Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador who explored Central America, overthrew Montezuma and his vast Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain.

hernan cortes


Who Was Hernán Cortés?

He first set sail to the New World at the age of 19. Cortés later joined an expedition to Cuba. In 1518, he set off to explore Mexico.

Cortés strategically aligned some Indigenous peoples against others and eventually overthrew the vast and powerful Aztec empire. As a reward, King Charles I appointed him governor of New Spain in 1522.

Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, was born around 1485 in Medellín, Spain. He came from a lesser noble family in Spain. Some reports indicate that he studied at the University of Salamanca for a time.

In 1504, Cortés left Spain to seek his fortune in New World. He traveled to the island of Santo Domingo, or Hispaniola. Settling in the new town of Azúa, Cortés served as a notary for several years.

He joined an expedition of Cuba led by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in 1511. There, Cortés worked in the civil government and served as the mayor of Santiago for a time.

Aztec Empire

In 1518, Cortés was to command his own expedition to Mexico, but Velázquez canceled it. In a mutinous act of defiance, Cortés ignored the order, setting sail for Mexico with more than 500 men and 11 ships that year.

In February 1519, the expedition reached the Mexican coast. By some accounts, Cortés then had all his ships destroyed except one, which he sent back to Spain. This brazen decision eliminated the possibility of any retreat.

Cortés became allies with some of the Indigenous peoples he encountered, but with others, he used deadly force to conquer Mexico. He fought Tlaxacan and Cholula warriors and then set his sights on taking over the Aztec empire.

He marched to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital and home to ruler Montezuma II . After being invited into the royal palace, Cortés took Montezuma hostage and his soldiers plundered the city.

But shortly thereafter, Cortés hurriedly left the city after learning that Spanish troops were coming to arrest him for disobeying orders from Velázquez.

After fending off the Spanish forces, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán to find a rebellion in progress, during which Montezuma was killed. The Aztecs eventually drove the Spanish from the city, but Cortés returned again to defeat them and take the city in 1521, effectively ending the Aztec empire.

In their bloody battles for domination over the Aztecs, Cortés and his men are estimated to have killed as many as 100,000 Indigenous peoples. King Charles I of Spain (also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) appointed him the governor of New Spain in 1522.

Later Years and Death

Despite his decisive victory over the Aztecs, Cortés faced numerous challenges to his authority and position, both from Spain and his rivals in the New World. He traveled to Honduras in 1524 to stop a rebellion against him in the area.

In 1536, Cortés led an expedition to the northwestern part of Mexico, in the process exploring Baja California and Mexico's Pacific coast. This was to be his last major expedition.

Back in the capital city, Cortés found himself unceremoniously removed from power. He traveled to Spain to plead his case to the king, but he was not reappointed to his governorship.

In 1541, Cortés retired to Spain. He spent much of his later years desperately seeking recognition for his achievements and support from the Spanish royal court. Wealthy but embittered from his lack of support and acclaim, Cortés died in Spain in 1547.


  • Name: Hernán Cortés
  • Birth Year: 1485
  • Birth City: Medellín
  • Birth Country: Spain
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador who explored Central America, overthrew Montezuma and his vast Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain.
  • Politics and Government
  • War and Militaries
  • Nacionalities
  • Death Year: 1547
  • Death date: December 2, 1547
  • Death City: Castilleja de la Cuesta
  • Death Country: Spain

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Quick Facts:

Hernán Cortés was the Spanish conquistador responsible for conquering the Aztec Empire and building Mexico City which secured Spain’s position in the New World.

Name : Hernán Cortés [er-nahn] [kawr-tez]

Birth/Death : 1485 CE - 1547 CE

Nationality : Spanish

Birthplace : Seville, Spain

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Hernan Cortes

Print of Hernan Cortes, Spanish conquistador who conquered the Aztec Empire, and established a new Spanish territory called "New Spain," present day Mexico. The Mariners Museum F1230.C8 S4

Introduction With superior firepower, 600 Spaniards, a dozen horses, and thousands of native allies, Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico for Spain. This also marked the fall of the Aztec Empire. His conquest enabled Spain to create a stronghold and colonies in the New World. From a young age, Cortés sought wealth and adventure. History remembers him as a fierce conquistador (Spanish for “conqueror”). Despite his reputation, he opened the door for further exploration and conquest to the south and north

Biography Early Life Hernán (or Hernándo) Cortés was born in 1485 in the village of Medellín, located in the Estremadura province of Spain. His parents were Martin Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Cortés was a distant cousin to Francisco Pizarro, the explorer who conquered the Incan empire in Peru. Cortés’ family was noble but not extremely wealthy. As a young child, Cortés was frequently ill, but his health improved when he was a teenager. In 1499, at the age of 14, he was sent to the University of Salamanca to prepare for a law career. However, Cortés eventually grew tired of his studies and after two years dropped out of school and returned home. Cortés wanted a life of action, and was fascinated by the tales of gold and riches in the New World. He signed up with an expedition to the New World led by Nicolás de Ovando, who was the governor of Hispaniola. But an accident from a fall which buried him under rubble severely injured his back. 1 So he could not sail with Ovando’s fleet.

Talk of the New World and the allure of wealth continued to captivate young Cortés. In 1504, he sought passage on a ship to Santo Domingo, Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic). Cortés began farming in the Spanish colony, which brought him much wealth, and owned several native slaves. He finally got his first taste of exploration when he joined a mission under led by Diégo Velasquez in 1511. When he returned, he promised to marry Catalina Suarez, the sister of his friend Juan Suarez, but backed out at the last minute. Velasquez, now governor of Cuba, imprisoned Cortés for not upholding his promise. 2 Eventually, Cortés agreed to marry Catalina, but relations between Velázquez and Cortés remained tense.In 1518, appointed Cortés to lead an expedition to conquer the interior of Mexico. He then withdrew the order because he grew suspicious of Cortés’ strong will and thirst for power. Cortés disobeyed Velasquez and set out for Mexico in 1519 to begin his invasion.

Voyages Principal Voyage In 1519, Hernán Cortés left Cuba with about 600 men, and set out for the Yucatan region of Mexico. 3 He first arrived in Cozumel, and began to explore the land for colonization. He encountered natives, and their large pyramid. He noticed the blood stains and human remains, and learned that this pyramid was used for human sacrifices to their gods. 4 Appalled, Cortés began his efforts to convert the natives to Christianity. He tore down their idols and replaced them with crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary. Cortés relied on native translators and guides to communicate with the natives, and travel the land. Soon after, Cortés and his men sailed on and landed at Tabasco. Here, Cortés and his men clashed with the natives. On March 25, 1519, in the Cintla Valley, the two sides fought in a battle known as the Battle of Cintla. The natives were no match for the Spanish soldiers weaponry and armor. 800 Tabascans were killed; only 2 Spanish men were killed. 5 The Tabascans pledged their loyalty to Spain, and gave Cortés gold and slave women.

One of the chieftains gifted a slave woman to Cortés named Malinche. She was bilingual so she spoke both Aztec and Mayan languages, which made her very useful to Cortés. She eventually learned Spanish, and became Cortés’s personal interpreter, guide, and mistress. They had a son named Martin. Having conquered the Tabascan people, Cortés moved up the coast to Tlaxcala, a city of the mighty Aztec empire. The Aztecs were not always popular rulers among their subjected cities. When Cortés learned of this, he used it to his advantage. He met with Aztec ambassadors, and told them he wished to meet the great Aztec ruler Montezuma. Xicotenga, a ruler in the city Tlaxcala, saw an ally in Cortés, and an opportunity to overthrow the capital city of Tenochtitlán. They formed an allegiance, and Cortés was given several thousand warriors to add to his ranks. By this time, Cortés’ men were beginning to grumble about Cortés. He continued ignoring Velázquez’s orders to return to Cuba, and the men felt he was overstepping his authority. Afraid his men would leave, Cortés destroyed all the ships. 6 With nowhere for the men to go, they followed Cortés onward to Tenochtitlán.

Subsequent Voyages Cortés and his men marched to Tenochtitlán. They reached the capital of the Aztec empire on November 8, 1519. 7 The ruler of the Aztec civilization was Montezuma II. Montezuma, though uncertain of the Spaniards’ intent, welcomed them graciously. He gave them a tour of his palace, and they were given extravagant gifts. This fueled the Spaniards’ greed and relations turned hostile shortly after. Cortés took Montezuma captive and the Spaniards raided the city. Montezuma was murdered shortly after from being stoned by his own people. 8 In 1520, Spanish troops had been sent to Mexico to arrest Cortés for disobeying orders. He left Tenochtitlán to face the opposing Spaniards. After defeating them, Cortés returned to the Aztec capital to find a rebellion in progress. The Spaniards had been driven from the city. Cortés reorganized his men and allies, and seized control of neighboring territories around the capital. They regained control of the city by August of 1521. This marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Cortés had seized control of Mexico for Spain. Cortés was named governor, and went on to establish Mexico City, built on the ruins of the fallen Aztec capital.

Later Years and Death Several years after his conquest of Mexico, Cortés endured many challenges to his status and position. He had been appointed the governor, yet was removed from power after returning from a trip to Honduras in 1524. Cortés went to Spain to met with the Spanish king in order to reclaim his title, but never gained it back. He returned to Mexico after his failing with the king and partook in several more expeditions throughout the New World. Cortés retired in Spain in 1540. He died seven years later on December 2, 1547 at his home in Seville from a lung disease called pleurisy. 9

Legacy Hernán Cortés remains one of the most successful of the Spanish conquistadors. He was a hero in the 16th century, but history remembers him differently. He had many conquests during his life. But he is perhaps most known for his conquer of the Aztec Empire in 1521. He enslaved much of the native population, and many of the indigenous people were wiped out from European diseases such as smallpox. He was a smart, ambitious man who wanted to appropriate new land for the Spanish crown, convert native inhabitants to Catholicism, and plunder the lands for gold and riches. However, we still recognize his role in history. He helped oversee the building of Mexico City, which is still Mexico’s capital today. He opened the door for further exploration and conquest of Central America to the south, and eventually led to the acquisition of California towards the north.

  • Patricia Calvert, Hernándo Cortés: Fortune Favored the Bold (New York: Benchmark Books, 2003), 11.
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (New York: Bantam Books, 2008), 8.
  • Fergus Fleming, Off the Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 63.
  • Levy, Conquistador, 12.
  • Levy, Conquistador , 26-27.
  • Thomas Streissguth, Hernán Cortés , (Mankato: Capstone Press, 2004), 12.
  • Jeff Donaldson-Forbes, Hernán Cortés (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002), 21
  • Donaldson-Forbes, Hernán Cortés , 22
  • L. L. Owens, A Journey with Hernán Cortés (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2017), 32.


Calvert, Patricia. Hernándo Cortés: Fortune Favored the Bold . New York: Benchmark Books, 2003.

Donaldson-Forbes, Jeff. Hernán Cortés . New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002.

Fleming, Fergus. Off the Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration . New York: Grove Press, 2004.

Levy, Buddy. Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs . New York: Bantam Books, 2008.

Owens, L.L. A Journey with Hernán Cortés . Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2017.

Streissguth, Thomas. Hernán Cortés . Mankato: Capstone Press, 2004.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

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Guns, germs, and horses brought Cortés victory over the mighty Aztec empire

The Aztec outnumbered the Spanish, but that didn't stop Hernán Cortés from seizing Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, in 1521.

a painting showing Hernán Cortés at the gates of the capital of the Aztec Empire

After the expedition led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa who crossed Central America to reach the Pacific in 1513, Europeans began to see the full economic potential of this "New World." At first, colonization by the burgeoning new world power, Spain, was centered on the islands of the Caribbean, with little contact with the complex, indigenous civilizations on the mainland.

It was not long, however, before the lure of wealth spurred Spain’s adventurers beyond exploration and into a phase of conquest that would lay the foundations of the modern world. Whole swaths of the Americas rapidly fell to the Spanish crown, a transformation begun by the ruthless conqueror of the Aztec Empire, Hernán Cortés. (See also: New clues to the lost fleet of Cortés   .)

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Cortés beginnings

Like other conquistadores of the early 16th century, Cortés had already gained considerable experience by living in the New World before embarking on his exploits. Born to modest lower nobility in the Spanish city of Medellín in 1485, Cortés stood out at an early age for his intelligence and his restless spirit of adventure inspired by the recent voyages of Christopher Columbus.

In 1504, Cortés left Spain for the island of Hispaniola (today, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti), where he rose through the ranks of the fledgling colonial administration. In 1511 he joined an expedition to conquer Cuba and was appointed secretary to the island's first colonial governor, Diego Velázquez.

During these years, Cortés developed the skills that would stand him in good stead in his short, turbulent career as a conquistador. He gained valuable insights into the organization of the islands’ indigenous peoples and proved an adept arbiter in the continual squabbles that broke out among the Spaniards, forever vying to enlarge their estates or snag lucrative administrative positions.

In 1518 Velázquez appointed his secretary to lead an expedition to Mexico. Cortés—as Velázquez was to discover to his cost—was set on becoming a leader rather than a loyal follower. He set off for the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in February 1519 with 11 ships, about 100 sailors, 500 soldiers, and 16 horses. Over the following months Cortés would take matters into his own hands, disobey the governor’s orders, and turn what had been intended to be an exploratory mission into a historic military conquest.

Aztec introductions

To the Aztec, 1519 was a year that began with their empire as the uncontested power in the region. Its capital city, Tenochtitlan, ruled 400 to 500 small states with a total population of five to six million. The fortunes of the kingdom of Moctezuma, however, were doomed to a swift and spectacular decline once Cortés and his men disembarked on the Mexican coast. (See also: Rare Aztec Map Reveals a Glimpse of Life in 1500s Mexico. )

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Having rapidly imposed control over the indigenous population in the coastal region, Cortés was given 20 slaves by a local chieftain. One of them, a young woman, could speak several local languages and soon learned Spanish too. Her linguistic skills would prove crucial to Cortés’s invasion plans, and she became his interpreter as well as his concubine. She soon came to be known as Malinche, or Doña Marina. The conquistador had a son with her, Martín, who is often regarded as the first ever mestizo—a person of mixed European and American Indian ancestry. (See also: Call the Aztec midwife: Childbirth in the 16th century. )

The news of the foreigners’ arrival soon reached the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, in Tenochtitlan. To appease the Spaniards, he sent envoys and gifts to Cortés, but he only succeeded in inflaming Cortés’s desires for more Aztec riches. Cortés once described the land near Veracruz, the city he founded on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, as rich as the mythical land where King Solomon obtained his gold. As a mark of his ruthlessness, and to quash any misgivings his crew may have had in disobeying the orders of Governor Velázquez, Cortés ordered the destruction of the fleet he had sailed with from Cuba. There was now no turning back.

a mosaic mask representing the Aztec God Tezcatlipoca

Mosaic mask of turquoise and lignite covers a human skull and represents an Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca.

Cortés had a talent for observing and manipulating local political rivalries. On the way to Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards gained the support of the Totonac peoples from the city of Cempoala, who hoped to be freed from the Aztec yoke. Following a military victory over another native people, the Tlaxcaltec, Cortés incorporated more warriors into his army. Knowledge of the divisions among different native peoples, and an unerring ability to exploit them, was central to Cortés’s strategy.

The Aztec had allies too, however, and Cortés was especially belligerent toward them. The holy city of Cholula, which joined with Moctezuma in an attempt to stall the Spaniards, was sacked for two days at Cortés’s command. After a grueling battle lasting more than five hours, as many as 6,000 of its people were killed. Cortés’s forces seemed invincible. In the face of their unstoppable advance, Moctezuma stalled for time, allowing the Spaniards and their allies to enter Tenochtitlan unopposed in November 1519.

Fighting on two fronts

Fear gripped the huge Aztec capital on Cortés’s entry, the chroniclers wrote: Its 250,000 inhabitants put up no resistance to Cortés’s small force of a few hundred men and 1,000 Tlaxcaltec allies. At first Moctezuma formally received Cortés. Seeing the value of the emperor as a captive, Cortés seized him and guaranteed his power over the city.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Establishing a pattern that would recur throughout his career, Cortés soon found himself as much at threat from his own compatriots as from the peoples he was trying to subdue. At the beginning of 1520 he was forced to leave Tenochtitlan to deal with a punitive expedition sent from Cuba by the enraged Diego Velázquez. In his absence, Cortés left Tenochtitlan under the command of Pedro de Alvarado and a garrison of 80 Spaniards.

The hotheaded Alvarado lacked Cortes’s skill and diplomacy. During Cortes’s absence, Alvarado’s execution of many Aztec chiefs enraged the people. After defeating Velázquez’s forces, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan on June 24, 1520, to find the city in revolt against his proxy. For several days, the Spaniards vainly used Moctezuma in an attempt to calm tempers, but his people pelted the puppet king with stones. Moctezuma died a few days later, but his successors would fare no better than he did.

On June 30, 1520, the Spanish fled the city under fire, suffering hundreds of casualties. Some Spaniards died by drowning in the surrounding marshes, weighed down by the vast amounts of treasure they were trying to carry off. The event would come to be known as the Night of Sorrows.

Technology Triumphs

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Although the Aztec had the superior numbers, advanced Spanish weaponry ultimately gave them the upper hand. With firearms and steel blades at his disposal, just one Spaniard might annihilate dozens or even hundreds of opponents: “On a sudden, they speared and thrust people into shreds,” wrote one indigenous chronicler, having witnessed the terrifying impact of European arms. “Others were beheaded in one swipe... Others tried to run in vain from the butchery, their innards falling from them and entangling their very feet.”

A smallpox epidemic prevented the Aztec forces from finishing off Cortés’s defeated and demoralized army. The outbreak weakened the Aztec while giving Cortés time to regroup. Spain would win the Battle of Otumba a few days later. Skillful deployment of cavalry against the elite Aztec jaguar and eagle warriors carried the day for the Europeans and their allies.“Our only security, apart from God,”Cortés wrote,“is our horses.”

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Victory allowed the Spaniards to rejoin with their Tlaxcaltec allies and launch the recapture of Tenochtitlan. Waves of attacks were launched on settlements near the Aztec capital. Any resistance was brutally crushed: Many indigenous enemies were captured as slaves and some were even branded following their capture. The sacking also allowed the Spaniards to build up their large personal retinues, taking captives to use as servants and slaves, and kidnapping others for exchanges and ransoms. Growing in number to roughly 3,000 people, this group of captives vastly outnumbered the fighting Spaniards.

Fall of the Aztec

For an assault on a city the size of Tenochtitlan, the number of Spanish troops seemed paltry—just under 1,000 soldiers, including harquebusiers, infantry, and cavalry. However, Cortés knew that his superior weaponry, coupled with the additional 50,000 warriors provided by his indigenous allies, would conquer the city, which was already weakened from starvation and thirst. In May 1521 the Spaniards had cut off the city’s water supply by taking control of the Chapultepec aqueduct.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Even so, the siege of Tenochtitlan was not a given. During fighting in July 1521, the Aztec held strong, even capturing Cortés himself. Wounded in one leg, the Spanish leader was ultimately rescued by his captains. During this setback for the conquistador, the Aztec warriors managed to regain lost ground and rebuild the city’s fortifications, pushing the Spanish onto the defensive for nearly three weeks. Cortés ordered the marshland to be filled with rubble for a final assault. Finally, on August 13, 1521, the city fell.

“Not a single stone remained left to burn and destroy,” one witness wrote. The loss of human life was staggering, both in absolute figures and in its disproportionality. During the siege, around 100 Spaniards lost their lives compared to as many as 100,000 Aztec.

Ladies' Man

a painting of Cortés and Malinche

According to the chronicler Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés was “very given to women and always gave into temptation.” His biography abounds in romantic entanglements. Throughout his career, Cortés's personal life held a selfish, manipulative streak. In 1514 he married a young Spanish woman named Catalina Suárez, a relative of Governor Diego Velázquez, who soon promoted Cortés after the wedding. But Cortés was not faithful. After the conquest of Mexico, he and Malinche, an Aztec woman who served as his interpreter, had a son together. The marriage to Caralina only ended when she was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1522. Cortés was suspected of her murder, but nevery charged. Cortés then took as a consort Princess Isabel Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor's daughter. She and Cortés had a daughter, but he later abandoned them. In 1529 Cortés took a Spanish noblewoman, Juana de Zúñiga, as his bride and became a marquis, securing both a high social status and a rather rakish reputation.

The conquest of Tenochtitlan and the subsequent consolidation of Spanish domination over the former Aztec Empire was the first major possession in what became the Spanish Empire. This vast territory would reach its greatest extent in the 18th century, with territory throughout North and South America.

Cortés’s triumph would be short-lived. In just a few years, he would lose many of his lands in the New World. Despite being made a marquis years later, the Conqueror of Mexico did not have a glorious end. In 1547, at the age of 62, he died in a village near Sevilla, Spain, embroiled in lawsuits and his health broken by a series of disastrous expeditions. Decades of rapid expansion in the Americas seemed to have eclipsed his own exploits, and few bells tolled for the man whose ruthlessness and cunning transformed the Americas.

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How Hernán Cortés Conquered the Aztec Empire

By: Karen Juanita Carrillo

Updated: June 26, 2023 | Original: May 20, 2021

How Hernán Cortés Conquered the Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire , Mesoamerica’s dominant power in the 15th and early 16th centuries controlled a capital city that was one of the largest in the world. Itzcoatl, named leader of the Aztec/Mexica people in 1427, negotiated what has become known as the Triple Alliance —a powerful political union of the city-states of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, Tetzcoco and Tlacopán. As that alliance strengthened between 1428 and 1430 it reinforced the leadership of the Aztecs, making them the dominant Nahua group in a landmass that covered central Mexico and extended as far as modern-day Guatemala.

And yet Tenochtitlán fell into decline after the siege and destruction of the city by the Spanish in 1521—less than two years after Hernándo Cortés and Spanish conquistadors first set foot in the Aztec capital on November 8, 1519. How did Cortés manage to overthrow the seat of the Aztec Empire?

Tenochtitlán: A Dominant Imperial City 

Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, Mexico

When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Aztec imperial city in 1519, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was led by Moctezuma II. The city had prospered and was estimated to host a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 residents.

At first , the conquistadors described Tenochtitlán as the greatest city they had ever seen. It was situated on a human-made island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. From its central location, Tenochtitlán served as a hub for Aztec trade and politics. It featured gardens, palaces, temples and raised roads with bridges that connected the city to the mainland.

Other city-states were forced to pay periodic tributes to Tenochtitlán’s public markets and to its religious center, the Templo Mayor or “Great Temple.” Religious tributes sometimes took the form of human sacrifices . While the Aztec’s monetary and religious demands empowered the empire, it also fostered resentment among surrounding city-states. 

Hernándo Cortés Makes Allies with Local Tribes

Hernándo Cortés, Moctezuma II

Hernándo Cortés formed part of Spain’s initial colonization efforts in the Americas. While stationed in Cuba, he convinced Cuban Governor Diego Velázquez to allow him to lead an expedition to Mexico, but Velázquez then canceled his mission. Eager to appropriate new land for the Spanish crown, convert Indigenous people to Christianity and plunder the region for gold and riches, Cortés organized his own rogue crew of 100 sailors, 11 ships, 508 soldiers and 16 horses. He set sail from Cuba on the morning of February 18, 1519, to begin an unauthorized expedition to Mesoamerica.

Arriving on the Yucatán coast, Cortés encountered Indigenous people who told him about other Europeans who had been shipwrecked and captured by local Mayans. Cortes freed Jerónimo de Aguilar , a Franciscan friar, from the Mayans and made Aguilar part of his crew. Aguilar turned out to be an invaluable asset to Cortes due to his ability to speak Chontal, the local Mayan language. With Aguilar at his side, Cortés and his conquistadors continued traveling the region, battling Indigenous groups along the way.

Cortés and his men then acquired another asset when an Aztec chief gifted them some 20 enslaved young Mayan women, including Malinalli, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast. Malinalli became baptized with the Christian name Marina and was later known as La Malinche. La Malinche spoke both the Aztec language of Náhuatl and Mayan Chontal and worked alongside the Spanish invaders, providing the conquistadors with the ability to communicate with any Indigenous groups they encountered.

With La Malinche and Aguilar in tow, the conquistadors made their way to the island city of Tenochtitlán where they were initially welcomed by Emperor Moctezuma II. When Cortés became concerned that Moctezuma's people would turn against his men, he placed Moctezuma under house arrest and Cortés attempted to rule through the detained Moctezuma.

Soon Cortés received word that the Cuban governor had sent a Spanish force to arrest Cortés for insubordination. Leaving his top lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Tenochtitlán, Cortés took men to attack the Spanish forces at the coast. Cortes's men defeated the troops and took the surviving Spanish soldiers back with him as reinforcements to Tenochtitlán. In Cortés' absence, Alvarado had hundreds of Aztec nobles killed during a ceremonial feast, leading to further unrest among the Aztec people. 

Tenochtitlán residents demanded the Spanish be removed from the city. When the detained Moctezuma could no longer control Tenochtitlán’s residents, the Spaniards either allowed him to die during a skirmish in 1520 or killed him—depending on varying accounts .

Driven from the capital, the Spanish later circled back with a small fleet of ships. Working in alliance with some 200,000 Indigenous warriors from city-states, particularly the Tlaxcala and Cempoala (groups who had resented the Aztec/Mexicas and wanted to see them vanquished), the Spanish conquistadors held Tenochtitlán under siege from May 22 through August 13, 1521—a total of 93 days.

Disease Further Weakens the Aztec

With Tenochtitlán encircled, the conquistadors relied on their Indigenous allies for key logistical support and launched attacks from local Indigenous encampments. Meanwhile, another factor began to take its toll. Unbeknownst to the Spanish, some among their ranks had been infected with smallpox when they had departed Europe. Once these men arrived in the Americas, the virus began to spread—both among their indigenous allies and the Aztecs. (Some research has suggested that salmonella , not smallpox, had weakened the Aztecs.)

The first known case reportedly emerged in Cempoala—one of the city-states that had allied with the Spanish—when an enslaved African came down with the disease. The virus then spread. As the Spaniards and their allies later attacked Tenochtitlán, even when they lost battles, the smallpox virus infected the Aztecs. Aztec troops, members of the noble class, farmers and artisans all fell victim to the disease. 

While many Spaniards had acquired immunity to the disease, the virus was new in the Americas and few Indigenous understood it. The bodies of smallpox victims piled up in the streets of Tenochtitlán and, with the city under siege, there were few available ways to dispose of the bodies.

Spaniards and their allies were taken in as prisoners (the Aztecs tended to hold captured prisoners for sacrifice to the gods, rather than kill them in battle) and traces of the virus were left on the clothes, hair and on dead bodies of those who had had the disease. As Tenochtitlán residents contracted smallpox they had no place to turn for help. Aztec priests and medicinal practitioners knew of no remedy and Tenochtitlán residents had little immunity.

The Spanish Wielded Better Weaponry

The conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica with steel swords, muskets, cannons, pikes, crossbows, dogs and horses. None of these assets had yet been used in battle in the Americas. The Aztecs fought the Spanish with wooden broadswords, clubs and spears tipped with obsidian blades. But their weapons proved ineffective against the conquistadors’ metal armor and shields.

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas they came from a war-oriented culture that had seen battle against other European nations for dominance and against North Africans for sovereignty. The conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica with better guns and had been trained in tactical strategies. They deployed a cavalry that could chase down retreating warriors, dogs trained to track down and encircle enemies and horses capable of trampling adversaries.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Up against large armies of Spanish and Indigenous forces, surrounded and cut off from the mainland, and with a population succumbing to an unknown, devastating virus, the Aztec Empire was unable to fight off the invading Spanish conquistadors. The Aztecs, including members of the Aztec royal family—then were forced to adjust to life under Spanish rule.  

"Cada Uno En Su Bolsa Llevar Lo Que Cien Indios No Llevarían: Mexica Resistance and the Shape of Currency in New Spain, 1542-1552.”  by Allison Caplan, American Journal of Numismatics (1989-), vol. 25, 2013, pp. 333–356. JSTOR .

“Jeronimo de Aguilar,”  American Historical Association . 

“Aztec Warfare Imperial Expansion and Political Control,” by Ross Hassig, University of Oklahoma Pres s, 1988, p. 244. 

“Searching for the Secrets of Nature The Life and Works of Dr. Francisco Hernández,” by Dora B. Weiner, Stanford University Press , 2000, p. 86.

“Viruses, Plagues, and History Past, Present, and Future,” by Michael B. Oldstone, Oxford University Press , 2020, p. 46.

“So Why Were the Aztecs Conquered, and What Were the Wider Implications? Testing Military Superiority as a Cause of Europe's Pre-Industrial Colonial Conquests,” by George Raudzens. War in History, vol. 2, no. 1, 1995, pp. 87–104. JSTOR . Accessed May 18, 2021.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

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how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Hernán Cortés: Master of the Conquest

On Aug. 13, 1521, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés received the surrender of Cuauhtémoc, ruler of the Aztec people. The astonishing handover occurred amid the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the shattered capital of a mighty empire whose influence had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and extended from central Mexico south into parts of what would become Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. After an 80-day siege Cortés had come to a terrible resolution: He ordered the city razed. House by house, street by street, building by building, his men pulled down Tenochtitlan’s walls and smashed them into rubble. Envoys from every tribe in the former empire later came to gaze on the wrecked remains of the city that had held them in subjection and fear for so long.

But how had Cortés accomplished his conquest? Less than three years had passed since he set foot on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, yet he had destroyed the greatest power in Mesoamerica with a relative handful of men. His initial force comprised 11 ships, 110 sailors, 553 soldiers—including 32 crossbowmen and 13 bearing harquebuses (early firearms)—10 heavy guns, four falconets and 16 horses. The force size ebbed and flowed, but he never commanded more than the 1,300 Spaniards he had with him at the start of the final assault.

On its face such a victory would suggest Cortés was a commander of tremendous ability. Yet scholars of the period have long underrated his generalship, instead attributing his success to three distinct factors. First was the relative superiority of Spanish military technology. Second is the notion smallpox had so severely reduced the Aztecs that they were unable mount an effective resistance. And third is the belief Cortés’ Mesoamerican allies were largely to credit for his triumph.

That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes doesn’t mean Cortés’ victories came easy

The conquistadors’ military technology was unquestionably superior to that of every tribe they encountered. The warriors’ weapons and armor were made of wood, stone and hide, while those of the Spaniards were wrought of iron and steel. Atlatls, slings and simple bows—their missiles tipped with obsidian, flint or fish bone—could not match the power or range of the crossbow. Clubs and macuahuitls—fearsome wooden swords embedded with flakes of obsidian—were far outclassed by long pikes and swords of Toledo steel, which easily pierced warriors’ crude armor of cotton, fabric and feathers. And, finally, the Spaniards’ gunpowder weapons—small cannon and early shoulder-fired weapons like the harquebus—wreaked havoc among the Mesoamericans, who possessed no similar technology.

The Spaniards also benefitted from their use of the horse, which was unknown to Mesoamericans. Though the conquistadors had few mounts at their disposal, tribal foot soldiers simply could not match the speed, mobility or shock effect of the Spanish cavalry, nor were their weapons suited to repelling horsemen.

When pitted against European military science and practice, the Mesoamerican way of war also suffered from undeniable weaknesses. While the tribes put great emphasis on order in battle—they organized their forces into companies, each under its own chieftain and banner, and understood the value of orderly advances and withdrawals—their tactics were relatively unsophisticated. They employed such maneuvers as feigned retreats, ambushes and ambuscades but failed to grasp the importance of concentrating forces against a single point of the enemy line or of supporting and relieving forward assault units. Such deficiencies allowed the conquistadors to triumph even when outnumbered by as much as 100-to-1.

Deeply ingrained aspects of their culture also hampered the Aztecs. Social status was partly dependent on skill in battle, which was measured not by the number of enemies killed, but by the number captured for sacrifice to the gods. Thus warriors did not fight with the intention of killing their enemies outright, but of wounding or stunning them so they could be bound and passed back through the ranks. More than one Spaniard, downed and struggling, owed his life to this practice, which enabled his fellows to rescue him. Further, the Mesoamerican forces were unprepared for lengthy campaigns, as their dependence on levies of agricultural workers placed limits on their ability to mobilize and sustain sufficient forces. They could not wage war effectively during the planting and harvest seasons, nor did they undertake campaigns in the May–September rainy season. Night actions were also unusual. The conquistadors, on the other hand, were trained to kill their enemies on the field of battle and were ready to fight year-round, day or night, in whatever conditions until they achieved victory.

That the Spaniards enjoyed distinct technological, tactical and cultural advantages over their Mesoamerican foes does not mean Cortés’ victories came easy. He engaged hundreds of thousands of determined enemies on their home ground with only fitful opportunities for reinforcement and resupply. Two telltale facts indicate that his success against New World opponents was as much the result of solid leadership as of technological superiority. First, despite his sparse resources, Cortés was as successful against Europeans who possessed the same technology as he was against Mesoamerican forces. Second, Cortés showed he could prevail against the Aztecs even when fighting at a distinct disadvantage.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

In April 1520, as the position of the conquistadors in Tenochtitlan became increasingly precarious, then Aztec ruler Montezuma II—whom the Spaniards had held hostage since the previous November—was informed Cortés’ ships had arrived at Cempoala on the Gulf Coast bearing the Spaniard’s countrymen, and he encouraged the conquistador to depart without delay. While Cortés’ troops were elated at what they assumed was impending deliverance, the commander himself rightly suspected the new arrivals were not allies. They had been sent by Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, governor of Cuba, whose orders Cortés had disobeyed in 1519 to launch his expedition, and their purpose was to punish rather than reinforce.

Reports from the coast indicated the fleet comprised 18 ships bearing some 900 soldiers—including 80 cavalrymen, 80 harquebusiers and 150 crossbowmen—all well provisioned and supported by heavy guns. The captain-general of the armada was Pánfilo de Narváez, a confidant of Velázquez, who made no secret of his intention to seize Cortés and imprison him for his rebellion against the governor’s authority.

Cortés could not afford to hesitate and thus allow Narváez time to gather strength and allies. Yet to march out of Tenochtitlan to engage the new arrivals also presented significant risks. If Cortés took his entire force, he would have to abandon the Aztec capital. Montezuma II would reassume the throne, and resistance would no doubt congeal and stiffen, making re-entry a matter of blood and battle, in contrast to the tentative welcome he had initially received. But to leave behind a garrison would further reduce the size of the already outnumbered force he would lead against Narváez. With the swift decision of the bold, a factor indeterminable by numerical calculation, the Spanish commander chose the latter course.

Cortés marched out with only 70 lightly armed soldiers, leaving his second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, to hold Tenochtitlan with two-thirds of the Spanish force, including all of the artillery, the bulk of the cavalry and most of the harquebusiers. Having done all he could to gain an edge over Narváez by feeding his couriers misinformation and undermining the loyalty of his officers with forwarded bribes of gold, Cortés marched with all speed. He crossed the mountains to Cholula, where he mustered 120 reinforcements, then marched through Tlaxcala and down to the coast at Veracruz, picking up another 60 men . Though still outnumbered more than 3-to-1, Cortés brought all his craft, daring and energy to bear and, in a rapid assault amid heavy rain on the night of May 27, overwhelmed his foes. Narváez himself was captured, while most of his men, enticed by stories of Aztec riches, readily threw in their lot with Cortés. Soon after his surprise defeat of Narváez, the bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage.

The bold conquistador proved himself equally capable of defeating Mesoamerican forces that held a numerical advantage

On his return to Tenochtitlan, Cortés discovered Alvarado had indulged in an unprovoked massacre of the Aztecs, stirring the previously docile populace to murderous fury. The Spaniards quickly found themselves trapped and besieged in the capital, and hard fighting in the streets failed to subdue the enemy. Not even Montezuma could soothe his people, who met their emperor’s appeal for peace with a shower of stones that mortally wounded him. With the Spanish force growing short of food and water, and losing more men by the day, Cortés decided to withdraw from the city on the night of June 30–July 1. After a brutal running fight along a causeway leading to shore, the column was reduced to a tattered remnant, leaving Cortés with no more than one-fifth of the force he had originally led into Tenochtitlan. The overnight battle—the worst military disaster the conquistadors had suffered in the New World—would go down in Spanish history as La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”).

The debacle left Cortés with few materiel advantages. Only half of his horses survived, and the column had lost all of its powder, ammunition and artillery and most of its crossbows and harquebuses during the retreat. Yet the Spanish commander managed to hold together his flagging force. Skirting north to avoid a cluster of hostile villages, he headed toward Tlaxcala, home city of his Mesoamerican allies.

Over the days that followed Aztec skirmishers shadowed Cortés’ retreating column, and as the Spaniards neared the Tlaxcalan frontier, the skirmishers joined forces with warriors from Tenochtitlan and assembled on the plain of Otumba, between the conquistadors and their refuge. The trap thus set, on July 7 the numerically superior Aztecs and beleaguered Spaniards met in a battle that should easily have gone in the Mesoamericans’ favor. Again, however, Cortés turned the tables by skillfully using his remaining cavalry to break up the enemy formations. Then, in a daring stroke, he personally led a determined cavalry charge that targeted the enemy commander, killing him and capturing his colors. Seeing their leader slain, the Aztecs gradually fell back, ultimately enabling the conquistadors to push their way through. Though exhausted, starving and ill, they were soon among allies and safe from assault.

One long-standing school of thought on the Spanish conquest attributes Cortés’ success to epidemiological whim—namely that European-introduced smallpox had so ravaged the Aztecs that they were incapable of mounting a coherent defense. In fact, Cortés had defeated many enemies and advanced to the heart of the empire well before the disease made its effects felt. Smallpox arrived in Cempoala in 1520, carried by an African slave accompanying the Narváez expedition. By then Cortés had already defeated an army at Pontonchan; won battles against the fierce, well-organized armies of Tlaxcala; entered the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan and taken its ruler hostage.

Smallpox had ravaged the populations of Hispaniola and Cuba and indeed had equally disastrous effects on the mainland, killing an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the population of central Mexico. But as horrific as the pandemic was, it is by no means clear that smallpox mortality was a decisive factor in the fall of Tenochtitlan or the final Spanish victory. The disease likely reached Tenochtitlan when Cortés returned from the coast in June 1520, and by September it had killed perhaps half of the city’s 200,000 residents, including Montezuma’s successor, Cuitláhuac. By the time Cortés returned in the spring of 1521 for the final assault, however, the city had been largely free of the disease for six months. The conquistadors mention smallpox but not as a decisive factor in the struggle. Certainly they saw no perceptible drop in ferocity or numbers among the resistance.

On the subject of numbers, some scholars have suggested the conquest was largely the work of the Spaniards’ numerous Mesoamerican allies. Soon after arriving in the New World, Cortés had learned from the coastal Totonac people that the Aztec empire was not a monolithic dominion, that there existed fractures of discontent the conquistadors might exploit. For nearly a century Mesoamericans had labored under the yoke of Aztec servitude, their overlords having imposed grievous taxes and tributary demands, including a bloody harvest of sacrificial victims. Even cities within the Valley of Mexico, the heart of the empire, were simmering cauldrons of potential revolt. They awaited only opportunity, and the arrival of the Spaniards provided it. Tens of thousands of Totonacs, Tlaxcalans and others aided the conquest by supplying the Spaniards with food and serving as warriors, porters and laborers. Certainly their services sped the pace of the conquest. But one cannot credit them with its ultimate success. After all, had the restive tribes had the will and ability to overthrow the Aztecs on their own, they would have done so long before Cortés arrived and would likely have destroyed the Spaniards in turn.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

To truly assess the Spanish victory over the Aztecs, one must also consider the internal issues Cortés faced—logistical challenges, the interference of hostile superiors, factional divides within his command and mutiny.

Cortés established coastal Veracruz as his base of operations in Mexico and primary communications link to the Spanish empire. But the tiny settlement and its fort could not provide him with additional troops, horses, firearms or ammunition. As Cortés’ lean command suffered casualties and consumed its slender resources, it required reinforcement and resupply, but the Spanish commander’s strained relations with the governor of Cuba ensured such vital support was not forthcoming. Fortunately for himself and the men of his command, Cortés seems to have possessed a special genius for conjuring success out of the very adversities that afflicted him.

After defeating the Narváez expedition, Cortés integrated his would-be avenger’s force with his own, gaining men, arms and equipment. When the Spaniards lay exhausted in Tlaxcala after La Noche Triste , still more resources presented themselves. Velázquez, thinking Narváez must have things well in hand, with Cortés either in chains or dead, had dispatched two ships to Veracruz with reinforcements and further instructions; both were seized on arrival, their crews soon persuaded to join Cortés. Around the same time two more Spanish vessels appeared off the coast, sent by the governor of Jamaica to supply an expedition on the Pánuco River. What the ships’ captains didn’t know is that the party had suffered badly and its members had already joined forces with Cortés. On landing, their men too were persuaded to join the conquest. Thus Cortés acquired 150 more men, 20 horses and stores of arms and ammunition. Finally, a Spanish merchant vessel loaded with military stores put in at Veracruz, its captain having heard he might find a ready market for his goods. He was not mistaken. Cortés bought both ship and cargo, then induced its adventurous crew to join his expedition. Such reinforcement was more than enough to restore the audacity of the daring conquistador, and he began to lay plans for the siege and recovery of Tenochtitlan.

While the ever-resourceful Cortés had turned these occasions to his advantage, several episodes pointed to an underlying difficulty that had cast its shadow over the expedition from the moment of its abrupt departure from Cuba—Velázquez’s seemingly unquenchable hostility and determination to interfere. Having taken leave of the governor on less than cordial terms, Cortés was perhaps tempting fate by including of a number of the functionary’s friends and partisans in the expedition. He was aware of their divided loyalties, if not overtly concerned. Some had expressed their personal loyalty to Cortés, while others saw him as their best opportunity for enrichment. But from the outset of the campaign still other members of the Velázquez faction had voiced open opposition, insisting they be permitted to return to Cuba, where they would undoubtedly report to the governor. Cortés had cemented his authority among the rebels through a judicious mixture of force and persuasion.

But the problem arose again with the addition of Narváez’s forces to the mix. While headquartered in Texcoco as his men made siege preparations along the lakeshore surrounding Tenochtitlan, Cortés uncovered an assassination plot hatched by Antonio de Villafaña, a personal friend of Velázquez. The plan was to stab the conquistador to death while he dined with his captains. Though Cortés had the names of a number of co-conspirators, he put only the ringleader on trial. Sentenced to death, Villafaña was promptly hanged from a window for all to see. Greatly relieved at having cheated death, the surviving conspirators went out of their way to demonstrate loyalty. Thus Cortés quelled the mutiny.

Whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership

But hostility toward the conquistador and his “unlawful” expedition also brewed back home in the court of Spanish King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In Cortés’ absence his adversaries tried every means to undermine him, threatening his status as an agent of the crown and seeking to deny him the just fruits of his labors. The commander was forced to spend precious time, energy and resources fighting his diplomatic battle from afar. Even after successfully completing the conquest, Cortés received no quarter from his enemies, who accused him of both defrauding the crown of its rightful revenues and fomenting rebellion. On Dec. 2, 1547, the 62-year-old former conquistador died a wealthy but embittered man in Spain. At his request his remains were returned to Mexico.

Setting aside long-held preconceptions about the ease of the conquest of Mexico—which do disservice to both the Spanish commander and those he conquered—scholars of the period should rightfully add Cortés to the ranks of the great captains of war. For whatever advantages the Spaniards enjoyed, victory would have been impossible without his extraordinary leadership. As master of the conquest, Cortés demonstrated fixity of purpose, skilled diplomacy, talent for solving logistical problems, far-sighted planning, heroic battlefield command, tactical flexibility, iron determination and, above all, astounding audacity. MH

Justin D. Lyons is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Ohio’s Ashland University. For further reading he recommends Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control , by Ross Hassig; The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519–1521 , by Charles M. Robinson III; and Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico , by Hugh Thomas.

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Timeline of Hernan Cortes' Conquest of the Aztecs

Emanuel Leutze

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1492: Christopher Columbus Discovers the New World for Europe.

1502 : Christopher Columbus , on his Fourth New World Voyage , meets with some advanced traders: they were likely Mayan vassals of the Aztecs.

1517 : Francisco Hernández de Córdoba expedition: three ships explore the Yucatan. Many Spanish are killed in skirmishes with Native people, including Hernandez.

January–October : The Juan de Grijalva Expedition explores the Yucatan and southern part of Mexico's Gulf Coast. Some of those who took part, including Bernal Diaz del Castillo and Pedro de Alvarado , would later Join Cortes' expedition.

November 18: Hernan Cortes Expedition sets out from Cuba.

March 24: Cortes and his men fight the Maya of Potonchan. After winning the battle, the Lord of Potonchan would give Cortes gifts, including an enslaved girl Malinali, who would go on to be better known as Malinche , Cortes' invaluable interpreter and mother of one of his children .

April 21: Cortes Expedition reaches San Juan de Ulua.

June 3: Spanish visit Cempoala and found settlement of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

July 26: Cortes sends a ship with treasure and letters to Spain.

August 23: Cortes' treasure ship stops in Cuba and rumors start to spread of the wealth discovered in Mexico.

September 2–20: Spanish enter Tlaxcalan territory and battle the fierce Tlaxcalans and their allies.

September 23: Cortes and his men, victorious, enter Tlaxcala and make important alliances with the leaders.

October 14: Spanish enter Cholula.

October 25? (exact date unknown) Cholula Massacre : Spanish and Tlaxcalans fall on unarmed Cholulans in one of the city squares when Cortes learns of an ambush awaiting them outside the city.

November 1: Cortes expedition leaves Cholula.

November 8: Cortes and his men enter Tenochtitlan.

November 14: Montezuma arrested and placed under guard by the Spanish.

March 5: Governor Velazquez of Cuba sends Panfilo de Narvaez to rein in Cortes and regain control of the expedition.

May: Cortes leaves Tenochtitlan to deal with Narvaez.

May 20: Pedro de Alvarado orders the massacre of thousands of Aztec nobles at the Festival of Toxcatl.

May 28–29: Cortes defeats Narvaez at the Battle of Cempoala and adds his men and supplies to his own.

June 24: Cortes returns to find Tenochtitlan in a state of uproar.

June 29: Montezuma is injured while pleading with his people for calm: he will die shortly from his wounds .

June 30: the Night of Sorrows. Cortes and his men try to creep out of the city under cover of darkness but are discovered and attacked. Most of the treasure collected thus far is lost.

July 7: Conquistadors score a narrow victory at the Battle of Otumba .

July 11: Conquistadors reach Tlaxcala where they can rest and regroup.

September 15: Cuitlahuac officially becomes the Tenth Tlatoani of the Mexica.

October: Smallpox sweeps the land, claiming thousands of lives in Mexico, including Cuitlahuac.

December 28: Cortes, his plans in place for the reconquest of Tenochtitlan, leaves Tlaxcala.

February: Cuauhtemoc becomes eleventh Tlatoani of the Mexica.

April 28: Brigantines launched in Lake Texcoco.

May 22 : Siege of Tenochtitlan formally begins: Causeways blockaded as the brigantines attack from the water.

August 13: Cuauhtemoc is captured while fleeing Tenochtitlan. This effectively ends the resistance of the Aztec Empire.

  • Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. Trans., ed. J.M. Cohen. 1576. London, Penguin Books, 1963. Print.
  • Levy, Buddy. New York: Bantam, 2008.
  • Thomas, Hugh. New York: Touchstone, 1993.
  • The Conquest of the Aztec Empire
  • Important Events in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire
  • Hernan Cortes and His Captains
  • 8 Important Figures in the Conquest of the Aztec Empire
  • The Night of Sorrows
  • Treasure of the Ancient Aztecs
  • Hernan Cortes and His Tlaxcalan Allies
  • Massacre at the Festival of Toxcatl
  • The Death of Emperor Montezuma
  • Ten Facts About Pedro de Alvarado
  • Conquistadors vs. Aztecs: the Battle of Otumba
  • Biography of Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, Conquistador
  • Ten Facts About Hernan Cortes
  • 10 Facts About Aztec Leader Montezuma
  • Biography of Malinche, Enslaved Woman and Interpreter to Hernán Cortés
  • Cuauhtémoc, Last Emperor of the Aztecs

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Navigate between maps, north america 1519: cortés’ expedition to mexico.

Political map of North America & the Caribbean on 22 Apr 1519 (The Conquistadors: Cortés’ expedition to Mexico), showing the following events: Grijalva’s first expedition; Cortés’ expedition to Mexico; Hispaniola Smallpox Epidemic; Santa María de la Victoria; De Pineda’s expedition; Foundation of Veracruz.

Jan–?? 1518 Grijalva explores southern Gulf of Mexico

18 Nov 1518–22 Apr 1519 Cortés leads expedition from Cuba to Mexico

Dec 1518–May 1519 Smallpox devastates Taíno population of Hispaniola

Mar 1519 Cortés founds Santa María de la Victoria

Mar 1519–Jan 1520 De Pineda explores northern Gulf of Mexico

22 Apr 1519 Cortés founds Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz

22 April 1519

Conquistadors, north america, cortés’ expedition to mexico.

In 1518 and 1519 the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Santiago (Jamaica) sent expeditions to explore the Gulf of Mexico , establishing its extent and discovering the Aztec Empire . In late 1518 Governor Velázquez of Cuba gave the magistrate Hernán Cortés command of a follow-up expedition to secure a foothold on the mainland, but the ambitious Cortés soon broke away from Velázquez’s authority, gathering over 500 adventurers to join him. Sailing to Mexico, he established the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (Veracruz) on the coast of the Aztec Empire in April 1519.

Main Events

Jan– 1518 grijalva’s first expedition ▲.

In January 1518 Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish governor of Cuba, sent his 28-year-old nephew Juan de Grijalva on an expedition to explore the lands recently discovered by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. With four ships and over two hundred men, Grijalva sighted Cozumel island on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in May, before traveling west to defeat the Maya of Chakán Putum in battle, discover the land of Tabasco, and briefly visit the previously-unknown Aztec Empire in June. Grijalva then continued north as far as Cabo Rojo before returning to Cuba, where he was reprimanded for not establishing any colonies. in wikipedia

18 Nov 1518–22 Apr 1519 Cortés’ expedition to Mexico ▲

In October 1518 Governor Velázquez of Cuba appointed the 34-year-old magistrate Hernán Cortés to lead an expedition to secure a foothold in Mexico. Cortés quickly mustered seven ships and more than 300 volunteers, leaving Santiago de Cuba in November in the face of Velázquez’s alarmed attempts to recall and replace him. Traveling to western Cuba, Cortés gathered more followers—11 vessels, 530 troops, 50 sailors, 16 horses, and 14 large artillery in total—before proceeding to Yucatán and then westwards along the coast. In April 1519 he landed on the mainland near the island of San Juan de Ullúa, where he was greeted by the local Totonac people, subjects of the Aztec Empire. in wikipedia

Dec 1518–May 1519 Hispaniola Smallpox Epidemic ▲

In December 1518 smallpox was noticed among the African slaves working in the mines of Hispaniola; the disease soon spread to the island’s indigenous Taíno population, who had no natural immunity. By May 1519 up to a third of Hispaniola’s Taíno had died from smallpox and the epidemic was already raging in the neighboring islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. in wikipedia

25 Mar 1519 Santa María de la Victoria ▲

In March 1519 Hernán Cortés landed outside the Chontal Maya town of Potonchán, where he located a ship that had become separated from his fleet during an earlier storm. When negotiations broke down, the Spaniards used their horses and artillery to defeat the Maya at the Battle of Centla, destroying Potonchán and founding the village of Santa María de la Victoria in its place. As tribute, the Maya gave Cortés a number of slaves, including a woman, Malinche, who would soon become his translator and counselor (and later gave birth to his first son). Shortly after Cortés left, the Maya besieged Santa María de la Victoria; it would remain in a precarious situation until the Spanish conquest of Tabasco in 1528–37. in wikipedia

Mar 1519–Jan 1520 De Pineda’s expedition ▲

In March 1519 Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, financed by Governor Francisco de Garay of Santiago (Jamaica), set sail for Florida with four ships and 270 men. Pushed west by winds, de Pineda explored the mouth of a great and deep river—either the Mississippi or Mobile Bay and the Alabama River—before traveling along the coast from Texas to central Mexico. When he arrived in Veracruz, Hernán Cortés—who had arrived shortly beforehand—threatened him with arrest. De Pineda fled north to Huastec country, where he and all but 60 of his crew were massacred just before a relief expedition reached them in early 1520. in wikipedia

22 Apr 1519 Foundation of Veracruz ▲

Landing in Totonac land, part of the Aztec Empire, on Good Friday 1519, Hernán Cortés founded a settlement of palm huts as Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (literally “Rich Town of the True Cross”). He then resigned as captain general of his expedition and established himself as mayor of the new town—a series of legal maneuvers which allowed Cortés to cut ties with Velázquez’s government in Cuba and report directly to the Spanish king. Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz would soon become known as Veracruz, Mexico’s most important port. in wikipedia

Hernán Cortés: Conqueror of the Aztecs

Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors toppled the Aztec Empire.

Engraving Portrait of Hernán Cortés, Spanish Conquistador (1485-1547). He has dark hair down just past his ears, a neatly trimmed moustache and beard. He's wearing a flat hat with a brimm. He's also wearing what looks to be a coat with fur lapels.

In the Caribbean

Arrival in mexico, conquering the aztecs, the siege of tenochtitlán, later years.

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador, or conqueror, who is best remembered for conquering the Aztec Empire in 1521 and claiming Mexico for Spain. He also helped colonize Cuba and became a governor of New Spain, a vast area that included large parts of North, Central and South America, as well as several Pacific island archipelagos. 

"Like many explorers we know about today, Hernán (also known as Hernando) Cortés's role in the Age of Exploration was influential but controversial," said Erika Cosme, formerly the administrative coordinator of education and digital services at  The Mariners' Museum and Park  in Newport News, Virginia. "He was a smart, ambitious man who wanted to appropriate new land for the Spanish crown, convert Native inhabitants to Catholicism and plunder the lands for gold and riches."

Cortés was born in 1485 in Medellín, Spain. He was the only son of noble parents, though his family was not wealthy. He was apparently a clever but difficult child and was the source of much anxiety to his parents, according to Britannica . Cortés' secretary, who wrote a history of Cortés' New World expedition that contained some biographical information, described the conquistador, in general,  as ruthless, haughty, mischievous and quarrelsome. 

At age 14, Cortés was sent to study law at the University of Salamanca in Spain, but he was unhappy and craved a life of action, so he dropped out after two years. Cortés became fascinated with tales of Christopher Columbus' New World explorations. 

Columbus and his expedition members were the first Europeans to see the West Indies when they landed at San Salvador Island in the Bahamas and explored other islands in 1492. Columbus had set sail hoping to find a route to Asia or India. He wanted to profit from and hasten trade for nutmeg, cloves and pomander (a ball of fragrant spices) from the Indonesian "Spice Islands," and pepper and cinnamon from India, which were in high demand, Cosme told Live Science.

Map with the route of Hernan Cortes exploration of Central America. It starts in Santiago de Cuba and then through the Gulf of Mexico to Veracruz. Then it goes north but then loops back down south to Trujillo.

However, Columbus' expedition failed to reach its intended destination and instead stumbled upon the Americas, which were completely unknown to Europeans at the time. (Columbus was initially convinced he'd reached Asia, which is why the region is called the "West Indies," according to Britannica.) Reports of Columbus' journey caused a wave of excitement in Spain and Europe, and several more expeditions set out to explore this "New World" in the following years.  

Cortés was eager to be part of the dynamic movement. "For individual explorers, gaining public fame could potentially make them rich," Cosme said. According to the Thought Company , a website that covers history and science, many of these explorers were ambitious men who had been professional soldiers or were mercenaries and often acted on their own initiative rather than seeking funding from the Spanish Crown. Consequently, their expeditions were often privately funded. At the same time, they could not simply decide to mount an expedition without official sanction; they had to seek authorization from colonial officials. 

Cortés decided to seek fortune and adventure in Hispaniola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). In 1504, at age 19, Cortés set sail for the New World.

Cortés spent seven years on Hispaniola, living in the town of Azua and working as a notary and farmer. In 1511, he joined Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar's expedition to conquer Cuba, which was occupied by at least two major Native American groups, the Taíno and the Guanahatabey. After the conquest, Cortés served as a clerk to the treasurer and later as mayor of Santiago, a town which had been established after the conquest and served as the island's capital for a brief time until the establishment of Havana in 1515. Cortés' time in Cuba made him wealthy because he was able to buy enslaved people and have them work the land he had acquired. He was able to purchase a house in Santiago and gain considerable influence among the colonists, according to Britannica . 

Despite his success, Cortés was hungry for more power. In 1518, he convinced Velázquez, who was by that time the governor of Cuba, to grant him permission to lead an expedition to  Mexico , which the Spanish had come into contact with earlier that year. Velázquez appointed Cortés' captain-general of the expedition, according to Britannica , but soon grew increasingly jealous of Cortés' power and influence. Velázquez canceled the voyage at the last minute, but Cortés ignored his orders and set sail with 11 ships and more than 500 men.

In February 1519, Cortés' ships reached the Mexican coast at Yucatán, which was the domain of Mayan-speaking peoples. The Spanish  were eager to settle in the region, and Cortés was also interested in converting Native Americans to Christianity. "His view on the Indigenous people was similar to the majority of Europeans of that day — they were inferior culturally, technologically and religiously," Cosme said. In Cozumel, an island off the Yucatán coast that was one of the first places the Spaniards landed, Cortés learned of various rituals, "including human sacrifice of the Natives to their many gods," Cosme said. "He and his men removed and destroyed the pagan idols, and replaced them with crosses and figures of the Virgin Mary."

Cortés' force then continued sailing west to Tabasco, where it encountered resistance from Native warriors. The Spanish force overpowered them, and the Natives surrendered. Not only did the Spaniards' armaments — steel weapons, arquebuses and crossbows — prove superior in the clash, but so did Cortes' horses . He brought 16 horses along on the expedition; the Indigenous people were not familiar with them and were reportedly terrified of the beasts. Bernal Díaz del Castillo , a soldier who marched with Cortés and later wrote a history of the expedition called " The True History of the Conquest of New Spain ," described the Natives' encounter with the horses: "The Indians, who had never seen any horses before, could not think otherwise than that horse and rider were one body. Quite astounded at this to them so novel a sight, they quitted the plain and retreated to a rising ground." 

The Natives provided the Europeans with food, supplies and 20 women, including an interpreter called Malintzin (also known as La Malinche or Doña Marina). La Malinche became an important figure in Cortés' life and legacy. 

"She became bilingual, speaking Aztec and Mayan languages, which made her very useful to Cortés," Cosme said. "She eventually learned Spanish and became Cortés' personal interpreter, guide and mistress. She actually had a pretty high status for both a woman and a Native during this time and place among the Spaniards."

Casa de Hernan Cortes in Veracruz, Mexico. There are several N-shaped white stone structures covered in green moss. In the front there is a patch of green grass . In the background you can see lots of green trees.

Díaz described La Malinche as "an excellent woman and fine interpreter throughout the wars in New Spain, Tlaxcala and Mexico … This woman was a valuable instrument to us in the conquest of New Spain. It was, through her only, under the protection of the Almighty, that many things were accomplished by us: without her we never should have understood the Mexican language, and, upon the whole, have been unable to surmount many difficulties." 

Cortés and La Malinche had a child together named Martín, who is sometimes called "El Mestizo." He was one of the first children of mixed Indigenous and Spanish heritage. Eventually, in 1522, Cortés' Spanish wife, Catalina Suarez, came to Mexico. After her arrival, historians are unsure if Cortés continued to acknowledge La Malinche or Martín, Cosme said. "It would seem his desire to maintain his reputation and standing among the Spanish community was stronger than his need to be a husband and father to Malinche and Martín." Nonetheless, Catalina died under mysterious circumstances soon after arriving, and eventually Cortés took another Spanish wife when he returned briefly to Spain in 1528, according to Britannica. 

After a few months in Yucatán, Cortés sailed west again. On the southeastern coast of what is now Mexico, he founded Veracruz, where he dismissed the authority of Velázquez and declared himself under orders from King Charles I of Spain. He disciplined his men and trained them to act as a cohesive unit of soldiers, and prepared them for the long march to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. And in an act that signified his fierce determination, he burned his ships to make retreat impossible, though some scholars have disputed this story.  

Díaz related how Cortés exhorted his soldiers on the eve of their long march. "Cortes then adduced many beautiful comparisons from history, and mentioned several heroic deeds of the Romans ,” Díaz wrote "We answered him, one and all, that we would implicitly follow his orders, as the die had been cast, and we, with Caesar , when he had passed the Rubicon, had now no choice left; besides which, everything we did was for the glory of God and his majesty the emperor."

Cortés had heard of the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) and knew that they, and their leader Montezuma II (also spelled Moctezuma), were a primary force in Mexico. According to Britannica, the Aztec Empire ruled a large swath of what is today modern Mexico and parts of central America during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Aztecs were accomplished warriors, engineers, artisans and agriculturalists known for creating a thriving society that ruled over a surrounding, often hostile amalgam of various Native Americans with different languages and cultures. Although the Aztecs had been one of many small groups in the Valley of Mexico, they had expanded aggressively during the 15th century by conquering their neighbors, according to World History Encyclopedia . At first, the Aztecs had ruled with the help of two other cities in the region, Texcoco and Tlacopan, a confederation known as the Triple Alliance. Eventually, however, the Aztecs came to dominate the Triple Alliance and ruled alone. 

"Cortés arrived in the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán [on Nov. 8] in 1519," Cosme said. "Although he was kindly received by the Aztec emperor Montezuma, Cortés' intentions were less benevolent." He set out to rule them. 

Tenochtitlan was the religious and political center of the Aztec Empire. It was much larger than many European cities of the time and hosted a population of about 400,000 people, according to Britannica . (By comparison, the city of Paris in the 16th century had an estimated population of 225,000, according to the website Statista .) It had been founded in A.D. 1325 on two small islands in the middle of Lake Texcoco and was connected to the mainland by several broad causeways. In the heart of the city was the temple district, which boasted the Great Temple, or Hueteocalli as the Aztecs called it. This imposing structure, which loomed above the surrounding city, was dedicated to two Aztec gods: Huitzilopochtli, the war god, and Tláloc, the rain god. Other prominent buildings included the pyramid of Tezcatlipoca, a creator god, and the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the "feathered serpent" and the god of art and learning who was associated with the planet Venus .  

Díaz described the awe Tenochtitlan inspired among the Spaniards upon arriving: "When we gazed upon all this splendor at once, we scarcely knew what to think, and we doubted whether all that we beheld was real. A series of large towns stretched themselves along the banks of the lake, out of which still larger ones rose magnificently above the waters. Innumerable crowds of canoes were plying everywhere around us; at regular distances we continually passed over new bridges, and before us lay the great city of Mexico in all its splendor."

A painting of Hernando Cortez with Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. On the left is Hernando wearing red trousers, red shirt and a red waistcoat lined with white fur. On the right, standing in a doorway, is the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II. He is wearing a white tunic and long white cape. HE is adorned with a lot of gold, found on his belt, neck, sandels and his helmet. On the floor there are some treasures such as pots and fabrics.

In some accounts, Cortés' arrival coincided with an important Aztec prophecy. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was set to return to Earth . In this interpretation, Montezuma was hesitant to confront the Spanish for fear of angering the returned god. However, this interpretation has been disputed by many modern scholars who have argued that it is essentially a myth that was propagated many years after the conquest as a way for Europeans to justify their actions and foster the notion that the Aztecs saw the Spanish as superior. 

Montezuma sent out envoys to meet the conquistador as he neared the capital. The Spanish fired shots from their arquebuses and cannons, which stunned the Natives and further intimidated them.

Cortés entered the city, and at first the meeting between the two leaders, though tense, was peaceful. Montezuma gave the conquistador gifts of gold . But things changed quickly. Cortés took Montezuma hostage and sacked the city. La Malinche helped Cortés manipulate Montezuma and rule Tenochtitlán through him. "It is also said that she informed Cortés of an Aztec plot to destroy his army," Cosme said. 

The Spanish army had help sacking the city. Though Cortés enslaved much of the Native population, other Indigenous groups were fundamental to his success, according to Cosme. Among them were the people of Tlaxcala, who helped him regroup and take Tenochtitlán. "The Aztecs were not always popular rulers among their subjected cities. When Cortés learned of this, he was able to use this to his advantage," Cosme said. "Xicotencatl, a ruler in the city Tlaxcala, saw an ally in Cortés and an opportunity to destroy the Aztec Empire. They formed an allegiance, and Cortés was given several thousand warriors to add to his ranks. While the Spaniards still had superior weaponry — cannons, guns, swords — the additional knowledge on Aztec fighting styles and defenses given by Xicotencatl, plus the additional men, gave Cortés a helpful edge."

While Cortés held Tenochtitlán through Montezuma, a Spanish force from Cuba landed on the coast of Mexico in the spring of 1520. It had been sent by Velázquez to unseat Cortés. When Cortés heard of this, he took a force of Spanish and Tlaxcalan soldiers and marched on the new Spanish force, according to World History Encyclopedia. Cortés defeated the Spanish force, but when he returned to Tenochtitlán he found the Aztecs had launched a major attack on the Spanish garrison. 

At first, Cortés tried to quell the attack by forcing Montezuma to address the Aztec forces that had gathered. But, by now, the Aztecs were distrustful of their king. In an event that is still debated by scholars, Montezuma was killed. It is unclear whether he was killed by his own forces — some accounts have him being stoned by his warriors — or by the Spanish, according to the Thought Company . In the Aztec accounts, Montezuma survives the attack by his warriors but is later strangled to death by the Spanish. 

Cortés and his men fled the city. But their retreat was costly and they suffered significant losses, including most of the plunder they had stolen from the city.  

However, the Spanish were there long enough to start a smallpox epidemic in Tenochtitlán. One of Cortés' men contracted smallpox from a member of the force from Cuba. That soldier died during the Aztec rebellion, and when his body was looted, an Aztec caught the disease, which spread like wildfire because the Aztec people had no immunity to it, according to History.com . Between one-quarter and one-half of the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, including Aztecs and other Native Americans, succumbed to the disease, according to Suzanne Alchon, a historian and author of the book A Pest in the Land, New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective  (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).

Statue of Hernan Cortes in Medellin, Spain. Here we see him standing tall wearing armor and a helmet (complete with a plume on top). He’s holding a flag/banner with a small cross on the top. He is standing upon a plinth which looks like a castle tower. On the front of the plinth is a small shield which depicts a knight standing upon a castle rampart.

With help from the people of Tlaxcala, Cortés' army regrouped and returned to Tenochtitlán on June 25, 1520. They found that the city's society had crumbled. Nonetheless, the Aztec warriors, under their new leader Cuauhtemoc, resisted the Spanish and a long siege ensued.  Finally, after 93 days of siege, the Aztecs, weakened by disease, hunger and having incurred significant losses following many pitched battles, surrendered, according to World History Encyclopedia. This surrender unleashed a storm of violence, looting, rape and carnage as the Spanish and their Tlaxacalan allies descended on the city. 

Once the city fell, Cortés began building Mexico City on the ruins. It quickly became a pre-eminent city in the Spanish colonies, and many Europeans came to live there. To reward his success, King Charles I of Spain appointed Cortés governor of New Spain.

The conquest of Mexico by the Spanish ended in 1525, though some Aztecs and their allies continued to resist the Spanish according to World History Encyclopedia . Nonetheless, the change to Spanish rule had massive and long-lasting consequences. Many of the Indigenous people were now forced into the role of subservience and a new, almost caste-like social order was created with the Spanish occupying the highest positions of power and the Indigenous people the lowest. This social dynamic would characterize Mexico for centuries.

In 1524, Cortés organized an expedition to Honduras, a part of central America that had not yet been conquered by the Spanish. He stayed for two years, establishing a city and appointing a governor,  but when he returned to Mexico, he found that the allies he had left in Mexico City had turned against him, according to Britannica. He found himself removed from power, and accused of illegally enriching himself. Cortés traveled to Spain to plead with the king, but he was never again appointed to governorship. In Spain, he married for a second time, to a Spanish noblewoman named Dona Juana de Zuniga, a union that produced three children. 

The king did allow him to return to Mexico, albeit with much less authority. Cortés explored the northern part of Mexico and discovered Baja California for Spain in the late 1530s. In 1540, he retired to Spain and spent much of his last years seeking recognition and rewards for his achievements.

Frustrated and embittered, Cortés decided to return to Mexico. Before he could go, however, he died in 1547 of pleurisy, an inflammation of the tissues that line the lungs and chest cavity.

Cortés is a controversial figure, especially in Mexico, because of his treatment of Natives. Unfortunately, "when it came to the Indigenous people, Cortés was not unique in his treatment and mindset," Cosme said. "He enslaved much of the Native population, and many of the Indigenous people were wiped out from European diseases such as smallpox. Both scenarios would unfortunately become a common theme among many explorers' interactions with Natives."

Nevertheless, Cortés was important in reshaping the world. "Cortés' victory secured new and profitable land and opportunities for the Spanish monarch. He helped oversee the building of Mexico City, which is still Mexico's capital today," Cosme said. "He opened the door for further exploration and conquest of Central America to the south, and eventually led to the acquisition of California toward the north."

Originally published on Live Science on Sept. 28, 2017 and updated on July 5, 2022.

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Jessie Szalay is a contributing writer to FSR Magazine. Prior to writing for Live Science, she was an editor at Living Social. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from George Mason University and a bachelor's degree in sociology from Kenyon College. 

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how long did hernan cortes voyage last

World History Edu

  • Famous Explorers / Spanish History

Hernán Cortés: History, Life, Accomplishments, & Atrocities Committed

by World History Edu · February 5, 2020

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés – Life and Accomplishments

Most known for invading Mexico and defeating the Aztec Empire in 1521, Hernán Cortés was a Spanish nobleman and famous explorer who helped expand the Empire of Spain into the New World. Why and how did this conquistador vanquish the Aztecs – one of history’s greatest civilizations? Here is everything that you need to know about the life story and accomplishments of Hernán Cortés.

Hernán Cortés was born in Medellín, Spain, to a family of not so much renowned nobility. Growing up, Cortés was not the strongest of children. Regardless of that he was quite intelligent for his age.

When he was 14, his parents sent him to study Latin at his uncle’s school in Salamanca. Two years into his studies, Cortés abandoned the course and went back home. His decision to abandon school was primarily influenced by news of famed explorer Christopher Columbus’ expeditions into the New World.

Cortés desired nothing than to follow in Columbus’s footstep and become a renowned explorer and Spanish conquistador.

Expeditions to Haiti and Cuba

Cortés’s maiden voyage to the Americas occurred in 1504. He sailed for Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominica Republic). Aged around 19, Cortés arrived in Santo Domingo in 1504. Santo Domingo was the capital of Hispaniola. In the city, he had brief educational spells training to become a lawyer. The late teenager spent the next seven years of his life in Hispaniola. He worked as notary official. Sometimes, he worked on the farm.

In 1511, he signed up to the crew of famous Spanish explorer Diego Velázquez’s expedition to Cuba.  While in Cuba, he served as a treasury assistant to Governor Nicolás de Ovando.

For his contribution to the conquest of Cuba, he was rewarded with large parcels of land and Indian slaves. As the years rolled by, Cortés became an influential person in Cuba. He was particularly close to the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez. He served as Velázquez’s lieutenant.

Expedition to Mexico

In 1518, Cortes was able to convince Velázquez to let him lead an expedition into Mexico. Velázquez accepted his request and gave Cortés his blessings.

Just a few months before Cortes’s expedition, Velázquez had a change of mind. However, the brave and daring Cortés refused to back down. He proceeded and sailed to Mexico with about 11 ships and over 500 men.

Cortés’s mutiny against the governor of Cuba was not uncommon. Early Spanish colonization of the Americas was rife with mutinies and betrayals. For example, the ship that Cortes boarded on his maiden voyage to the Americas had a captain (Alonso Quintero) who mutinied against his superiors.

In 1519, Cortés’s crew of explorers arrived at place called Yucatan, off the Mexican coast. Looking for wealth and glory, Cortés consistently disobeyed Velázquez’s order to come back home. In addition to fame and glory, Cortés had it at the back of his mind to roll out a massive conversion exercise of the natives to Catholicism.

A month after his arrival at Yucatan, Cortés and his men seized the territory in the name of the Spanish Empire. Along the way, he also engaged in a number of battles with native tribes. He and his priests also converted some of the natives into Christianity. Many of those converts were forced into the faith. Also, he encouraged his men to pillage the land and abuse the conquered natives.

Cortés had several illegitimate children with native Indian women. For example, he and La Malinche had a child called Martín (El Mestizo). After a brief period of time, she learned Spanish. For most part of the time, Malinche served as his interpreter. Her usefulness came in the fact that she was reasonably fluent in Aztec and Mayan languages.

Veracruz Settlement

A few months into his stay on the continent, Cortés proceeded west and established a settlement called, Veracruz. He took some of the locales as his allies. In spite of this, it did not stop Cortés from thinking the indigenous people as culturally and religiously inferior to the Spanish. It was not uncommon for Spanish explorers to have this notion about the natives. They found the practice of human sacrifices by the natives particularly abhorrent.

In September, 1519, he briefly clashed with the Otomis and the Tlaxcalans. In the end, some of those indigenous people later allied with Cortés.

After claiming Veracruz for himself, under the Crown’s name, Cortés destroyed his ships. The rationale behind this was to prevent his men from sailing back. His men, therefore, had only one option – march into the heart of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán.

Invasion of the Aztec Empire

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Hernando Cortés invades Tenochtitlan, the Capital of the Aztec Empire, in 1521 | Image:  Britannica.com

Cortes first met officials of the Aztec Empire at San Juan de Ulúa in spring 1519. On several occasions he asked for a meeting with Moctezuma II, the ruler ( tiatoani ) of the Aztecs. The Aztecs refused to have any meeting.

In August 1519, Cortes, along with about 600 men, headed for the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. He was also in the company of several hundreds of local tribe men from the Totonacs and the Nahuas.

On his way to Tenochtitlán, he killed several thousands of unarmed noblemen and civilians in Cholula in 1519. His men also burned down a great portion of the city.

In November 1519, Cortes was received by Moctezuma II. The Spanish explorer was given a warm welcome and Cortes entered the city unimpeded. Many say the emperor did this in order to learn the weaknesses of the invading force. However, some historians believe that some Aztecs  regarded Cortés as a messenger of the god Quetzalcoatl – the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs.

Owing to this fascination, Moctezuma dashed Cortés several ounces of gold and other gifts. Consumed by greed, Cortés decided to take Moctezuma hostage.

Why did Hernán Cortés take Moctezuma hostage?

First of all, some historians say that what prompted Hernán Cortés to hold the ruler of the Aztecs hostage was because Cortés received news that some Aztecs had attacked his men. The second and more likely reason is that Cortés wanted more gold for himself.

In 1520, Governor Veláquez sent a number of ships, which were under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez, to relieve Cortés of his command in Mexico. Narváez sailed to Mexico with about a thousand men. While Cortes held Tenochititlán as a prisoner, Cortés was able to rule the entire Aztec people.

Cortés captures Tenochtitlán

About 200 men to stayed behind stay behind in Tenochtitlán while Cortés marched the rest of his men to face off with Pánfilo de Narváez. Even though Narváez had the numerical advantage, Cortés was still able to hand Narváez a crushing defeat. The remaining men of Narváez surrendered and joined Cortes. Now with a relatively bigger troop numbers, Cortes headed back to Tenochtitlán.

Upon arriving, he found the city in a state of civil rife. His lieutenant that he had left behind did a poor job of keeping the peace and order. There was even a massacre in the Great Temple. Shortly after that the people rebelled. In the heat of this rebellion, Moctezuma was murdered on July 1, 1520. The Aztecs became hostile, forcing Cortés to leave the city. He escaped to Tlaxcala. While retreating, he lost about 870 men, as well as a great deal of his looted gold and other treasures.

Majority of the Aztecs had grown fed up with their rulers. In addition to this, many of them were blighted by smallpox that the Europeans brought along with them. Realizing this, Cortés capitalized on the situation and took control of the city in the name of the Crown. After conquering the city, he renamed it Mexico City. He built Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlán.

From 1521-1524, he served as governor of the city. During his reign, Cortés may have been treated unfairly by the Spanish Empire. His work for the Crown was disregarded. His role in the colonization of the New World was watered down by his critics, including Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, Diego Columbus and Francisco Garay. Veláquez, in particular, did not want Cortes to be governor in Mexico. He worked hard to convince King Charles V of Spain. The king then moved Cortés from civilian duties by promoting him to captain-general.

Some say Cortes acted too entitled and may have been a very vain governor. On so many occasions, he disobeyed to orders of the Crown.

King Charles appointed him as governor, captain general and chief justice of the newly conquered territories in the New World. However, the king kept an eye on him by appointing royals to be his assistant. For his conquests in Mexico, the Spanish Crown rewarded Cortes with a coat of arms.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Hernando Cortes crest from Charles V

Honduras Expedition

From 1524 to 1526, Cortes waged war with Cristóbal de Olid – the man who claimed Honduras for himself. Cortes emerged the victor. He pointed finger at Velázquez for his alleged role in Olid’s rebellion. Hence Cortés implored King Charles to arrest Velázquez on the charges of treason.

After his exploits in Honduras, Cortes returned to Mexico only to find out that his power base had been eroded. He quickly headed for Spain to beseech King Charles. However, Charles’ paid little attention to the political situation in the New World. All the king cared about was his quinto, i.e. taxes from the American colonies. Charles did however confer the order of Santiago on Cortés in 1529. Cortés also received the title of Marquis of the Oaxaca (Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca ) . On his way back to Mexico, Charles made him in charge of the army in Mexico.

Later Life and Death

Although his governorship position had been taken away from him, Cortés still wielded some amount of power in Mexico. For example he was still able to embark on a number of minor expeditions. In one such expedition, he discovered Baja California Peninsula in 1536.  

With his civil authority stripped from him, Cortés’s influence in the New World waned. In 1541, he went back to Spain to attend to some problems concerning his estates.

Hernán Cortés spent a fortune during his expeditions in the Americas and conquest of Mexico. He tried desperately to get back most of the money he spent from the Spanish Crown, but to no avail.

He spent his later years not as wealthy as he used to be when he was the governor of Mexico. Feeling neglected in Spain, he decided to give Mexico a shot again. However, he was struck down with dysentery in the course of his preparations. On December 2, 1547, the famous Spanish conqueror of Mexico died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville Province. He was 62.

Before he was eventually buried at Hospital de Jesus in Mexico City, his body was moved about eight times.

What was Hernán Cortés’s legacy?

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547)

Over the centuries, Hernán Cortés has been scorned by many due to his involvement in years of abuse, killings and devastation amongst the natives in the Americas. In his defense, some historians have stated that his was pretty much the norm during Europeans’ conquest of the Americas. Regardless of this, Cortés cannot be excused from all the atrocities that he committed.

Cortés, like many of his fellow conquistadors, was responsible for infecting (unknowingly) the natives with terrible diseases such as smallpox, which killed millions of indigenous people.

Another brutal act of Cortés came in the form of mass conversion of the indigenous peoples into Christianity. He asked for several friars to be sent from Spain to Mexico. He was particularly cautious in doing so. He made sure that only friars, instead of secular priest or diocesan, performed the conversion.

Did you know : The Gulf of California used to be called the Sea of Cortes ?

From the perspective of the Spanish Empire, he was hailed as a hero. Owing to his efforts, the Crown was able to stretch its tentacles wide and far into the Americas. Those new found territories brought unimaginable riches and prosperity to Spain.

Cortés certainly goes down in history as founder and builder of Mexico City. Although one mention of his name still elicits scorn and disgust from many people in Mexico today, Hernán Cortés undoubtedly occupies a unique and prestigious place in the history of both Mexico and Spain.

Personal life and family

All in all, Hernando Cortés is believed to have fathered quite a lot of children. He married twice. His first wife, Catalina Suárez, died under mysterious circumstances in November 1522. There were rumors floating about that Cortés was responsible. In any case, Catalina bore no children with Hernán Cortés.

In 1529, he got married to Doña Juana de Zúñiga. Unlike his first wife (Catalina), Cortés’s second wife was from a noble family. The couple gave birth to a son called Martín, who would become his heir and successor. Additionally, he had three daughters—Maria, Catalina, and Juana.

With regards to his illegitimate children, it is believed that he had several of them with the natives in Cuba and Mexico. He even worked tirelessly to have the Pope legitimize four of his illegitimate children. In his will, he was also generous to his surviving children, including the illegitimate ones and their mothers.

FACT CHECK : At worldhistoryedu.com, we strive for utmost accuracy and objectivity. But if you come across something that doesn’t look right, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

Tags: Aztec Empire Cuba Hernán Cortés Mexico Mexico City Moctezuma Spanish Conquistadors Tenochtitlán The New World Velázquez de Cuéllar

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hernán Cortés

Introduction, general overviews.

  • Primary Sources
  • Shared Biographies
  • Rhetorical and Literary Analysis of Documents Produced About the Conquest of Mexico
  • Cortés, California, and the Pacific Ocean
  • Cortés’s Role in Modern Mexican Identity

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Hernán Cortés by Peter Sorensen LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020 LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0232

Hernán Cortés (b. 1485–d. 1547) was a central figure in the military, political, and economic colonization of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, and most notable for his role in the destruction of the Aztec Empire in 1521. Córtes’s role in colonial history and the conquest of Mexico has long been controversial. Some people laud his military expertise and political maneuvering as evidence that he was a brilliant tactician who won against incredible odds, while others consider him a ruthless (and sometimes lucky) conquistador who left a trail of destruction in his wake due to his obsession with gold; while more recent historiography has tended to marginalize his individual importance. The centrality of Córtes’s role in the narrative of Spain’s colonial empire, and the destruction of indigenous empires, means he has continued to play a central role in the development and expression of national identity in Mexico from independence until the present. When he is analyzed, Cortés is frequently paired with Moctezuma II, one of the last important Aztec emperors, or his translator and consort Malinche (or Malintzin). Relatively little is known about Cortés when he went to Honduras to crush a rebellion, or about his time in Algiers after he returned to Europe. Ultimately his descendants lost control of his considerable land holdings, tributary, and lordly rights south of Mexico City and died a lonely death. Cortés was born in Medellín, Extremadura, Spain, and died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Andalusia, and against his last wishes was not buried in Mexico. Cortés’s bones were eventually moved to Mexico City and now reside in the Hospital de Jesús, assigned to a poorly lit corner with a simple plaque bearing his name, date of birth, and date of death.

General overviews fall into two main forms, the first being focused on individual and collective identity and backgrounds of conquistadors ( Grunberg 2001 , Elliott 1967 , Himmerich y Valencia 1991 , Pohl 2001 , and Restall and Fernández-Armesto 2012 ) and tend to focus on the transition from military fighters to more established settlers, or encomenderos . The second consists of more generalized histories of either the Spanish Empire ( Elliott 1963 , and Maltby 2002 ) or a general history of Mexico ( Knight 2002a and Knight 2002b ). These general overviews highlight four important elements that made up the world Cortés lived in; the Spanish Empire, New Spain within the empire, the conquistadors that defined the early decades of the colonial period, and brief biographical information about Cortés himself.

Elliott, J. H. Imperial Spain: 1469–1716 . New York: Penguin Putnam, 1963.

Considered a classic work on Imperial Spain. Chapter 2 deals specifically with the conquest of Mexico and details how the processes of conquest, most specifically La Reconquista , contributed to the military, spiritual, and economic conquests of Mesoamerica.

Elliott, J. H. “The Mental World of Hernán Cortés.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 17 (1967): 41–58.

DOI: 10.2307/3678719

Elliott contextualizes the world that Cortés’s grew up in that led to his mentality and decision-making process. By looking at Cortés’s background as coming from the lesser nobility with limited means of Extremadura, as well as his experiences with notarial documents during his time in the Caribbean, Elliott argues that Cortés was intelligent and crafty, though not a well- read, man of his times.

Grunberg, Bernard. Dictionnaire des Conquistadores de Mexico . Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001.

Contains a brief reference and section dedicated to Cortés, as well as numerous other conquistadors.

Himmerich y Valencia, Robert. The Encomenderos of New Spain, 1521–1555 . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

An extremely useful analysis with details of every one of the 506 encomenderos of New Spain. A brief biography of Cortés, as well as references to his importance in the early colonial period in Mexico can be found throughout the work.

Knight, Alan. Mexico: From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002a.

Part 4 of this work contains a concise explanation of Spain leading up to 1519 and a quick description of the conquest of Mexico and Cortés’s role in it.

Knight, Alan. Mexico: Volume 2, the Colonial Era . New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002b.

The beginning of this work has frequent references to Cortés and his legacy in the early colonial period, and his role in the conquests of Central America, and western and northern Mexico.

Maltby, William S. The Reign of Charles V . Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-62908-0

An overview of the reign of Charles V with a focus on the general imperial history of the Habsburgs. Chapter 3 and 4 focus on the conquests and early colonial efforts and the deeds of Cortés.

Pohl, John. The Conquistador . Oxford: Osprey, 2001.

A concise introduction to the world of conquistadors, with numerous references to Cortés.

Restall, Matthew, and Felipe Fernández-Armesto. The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction . New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780195392296.001.0001

Focuses on the first eighty years of conquest in the Americas by analyzing a number of themes that encompass the world that created the conquistadors. Cortés is frequently mentioned in relation to his role in Mexico and Mesoamerica, though there is no specific analysis of Cortés.

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Hernan Cortes Timeline of Conquest and Accomplishments

Published: Aug 8, 2023 · Modified: Oct 19, 2023 by Russell Yost · This post may contain affiliate links ·

Hernan Cortes became a Spanish hero who conquered an ancient empire and set the stage for the Spanish to build their own empire.

Hernan Cortes Timeline

He was known for his military genius and brutal tactics.

Also Read:  15 Famous Spanish Conquistadors

Early Life (1485 - 1511)

The conquest of mexico (1518 - 1526), final years (1528 - 1547).

After Mexico gained its independence, the Spanish removed his remains from Mexico to Sicily in order to protect them. They believed that they would be desecrated.

The Spanish Empire would eventually fade and be replaced by the English Empire and then the United States of America.

The Empire that Hernan Cortes began would change the language for most of the western hemisphere, and the remnants of the empire that he began still existed until the Spanish-American War that would eliminate Spain from the West. 

The Spanish Empire still remains in the language they left behind.

Hernan Cortes

1485: He was born to Martin Cortes de Monroy and his mother Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. According to sources about his family tree, it does not seem Hernan Cortes had any siblings. If he did, then they are not listed. On his mother's side, he was related to Francisco Pizarro, who would conquer the Incas.

1492:  Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic Ocean and discovered a New World. This would open up unknown wealth for many European nations. Almost 500 years prior, Leif Ericson had sailed to what would become known as Canada. However, the Vikings never spoke of it to anyone about their discovery, and because of that, the discovery was credited to Columbus.

Also Read:  Christopher Columbus Timeline

1499 - 1504:  At the age of 14, it was said that Cortes was a sickly child, but that would quickly change. By 16, he had grown and already showed signs of bravery and cruelty. At 19, he sailed to the New World and settled in Hispaniola, where he made an acquaintance with Governor Velazquez.

1511: In his early 20s, he gained notoriety during the conquest of Cuba. This would increase his standing in Cuba, and he would begin to build relationships with the elite classes. During this time, he became the lover of Governor Velazquez's sister-in-law, with whom he eventually married.

Conquest of the Aztecs

1518 - 1519:  Hernan Cortes was ordered by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, to stay on the island and not go on an expedition to the Yucatán Peninsula. However, Cortes ignored the orders and, in an act of open mutiny, set sail for the Yucatán Peninsula in February 1519. He stopped in Trinidad, Cuba, to hire more soldiers and obtain more horses. When he finally set sail for the Yucatan Peninsula, he had about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses, and a small number of cannons. He landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Maya territory. When he landed, he met Geronimo de Aguilar, who lived among the Mayans as a prisoner and learned their language. Despite a lack of military experience, he effectively led his men in successive victories along the coast. It would be during this conquest of the Yucatan that he met Malinche, who was able to translate the Mayan language into the Aztec language. She would become the most valuable asset to Cortes.

Later that year, he would have his first meeting with Montezuma.

Also Read:  Famous Native Americans in American History

1519 - 1521: Cortes would begin his conquest of the Aztecs in 1519. He would make important allies with natives who despised the Aztecs and conduct the Cholula Massacre, which was the destruction of the second-largest city of the Aztecs. After its fall, he continued toward the Aztec capital.

He was welcomed peacefully into Tenochtitlan. Montezuma planned to lavish the Spanish with gifts and then learn his enemy's weaknesses. His plan failed, and Cortes took control of Montezuma and then controlled the Aztec empire for a short period of time. However, his time was cut short when he had to rush back to the Yucatan and defeat a conquistador who was sent by Governor Velazquez to defeat him. He won the victory and then rushed back to Tenochtitlan.

Montezuma was killed by the Spanish or his own men, and the Aztecs ambushed Cortes and his men. He barely escaped and lost all of the gold he had acquired, and many of his men were brutally killed. He regrouped, and during this time, smallpox spread among the Aztecs and wiped out much of their population, leaving them vulnerable.

Cortes then attacked again and, this time, used European warfare to put the city under siege. He built ships in the lake in order to bombard the city in order to avoid urban warfare. 

The city fell, and with it, the Aztec Empire.

Also Read:  15 Facts about Hernan Cortes

1522 - 1526:  In 1522, Hernan Cortes began to organize a conquest of Honduras.

In 1524, Hernan Cortes led an expedition to Honduras to defeat Cristobal de Olid, who had claimed Honduras for himself under the influence of Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba. Cortes was concerned that Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor, might lead an insurrection in Mexico if he were left behind, so he brought him with him to Honduras. However, Cuauhtemoc was executed during the journey in a controversial move. Cortes was enraged by Olid's treason and issued a decree to arrest Velazquez, whom he believed was behind Olid's actions. This only served to further alienate Cortes from the Crown of Castile and the Council of Indies, who were already concerned about his growing power.

This led to a power struggle between Cortes and Velazquez that would result in multiple allegations and lawsuits against Cortes. He then returned to Spain to defend his reputation.

King Charles

1528 - 1529: Hernan Cortes returned to Spain to appeal to the justice of his king, Charles V. He left Juan Altamirano and Alonso Valiente in Mexico to act as his representatives during his absence. Cortes presented himself in great splendor before Charles V's court. By this time, Charles had returned from his travels, and Cortes forthrightly responded to the charges against him. He denied that he had held back any gold from the crown, and in fact, he showed that he had contributed more than the required one-fifth. He had also spent lavishly to build the new capital of Mexico City on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which had been leveled during the siege that brought down the Aztec empire.

King Charles V gave him many distinctions and titles. He also remarried a Spanish noblewoman prior to returning to Mexico.

1530: He returned to Mexico with his new titles.

1531 - 1532:  Hernan Cortes explored the Pacific coast of Mexico and up into California.

1534:  He acquired many silver mines

1535 - 1537: Don Antonio de Mendoza was appointed as viceroy of New Spain and created a division of power with Hernan Cortes, who had been governor of the colony since 1521. This division of power led to continual dissension between the two men and caused the failure of several enterprises in which Cortes was engaged. When Cortes returned to Mexico in 1537, he found the country in a state of anarchy. He reasserted himself and brought the country under control.

1536: He led an expedition to the Baja Peninsula of California.

Also Read:  Age of Exploration Timeline

1541:  He returned to Spain and eventually took part in the Algiers expedition. 

1547: He died of pleurisy in Spain. He was in his early 60s at his death. During his life, he expanded the Spanish Empire more than anyone prior to him and laid the foundation for the Spanish to control the 16th century.

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how long did hernan cortes voyage last

The History Hit Miscellany of Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds

How Did Hernán Cortés Conquer Tenochtitlan?

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Sarah Roller

14 jan 2021, @sarahroller8.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

On 8 November 1519, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés reached Tenochtitlan – capital of the Aztec Empire. It would prove to be an era-defining moment, signalling the beginning of the end for the American continent’s great civilisations, and the start of a new and terrible age.

Starting afresh in the New World

Like many men who set off to explore distant lands, Cortés was not a success back at home. Born in 1485 in Medellín, the young Spaniard was a disappointment to his family after quitting school early and allegedly badly injuring himself whilst escaping out of the window of a married woman.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Bored of his small-town life and distant family, he left for the New World in 1504 aged just just 18, and settled in the newly created colony of Santo Domingo (now in the Dominican Republic.) Over the next few years, he caught the eye of his colonial masters as he took part in expeditions to conquer Hispaniola (Haiti) and Cuba.

With Cuba newly conquered by 1511, the young adventurer was rewarded with a high political position on the island. In typical fashion, relations between him and the Cuban governor Velazquez began to sour over Cortes’ arrogance, as well as his rakish pursuit of the governor’s sister-in-law.

Eventually, Cortés decided to marry her, thus securing the good will of his master, and creating a newly wealthy platform for some adventures of his own.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

An illustration of Emperor Moctezuma welcoming Cortés to Tenochtitlan.

Into the unknown

By 1518, many of the Caribbean islands had been discovered and colonised by Spanish settlers, but the great uncharted mainland of the Americas remained a mystery. That year Velazquez gave Cortés permission to explore the interior, and though he quickly revoked this decision after another squabble, the younger man decided to go anyway.

In February 1519 he left, taking 500 men, 13 horses and a handful of cannon with him. Upon reaching the Yucatan peninsula, he scuttled his ships. With his name now blackened by the vengeful governor of Cuba, there would be no going back.

From then on Cortés marched inland, winning skirmishes with natives, from whom he captured a number of young women. One of them would one day father his child, and they told him of a great inland Empire stuffed with staggering riches. In what is now Veracruz, he met with an emissary of this nation, and demanded a meeting with the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma.

hernan cortes

A 19th century portrait of Hernan Cortés by Jose Salome Pina. Image credit: Museo del Prado / CC.

Tenochtitlan – the island city

After the emissaries haughtily refused him many times, he began to march onto the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – refusing to take no for an answer. On the way there he met with other tribes under the yoke of Moctezuma’s rule, and these warriors quickly swelled the Spanish ranks as the summer of 1519 went slowly by.

Finally, on 8 November, this ragtag army arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan, an island city said to have been astonishingly rich and beautiful. Seeing this host at the gates of his capital, Moctezuma decided to receive the strange newcomers peacefully, and he met with the foreign adventurer – who was basking in the local belief that this strange armoured man was actually the serpent God Quetzalcoatl.

The meeting with the Emperor was cordial, and Cortés was given large amounts of gold – which was not seen to be as valuable to the Aztecs. Unfortunately for Moctezuma, after coming all this way the Spaniard was fired up rather than placated by this show of generosity.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

Cortés’ bloody road to power

While in the city he learned that some of his men left by the coast had been killed by locals, and used this as a pretext to suddenly seize the Emperor in his own palace and declare him to be a hostage. With this powerful pawn in his hands, Cortés then effectively ruled the city and its Empire for the next few months with little opposition.

This relative calm did not last long. Velazquez had not given up on finding his old enemy and dispatched a force which arrived in Mexico in April 1520. Despite being outnumbered, Cortés rode out of Tenochtitlan to meet them and incorporated the survivors into his own men after winning the ensuing battle.

how long did hernan cortes voyage last

In a vengeful mood, he then marched back to Tenochtitlan – in his absence, his second-in-command, Alvarado, had ordered the killing of hundreds of Aztec people after they attempted to perform a ritual human sacrifice as part of their celebrations for the festival of Toxcatl. Shortly after Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma was killed. Despite claiming that it had happened in an uncontrollable riot, historians have suspected foul play ever since.

As the situation in the city escalated terribly, Cortés had to flee for his life with a few of his men on what is now known as La Noche Triste: in his confidence, he had underestimated the Aztecs, failed to understand their tactics and overestimated the ability of his own troops. He lost 870 men, a significant percentage of the Spanish forces in Mexico, as a result.

codex mendoza tenochtitlan

A depiction of the founding of Tenochtitlan taken from the Codex Mendoza, a 16th century Aztec codex.

After forming alliances with local rivals, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan and besieged the city, almost razing it to the ground, and claiming it for Spain under the name of Mexico City. With no one to tell him otherwise, he then ruled as the self-styled governor of all Mexico from 1521-1524.

Cortés’ legacy

In the end, Cortés got what he probably deserved. His demanding of recognition and wilful arrogance gradually alienated the King of Spain, and when the ageing explorer returned to the Royal court he met with a chilly reception.

Cortés retired back to Mexico, where he spent time on his extensive states, as well as engaging in some Pacific exploration: he is credited with the Western ‘discovery’ of the Baja California peninsula.

He eventually died, embittered, in 1547, having left behind a legacy of European empire-building in the Americas, and wiped a powerful civilisation off the face of the earth.

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