Hernan Cortes and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

Early Spanish Expeditions to Mexico

Governor Velasquez of Cuba sponsored three voyages from Cuba to Mexico to search for the rich empire the Spanish believed was there.

The first voyage was led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. Cordoba left Cuba in 1517 with a party of 110 men. Among his men was Bernal Diaz. Diaz later wrote a complete account of the Conquest of Mexico.

Cordoba’s party landed on the Yucatan Peninsula. Incidentally, the name Yucatan comes from the native expression “I do not understand you.” This is what the natives said when the Spanish asked the name of that place, and as a result, it became known as Yucatan.

A battle ensued between the Spaniards and Maya warriors on the Yucatan, and Cordoba died as a result of wounds inflicted in the fight.

The second of Velasquez’s expeditions to Mexico departed Cuba in 1518 with a party of 240 men under the command of Juan de Grijalva, Velasquez’s nephew. Among the men were some Maya warriors captured during the first expedition. These Mayans served as translators for the expedition.

The group fought their way inland and eventually made it to the edge of the Aztec Empire, near modern day Veracruz. There they met with some Aztecs with whom they traded and had a feast. During this expedition, the Spanish began to see evidence of human sacrifice at some of the Aztec temples they say.

The next attempt to conquer Mexico was led by Hernan Cortes.

Hernan Cortes
Cortes was a hidalgo, a non-royal blooded Spanish noble. In 1502, at the age of 17, Cortes decided to seek his fortune in the New World. In 1504, he arrived in Hispaniola. There he tried mining and became a notary. In 1511, Cortes went with Velasquez and helped in the conquest of Cuba. Cortes performed well under Velasquez and was awarded land and laborers.

In Cuba, Cortes panned for gold, started a sugar plantation, and had herds of livestock. Eventually, Cortes became somewhat wealthy and became mayor of Santiago, one of the biggest Spanish towns in Cuba. He also married Governor Velasquez’s sister-in law.

In 1518, Velasques sent Cortes orders to take an expedition to Mexico. Just before the voyage was to begin in 1519, however, some of Cortes’s rivals convinced Velasquez to remove Cortes as commander of the expedition. Velasquez sent the orders to Cortes, but in February of 1519, Cortes sailed for Mexico anyway.

Cortes in Mexico

Cortes’s party had a force of 508 men, 100 sailors, 2 priests, 10 cannons, 2 greyhounds, and 16 horses. The soldiers were armed with crossbows, muskets, and swords. Many of the men under Cortes’s men were veterans of the conquest of the Caribbean.

The party made landfall at the island of Cozumel. There, Cortes ransomed Spanish prisoners taken in skirmishes during the first expedition to Yucatan. Cortes and his men fought a battle against several thousand warriors. At this time, Cortes noted that the natives were terrified of horses and that a conquistador on horseback could take on many natives fighting on foot. At the end of the battle, Cortes officially claimed the land for the Spanish king.

The chiefs of those that opposed Cortes in this first battle came to make peace with the Spaniards. The chiefs brought gifts, including slaves and women. One of these women was a young woman named Malinche. She spoke Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Throughout Cortes’s campaign in Mexico, she translated Nahuatl into Maya, and then one of the Spanish prisoners Cortes ransomed at Cozumel translated Maya into Spanish. Malinche proved to be invaluable to Cortes in the conquest of Mexico. Malinche would eventually be renamed Marina, after being baptized by a Spanish priest.

On Friday, April 22, 1519, Cortes and his party set up a temporary headquarters near the future location of Veracruz. Some Aztecs met him there with gifts. For the next few months, Cortes stayed at his headquarters talking to Aztecs. He was trying to find out as much as he could about the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs he met had been sent by Emperor Moctezuma to find out about the Spanish as well. During this period, the Spanish priests performed ceremonies, and Cortes told the Aztecs that they were representatives of King Charles V who wanted to be a friend to the Aztecs.

The Spaniards also demonstrated their cannons and put on shows with their horses. The Aztecs had artists paint pictures of these events to show Moctezuma, and these pictures were sent by runner with other information to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The Spanish also sent gifts of beads, and armchair for Moctezuma, and other assorted gifts.

The Aztecs were not stingy with gifts. They gave Cortes loads of cotton cloth, colored feathers, gold ornaments, gold nuggets, and some religious items that were often jeweled and covered with gold.

During this intermission, Cortes founded the town of Veracruz. He also talked to members of other tribes in the area that had been conquered by the Aztecs. These natives told of their mistreatment by the Aztecs and the enormous taxes that they had to pay to the emperor. Catholic priests also set out destroying native temples and building Christian churches in their place. Some members of the rival tribes were baptized.

Cortes then began making preparations to march to Tenochtitlan. He learned about a plot among some of the Spaniards to desert Cortes and sail back to Cuba. Cortes hanged two of the plotters. He then ordered all his ships burned, thereby removing any chance to return to Cuba.

(click here for a larger map)

On August 16, 1519, Cortes and his forces left Veracruz and began the march to Tenochtitlan. Along the way, he recruited about 5,000 warriors from rival tribes, destroyed temples, and Christianized many natives.

The march to Tenochtitlan was difficult. The Spaniards had to negotiate jungles and mountain passes. Finally, in November of 1519, Cortes and his party neared Tenochtitlan.

Cortes, Moctezuma, and the Conquest of the Aztecs

Cortes finally met Moctezuma on November 8, 1519, just outside of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec emperor was carried on a litter by slaves. He got down from the litter, and the two men greeted each other. Cortes placed a gold necklace with colored glass beads on it around Moctezuma’s neck. Bernal Diaz, one of Cortes’s men, said that the two men “showed great respect toward one another.” Moctezuma then had some of his men show Cortes's party to where they would stay in Tenochtitlan.

Moctezuma was somehow convinced to move in with Cortes and his men at the old imperial palace. Moctezuma then became basically a puppet for Cortes. Cortes gave orders to Moctezuma, and then Moctezuma issued them to the Aztec people. For the next five months, Cortes’s men explored the Aztec empire and strategized about how to bring it under Spanish control.

Meanwhile, Moctezuma’s nephew and brother plotted how to get rid of the Spaniards. Cortes convinced Moctezuma to have them arrested. Cortes also had his men destroy Aztec temples and replaced them with Christian churches. The Aztecs were outraged and told the Spanish to leave their lands. Cortes and the Spanish refused.

In the spring of 1520, Cortes learned tha the Aztecs were about to have their spring festival, during which many human sacrificed were to be performed. The festival was to be followed by a general attack on the Spaniards and their native allies. Cortes’s army killed many Aztecs at the festival. The Aztecs then trapped Cortes, Moctezuma, and most of the Spanish army inside the old imperial palace.

Moctezuma died in the attack that followed. Some believe a stone thrown by Aztecs killed him. Others believe the Spanish stabbed him to death.

Cortes and his men planned an escape from Tenochtitlan, knowing that they were greatly outnumbered. The escape was to take place under cover of night on June 30, 1520. As the Spanish and their allies moved across one of the causeways that bridged Lake Texcoco, they were ambushed by Aztec warriors. During the attack, thousands of Aztecs were killed, and half the Spaniards were killed or captured. The captured Spanish troops were later sacrificed to the Aztec gods.

Almost all of the treasure that the Spanish had taken from the Aztecs was lost in the waters of Lake Texcoco. One observer of the battle said that as the fighting continued, a person could have walked across Lake Texcoco on the dead bodies of natives, Spaniards, and horses. This night became known as La Noche Triste, the Night of Sadness.

For the next few months, Cortes and the Spanish that managed to escape regrouped and began to capture Aztec towns all around Tenochtitlan. By May, 1521, Tenochtitlan was the last Aztec stronghold. The Spanish constructed ships and launched them on Lake Texcoco and then began to bombard the Aztec capital with cannon fire.

The siege of Tenochtitlan lasted about eighty days. During the siege, smallpox raged through Tenochtitlan, killing thousands of Aztecs. Many others starved inside the besieged city. When Tenochtitlan finally fell, it was almost completely destroyed. Later, in a letter to the Spanish monarch, Cortes said he regretted having “destroyed the most beautiful city in the world.”

After the defeat of the Aztecs, Cortes established Nueva Espana or New Spain. He was pardoned by the king for disobeying the orders of Governor Velasquez, was awarded 1/12 of all the Spanish had captured in the conquest of Mexico. Cortes was also named governor of New Spain.

Cortes later returned to Spain, having fulfilled his childhood dreams of fortune and glory. He died a wealthy man in 1547 in retirement near Seville, Spain.

Perhaps one of the most lasting effects of the Spanish conquest of Mexico was the creation of a new culture that was, and continues to be, a mixture of native tradition and the Spanish culture brought from Europe.