We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure. - Cortes
Hernán Cortés was born in Medellin in 1485, the son of a minor noble. At the age of 19 he left Spain, abandoning a promising legal career, to seek his fortune in the newly-discovered Western Hemisphere. He arrived in Hispaniola, a recent Spanish acquisition, in 1504 and spent several years as a gentleman farmer and a local Don Juan. Following the conquest of Cuba, he married the sister of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez, who appointed him mayor of Santiago.
Cortés as a young man
Expeditions to the Yucatán had returned to Cuba with small amounts of gold, and tales of a more distant land where that metal was said to be abundant. Cortés eagerly sold or mortgaged all his lands to buy ships and supplies and arranged with Velázquez to lead an expedition, officially to explore and trade with the new lands to the west.
Cortés was forbidden to colonize, but calling on his legal studies and his formidable powers of persuasion, he tricked Velázquez into inserting a clause about emergency measures, ‘in the true interests of the realm’. At the last minute Velasquez, increasingly troubled by his son-in-law’s over-weaning ambition, changed his mind.
He attempted to reverse his order but it was too late to stop the highly motivated Cortés who arrived on Good Friday, 1519, at the present Mexican city of Veracruz. He brought 11 ships, 13 primitive hand guns. 10 cannon, 16 horses, 32 crossbows and 550 men. Cortés soon met a native woman he named Dona Marina, her knowledge of the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs- and later Spanish- proved a crucial asset. She became his concubine and gave birth to a son, Martin, perhaps the first Mestizo.
Demographers estimate that the country's population at the time was approximately 20 million. Some of his troops were disheartened by the odds so, before marching inland so Cortés ordered the burning of the fleet (1). They would perish or triumph.
The Aztecs presided over a wealthy tribute-empire, their capital, Tenochtitlan an island city accessed by causeways, was ideal for defense. While human sacrifice was common throughout Mesoamerica the Aztecs brought this practice to an unprecedented level. In 1487, on the re-consecration of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, they reported that they had sacrificed 80,000 prisoners over the course of four days. Strictly organized and advanced given the time and place, the Aztec confederation seemed at first glance far from being a pushover; it was able field of an estimated half million fanatical warriors. The Spaniards faced odds of 100 to 1.
Soon after arrival, Cortés learned that the Aztecs had a great capital that lay inland and that they were hated by much of the non-Aztec population, many of whom had been captured and slain in the Aztecs’ hideous rituals. Advancing into Mexico the Spaniards met stiff resistance from other tribes but Cortés succeeded into turning them into allies.
An artist’s conception of Moctezuma
The Aztec ruler, Moctezuma , planned a surprise attack on the Spaniards but Cortés struck first, massacring thousands of them at Cholula and he entered Tenochtitlán in 1521 without opposition. He was diplomatically received by the Emperor, uncertain of the Spaniards’ motives, determined to learn the intruders’ vulnerabilities and crush them later.
Cortés and his men were lavished with gold and quartered in sumptuous apartments. But Cortés remained uneasy—the Spaniards were vastly outnumbered so he decided to imprison Moctezuma and make him a puppet. It seemed that the conquest was complete. (2)
But another Spanish force, under Panfilo de Narvaez, arrived on the coast with orders to arrest Cortés. The conquistador left a garrison in the Capital and raced the greater part of his men to the coast where he defeated Narvaez. Always the consummate salesman, he persuaded the survivors to join him dazzling them with rich prospects.
By the time Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán Pedro de Alvarado, his lieutenant left in charge, had antagonized the Aztecs beyond endurance and, suffering heavy casualties, Cortés and the remnant of his army were forced to retreat in the rain-soaked Noche Triste. (3) While Cortés and his troops were planning their hasty retreat a lieutenant failed to fully inform Spaniards located in another part of the city. The group of around 270 men were sealed in their positions, starved, and eventually sacrificed to the Aztec gods. The Spanish managed to get some of the treasure out of the city, but most of the loot- estimated at eight tons of gold and silver- was lost and never recovered.
Cortés returned with additional troops and laid siege to Tenochtitlán; the fighting was fierce with no quarter given. At one point, he and his men watched from a distance as captured Spanish soldiers were forced to perform a ghostly dance in the torch-lit Aztec palace before being tortured, dismembered and eaten. After hideous carnage Cortés ordered the building of boats, bypassing the deadly causeways. The army re-entered the island capital after three months.
After that, Spanish control of Mexico was reasonably secure. Tenochtitlán was rebuilt in the Spanish style and renamed Mexico City, becoming the capital of New Spain. Never in the annals of warfare had so few conquered so many. Cortés’ startling achievement remains, in terms of American film, the Greatest Story Never Told. (3)
Spanish soldiers had recently expelled the Muslims from Granada after centuries of bitter struggle; they were hardened and battled-tested; in the 16th century their Tercios were the most feared formation in Europe. Spanish armor and swords, made in Toledo, were among the finest in the world. Man for man, they were likely the toughest hombres of the era.
Living in perpetual state of warfare, Aztec males were forced to provide mandatory military service. They were trained from childhood in the expert use of clubs, bows, spears, and darts- but they needed a lucky shot to bring down a (partially) armored Spaniard. The elite troops, the Jaguars, wore padded cotton for protection useless when facing Toledo steel. The Aztecs fielded a variety of colorful formations; the Spanish were stunned by the sheer pageantry.
Rather than killing the Aztecs focused on the entrapment of their enemies. Once seized these were delivered up to their warrior-priests for ritual sacrifice, their beating hearts ripped out while still conscious. The Spaniard who discarded his armor in the tropical heat risked a horrific end, and many did.
Did the Spanish firearms give them an overwhelming tactical advantage? Not really. The primitive guns of the time had a limited range and took a long time to reload, they made a terrifying noise but were often less effective than good bows and arrows. The Indians had never encountered horses but these were few and vulnerable on narrow mountain passes. The Spanish cannons did prove useful notably during the siege of Tenochtitlán but the vast majority of the Aztecs were killed, mano a mano, by pike and sword.
Leadership, experience and determination, rather than weaponry, were the main factors in victory. Cortés enjoyed good luck but, as the saying goes, fortune favors the brave.
Perhaps the Spaniards’ most potent, if inadvertent, weapon was smallpox that began spreading out to the indigenous population. Spanish explorers probably carrying the virus had arrived decades earlier; the Indians possessed no immunity. By the time the Spanish began their final assault on Tenochtitlán, bodies bearing the tell-tale rash lay scattered over the city. The relative absence of Spanish plague victims reinforced the conquerors’ conviction that Heaven was watching over them.
According to Aztec lore a god had, in the distant past, instructed them in agriculture, metallurgy and agriculture; he had been tall, with white skin, and a flowing beard. To Moctezuma, it seemed Cortés was the returning god, and this belief seems to have influenced his behavior. Certainly his initial reactions to the invasion were indecisive.
THE CHARACTER OF CORTÉS
Cortés in later life
That Cortés was greedy and ambitious is beyond doubt but he proved a superb diplomat when dealing with the Indians (at first) and recalcitrant troops. He was also a product of the era. He and his soldiers believed they were fighting under the banner of the Cross, more than once, Cortés imperiled the success of the expedition by heavy-handed attempts to convert the Indians.
Cortés was a womanizer on a grand scale and his secret weapon was a teenage Indian girl he acquired before marching on Tenochtitlán. Invaluable as a translator she became one his (many) mistresses. ‘La Malinche’ alerted Cortés when treachery was afoot, saving the Spanish bacon on more than one occasion from Aztec plots.
Malinche and Cortés . A modern mural by Jose Clemente Orozco
In 1522, after finally conquering the Aztec Empire, Cortés received an unexpected visitor: his wife, Catalina, whom he had left behind in Cuba. Catalina could not have been pleased to see her husband shacking up with a dusky mistress. On November 1 Cortés hosted a party at his home and Catalina angered him by making disparaging comments about the Indians. (4) She died that very night, and Cortés put out the story that she had a bad heart but servants discovered bruises on her neck.
Detractors described Cortés as haughty, under-handed and quarrelsome but he had admirable qualities as well; he was courageous, intelligent and shrewdly observant; in contrast to his illiterate successor, Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Incas, he wasn’t wantonly cruel. Cortés inspired loyalty, he understood men, and his leadership was never questioned. At the end Pizarro’s disgruntled officers assaulted him; dying in the dirt he traced a cross and uttered ‘Jesus’ before expiring.
In his will, Cortés pondered the justice of owning Indian slaves requesting his son to consider the matter carefully, an attitude utterly alien to Pizarro or Columbus. He died an embittered but wealthy man in 1547 having spent his last seven years in Spain vainly trying to restore his authority in the New World.
1- Some historians maintain that Cortés scuttled the ships, permitting water to fill the hulls. Same result.
2- The fate of Moctezuma is unclear; he was either killed during a skirmish or stoned to death while pacifying the city’s population during the Spanish occupation.
Amazon Studios has green-lighted ‘Cortés ’, a four-hour miniseries based on the epic saga of Hernán Cortés starring Oscar winner Javier Bardem (<i>No Country for Old Men</i>) in the title role. The series, from three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg and Amblin Television, is created for television and written by Spielberg’s Oscar-winning <i>Schindler’s List</i> writer Steven Zaillian based on a 50-year old script by Dalton Trumbo
-Deadline Hollywood, April 18, 2018