Hernan Cortes | 10 Facts About The Spanish Conquistador


Hernan Cortes is famous for leading the expedition to modern-day Mexico which led to the fall of the Aztec Empire and was instrumental in the Spanish colonization of Americas. He is criticized for cruelly treating the natives and destroying Aztec temples and buildings. Here are 10 interesting facts about this Spanish Conquistador.


#1 He was usually not referred to by the name Hernan during his lifetime

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes in his youth

Born in 1485 in Medellin, Spain, Hernán Cortésde Monroy y Pizarro was the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and his wife Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Though he is famous by the name Hernán Cortés today, during his lifetime he was most commonly referred to as Hernando or Fernando Cortés.

#2 Hernan Cortes was a distant cousin of Francisco Pizarro

From his mother’s side Hernan Cortes was a distant cousin of Francisco Pizarro. While Cortes was responsible for the fall of the Aztec Empire of modern-day Mexico, Francisco Pizarro later conquered the Inca Empire of modern-day Peru. Hence together they were responsible for terminating two of the greatest Ancient American civilizations which has led to historians often comparing Pizarro’s and Cortes’s conquests of Peru and Mexico.

#3 His knowledge of law proved useful in justifying his unauthorized conquest

Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro

Hernan Cortes initially pursued a career in law and even studied for two years at the University of Salamanca. Tired of schooling, he left his legal career to make a fortune in the Americas. However his study of law and the experience he later gained by serving as a notary in Seville and Hispaniola served him well when he had to justify his unauthorized conquest of Mexico.

#4 He missed his first chance to travel to the New World due to adultery

Cortes was in an adulterous relationship with a married woman and injured himself while trying to hurriedly escape from her bedroom. Due to this injury he lost his first chance to sail to the Americas. He got another chance a few years later in a ship commanded by Alonso Quintero. He arrived in Hispaniola, an island located in the Caribbean, in 1504. There he registered as a citizen and soon became a notary.


#5 He assisted Diego Velazquez in the Spanish conquest of Cuba

Diego Velasquez de Cuellar
Portrait of Diego Velasquez de Cuellar

In 1511, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar led the expedition to conquer Cuba and Hernan Cortes assisted him in the conquest of the island. Velazquez governed Cuba on behalf of Spain and he was so impressed with Cortes that Cortes held important political positions including Secretary of Governor Velazquez and Mayor of Santiago.

#6 His expedition to Mexico was unauthorized

Mexico, which had been recently discovered by Europeans, soon gathered the reputation as a place of great wealth. In 1518, Cortes convinced Velazquez to make him commander of an expedition to Mexico. Velazquez, however, began to doubt the motives of Cortes and cancelled his commission. Cortes ignored the orders and set out on the expedition anyway in an act of mutiny. In February 1519, he landed on the Mexican coast accompanied with about 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses, and a small number of cannons.

Cortes's Invasion Route
A map depicting Cortes’s invasion route


#7 Cortes used divide and rule strategy to conquer Mexico

Cortes used the strategy to pit native people against each other to conquer the region. After defeating the Tlaxacan and Cholula warriors by allying with other natives, he headed for the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. The Aztec Empire was ruled by Montezuma II who welcomed Cortes instead of fighting him. But their relationship quickly deteriorated and Cortes took Montezuma hostage in his own palace thus ruling Tenochtitlán indirectly.

Cortes meets Montezuma II
A painting depicting Cortes’s meeting with Montezuma II


#8 Hernan Cortes captured the Aztec capital in 1521

In April 1520, Velázquez sent an expedition to capture Cortes. Cortes left the Aztec capital to face this expedition and despite his numerical inferiority he defeated them and convinced the remainder to join him. During this time an Aztec revolt began in Tenochtitlán. Cortes returned and told Montezuma to placate the crowd but Montezuma died when he was hit by a stone. The Spanish were driven out of the city but Cortes re-organized his forces and in 1521 captured Tenochtitlán after a three months siege.

Cortes and his troops storming the Aztecs
The storming of the Aztec Teocalli by Cortes and his troops


#9 In 1523 Cortes officially became the Governor of New Spain

Cortes inflicted great cruelty on the indigenous people after his conquest. He also destroyed Aztec temples and buildings. Mexico City was built on the Aztec ruins and it became the center of Spanish America. In 1523 Cortes was named Governor and Captain General of the conquered territory, dubbed “New Spain”.

Hernan Cortes in the Spanish conquest of Mexico
Hernan Cortes in the Spanish conquest of Mexico


#10 His powers were diminished later

It was feared Cortes was becoming too powerful and in 1528 he was forced to come to Spain. On his return to Mexico his powers were diminished and his activities were monitored. In 1541, Cortes returned to Spain for good. He spent his last years seeking recognition for his achievements. Cortes died on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at the age of 62.

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