CORTES, HERNAN or HERNANDO (1485–1547), Spanish soldier, the conqueror of Mexico, was born at Medellin, a small town of Estremadura, in 1485. He belonged to a noble family of decayed fortune, and, being destined for the law, was sent, at fourteen years of age, to the university of Salamanca; but study was distasteful to him, and he returned home in 1501, resolved to enter upon a life of adventure. He arranged to accompany Ovando, who had been appointed to the command of San Domingo, but was prevented from joining the expedition by an accident that happened to him in a love adventure. He next sought military service under the celebrated Gonsalvo de Córdoba, but a serious illness frustrated his purpose. At last, in 1504, he set out, according to his first plan, for San Domingo, where he was kindly received by Ovando. He was then only nineteen, and remarkable for a graceful physiognomy and amiable manners, as well as for skill and address in all military exercises. He remained in San Domingo, where Ovando had successively conferred upon him several lucrative and honourable employments, until 1511, when he accompanied Diego Velazquez in his expedition to the island of Cuba. Here he became alcalde of Santiago, and displayed great ability on several trying occasions.
An opportunity was soon afforded him of showing his powers as a military leader. Juan Grijalva, lieutenant of Velazquez, had just discovered Mexico, but had not attempted to effect a settlement. This displeased the governor of Cuba, who superseded Grijalva, and entrusted the conquest of the newly discovered country to Cortes. The latter hastened his preparations, and, on the 18th of November 1518, he set out from Santiago, with 10 vessels, 600 or 700 Spaniards, 18 horsemen and some pieces of cannon. Scarcely had he set sail, however, when Velazquez recalled the commission which he had granted to Cortes, and even ordered him to be put under arrest; but the attachment of the troops, by whom he was greatly beloved, enabled him to persevere in spite of the governor; and on the 4th of March 1519 he landed on the coast of Mexico. Advancing along the gulf, sometimes taking measures to conciliate the natives, and sometimes spreading terror by his arms, he took possession of the town of Tobasco. The noise of the artillery, the appearance of the floating fortresses which had transported the Spaniards over the ocean, and the horses on which they fought, all new objects to the natives, inspired them with astonishment mingled with terror and admiration; they regarded the Spaniards as gods, and sent them ambassadors with presents. Cortes here learned that the native sovereign was called Montezuma; that he reigned over an extensive empire, which had lasted for three centuries; that thirty vassals, called caciques, obeyed him; and that his riches were immense and his power absolute. No more was necessary to inflame the ambition of the invader, who did not hesitate to undertake the conquest of this great empire, which could only be effected by combining stratagem and address with force and courage. He laid the foundation of the town of Vera Cruz, caused himself to be elected captain-general of the new colony, and burned his vessels to cut off the possibility of retreat and show his soldiers that they must either conquer or perish. He then penetrated into the interior of the country, drew to his camp several caciques hostile to Montezuma, and induced these native princes to facilitate his progress. The republic of Tlaxcala, which was hostile to Montezuma, opposed him; but he routed its army, which had resisted all the forces of the Mexican empire, dictated peace on moderate terms and converted the people into powerful auxiliaries. His farther advance was in vain attempted to be checked by an ambuscade laid by the inhabitants of Cholula, on whom he took signal vengeance.
Surmounting all other obstacles he arrived, with 6000 natives and a handful of Spaniards, in sight of the immense lake on which was built the city of Mexico, the capital of the empire. Montezuma received him with great pomp, and his subjects, believing Cortes to be a descendant of the sun, prostrated themselves before him. The first care of Cortes was to fortify himself in one of the beautiful palaces of the prince, and he was planning how to possess himself of the riches of so opulent an empire, when intelligence reached him that a general of the emperor, who had received secret orders, had just attacked the garrison of Vera Cruz and killed several of his soldiers. The head of one of the Spaniards was sent to the capital. This event undeceived the Mexicans, who had hitherto believed the Spaniards to be immortal, and necessarily altered the whole policy of Cortes. Struck with the greatness of the danger, surrounded by enemies, and having only a handful of soldiers, he conceived and instantly executed a most daring project. Having repaired with his officers to the palace of the emperor, he announced to Montezuma that he must either accompany him or perish. Being thus master of the person of the monarch, he next demanded that the Mexican general and his officers who had attacked the Spaniards should be delivered into his hands; and when this had been done he caused these unfortunate men, who had only obeyed the orders of their sovereign, to be burned alive before the gates of the imperial palace. During this cruel execution Cortes entered the apartment of Montezuma, and caused him to be loaded with irons, in order to force him to acknowledge himself a vassal of Charles V. The unhappy prince yielded, and was restored to a semblance of liberty on presenting the fierce conqueror with 600,000 marks of pure gold, and a prodigious quantity of precious stones. Scarcely had he reaped the fruits of his audacity, however, when he was informed of the landing of a Spanish army, under Narvaez, which had been sent by Velazquez to compel him to renounce his command. In this emergency Cortes acted with his usual decision and courage. Leaving 200 men at Mexico, under the orders of his lieutenant (Alvarado), he marched against Narvaez, whom he defeated and made prisoner, and he then enlisted under his standard the Spanish soldiers who had been sent to attack him. On his return to the capital, however, he found that the Mexicans had revolted against the emperor and the Spaniards, and that dangers thickened around him. Montezuma perished in attempting to address his revolted subjects; the latter, having chosen a new emperor, attacked the headquarters of Cortes with the utmost fury, and, in spite of the advantage of firearms, forced the Spaniards to retire, as the only means of escaping destruction. Their rear-guard, however, was cut in pieces, and they suffered severely during the retreat, which was continued during six days. Elated with their success, the Mexicans offered battle in the plain of Otumba. This was what Cortes desired, and it proved their destruction. Cortes gave the signal for battle, and, on the 7th of July 1520, gained a victory which decided the fate of Mexico. Immediately afterwards he proceeded to Tlaxcala, assembled an auxiliary army of natives, subjected the neighbouring provinces, and then marched a second time against Mexico, which, after a gallant defence of several months, was retaken on the 13th of August 1521.
These successes were entirely owing to the genius, valour and profound but unscrupulous policy of Cortes; and the account of them which he transmitted to Spain excited the admiration of his countrymen. The extent of his conquests, and the ability he had displayed, effaced the censure which he had incurred by the irregularity of his operations; and public opinion having declared in his favour, Charles V., disregarding the pretensions of Velazquez, appointed him governor and captain-general of Mexico, at the same time conferring on him the valley of Oaxaca, which was erected (1529) into a marquisate, with a considerable revenue. But although his power was thus confirmed by royal authority, and although he exertedto consolidate Spanish domination throughout all Mexico, the means he employed were such that the natives, reduced to despair, took arms against the Spaniards. This revolt, however, was speedily subdued, and the Mexicans were everywhere forced to yield to the ascendancy of European discipline and valour. Guatemotzin, who had been recognized as emperor, and a great number of caciques, accused of having conspired against the conquerors, were publicly executed, with circumstances of great cruelty, by order of Cortes. Meanwhile the court of Madrid, dreading the ambition and popularity of the victorious chief, sent commissioners to watch his conduct and thwart his proceedings; and whilst he was completing the conquest of New Spain his goods were seized by the fiscal of the Council of the Indies, and his retainers imprisoned and put into irons. Indignant at the ingratitude of his sovereign, Cortes returned in person to Spain to appeal to the justice of the emperor, and appeared there with great splendour. The emperor received him with every mark of distinction, and decorated him with the order of St Iago. Cortes returned to Mexico with new titles but diminished authority, a viceroy having been entrusted with the administration of civil affairs, whilst the military department, with permission to push his conquests, was all that remained to Cortes. This division of powers became a source of continual dissension, and caused the failure of the last enterprises in which he engaged. Nevertheless, in 1536, he discovered the peninsula of Lower California, and surveyed a part of the gulf which separates it from Mexico.
At length, tired of struggling with adversaries unworthy of him, whom the court took care to multiply, he returned to Europe, hoping to confound his enemies. But Charles V. received him coldly. Cortes dissembled, redoubled the assiduity of his attendance on the emperor, accompanied him in the disastrous expedition to Algiers in 1541, served as a volunteer, and had a horse killed under him. This was his last appearance in the field, and if his advice had been followed the Spanish arms would have been saved from disgrace, and Europe delivered nearly three centuries earlier from the scourge of organized piracy. Soon afterwards he fell into neglect, and could scarcely obtain an audience. The story goes that, having forced his way through the crowd which surrounded the emperor’s carriage, and mounted on the door-step, Charles, astonished at an act of such audacity, demanded to know who he was. “I am a man,” replied the conqueror of Mexico proudly, “who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities.” So haughty a declaration of important services ill-requited could scarcely fail to offend a monarch on whom fortune had lavished her choicest favours. Cortes, overwhelmed with disgust, withdrew from court, passed the remainder of his days in solitude, and died, near Seville, on the 2nd of December 1547.
The only writings of Cortes are five letters on the subject of his conquests, which he addressed to Charles V. The best edition of them is that of Don Francisco Antonio Lorenzana, archbishop of Mexico, entitled Historia de Nueva-España escrita par su esclarecido conquistador, Hernan Cortes, aumentada con otros documientos y notas (Mexico, 1770, 4to), a work the noble simplicity of which attests the truth of the recital it contains. An English translation of the letters, edited by Francis A. MacNutt, was published in 1908. The conquests of Cortes have been described with pompous elegance by Antonio de Solis in his Historia de la conquista de Mejico (1684), and with more truth and simplicity by Bernardo Diaz del Castillo in his work under the same title (1632). See also Sir Arthur Helps’s Life of Hernando Cortes (2 vols., London, 1871), F. A. MacNutt’s Fernando Cortes (“Heroes of the Nations” Series, 1909), and the bibliography to Mexico.