With a force of fewer than six hundred men supported by twenty horses and ten small cannons, Hernando Cortes invaded and conquered an Aztec empire populated by more than 5 million people. Never before had such a small force conquered such a large region with such massive wealth.
Following his birth in 1485 into a Medellin family of minor nobility in southwestern Spain, Cortes briefly studied law before sailing from his homeland to the New World at the age of nineteen to seek his fortune. After several years as a gentleman farmer on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, in 1511, Cortes joined the military expedition of Diego de Velazquez that captured Cuba. After the victory, Cortes became the mayor of Santiago and married the sister-in-law of Velazquez.
In 1518, Velazquez gave Cortes permission to form a small force and conduct an exploration of Mexico, which Spaniards had first visited the previous year. Velazquez began to regret his instructions as he grew apprehensive of Cortes’s ambitions and attempted to rescind his orders. His actions, however, were too late to stop Cortes from sailing westward in February 1519 with a fleet of eleven ships. Cortes explored the Yucatan coastline before landing at Tabasco, where he had minimum trouble subjugating the natives. Although the local population possessed little of value, they told Cortes of the great wealth of the Aztec Empire, father into the interior. Cortes moved his force a short distance northward and established what became the port of Vera Cruz as he made plans to advance against the Aztecs. From the Tabasco natives he took a mistress and enlisted their help to supplement his army. To prevent his own small force of less than six hundred men from deserting because many feared venturing inland, Cortes burned his ships, leaving no means of escape.
Along his route to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, Cortes fought and defeated several other native tribes, including the Tlaxcalans. In each case, Cortes formed alliances with his former foes, enlisting their support against their longtime Aztec enemies. As Cortes neared Tenochtitlan, he also exploited the Aztec myth of a light skinned, bearded god-king named Quetzalcoatl, who, according to legend, had taught them about agriculture and government and whose return they were to welcome with great ceremony.
Montezuma, the Aztec leader, made an attempt to stop Cortes, but his defenses lacked unity and tenacity both because of the Quetzalcoatl legend, which dictated that his people welcome the return of the “white god,” and the fear generated by Spanish horses and firearms, which the Aztecs had never seen before. As a result of their quandary, the Aztecs offered little resistance, and Cortes quickly defeated their army. On November 18, 1519, Cortes entered the Aztec capital and imprisoned Montezuma.
Cortes had begun to gather the treasures of his conquest when word reached him that a Spanish army under Panfilo de Narvaez had landed at Vera Cruz with orders from Velazquez to arrest him because of his insubordination in exceeding his orders. The Aztec conqueror divided his small force, leaving two hundred soldiers under command of Pedro de Alvarado to secure Tenochtitlan, while he journeyed back through the jungle to confront Narvaez. Cortes aggressively attacked at night, captured Narvaez, and convinced the survivors to join him.
When Cortes arrived back at Tenochtitlan, he found the Aztecs angered at their harsh treatment by Alvarado. Before Cortes could make amends, the Aztecs revolted on June 20, 1520. Although Montezuma was killed in the fight, the Spaniards had to withdraw from the city. On July 7, Cortes defeated a large force of pursuing Aztecs, but it was more than a year before the Spanish conqueror could forge new alliances and attempt to recapture the Aztec capital.
Cortes methodically moved against Tenochtitlan, destroying smaller Aztec forces and villages en route. On August 13, 1521, after a three-month siege, he reentered the city. He had the native structures razed or rebuilt and renamed the result Mexico City. Cortes sent the captured treasures back to Spain with the declaration that all of his actions had been in the name of the Spanish crown rather than for personal gain. Such wealth was difficult to deny, and the king, accepting his explanation, named Cortes governor and captain general of New Spain. Colonists sailed from Spain for the New World, and Cortes provided them land around Mexico City to solidify Spanish control of the region, which would last for centuries.
Cortes led another expedition into Honduras in 1524, but because various members of the Spanish court continued to fear his ambitions, the king withdrew his governorship in 1528 and ordered him home to Spain. Cortes returned to Mexico two years later without his previous powers. In 1536 he led an expedition that explored the Pacific coast of Mexico and discovered Baja California. Three years, later, he sought permission to lead a land force northward to locate the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. When the king denied his request and selected Francisco Vasquez de Coronado to lead the expedition in 1539, Cortes returned to Spain.
Cortes participated in the 1541 conflict against Algiers but never again was able to secure support for additional explorations or adventures. He retired to an estate near Seville, where he lived in luxury from wealth gathered in Mexico until his death, at age sixty-two, in 1547.
The only comparable accomplishments of any military leader to those of Cortes are those of Francisco Pizarro against the Incas in Peru. Both achieved tremendous victories with minimal forces and delivered the bulk of Central and South America from native control to the government of Spain. Some attribute Cortes’s achievements to his use of firearms and cannons, but, in fact, these weapons were so rudimentary that they were of little more value than traditional crossbows. Cortes did use the previously unknown horse to frighten his New World enemy and exploited the stories of a returning light-skinned god.
However, these factors alone do not explain his successes. Cortes conquered Mexico because of his brilliant leadership of combat forces and his tremendous ability to form alliances with those he defeated. His impact on the long-term power of Spain and the opening of the New World to European colonization is exceeded only by that of Pizarro in South America.