Niños Héroes #6: Hernán Cortés

Cortés was intelligent, courageous, ambitious, insubordinate, greedy, and ruthless — the quintessential conquistador. He established the Spanish empire (New Spain) in Mexico.

In 1511, Cortéz joined the conquest of Cuba, and impressed the island’s first Governor, Diego Velázquez, who chose him for his secretary, appointed him mayor of Santiago (Cuba’s capital), and made him wealthy with vast encomiendas. But Cortés wanted more. Much more.

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When, in 1818, Velázquez asked Cortés to lead an expedition to explore the mainland, Corteś saw his chance. Even though Velázquez quickly revoked the command (suspecting too late that his protégé was ungovernable), Cortés set off anyway. When Veláquez sent another force to arrest him, Cortés defeated it, and incorporated the survivors into his own troops. To dispel any doubts about his goal (he intended not just to explore, but to conquer) and to ensure his soldiers’ loyalty, Cortés burned his ships.

Cortés thus chose to answer only to the King of Spain. He figured that, if he succeeded, the King would forgive, honor, and reward him. If he failed…. It was an outrageous gamble.

With his troops’ armor, horses, and swords, Cortés easily defeated the Native tribes that opposed him; and, with the help of Malinche, he made allies of the rest as he marched towards the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán.

Emperor Moctezuma II welcomed him into the city — either because he believed Cortés to be the reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl, or because he hoped to trick him — but Cortés struck first, capturing and holding him hostage, thus becoming the de facto ruler.

However, after one of Cortés lieutenants massacred a large group of Aztec nobles, a riot ensued. Cortés sent Moctezuma out to calm the enraged crowds, but they merely pelted Moctezuma with rocks, and he soon died — either from his wounds or from Cortés’ frustration.

The Spaniards fled the city, and Cortés barely escaped with his life. (Many of his troops weren’t so lucky, some drowning, weighed-down with stolen treasure.) He regrouped his allies, laid siege to Tenochtitlán (allowing the disease the Spaniards had brought to wreak its havoc), and eventually vanquished the remaining defenders in 1521. Cortés now ruled the capital, and soon most of what would become Mexico.

As he had hoped, Cortés received only praise, titles, power and wealth from the King, at least at first; but with his many jealous enemies (especially Velázquez) and his own arrogant behavior, he soon lost his position as Governor of Mexico. (The first two successors both perished mysteriously, as did his first wife who’d failed to give him a son.)

Cortés, himself, died a famous but debt-ridden, bitter man. So, perhaps he did receive his just reward.

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