, as the sequel proved. But the secret of his success lay in his marvellously quick movements, for which Narvaez was not prepared, as well as in his rapid return to the plateau, by which he surprised the Indians who held Alvarado and his people at their mercy. The desperate defense of the Spaniards in the absence of Cortes would have been unavailing had the latter not moved with such celerity. In contrast with that lightning-like quickness, but equally well adapted to the necessities of the case, was the methodical investment and capture of the lake settlement, showing the fertility of the conqueror’s mind in suiting his tactics to altered conditions.

To these military accomplishments Cortes joined an unusual perspicacity in penetrating the general situation in aboriginal Mexico. He saw, soon after landing at Vera Cruz, the looseness of the bonds by which the Indian tribes were connected, and yet his keen perception remained at fault in that he did not appreciate (nor could he, from the standpoint of the times, understand) Indian tribal organization. The sway the tribes of the tableland and interior lake-basin held over many of their neighbors appeared to him (judging from European and Asiatic models) as an evidence of a consolidated empire; the offices of superior rank held by chiefs, as parts of an organized hierarchy or feudal lordships; and the head war-chief a hereditary autocrat. Of the nature of tribal society he had not, and could not have, any idea. While, therefore, his attempts at winning tribes leagued with the Mexican confederacy over to the Spanish cause were usually successful, he was less fortunate in his relations with the Mexicans themselves. His seizure of the person of Montezuma, the head war-chief of the confederates, did not have the expected result. Led by the belief that Montezuma was a supreme ruler, hence the pivot of a state, Cortes confidently hoped to control the Mexican tribe and its confederates through his captive. The seizure itself appears as an act of singular daring, and Cortes and his men were astonished at the ease with which it was executed, and the lack of opposition on the part of the Indians; but they did not know that their prisoner was of so little importance. He was an elected officer, who could be replaced without trouble, and the tribal council, supported by the medicine men and guided by their oracular utterances, were the real heads of the confederacy. The general outbreak against the Spaniards began after Montezuma’s successor had been installed; until then hostile manifestations were limited to blockading Alvarado.

For the sake of policy, Cortes was, in general, far from cruel towards the Indians. He allowed Cuauhtemotzin to be tortured in order to force him to reveal the whereabouts of his supposed hidden treasures. Such acts were not uncommon at that period, and every nation was at times guilty of them. This cruelty was, however, useless, because the greater part of the Mexican treasures had already passed into the hands of the Spaniards. The execution of Cuauhtemotzin on the journey to Honduras was another instance of the misconception by Cortes of Indian conditions. It is not at all unlikely that the Mexican chieftain was party to a plan to exterminate the Spaniards while they were floundering through the forests and swamps, but even if this were so, his execution was not necessary. By restraint the same object might have been achieved. But Cortes had an exaggerated conception of the power and influence of Cuauhtemotzin’s office, as he had in the case of Montezuma. To the Indians as a mass he was kind. He recognized that their preservation would insure eventual prosperity for the Spaniards, provided the Indians gradually accepted European ideas. Therefore he regarded the Church as the main instrument for the education of the Indian. But he was far from sharing in the dreams of Las Casas. His relations with the clergy were very cordial, he did all he could to introduce missionaries, and even Las Casas mentions him favorably. It has been intimated that the kind treatment of the Mexican natives by Cortes was part of a deeply-laid plan to use his conquest of Mexico for selfish and treasonable purposes, for Cortes was not always the faithful subject. This leads us to consider his relations to the Crown of Spain and a few points of his private character.

The impression has prevailed that Cortes was treated by the Spanish Government with base ingratitude. It is true that a few years after 1521 an unfavorable change took place in his relations with the Emperor Charles V and his government. The change never led to an absolute break, but it caused a gradual curtailing of his power which Cortes felt very keenly. While lavishly contributing his own means at the outset, Cortes made his conquest avowedly as a Spanish subject, for and in behalf of Spain and its monarch. Mexico became a Spanish colony through his instrumentality, but it was the duty of the Spanish Government to care for it. Cortes personally was not ungenerously rewarded, but he speedily complained of insufficient compensation to himself and his comrades. Thinking himself beyond reach of restraint, he disobeyed many of the orders of the Crown, and, what was more imprudent, said so in a letter to the emperor, dated October 15, 1524 (Ycazbalceta, “Documentos para la Historia de Mexico“, Mexico, 1858, I). In this letter Cortes, besides recalling in a rather abrupt manner that the conquest of Mexico was due to him alone, deliberately acknowledges his disobedience in terms which could not fail to create a most unfavorable impression. Soon after the capture of the Indian settlement the Crown, as was its prerogative, in 1522 sent to Mexico officers to investigate the condition of affairs, and to report on the conduct of Cortes. To this he could not object, as it was an established custom. The commissioner, Tapia, charged with the investigation, was so hampered, however, by the officers of Cortes that he did not even reach the valley of Mexico, but returned without carrying out his orders. Cortes himself, while keeping at a distance, treated him with the utmost courtesy, but rendered all action on his part impossible. A second commissioner, Luis Ponce de Lein, was sent in 1526 with discretionary and very dangerous powers. He died at Mexico soon after his arrival, in a manner that leaves little doubt of foul play, although Prescott discredits it. But Prescott had not then the documentary material since unearthed. A number of minor charges were brought against the conqueror, and they appear to have been substantiated. They could not fail to create grave suspicion, because they presented the picture of a conspiracy, the object of which was to make Cortes the independent ruler of Mexico. Under such circumstances the least that could be expected was the elimination of Cortes from the government of the new province. The situation was a very critical one for the Crown. Cortes held the country and its resources, and controlled a body of officers and men who had, in 1520, expressed to the emperor in writing their admiration for their captain, and dwelt in the strongest terms on the obligations under which his achievements had placed the mother country. It is true, in case of a clash, Spain might have counted upon the support of the inhabitants of the Antilles, but the military reputation of Cortes had become so great that the selection of a leader against him would have been very embarrassing. Hence a conflict had to be avoided as long as possible. Cortes’ position was gradually undermined, titles and honors were conferred upon him, but not the administrative authority he coveted. At the same time his attention was insensibly directed to explorations outside of America, to the much-desired Moluccas or Spice Islands.

At a time when there was almost a certainty, in court circles in Spain, of an intended rebellion by Cortes, a charge was brought against him that cast a fatal blight upon his character and plans. He was accused of the murder of his first wife. Prescott makes light of the accusation, but his opinion has little weight because, as above stated, evidence has since been discovered which was beyond his reach. This evidence leaves no doubt that Catalina Xuarez was strangled by her husband. The proceedings of the investigation were kept secret. No report, either exonerating or condemning Cortes, was published. Had the Government declared him innocent, it would have greatly increased his popularity; had it declared him a criminal, a crisis would have been precipitated by the accused and his party. Silence was the only safe policy. But that silence is a strong indication that grave danger was apprehended from his influence. It is curious that, after the conquest of the Mexicans had been consummated, but more particularly after the sinister deeds above mentioned, success seems to have abandoned his banner. Excluded from the government of Mexico, his eyes were turned to further exploration. Don Antonio de Mendoza, first viceroy of New Spain, was looked upon by Cortes as his enemy, but the accusation that he opposed and hampered Cortes in nearly every one of his new enterprises is not justified. It was the latter who, at once, opened a violent campaign against everybody who approached what he considered his new domain. He found grave faults with every measure, and resorted to statements that were utterly baseless. Thus his attack upon Father Marcos of Nizza, charging him with having attributed to himself the discovery of New Mexico while in reality he, Cortes, had been the discoverer, is so groundless that it appears almost ridiculous. Every expedition set on foot by Cortes in the Pacific either failed absolutely or produced meagre, unsatisfactory results. Soured by these failures which stood in flagrant contrast to the brilliant success of his early efforts, Cortes became a chronic complainant. He saw his influence gone, his prestige waning. The Government could not forget the proofs of unreliability which the conqueror of Mexico had given when he thought himself master of the situation. The emperor finally permitted him to join the great expedition against Algiers in 1541. It may be that had the advice of Cortes been followed that undertaking would have had a less disastrous end; but he was not even consulted. The enterprise failed, and the conqueror of Mexico did not long survive the failure.

Cortes was a good writer. His letters to the emperor, on the conquest, deserve to be classed among the best Spanish documents of the period. They are, of course, colored so as to place his own achievements in relief, but, withal, he keeps within bounds and does not exaggerate, except in matters of Indian civilization and the numbers of population as implied by the size of the settlements. Even there he uses comparatives only, judging from outward appearances and from impressions. His first letter is lost, and the one from the municipality of Vera Cruz has to take its place. It was published for the first time in volume IV of “Documentos para la Historia de Espana”, and subsequently reprinted. The “Segunda Carta de Relation”, bearing the date of 30 reform. Here Cortese devoted himself to literary October, 1520, appeared in print at Seville in 1522. The “Carta tercera”, May 15, 1522, appeared at Seville in 1523. The fourth, October 20, 1524, was printed at Toledo in 1525. The fifth, on the Honduras expedition, is contained in volume IV of the “Documentos para la Hist. de Espana”. The important letter mentioned ip the text has been published under the heading of “Carta inedita de Cortes” by Ycazbalceta. A great number of minor documents, either by Cortes or others, for or against him, are dispersed through the voluminous collection above cited and through the “Coleccion de Documentos de Indias”, as well as in the “Documentos para la Historia de Mexico” of Ycazbalceta. Of his letters on the conquest there are a number of reprints and translations into various languages.


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