Little-Known History

The Young Cortés: Life Before the Aztecs

November 8, 1519 was a very important day in human history.  It was on this day that Aztec Emperor Montezuma the Second welcomed Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés and his entourage as honored guests into the capital city of Tenochtitlán.  The Aztecs knew of Spanish activity on the gulf coast for months and had dispatched emissaries to welcome Cortés.  As the Spaniard marched closer to the Aztec capital, emissaries became more frequent and they bore more elaborate gifts.  The luxurious presents not only piqued the curiosity of Cortés but stirred a lust inside him.  The treasures of this fabulous kingdom would be vast, he believed, and perhaps in the end he would be richer than the king of Spain or any other Christian monarch.  When the Spaniards arrived in the Aztec capital, they were amazed at what they saw.  In letters back to his king, Cortés wrote:

“The Indians live almost as we do in Spain, and with quite as much orderliness.  It is wonderful to see how much sense they bring to the doing of everything.  Montezuma has a palace in the city of such a kind, and so marvelous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence.  I will say no more than there is nothing like it in Spain.”

Some of the men in Cortés’ party had been to the largest cities in Europe and the Middle East, such as Constantinople and Rome, and noted that nothing they had experienced in those cities compared to Tenochtitlan.  The cleanliness, order, and monumental art and architecture of the ancient Mexican metropolis were unmatched in the Old World.  The Spaniards had ample time in the Aztec capital and chronicled their experiences in their diaries and letters.  Emperor Montezuma allowed the newcomers to move about the capital city with ease and without restriction.  While Montezuma saw Cortés as part of a diplomatic entourage representing a king thousands of miles away, Cortés saw himself as something entirely different.  The Aztec Empire would be his, one way or another.  From the beginning, Cortés had a plan to hold Montezuma hostage in his own palace and indirectly rule the Aztec Empire through him, at least for a while.  Within a year of their fateful arrival, the Spanish under Cortés would destroy everything, and a mighty civilization would be snuffed out in a historical instant.  What brought the 34-year-old conquistador to this point?  Few know the story of Cortés before the Aztecs.

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano was born in 1485 in Extremadura, an eastern part of the modern nation of Spain which at the time of his birth was part of the Kingdom of León.  Extremadura was perhaps the most impoverished area of the Iberian Peninsula at the time of the birth of Cortés.  Scholars have long noted that many of the conquistadors who went to the Americas, Africa and Asia came from this region, including Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of the Inca Empire who was Cortés’ second cousin.  The poverty of the region most likely drove ambitious men to look outward, and in the case of the young Cortés, he may have also been motivated to make a better life for himself by stories of former family glory.  His great grandfather was Rodrigo de Monroy y Almaraz, the 5th Lord of Monroy, a notable feudal lord who fought valiantly for the kings of León and earned a rightful place in Spanish history.  Cortés’ father was a mere infantry captain and of much lesser means than his noble forebears.  The young Cortés must have disliked living in the shadow of the former glory of his ancestors.

In his early years, Cortés was described as a sickly child, and to quote one of his biographers, “he was so frail that many times he was on the point of dying.”  His wet nurse claimed that Saint Peter watched over the young Hernan Cortés and it was because of divine intervention that the young child survived to adolescence.  So, from the beginning, Cortés must have seen himself as a sort of “Golden Child” destined for something greater.  By the age of 14 his parents sent the young Cortés to Salamanca to live with his uncle and to further his education.  Here scholars split as to the nature of his schooling.  Some believe that Cortés was a student at the University of Salamanca where he studied the Latin language and law.  Others say that because of lack of money he never enrolled in the university but instead studied under his uncle who served as a private tutor to the teenage boy.  In any case, the restless future conquistador returned home at the age of 16 with ample training to become a notary.  At this time a biographer described him as, “haughty, mischievous and given to quarrelsomeness,” which seems appropriate given that this high-spirited adolescent was coming into his own and realizing the latent power he had inside himself.  A small town was no place for the young Cortés, especially since during this time Spain was expanding, into Italy and into the newly discovered lands across the seas.  He was subjected to stories of wealth and conquest in foreign lands that made him even more restless.  As luck would have it, a distant relative of the Cortés family, Nicolás de Ovando, had just been appointed governor of the newly discovered island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.  Ovando asked the young Cortés if he wanted to be part of the crew of the 32 ships he was outfitting in Cadiz to set sail for the New World.  Cortés jumped at the opportunity.  A few days before Ovando’s fleet left Spain, however, Cortés suffered a cruel twist of fate that was his temporary undoing.  He was having an affair with an older married woman in the town and one night while he was escaping from the house of this woman, a wall fell on him and injured him.  His mother’s intervention prevented the brother of the woman from killing the young Cortés.  So, because of this freak accident tied to his indiscretions, Cortés lost the chance to go to the Indies, and after his brief recovery he traveled to Italy.  A year after his wanderings he returned once again to his parents in Extremadura. Since he had spent much of his time in ports and heard more stories about the new discoveries across the seas, Cortés set his sights on the New World once again.

At the age of 18 in the year 1504, Cortés sailed in a convoy of 5 merchant ships bound for Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola.  When he arrived there, he met up with and lodged with a man known to history only as Medina, a friend who was one of Governor Ovando’s secretaries.  Medina encouraged Cortés to register as a citizen which would entitle him to a caballeria, which was a plot of land for cultivation measuring 200 by 500 feet, along with a building.  While this was a start, this small piece of the New World was not what the young Cortés had hoped for when he dreamed of an energetic new life overseas.  For the next 5 years Cortés established himself in the colony and cultivated a good reputation.  He became the official notary in the town of Azúa.  In 1506, as a reward for being part of the expedition to conquer the remaining parts of Hispaniola, the governor granted Cortés an encomienda, a large plot of land and the Indian labor on the land.  The young Spaniard had returned his family to the status of feudal lords once again, but this was still not enough for him.

In 1509, Don Diego Columbus, the son of Christopher Columbus, arrived in the West Indies, as the new governor, after having established his hereditary title as heir of the man who discovered the New World.  Governor Columbus soon organized a 300-man expedition under the command of Diego Velázquez to conquer Cuba which had recently been proved to be an island.  Cortés was part of the expedition as a civil servant.  He was clerk to the treasurer and was responsible for keeping account of the quinto, or the king’s fifth, the 20% of everything that was sent back to Spain to fill the royal coffers.   The annexation and pacification of Cuba did not take long.  As a reward for his service, Velázquez, who was now governor of the island, granted Cortés more land and more Indian labor.  In a few short years Cortés had built a small empire on Cuba and Hispaniola.  His holdings included mines, hundreds of acres of highly productive farmland and large numbers of livestock, including cattle, horses and sheep.  He also had the labor attached to the land which produced a hearty income for him.  Perhaps his brash personality combined with his ever-increasing wealth drew animosity and jealousy from fellow colonists.  Many on the two islands had grievances against Cortés, both real and imaginary.  As a result of many accusations, Velázquez arrested Cortés and threw him into prison.  He managed to escape the prison, was captured and then imprisoned on a ship.  Again, Cortés managed to free himself, this time by exchanging clothes with a servant boy, and letting himself down over the side of the ship and into the ship’s boat.  Cortés used his influence in the colonies to eventually get Velázquez to grant him clemency.  The little infighting and petty political intrigue he experienced probably led Cortés to realize that the only way to be truly independent and to amass enormous wealth was to break free of the Caribbean colonies and conquer the new lands beyond.  He bided his time and waited for the right opportunities.  While waiting and planning, Cortés served as the twice-elected mayor of Santiago de Cuba, and slowly increased his land holdings and broadened his various commercial enterprises.

By 1517, Governor Velázquez began looking to the west.  On February 8, 1517 he sent an expedition of 110 men on 3 ships bound for the Yucatán, commanded by a man named Hernández de Córdoba.  Within 3 days they landed off the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula near Cape Cartoche.  Seeing pyramids from the shore, they named the region New Cairo.  The expedition looted what it could and returned to Cuba.  Velázquez saw the potential in the new western lands, so he outfitted another expedition to sail the next year under the command of Juan de Grijalva.  Grijalva discovered Cozumel Island and then skirted the coast north, all the way to modern-day Tampico.  After 6 months, Grijalva had sent back to Cuba 20,000 pesos’ worth of gold and had not lost a single vessel.  Governor Velázquez wanted to outfit a new expedition to support Grijalva.  In the previous year, Cortés has married Catalina Juárez who was Diego Velázquez’ sister-in-law.  The future conqueror of Mexico had become quite close to Governor Velázquez and had established a fine reputation for himself during the 14 years of biding his time, so he was the obvious choice to head the new expedition to the Mexican mainland.  History also shows that Cortés entered into a secret profit-sharing agreement with two important people in Cuba, Velázquez’ secretary, a man named Andrés de Duero and the king’s accountant in Santiago de Cuba, Amador de Lares.  The two put in a good word for Cortés and the deal was sealed.  On October 23, 1518 Cortés signed an agreement with Governor Velázquez granting him authority over the new expedition to Mexico.  Cortés knew Velázquez’ temperament and outfitted the expedition quickly before the governor could change his mind.  While Cortés was picking up more men and supplies in the Cuban port of Trinidad, Velázquez issued the order to revoke the charter he signed with Cortés and called off the expedition.  Cortés left Cuba anyway, bound for Mexico with over 700 men on 11 ships, technically illegally and not with royal consent.  He landed on the shores of the Yucatán in February of 1519 and claimed the land for the Spanish king.  He would skirt the coast and head north as did Grijalva, but unlike the two previous expeditions, Cortés had his own plans to march inland.  The rest, as they say, is history.


Innes, Hammond.  The Conquistadors.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

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