500 years ago: Hernan Cortes began the conquest of Mexico with just a few hundred men


The Spanish ships anchored in the bay off the shore of Mexico and a severe-looking, bearded man clad in armour came ashore. Planting a Spanish flag he claimed the land for Spain.

According to some traditions the date was March 13, 1519, 500 years ago today. It was the start of a long period of woes for the native Mexicans. With a relatively small force, the man in armour, Hernan Cortes, would bring down the once mighty Aztec empire.

Spain would dominate Mexico for 300 years until the Mexicans finally asserted their independence in the 19th century. But the name Cortes would forever be associated with Spanish oppression.

Cortes was born in Medellin, a town in what is today Extremadura in western Spain, in 1485, the son of an infantry captain Martin Cortes de Monroy and Dona Catalina Pizarro Altamarino. Both his parents were of noble lineage, but lacked wealth.

Although he was an intelligent child, he was also haughty, cunning, mischievous and got into fights, causing his parents some worry after they sent him to study in Salamanca. As a young man he also added womanising to his vices and his distractions from study. He abandoned academia looking for adventure.

An anonymous 16th-century portrait of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes.

At that time, the biggest adventure was the exploration of the New World. Cortes sailed aboard a ship for Hispaniola in the Caribbean in 1504, as a colonist. Granted a plot of land for farming he soon came under the mentorship of Nicolas de Ovando, who had been appointed governor of Hispaniola and rose from humble farmer to notary.

Cortes contracted syphilis, possibly from one of the slaves assigned to his farm and spent some time recovering from the illness, which saved him from being killed in disastrous military campaigns launched against mainland South America.

But in 1511 he was well enough to take part in the conquest of Cuba, with troops under the command of Diego Velazquez. He became secretary to Velazquez and was a man of some importance in Cuba, being twice elected mayor of Santiago.

In 1519 Velazquez appointed Cortes the head of an expedition to Mexico, but later rescinded the order because the two men quarrelled. Cortes ignored Velazquez and went anyway, taking between 400-600 men and landing at Tabasco where he spent time gathering information about the indigenous Mexicans.

Knowing he would likely be vastly outnumbered by Aztec troops, Cortes made contact with other local chiefs who had grievances with the Aztecs or with their emperor Montezuma. Convincing the chiefs to fight with him against the Aztecs, he was also given gifts by these local leaders. Among the gifts were 20 native women. Cortes selected one, known as Malinche, as his mistress. She also acted as interpreter and adviser, and would later bear Cortes a son.

Mexican emporor Montezuma.

He founded his own town of Veracruz, and either grounded or burnt his ships as a way of saying there would be no retreat.

Cortes successfully used his combination of superior firepower and alliances with locals to overcome the Aztec armies. By November he had made his way to the outskirts of Tenochtitlan, Mexico’s capital, with a band of his men supplemented by about 1000 from the Tlaxcaltec people. Montezuma offered Cortes all kinds of financial inducements to go away, but Cortes marched on the city.

According to Aztec custom he was warmly welcomed by the Aztec leader. Montezuma hoped that there would be an opportunity for him to overpower Cortes and his armies, but instead the Aztec leader was taken hostage by Cortes. But Cortes was soon confronted by a problem of his own.

In 1520 Velazquez dispatched a force under Panfilo Narvaez to arrest Cortes for treason. Cortes had to abandon Tenochtitlan and take his troops to fight Narvaez.

Despite being outnumbered, Cortes prevailed and convinced the defeated troops to join him. He returned to Tenochtitlan finding Montezuma had died after being pelted with stones by his people who had then rebelled against the Spanish.

Montezuma was succeeded by Cuitlauac who carried on the fight until he died from smallpox. He was followed by Cuauhtemoc who finally surrendered to Cortes in 1521 and was executed in 1525.

In 1523 Cortes was officially named governor, but he was recalled to Spain in 1528 when it was feared he had become too powerful. He later returned to Mexico with limited powers but after spending time exploring South America he returned to Spain in 1541 and died in 1547.

Source: daily telegraph

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