Hernán Cortés & His Conquest of the Aztec Empire

Spain – Scott #754 (1948) first day cover

On March 4, 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived in México in search of the Aztec civilization and its wealth. The expedition (entrada) of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland México under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century. Cortés was part of the generation of Spanish colonizers who began the first phase of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. This conquest, also known as the Spanish-Mexica War of 1519-1521, was not solely a contest between a small contingent of Spaniards defeating the Aztec Empire but rather the creation of a coalition of Spanish invaders with tributaries to the Aztecs, and most especially the Aztecs’ indigenous enemies and rivals. They combined forces to defeat the Mexica of Tenochtitlan over a two-year period. For the Spanish, the expedition to México was part of a project of Spanish colonization of the New World after twenty-five years of permanent Spanish settlement and further exploration in the Caribbean.

Map depicting the invasion route taken by Cortés during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in central Mexico from the coast of Veracruz to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, 1519-1521.

Following an earlier expedition led by Juan de Grijalva to Yucatán in 1517, Cortés and his retinue set sail from Cuba for Mexico in early 1519. The Spanish campaign against the Aztec Empire had its final victory on August 13, 1521, when a coalition army of Spanish forces and native Tlaxcalan warriors led by Cortés and Xicotencatl the Younger captured the emperor Cuauhtemoc and Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire. The fall of Tenochtitlan marks the beginning of Spanish rule in central México, and they established their capital of México City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

Cortés made alliances with tributaries city-states (altepetl) of the Aztec Empire as well as their political rivals, particularly the Tlaxcalteca and Texcocans, a former partner in the Aztec Triple Alliance. Other city-states also joined, including Cempoala and Huexotzinco and polities bordering Lake Texcoco, the inland lake system of the Valley of México. Particularly important to the Spanish success was a multilingual (Nahuatl, a Maya dialect, and Spanish) indigenous slave woman, known to the Spanish conquistadors as Doña Marina, and generally as La Malinche. After eight months of battles and negotiations, which overcame the diplomatic resistance of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II to his visit, Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, where he took up residence with fellow Spaniards and their indigenous allies. When news reached Cortés of the death of several of his men during the Aztec attack on the Totonacs in Veracruz, he took Moctezuma captive, along with Cuitláhuac, his kinsman. Capturing the cacique or indigenous ruler was standard operating procedure for Spaniards in their expansion in the Caribbean, so capturing Moctezuma had considerable precedent.

The Conquest of Tenochtitlán, oil on canvas painting from the Conquest of México series, representing the 1521 Fall of Tenochtitlan. Currently in the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, D.C.

When Cortés left Tenochtitlan to return to the coast and deal with the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, sent to rein in Cortés’s expedition that had exceeded its specified limits, Cortés’s right-hand man Pedro de Alvarado was left in charge. Alvarado allowed a significant Aztec feast to be celebrated in Tenochtitlan and on the pattern of the earlier massacre in Cholula, closed off the square and massacred the celebrating Aztec noblemen. The official biography of Cortés by Francisco López de Gómara contains a description of the massacre. The Alvarado massacre at the Main Temple of Tenochtitlan precipitated rebellion by the population of the city. Moctezuma was killed, although the sources do not agree on who murdered him. According to one account, when Moctezuma, now seen by the population as a mere puppet of the invading Spaniards, attempted to calm the outraged populace, he was killed by a projectile. According to an indigenous account, the Spanish killed Moctezuma. Cortés had returned to Tenochtitlan and his men fled the capital city during the Noche Triste in June 1520. The Spanish, Tlaxcalans and reinforcements returned a year later on August 13, 1521, to a civilization that had been weakened by famine and smallpox. This made it easier to conquer the remaining Aztecs.

Many of those on the Cortés expedition of 1519 had never seen combat before, including Cortés. A whole generation of Spaniards later participated in expeditions in the Caribbean and Tierra Firme (Central America), learning strategy and tactics of successful enterprises. The Spanish conquest of México had antecedents with established practices. The fall of the Aztec Empire was the key event in the formation of the Spanish Empire overseas, with New Spain, which later became México.

This work is an anonymous portrait of the famous Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), based on the painting sent by Paulo Giovio himself, in which he appeared in profile and with a hat, serving as a model for many representations of his bust from the sixteenth century onwards. In the collections of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando), located on the Calle de Alcalá, Madrid. The academy was established by royal decree in 1744. This painting holds the assession number 0031.<./em>

Cortés was born in 1485 in the town of Medellín, in modern-day Extremadura, Spain. His father, Martín Cortés de Monroy, born in 1449 to Rodrigo or Ruy Fernández de Monroy and his wife María Cortés, was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but slender means. Hernán’s mother was Catalína Pizarro Altamirano. Through his mother, Hernán was second cousin once removed of Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Inca Empire of modern-day Peru, and not to be confused with another Francisco Pizarro, who joined Cortés to conquer the Aztecs. His maternal grandmother, Leonor Sánchez Pizarro Altamirano, was first cousin of Pizarro’s father Gonazalo Pizarro y Rodriguez. Through his father, Hernán was related to Nicolás de Ovando, the third Governor of Hispaniola. His paternal great-grandfather was Rodrigo de Monroy y Almaraz, 5th Lord of Monroy.

According to his biographer, chaplain, and friend Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés was pale and sickly as a child. At the age of 14, he was sent to study Latin under an uncle in Salamanca. Modern historians have misconstrued this personal tutoring as time enrolled at the University of Salamanca. After two years, Cortés returned home to Medellín, much to the irritation of his parents, who had hoped to see him equipped for a profitable legal career. However, those two years at Salamanca, plus his long period of training and experience as a notary, first in Valladolid and later in Hispaniola, gave him knowledge of the legal codes of Castile that he applied to help justify his unauthorized conquest of México.

At this point in his life, Cortés was described by Gómara as ruthless, haughty, and mischievous. The 16-year-old youth had returned home to feel constrained life in his small provincial town. By this time, news of the exciting discoveries of Christopher Columbus in the New World was streaming back to Spain.

Portrait of Cortés at Museo del Prado, a nineteenth-century copy of the portrait currently kept in the City Council Hall of Mexico City. Oil on canvas by José Salomé Pina.

The Spanish had established a permanent settlement on the island of Hispaniola in 1493 on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus. There were further Spanish explorations and settlements in the Caribbean and the Spanish Main, seeking wealth in the form of gold and access to indigenous labor to mine gold and other manual labor. Twenty-five years after the first Spanish settlement in the New World, expeditions of exploration were sent to the coast of México.

Plans were made for Cortés to sail to the Americas with a family acquaintance and distant relative, Nicolás de Ovando, the newly appointed Governor of Hispaniola, an island is now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Cortés suffered an injury and was prevented from traveling. He spent the next year wandering the country, probably spending most of his time in Spain’s southern ports of Cadiz, Palos, Sanlucar, and Seville. He finally left for Hispaniola in 1504 and became a colonist.

Cortés reached Hispaniola in a ship commanded by Alonso Quintero, who tried to deceive his superiors and reach the New World before them in order to secure personal advantages. Quintero’s mutinous conduct may have served as a model for Cortés in his subsequent career. The history of the conquistadores is rife with accounts of rivalry, jockeying for positions, mutiny, and betrayal.

Upon his arrival in 1504 in Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola, the 18-year-old Cortés registered as a citizen; this entitled him to a building plot and land to farm. Soon afterward, Governor Nicolás de Ovando granted him an encomienda and appointed him as a notary of the town of Azua de Compostela. His next five years seemed to help establish him in the colony; in 1506, Cortés took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba. The expedition leader awarded him a large estate of land and Indian slaves for his efforts.

In 1511, Cortés accompanied Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, an aide of the Governor of Hispaniola, in his expedition to conquer Cuba. Velázquez was appointed Governor of New Spain. At the age of 26, Cortés was made clerk to the treasurer with the responsibility of ensuring that the Crown received the quinto, or customary one fifth of the profits from the expedition.

Diego de Velázquez, who commissioned Cortés’s limited expedition of exploration in 1519. Created in 1728, the portrait is currently in the holdings of the John Carter Brown Library, an independently funded research library of history and the humanities on the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. The library’s rare book, manuscript, and map collections encompass a variety of topics related to the history of European discovery, exploration, settlement, and development of the New World until circa 1825.

Velázquez was so impressed with Cortés that he secured a high political position for him in the colony. He became secretary for Governor Velázquez. Cortés was twice appointed municipal magistrate (alcalde) of Santiago. In Cuba, Cortés became a man of substance with an encomienda to provide Indian labor for his mines and cattle. This new position of power also made him the new source of leadership, which opposing forces in the colony could then turn to. In 1514, Cortés led a group which demanded that more Indians be assigned to the settlers.

In 1517, Velázquez commissioned a fleet of three ships under the command of Hernández de Córdoba to sail west and explore the Yucatán peninsula. Córdoba reached the coast of Yucatán. The Mayans at Cape Catoche invited the Spanish to land, and the conquistadors read the Requirement of 1513 to them, which offered the natives the protection of the King of Spain, if they would submit to him. Córdoba took two prisoners, who adopted the baptized names of Melchor and Julián and became interpreters. Later, the two prisoners, being misled or misinterpreting the language with information given to the Spanish conquistadors that there was plenty of gold up for grabs. On the western side of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Spanish were attacked at night by Maya chief Mochcouoh, a battle in which fifty men were killed. Córdoba was mortally wounded and only a remnant of his crew returned to Cuba.

At that time, Yucatán was briefly explored by the conquistadors, but the Spanish conquest of Yucatán with its many independent city-state polities of the Late Postclassic Maya civilization came many years after the Spaniards’ and their indigenous allies’ rapid conquest of Central México (1519–1521). With the help of tens of thousands of Xiu Mayan warriors, it would take more than 170 years for the Spanish to establish full control of the Maya homelands, which extended from northern Yucatán to the central lowlands region of El Petén and the southern Guatemalan highlands. The end of this latter campaign is generally marked by the downfall of the Maya state based at Tayasal in the Petén region, in 1697.

Bust Hernán Cortés in the Archivo de Indias in Seville. Photo taken by CarlosVdeHabsburgo on February 5, 2015.

Even before Juan de Grijalva returned to Spain, Velázquez decided to send a third and even larger expedition to explore the Mexican coast. Hernán Cortés, then one of Velázquez’s favorites and brother-in-law, was named as the commander, which created envy and resentment among the Spanish contingent in the Spanish colony. Licenses for expeditions allowed the Crown to retain sovereignty over newly conquered lands while not risking its own assets in the enterprise. Anyone willing to make a financial contribution could potentially gain even more wealth and power. Men who brought horses, caballeros, received two shares of the spoils, one for military service, another because of the horse. Cortés invested a considerable part of his personal fortune and probably went into debt to borrow additional funds. Velázquez may have personally contributed nearly half the cost of the expedition.

In an agreement signed on October 23, 1518, Governor Velázquez restricted the expedition led by Cortés to exploration and trade, so that conquest and settlement of the mainland might occur under his own command, once he had received the permission necessary to do so which he had already requested from the Crown. In this way, Velázquez sought to ensure title to the riches and laborers discovered. However, armed with the knowledge of Castilian law that he had likely gained as a notary in Valladolid, Cortés managed to free himself of Velázquez’s authority by presenting Velázquez as a tyrant acting in his own self-interest, and not in the interest of the Crown. Cortés also contrived to have his men name him military leader and chief magistrate (judge) of the expedition.

As time went on, relations between Cortés and Governor Velázquez became strained. This began once news reached Velázquez that Juan de Grijalva had established a colony on the mainland where there was a bonanza of silver and gold, and Velázquez decided to send him help. Cortés was appointed Captain-General of the new expedition in October 1518, but was advised to move fast before Velázquez changed his mind.

With Cortés’ experience as an administrator, knowledge gained from many failed expeditions, and his impeccable rhetoric he was able to gather six ships and 300 men, within a month. Velázquez himself must have been keenly aware that whoever conquered the mainland for Spain would gain fame, glory and fortune to eclipse anything that could be achieved in Cuba. Thus, as the preparations for departure drew to a close, the governor became suspicious that Cortés would be disloyal to him and try to commandeer the expedition for his own purposes, namely to establish himself as governor of the colony, independent of Velázquez’s control.

Therefore, Velázquez sent Luis de Medina with orders to replace Cortés. Cortés’s brother-in-law allegedly had Medina intercepted and killed. The papers that Medina had been carrying were sent to Cortés. Thus warned, Cortés accelerated the organization and preparation of his expedition quickly gathering more men and ships in other Cuban ports.

Velázquez arrived at the dock in Santiago de Cuba in person, “he and Cortés again embraced, with a great exchange of compliments”, before Cortes set sail for Trinidad, Cuba. Velázquez then sent orders for the fleet to be held and Cortés taken prisoner. Cortés set sail, thus beginning his expedition with the legal status of a mutineer.

Spanish 1000-peseta bank note issued in October 1992 depicting Cortés.

Cortés’s contingent consisted of 11 ships carrying about 630 men (including 30 crossbowmen and 12 arquebusiers, an early form of firearm), a doctor, several carpenters, at least eight women, a few hundred Arawaks from Cuba and some Africans, both freedmen and slaves. Although modern usage often calls the European participants “soldiers”, the term was never used by these men themselves in any context, something that James Lockhart realized when analyzing sixteenth-century legal records from conquest-era Peru.

Cortés also found time to become romantically involved with Catalina Xuárez (or Juárez), the sister-in-law of Governor Velázquez. Part of Velázquez’s displeasure seems to have been based on a belief that Cortés was trifling with Catalina’s affections. Cortés was temporarily distracted by one of Catalina’s sisters but finally married Catalina, reluctantly, under pressure from Governor Velázquez. However, by doing so, he hoped to secure the good will of both her family and that of Velázquez.

Accompanied by about 11 ships, 500 men (including seasoned slaves), 13 horses, and a small number of cannon, Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mayan territory. Cortés spent some time at the island of Cozumel, on the east coast of Yucatán, trying to convert the locals to Christianity, something that provided mixed results. While at Cozumel, Cortés heard reports of other white men living in the Yucatán. Cortés sent messengers to these reported Spaniards, who turned out to be the survivors of a Spanish shipwreck that had occurred in 1511, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. Aguilar was a Spanish Franciscan priest who had survived the shipwreck followed by a period in captivity with the Maya, before escaping. He had learned the Chontal Maya language.

Aguilar petitioned his Maya chieftain to be allowed to join his former countrymen, and he was released and made his way to Cortés’s ships. Now quite fluent in Maya, as well as some other indigenous languages, proved to be a valuable asset for Cortés as a translator — a skill of particular significance to the later conquest of the Aztec Empire that was to be the end result of Cortés’s expedition. According to Bernal Díaz, Aguilar relayed that before coming, he had attempted to convince Guerrero to leave as well. Guerrero declined on the basis that he was by now well-assimilated with the Maya culture, had a Maya wife and three children, and he was looked upon as a figure of rank within the Maya settlement of Chetumal, where he lived. Although Guerrero’s later fate is somewhat uncertain, it appears that for some years he continued to fight alongside the Maya forces against Spanish incursions, providing military counsel and encouraging resistance; it is speculated that he may have been killed in a later battle.

A painting from Diego Muñoz Camargo’s History of Tlaxcala (Lienzo Tlaxcala), c. 1585, showing La Malinche and Hernán Cortés.

Sometime after arriving in México on March 5, 1519, Cortés formally claimed the land for the Spanish crown. After leaving Cozumel, Cortés continued round the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and landed at Potonchán, where there was little gold. After defeating the local natives in two battles, he received twenty young indigenous women from the vanquished natives, converting them all to Christianity. Among these was a woman Cortés would have christened Marina. She is often known as La Malinche and also sometimes called Malintzin or Malinalli, her native birth names. Later, the Aztecs would come to call Cortés Malintzin or La Malinche by dint of his close association with her. Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote in his account The True History of the Conquest of New Spain that Marina was “truly a great princess.” Later, the honorific Spanish title of Doña would be added to her baptized name.

Cortés had stumbled upon one of the keys to realizing his ambitions. He would speak to Gerónimo de Aguilar in Spanish who would then translate into Mayan for Marina. She would then translate from Mayan to Nahuatl. With this pair of translators, Cortés could now communicate to the Aztecs. How effectively is still a matter of speculation, since Marina did not speak the dialect of the Aztecs, nor was she familiar with the protocols of the Aztec nobility, who were renowned for their flowery, flattering talk. Doña Marina quickly learned Spanish, and became Cortés’s primary interpreter, confidant, consort, cultural translator, and the mother of his first son, Martin. Until Cortes’s marriage to his second wife, a union which produced a legitimate son whom he also named Martin, Cortés’s natural son with Marina was the heir of his envisaged fortunes.

Cover of the true History of the conquest of New Spain, published in Madrid in 1632 from a manuscript written by Bernal Díaz del Castillo.

Native speakers of Nahuatl would call her “Malintzin.” This name is the closest phonetic approximation possible in Nahuatl to the sound of ‘Marina’ in Spanish. Over time, “La Malinche” (the modern Spanish cognate of ‘Malintzin‘) became a term that describes a traitor to one’s people. To this day, the word malinchista is used by Mexicans to denote one who apes the language and customs of another country. It would not be until the late 20th century that a few feminist writers and academics would attempt to rehabilitate La Malinche as a woman who made the best of her situation and became, in many respects a powerful woman.

Cortés landed his expedition force on the coast of the modern day state of Veracruz in April 1519. At San Juan de Ulúa on Easter Sunday 1519, Cortés met with Moctezuma II’s Aztec Empire governors Tendile and Pitalpitoque. Gifts were exchanged, and Cortés attempted to frighten the Aztec delegation with a display of his firepower.

Faced with imprisonment or death for defying Governor Velásquez, Cortés’ only alternative was to continue his enterprise in the hope of redeeming himself with the Spanish Crown. To do this, he directed his men to establish a settlement called La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, or “True Cross”, since they arrived on Maundy Thursday and landed on Good Friday. The legally constituted “town council of Villa Rica” then promptly offered him the position of adelantado, or Chief Justice and Captain. This strategy was not unique. Velásquez had used this same legal mechanism to free himself from Diego Columbus’ authority in Cuba. In being named adelantado by a duly constituted cabildo, Cortés was able to free himself from Velásquez’s authority and continue his expedition. To ensure the legality of this action, several members of his expedition, including Francisco Montejo and Alonso Hernandez Puertocarrero, returned to Spain to seek acceptance of the cabildo‘s declaration with King Charles.

Tile mosaic depicting the Villa Rica coat of arms in Veracruz. This was the first ayuntamiento (district council) founded by the Spanish in the Americas.. The tile mosaic is located in Mexico City. Photo taken by Thelmadatter on October 23, 2008. Released by the photographer into the public domain.

Cortés learned of an indigenous settlement called Cempoala and marched his forces there. On their arrival in Cempoala, they were greeted by 20 dignitaries and cheering townsfolk. Cortés quickly persuaded the Totonac chiefs to rebel against the Aztecs, taking prisoner five of Moctezuma’s tax collectors. The Totonacs also helped Cortés build the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, which was the starting point for his attempt to conquer the Aztec Empire.

Hearing of the rebellion, more ambassadors from the Aztec Emperor returned to see Cortés, bearing gifts of “gold and cloth”, in thankfulness for Cortés freeing his tax collectors. Montezuma also told Cortés, he was certain the Spanish were of “his own race”, and had arrived as “his ancestors had foretold”. As Cortés told his men, the natives “think of us as gods, or godlike beings.” Although they attempted to dissuade Cortés from visiting Tenochtitlan, the lavish gifts and the polite, welcoming remarks only encouraged El Caudillo to continue his march towards the capital of the empire.

Men still loyal to the governor of Cuba planned to seize a ship and escape to Cuba, but Cortés moved swiftly to squash their plans. Two leaders were condemned to be hanged; two were lashed, and one had his foot mutilated. To make sure such a mutiny did not happen again, he decided to scuttle his ships.

Cortés scuttling his own fleet off the coast of Veracruz in order to eliminate the possibility of retreat. Image attributed to Miguel Gonzalez. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City.

There are differing perceptions about what happened to Hernán Cortés’s ships. Some think that he burned the vessels, and others believe he beached them. The notion that he burned his ships did not become accepted until 250 years later. However, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, while attending an expedition with Cortés, gives reason to believe that Cortés ran them ashore. In a letter to King Charles, Cortés states that his ships were incapable of sailing, telling his men the reason was shipworm. However, after establishing the town of Vera Cruz, five Aztec emissaries arrived which made Cortés anxious to visit Tenochtitlán. Therefore, he destroyed all of his ships but one, which he sent back to Spain for King Charles. The fear of his men returning to Cuba, rather than embarking on the journey to the Aztec Empire, made him decide to demolish his ships. They no longer had an option but to accompany him on this journey. This decision brought about severe consequences because Cortés had trapped himself in Mexico.

With all of his ships scuttled, Cortés effectively stranded the expedition in central México. However, it did not completely end the aspirations of those members of his company who remained loyal to Velázquez. Cortés began leading his band inland towards Tenochtitlan. At the same time, Velázquez was sending forces to arrest Cortés, which meant the lives of him and his men were at jeopardy. Without ships, Cortés could not escape. In addition to restraining himself in México, Cortés suffered financially, having to repay Velázquez for the ships he destroyed.

Map representing the core states, the tributary states, and the allies of the Aztec Empire as it stood shortly before the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The borders should be considered very approximate.

In addition to the Spaniards, Cortés force now included 40 Cempoalan warrior chiefs and at least 200 other natives whose task was to drag the cannon and carry supplies. The Cempoalans were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail as they marched towards Tenochtitlan.

In 1510, Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II had been visited by Nezahualpilli, who had a reputation as a great seer, as well as being the tlatoani of Texcoco. Nezahualpilli warned Moctezuma that he must be on guard, for in a few years Aztec cities would be destroyed. Before leaving, he said that there would be omens for Moctezuma to know that what he has been told is true. Over the years, and especially after Nezhualpilli’s death in 1515, several supernatural omens appeared.

A comet seen by Moctezuma, interpreted as a sign of impending peril. Diego Durán’s account from indigenous informants.

The eight bad omens or wonders warned against were:

  • A column of fire that appeared from midnight until dawn, and seemed to rain fire in the year 1517
  • Fire consuming the temple of Huitzilopochtli
  • A lightning bolt destroying the straw temple of Xiuhtecuhtli
  • The appearance of fire, or comets, streaming across the sky in threes during the day
  • The “boiling deep ,” and water flooding, of a lake nearby Tenochtitlan
  • A woman, Cihuatcoatl, weeping in the middle of the night for them (the Aztecs) to “flee far away from this city”
  • A two headed man, tlacantzolli, running through the streets
  • Montezuma II saw the stars of mamalhuatztli, and images of fighting men riding “on the backs of animals resembling deer”, in a mirror on the crown of a bird caught by fishermen

Additionally, the Tlaxcala saw a “radiance that shone in the east every morning three hours before sunrise”, and a “whirlwind of dust” from the volcano Matlalcueye. According to Diaz, “These Caciques also told us of a tradition they had heard from their ancestors, that one of the idols which they particularly worshipped had prophesied the coming of men from distant lands in the direction of the sunrise, who would conquer them and rule them.” Some accounts would claim that this idol, or deity was Quetzalcoatl, and that the Aztecs were defeated because they believed the Spanish were supernatural and didn’t know how to react, although whether or not the Aztecs really believed that is debatable.

Madagascar miniature sheet issued in February 2019 depicting explorers, including Cortés.

Omens were extremely important to the Aztecs, who believed that history repeated itself. A number of modern scholars cast doubt on whether such omens occurred or whether they were ex post facto (retrospective) creations to help the Mexica explain their defeat.

Many sources depicting omens and the return of old Aztec gods, including those supervised by Spanish priests, were written after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Some ethnohistorians say that when the Spanish arrived native peoples and their leaders did not view them as supernatural in any sense but rather as simply another group of powerful outsiders. Hugh Thomas concludes that Moctezuma was confused and ambivalent about whether Cortés was a god or the ambassador of a great king in another land. Because the Spaniards arrived in 1519, Moctezuma knew this was the year of Ce Acatl, which is the year Quetzalcoatl was promised to return. Previously, during Juan de Grijalva’s expedition, Moctezuma believed that those men were heralds of Quetzalcoatl, as Moctezuma, as well as everyone else in the Aztec Empire, were to believe that eventually Quetzalcoatl will return. Moctezuma even had glass beads that were left behind by Grijalva brought to Tenochtitlan and they were regarded as sacred religious relics.

Spain – Scott #3121d (2001) Cortés scuttling his ships.

In late August 1519, Cortés arrived at Tlaxcala, a confederacy of about 200 towns and different tribes, but without central government. The Otomi followed by the Tlaxcalans fought the Spanish in a series of three battles from September 2 to 5, 1519, and at one point Diaz remarked, “they surrounded us on every side”. After Cortés continued to release prisoners with messages of peace, and realizing the Spanish were enemies of Montezuma, Xicotencatl the Elder, and Maxixcatzin, persuaded the Tlaxcalan warleader, Xicotencatl the Younger, that it would be better to ally with the newcomers than to kill them.

The Tlaxcalans main city was Tlaxcala. After almost a century of fighting the Flower Wars, a great deal of hatred and bitterness had developed between the Tlaxcalans and the Aztecs. The Aztecs had already conquered most of the territory around Tlaxcala, and waged war on them every year. It has been suggested that the Aztecs left Tlaxcala independent so that they would have a constant supply of war captives to sacrifice to their gods.

Meeting of Aztec ruler Xicoténcatl and Hernán Cortés on the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, 16th century watercolor on canvas by Diego Munoz de Camargo.

On September 23, 1519, Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala and was greeted with joy by the rulers, who saw the Spanish as an ally against the Aztecs. Due to a commercial blockade by the Aztecs, Tlaxcala was poor, lacking, among other things, salt and cotton cloths, so they could only offer Cortés and his men food and slaves. Cortés stayed twenty days in Tlaxcala, giving his men time to recover from their wounds from the battles. Cortés seems to have won the true friendship and loyalty of the senior leaders of Tlaxcala, among them Maxixcatzin and Xicotencatl the Elder, although he could not win the heart of Xicotencatl the Younger. The Spaniards agreed to respect parts of the city, like the temples, and reportedly took only the things that were offered to them freely.

As before with other native groups, Cortés preached to the Tlaxcalan leaders about the benefits of Christianity. The Caciques gave Cortes “the most beautiful of their daughters and nieces”. Xicotencatl the Elder’s daughter was baptized as Doña Luisa, and Maxixcatzin’s daughter as Doña Elvira. They were given by Cortés to Pedro de Alvarado and Juan Velázquez de León respectively. Legends say that he convinced the four leaders of Tlaxcala to become baptized. Maxixcatzin, Xicotencatl the Elder, Citalpopocatzin and Temiloltecutl received the names of Don Lorenzo, Don Vicente, Don Bartolomé and Don Gonzalo. It is impossible to know if these leaders understood the Catholic faith. In any case, they apparently had no problems in adding the Christian “Dios” (God in Spanish), the lord of the heavens, to their already complex pantheon of gods. An exchange of gifts was made and thus began the highly significant and effective alliance between Cortés and Tlaxcala.

Meanwhile, Moctezuma’s ambassadors, who had been in the Spanish camp after the battles with the Tlaxcalans, continued to press Cortés to take the road to Mexico via Cholula, which was under Aztec control, rather than over Huexotzinco, which was an ally of Tlaxcala. They were surprised Cortés had stayed in Tlaxcala so long “among a poor and ill-bred people”. Cholula was one of the most important cities of Mesoamerica, the second largest, and probably the most sacred. Its huge pyramid (larger in volume than the great pyramids of Egypt) made it one of the most prestigious places of the Aztec religion. However, it appears that Cortés perceived Cholula more as a military threat to his rear guard than a religious center, as he marched to Tenochtitlan. He sent emissaries ahead to try a diplomatic solution to enter the city.

The entrance to Chalco, on the way to the Aztec capital. The single Spaniard is accompanied by three Tlaxcalan soldiers, plus an Indian carrier. With few exceptions the murals depict the Spanish on horseback armed with lances, as in this scene. The dog is one of the oversized mastiffs accompanying the Spaniards.

Cortés, who had not yet decided to start a war with the Aztec Empire, decided to offer a compromise. He accepted the gifts of the Aztec ambassadors, and at the same time accepted the offer of the Tlaxcalan allies to provide porters and 1000 warriors on his march to Cholula. He also sent two men, Pedro de Alvarado, and Bernardino Vázquez de Tapia, directly to Tenochtitlan, as ambassadors and to scout for an appropriate route.

There are contradictory reports about what happened at Cholula. Moctezuma had apparently decided to resist with force the advance of Cortés and his troops, and it seems that Moctezuma ordered the leaders of Cholula to try to stop the Spanish. Cholula had a very small army, because as a sacred city they put their confidence in their prestige and their gods. According to the chronicles of the Tlaxcalteca, the priests of Cholula expected to use the power of Quetzalcoatl, their primary god, against the invaders.

Cortés and his men entered Cholula without active resistance. However, they were not met by the city leaders and were not given food and drink on the third day. Cempoalans reported that fortifications were being constructed around the city and the Tlaxcalans were warning the Spaniards. Finally, La Malinche informed Cortés, after talking to the wife of one of the lords of Cholula, that the locals planned to murder the Spanish in their sleep. Although he did not know if the rumor was true or not, Cortés ordered a pre-emptive strike, urged by the Tlaxcalans, the enemies of the Cholulans. Cortés confronted the city leaders in the main temple alleging that they were planning to attack his men. They admitted that they had been ordered to resist by Moctezuma, but they claimed they had not followed his orders. Regardless, on command, the Spaniards seized and killed many of the local nobles to serve as a lesson.

The Cholula Massacre by Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Depicted by Spanish Tlaxcallan native allies. 1773 reproduction from 1584 original version of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

They captured the Cholulan leaders Tlaquiach and Tlalchiac and then ordered the city to be set on fire. The troops started in the palace of Xacayatzin, and then on to Chialinco and Yetzcoloc. In letters to his King, Cortés claimed that in three hours time his troops (helped by the Tlaxcalans) killed 3,000 people and had burned the city. Another witness, Vázquez de Tapia, claimed the death toll was as high as 30,000. However, since the women and children, and many men, had already fled the city, it is unlikely that so many were killed. Regardless, the massacre of the nobility of Cholula was a notorious chapter in the conquest of México.

“Episodes of the Conquest [of Mexico]: The Massacre of Cholula”, oil on canvas by Félix Parra. 1877. Currently in the collections of Université Paris-Sorbonne.

The massacre had a chilling effect on the other city states and groups affiliated with the Aztecs, as well as the Aztecs themselves. Tales of the massacre convinced the other cities in the Aztec Empire to entertain seriously Cortés’ proposals rather than risk the same fate. Cortés then sent emissaries to Moctezuma with the message that the people of Cholula had treated him with trickery and had therefore been punished.

In one of his responses to Cortés, Moctezuma blamed the commanders of the local Aztec garrison for the resistance in Cholula, and recognizing that his long-standing attempts to dissuade Cortés from coming to Tenochtitlan with gifts of gold and silver had failed, Moctezuma finally invited the conquistadors to visit his capital city, according to Spanish sources, after feeling as though nothing else could be done.

Spanish conquistadores and their Tlaxcalan allies enter Tenochtitlan to the sounds of martial music. Painted by Margaret Duncan Coxhead, 1909. Published in Romance of History, Mexico.<./em>

On November 8, 1519, after the fall of Cholula, Cortés and his forces entered Tenochtitlan, the island capital of the Mexica-Aztecs. It is believed that the city was one of the largest in the world at that time, and the largest in the Americas up to that point. The most common estimates put the population at around 60,000 to over 300,000 people. If the population of Tenochtitlan was 250,000 in 1519, then Tenochtitlan would have been larger than every city in Europe except perhaps Naples and Constantinople, and four times the size of Seville. To the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan was the “altar” for the Empire, as well as being the city that Quetzalcoatl would eventually return to.

Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. The image is from the “Lienzo de Tlaxcala”, created by the Tlaxcalans to remind the Spanish of their loyalty to Castile and the importance of Tlaxcala during the Conquest. The text mixes European and native styles and includes anachronisms, such as the European-style chairs included in this image.

Upon meeting, Hernan Cortés claimed to be the representative of the queen, Doña Juana of Castile, and her son, King Carlos I of Castile and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, all Spanish royalty, had then made an appearance. Sahagún reports that Moctezuma welcomed Cortés to Tenochtitlan on the Great Causeway, Xolac. “The chiefs who accompanied Moctcuhzoma were: Cacama, king of Texcoco (altepetl); Tetlepanquetzaltin, king of Tlacopan, Itzcuauhtzin the Tlacochcalcatl, lord of Tlatelolco (altepetl); and Topantemoc, Motechzoma’s treasurer in Tlatelolco.” Moctezuma and his chiefs were adorned with blazing gold on their shoulders with feathers and jewels. On the causeway where the two groups met, enormous numbers of people from Tenochtitlan watched the exchange.

Moctezuma went to greet Cortés with his brother, Cuitlahuac, and his nephew, Cacamatzin. Cortes strode ahead of his commanders and attempted to embrace Moctezuma, but was restrained by Cuitlahuac and Cacamatzin. Cortés was not permitted to touch the emperor; no one was allowed.

Map of the Valley of Mexico on the eve of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It shows the major towns within the Valley, in particular, the island capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan. The map also shows the five lakes that once existed within the Valley, highlighted to differentiate the brackish from the fresh waters.

After greetings, Moctezuma personally dressed only Cortés in a priceless feather-work flower, a golden jewelry studded necklace and a garland of flowers. Moctezuma then brought Cortes to the shrine of the goddess Toci, where he gave him a more private greeting, in which he practically gave the Aztec Empire to Cortés, as he reportedly said that it was his “desire to serve.”

A fragment of the greetings of Moctezuma says:

My lord, you have become fatigued, you have become tired: to the land you have arrived. You have come to your city: Mexico, here you have come to sit on your place, on your throne. Oh, it has been reserved to you for a small time, it was conserved by those who have gone, your substitutes… This is what has been told by our rulers, those of whom governed this city, ruled this city. That you would come to ask for your throne, your place, that you would come here. Come to the land, come and rest: take possession of your royal houses, give food to your body.”

Grenadines of St. Vincent – Scott #845 (1992) – Cortés “discovers” Mexico

Moctezuma had the royal palace of Axayácatl, Moctezuma’s father, prepared for Cortés. On the same day that the Spanish expedition and their allies entered Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma came to visit Cortés and his men. What happened in this second meeting remains controversial. According to several Spanish versions, some written years or decades later, Moctezuma first repeated his earlier, flowery welcome to Cortés on the Great Causeway, but then went on to explain his view of what the Spanish expedition represented in terms of Aztec tradition and lore, including the idea that Cortés and his men (pale, bearded men from the east) were the return of characters from Aztec legend. At the end of this explanation, the Emperor pledged his loyalty to the King of Spain and accepted Cortés as the King’s representative. According to Diaz, Moctezuma said to Cortes, “As for your great King, I am in his debt and will give him of what I possess.”

Codex Azcatitlan depicting the Spanish-Tlaxcalan army, with Cortés and La Malinche, along with an African slave in front the meeting with Moctezuma. The facing page is no longer extant.

While in the Axayacatl palace, the conquistadors discovered the secret room where Moctezuma kept the treasure he had inherited from his father. The treasure consisted of a “quantity of golden objects – jewels and plates and ingots”. Diaz noted, “The sight of all that wealth dumbfounded me.”

Cortés later asked Moctezuma to allow him to erect a cross and an image of Virgin Mary next to the two large idols of Huichilobos and Tezcatlipoca, after climbing the one hundred and fourteen steps to the top of the main temple pyramid, a central place for religious authority. Moctezuma and his papas were furious at the suggestion, with Moctezuma claiming his idols, “give us health and rain and crops and weather, and all the victories we desire.”

After Cortés’ request surrounding the questioning of raising the cross and the image of the Virgin Mary, the Mexica then killed seven Spanish soldiers Cortés had left on the coast, including Cortes’ Villa Rica Constable Juan de Escalante, and many Totonacs. Cortés along with five of his captains and Doña Marina and Aguilar, convinced Moctezuma to “come quietly with us to our quarters, and make no protest…if you cry out, or raise any commotion, you will immediately be killed.” Moctezuma was later implicated by Qualpopoca and his captains, who had killed the Spanish soldiers. Though these captains of Moctezuma were sentenced to be “burned to death”, Moctezuma continued to remain a prisoner, fearing a “rebellion in his city” or that the Spanish may “try to set up another prince in his place.” This, despite Moctezuma’s chieftains, nephews and relations suggesting they should attack the Spanish.

Spain – Scott #754 (1948) first day cover, block of 4

As of November 14, 1519, Moctezuma was Cortés’ prisoner as insurance against any further resistance, until the end of May 1520, Moctezuma lived with Cortés in the palace of Axayácatl. However, Moctezuma continued to act as Emperor, subject to Cortés’ overall control. During the period of his imprisonment, Moctezuma stated “he was glad to be a prisoner, since either our gods gave us power to confine him or Huichilobos permitted it.” He would even play the game of totoloque with Cortés. After the treason of Cacamatzin, Moctezuma and his caciques, were forced to take a more formal oath of allegiance to the King of Spain, though Moctezuma “could not restrain his tears”. Moctezuma told his caciques that “their ancestral tradition, set down in their books of records, that men would come from the direction of the sunrise to rule these lands” and that “He believed…we were these men.”

Cortés sent expeditions to investigate the Aztec sources of gold in the provinces of Zacatula, Tuxtepec, and the land of the Chinantec. Moctezuma was then made to pay a tribute to the Spanish King, which included his father’s treasure. These treasures, the Spaniards melted down to form gold bars stamped with an iron die. Finally, Moctezuma let the Catholic conquistadors build an altar on their temple, next to the Aztec idols.

Finally, the Aztec gods allegedly told the Mexican papas, or priests, they would not stay unless the Spaniards were killed and driven back across the sea. Moctezuma warned Cortés to leave at once, as their lives were at risk. Many of the nobility rallied around Cuitláhuac, the brother of Moctezuma and his heir-apparent; however, most of them could take no overt action against the Spanish unless the order was given by the Emperor.

In April 1520, Cortés was told by Moctezuma, that a much larger party of Spanish troops, consisting of nineteen ships and fourteen hundred soldiers under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez, had arrived. Pánfilo de Narváez had been sent by Governor Velázquez from Cuba to kill or capture Cortés, who had defied Velazquez’s orders.

Spain – Scott #2574 (1988)

Leaving his “least reliable soldiers” under the command of the headstrong Pedro de Alvarado to guard Moctezuma, Cortés set out against De Narváez, who had advanced onto Cempoala. Cortés surprised his antagonist with a night attack, during which his men wounded Narváez in the eye and took him prisoner. After Cortés permitted the defeated soldiers to settle in the country, they “passed with more or less willingness to Cortés’ side.” Hernán Cortés gained their support when he “promised to make them rich and give them commands [rewards].” Cortes then made a rapid return to Tenochtitlan, to relieve the besieged Alvarado and the other invaders. Cortés led his combined forces on an arduous trek back over the Sierra Madre Oriental, returning to Mexico on St. John’s Day June 1520, with 1300 soldiers and 96 horses, plus 2000 Tlaxcalan warriors.

When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan in late May, he found that Alvarado and his men had attacked and killed many of the Aztec nobility in the Massacre in the Great Temple, that happened during a religious festival organized by the Aztec. The Great Temple was central to the Aztec’s cosmological views; the temple served as a burial ground for the offerings made to different gods, such as the gods of fertility, mountains, rain, and earth. Considering the centrality and the importance of the Great Temple as a religious and cultural monument could potentially have influenced the decision to attack a location such as this. Alvarado’s explanation to Cortés was that the Spaniards had learned that the Aztecs planned to attack the Spanish garrison in the city once the festival was complete, so he had launched a pre-emptive attack.

The death of Moctezuma, depicted in the Florentine Codex, showing Spaniards disposing of the bodies of Moctezuma and Itzquauhtzin.

The population of the city rose en masse after the Spanish attack, which the Spanish did not expect. Fierce fighting ensued, and the Aztec troops besieged the palace housing the Spaniards and Moctezuma. Alvarado and the rest of the Spanish were held hostage by the Aztecs for a month. The nobility of Tenochtitlan chose Cuitláhuac as Huey Tlatoani (Emperor). Cortés ordered Moctezuma to speak to his people from a palace balcony and persuade them to let the Spanish return to the coast in peace. Moctezuma was jeered and stones were thrown at him, mortally wounding him. Aztec sources state the Spaniards killed him.

Cortés had formed an alliance with Tlaxcala. This alliance had many victories, including the overtaking of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec capital was used as a cosmic center, where they fed sacrifices to the gods through both human bodies and bloodletting. The capital was also used for central and imperialistic governmental control. Preparations for war began. The Spanish and their allies, including the Tlaxcala, had to flee the central city, as the people of Tenochtitlan had risen against them. The Spanish’s situation could only deteriorate. Because the Aztecs had removed the bridges over the gaps in the causeways that linked the city to the surrounding lands, Cortés’ men constructed a portable bridge to cross the water of the lake. On the rainy night of July 10, 1520, the Spaniards and their allies set out for the mainland via the causeway to Tlacopan. They placed the portable bridge in the first gap, but at that moment their movement was detected and Aztec forces attacked, both along the causeway and by means of canoes on the lake. The Spanish were thus caught on a narrow road with water or buildings on both sides.

La Noche Triste (“The Sad Night”) depicted in the 17th century, oil on canvas.

The retreat quickly turned into a rout. The Spanish discovered that they could not remove their portable bridge unit from the first gap, and so had no choice but to leave it behind. The bulk of the Spanish infantry, left behind by Cortés and the other horsemen, had to cut their way through the masses of Aztec warriors opposing them. Many of the Spaniards, weighed down by their armor and booty, drowned in the causeway gaps or were killed by the Aztecs. Much of the wealth the Spaniards had acquired in Tenochtitlan was lost.

The channel is now a street in México City, called Puente de Alvarado (Alvarado’s Leap or Alvarado’s Bridge), because it seemed Alvarado escaped across an invisible bridge. He may have been walking on the bodies of those soldiers and attackers who had preceded him, given the shallowness of the lake. It is said that Cortés, upon reaching the mainland at Tlacopan, wept over their losses. This episode is called La Noche Triste (The Night of Sorrows), and the old tree (El árbol de la noche triste) where Cortés allegedly cried, is still a monument in México City.

Representation of the Battle of Otumba, which took place in Temalacatitlán. Reproduction of the original in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (1552) by Manuel de Yáñez (1773). Published in Mexico Through the Centuries (1888).

The Aztecs pursued and harassed the Spanish, who, guided by their Tlaxcalan allies, moved around Lake Zumpango towards a sanctuary in Tlaxcala. On July 14, 1520, the Aztecs attempted to destroy the Spanish for good at the Battle of Otumba. Although hard-pressed, the Spanish infantry was able to hold off the overwhelming numbers of enemy warriors, while the Spanish cavalry under the leadership of Cortés charged through the enemy ranks again and again. When Cortés and his men killed one of the Aztec leaders, the Aztecs broke off the battle and left the field.

In this retreat, the Spaniards suffered heavy casualties, losing 860 soldiers, 72 other Spanish members of Cortes’ group, including five women, and a thousand Tlaxcalan warriors. Several Aztec noblemen loyal to Cortés, including Cacamatzin, and their families also perished, including Moctezuma’s son and two daughters.

The Spanish were able to complete their escape to Tlaxcala. There, they were given assistance, since all 440 of them were wounded, with only 20 horses left. Maxixcatzin, Xicotencatl the Elder and Chichimecatecle told Cortés’s men: “Consider yourselves at home. Rest…do not think it a small thing that you have escaped with your lives from that strong city…if we thought of you as brave men before, we consider you much braver now.”

Hernán Cortés Monroy, with his coat of arms on the upper left corner. Painting reproduced in the book America (R. Cronau 19th century).

Cortés got reinforcements when the Panuco River settlement was abandoned, and supply ships arrived from Cuba and Spain. Cortés also had built 13 brigantines then had them mounted with cannons, turning Lake Texcoco into a strategic body of water to assault Tenochtitlan. Xicotencatl the Younger, however, sought an alliance with the Mexicans, but was opposed. Cortés sent Diego de Ordaz, and the remnants of Navarez’s men, on a ship to Spain, and Francisco Montejo on a ship to Santo Domingo to represent his case in the Royal Courts.

The Aztecs were struck by a smallpox plague starting in September 1520, which lasted seventy days. Many were killed, including their new leader, the Emperor Cuitlahuac.

The joint forces of Tlaxcala and Cortés proved to be formidable. One by one they took over most of the cities under Aztec control, some in battle, others by diplomacy. In the end, only Tenochtitlan and the neighboring city of Tlatelolco remained unconquered or not allied with the Spaniards. Cortés then approached Tenochtitlan and mounted a siege of the city that involved cutting the causeways from the mainland and controlling the lake with armed brigantines constructed by the Spanish and transported overland to the lake. The Siege of Tenochtitlan lasted eight months. The besiegers cut off the supply of food and destroyed the aqueduct carrying water to the city.

The capture of the Mexican Emperor Cuahtemoc, oil on canvas, 17th century. Currently in the Jay I. Kislak Foundation Collection.

Despite the stubborn Aztec resistance organized by Cuauhtémoc, Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco fell on August 13, 1521, during which the Emperor was captured trying to escape the city in a canoe. With the capture of Cuauhtémoc, the tlatoani (ruler) of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec Empire was conquered, and Cortés was able to claim it for Spain, thus renaming the city México City. Cortés then personally governed México from 1521 until 1524.

The siege of the city and its defense had both been brutal. Largely because he wanted to present the city to his king and emperor, Cortés had made several attempts to end the siege through diplomacy, but all offers were rejected. During the battle, the defenders cut the beating hearts from seventy Spanish prisoners-of-war at the altar to Huitzilopochtli, an act that infuriated the Spaniards. Cortés then ordered the idols of the Aztec gods in the temples to be taken down and replaced with icons of Christianity. He also announced that the temple would never again be used for human sacrifice. Human sacrifice and reports of cannibalism, common among the natives of the Aztec Empire, had been a major reason motivating Cortés and encouraging his soldiers to avoid surrender while fighting to the death.

“The Last Days of Tenochtitlan, Conquest of Mexico by Cortez”, a 19th-century painting by William de Leftwich Dodge. Currently on display in Howard Tilton Library, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Tenochtitlan had been almost totally destroyed using the manpower of the Tlaxcalans plus fire and cannon fire during the siege, and once it finally fell, the Spanish continued its destruction, as they soon began to establish the foundations of what would become México City on the site. The surviving Aztec people were forbidden to live in Tenochtitlan and the surrounding isles, and were banished to live in Tlatelolco.

After he overthrew the Aztec Empire, Cortés was awarded the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, while the more prestigious title of Viceroy was given to a high-ranking nobleman, Antonio de Mendoza. In 1541, Cortés returned to Spain. Having spent a great deal of his own money to finance expeditions, he was now heavily in debt. In February 1544, he made a claim on the royal treasury, but was ignored for the next three years. Disgusted, he decided to return to Mexico in 1547. When he reached Seville, he was stricken with dysentery. He died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Seville province, on December 2, 1547, from a case of pleurisy at the age of 62.

Crest presented to Hernando Cortes by Emperor Charles V <./em>

Like Columbus, he died a wealthy but embittered man. He left his many mestizo and white children well cared for in his will, along with every one of their mothers. He requested in his will that his remains eventually be buried in Mexico. Before he died, he had the Pope remove the “natural” status of four of his children (legitimizing them in the eyes of the church), including Martin, the son he had with Doña Marina (La Malinche), said to be his favorite. His daughter, Doña Catalina, however, died shortly after her father’s death.

After his death, his body was moved more than eight times for several reasons. On December 4, 1547, he was buried in the mausoleum of the Duke of Medina in the church of San Isidoro del Campo, Sevilla. Three years later (1550) due to the space being required by the duke, his body was moved to the altar of Santa Catarina in the same church. In his testament, Cortés asked for his body to be buried in the monastery he had ordered to be built in Coyoacan in México, ten years after his death, but the monastery was never built. So in 1566, his body was sent to New Spain and buried in the church of San Francisco de Texcoco, where his mother and one of his sisters were buried.

In 1629, Don Pedro Cortés fourth “Marquez del Valle, his last male descendant, died, so the viceroy decided to move the bones of Cortés along with those of his descendant to the Franciscan church in México. This was delayed for nine years, while his body stayed in the main room of the palace of the viceroy. Eventually it was moved to the Sagrario of Franciscan church, where it stayed for 87 years. In 1716, it was moved to another place in the same church. In 1794, his bones were moved to the “Hospital de Jesus” (founded by Cortés), where a statue by Tolsá and a mausoleum were made. There was a public ceremony and all the churches in the city rang their bells.

In 1823, after the independence of México, it seemed imminent that his body would be desecrated, so the mausoleum was removed, the statue and the coat of arms were sent to Palermo, Sicily, to be protected by the Duke of Terranova. The bones were hidden, and everyone thought that they had been sent out of México. In 1836, his bones were moved to another place in the same building.

Tomb of Cortés in the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, which he founded in Mexico City. Photo taken by Xavier Lopez Medellin on February 15, 2007. Image released into the public domain by the photographer.

It was not until November 24, 1946 that they were rediscovered, thanks to the discovery of a secret document by Lucas Alamán. His bones were put in the charge of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). The remains were authenticated by INAH and were then restored to the same place, this time with a bronze inscription and his coat of arms. When the bones were first rediscovered, the supporters of the Hispanic tradition in Mexico were excited, but one supporter of an indigenist vision of Mexico “proposed that the remains be publicly burned in front of the statue of Cuauhtemoc, and the ashes flung into the air”. Following the discovery and authentication of Cortés’s remains, there was a discovery of what were described as the bones of Cuauhtémoc, resulting in a “battle of the bones”. In 1981, when a copy of the bust by Tolsa was put in the church, there was a failed attempt to destroy his bones.

Because of the controversial undertakings of Cortés and the scarcity of reliable sources of information about him, it is difficult to describe his personality or motivations. Early lionizing of the conquistadors did not encourage deep examination of Cortés. Later reconsideration of the conquistadors in the context of modern anti-colonial sentiment has done little to enlarge understanding of Cortés. As a result of these historical trends, descriptions of Cortés tend to be simplistic, and either damning or idealizing.

An engraving of a middle aged Cortés by 19th-century artist William Holl. Currently in the collections of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

There are relatively few sources to the early life of Cortés; his fame arose from his participation in the conquest of México and it was only after this that people became interested in reading and writing about him. Probably the best source is his letters to the king which he wrote during the campaign in México, but they are written with the specific purpose of putting his efforts in a favorable light and so must be read critically. Another main source is the biography written by Cortés’s private chaplain Lopez de Gómara, which was written in Spain several years after the conquest. Gómara never set foot in the Americas and knew only what Cortés had told him, and he had an affinity for knightly romantic stories which he incorporated richly in the biography. The third major source is written as a reaction to what its author calls “the lies of Gomara”, the eyewitness account written by the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo does not paint Cortés as a romantic hero but rather tries to emphasize that Cortés’s men should also be remembered as important participants in the undertakings in México.

In the years following the conquest more critical accounts of the Spanish arrival in México were written. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies which raises strong accusations of brutality and heinous violence towards the Indians; accusations against both the conquistadors in general and Cortés in particular. The accounts of the conquest given in the Florentine Codex by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún and his native informants are also less than flattering towards Cortés. The scarcity of these sources has led to a sharp division in the description of Cortés’s personality and a tendency to describe him as either a vicious and ruthless person or a noble and honorable cavalier.

Mexico – Scott #C424 (1974)

In México, there are few representations of Cortés. However, many landmarks still bear his name, from the castle Palacio de Cortés in the city of Cuernavaca — pictured on a single stamp released in 1974 (Scott #C424) — to some street names throughout the republic. The pass between the volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl where Cortés took his soldiers on their march to México City is known as the Paso de Cortés.

The muralist Diego Rivera painted several representations of Cortés but the most famous depicts him as a powerful and ominous figure along with La Malinche in a mural that hangs in the National Palace in México City.

Place of encounter of Mocetezuma Xocoyotzin and the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés on November 8, 1519, marked by a monument at the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno. Photo taken by Fabioj on November 17, 2002. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

In 1981, President Lopez Portillo tried to bring Cortés to public recognition. First, he made public a copy of the bust of Cortés made by Manuel Tolsá in the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno with an official ceremony, but soon a nationalist group tried to destroy it, so it had to be taken out of public view. Today, the copy of the bust is in the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno while the original is in Naples, Italy, in the Villa Pignatelli.

“Monumento al Mestizaje” by Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado (1982), representing Hernan Cortes, La Malinche (Malintzin, or Malinalli, or Doña Marina) and their son, Martín Cortes, comisioned by President Lopez Portillo. The Mexican actor of Spanish origin Germán Robles posed as Hernán Cortés. Originally it was put in the Center of Coyoacan, near the place where was Cortes country house, but it was moved to a little known park due to public protests. Currently the figure of the child has disappeared, probably due to vandalism. Currently in the Jardín Xicoténcatl, Barrio de San Diego Churubusco. Photo taken by Javier Delgado Rosas on April 18, 2009.

Another monument, Monumento al Mestizaje by Julián Martínez y M. Maldonado (1982) was commissioned by Mexican president José López Portillo to be put in the Zócalo (main square) of Coyoacan, near the location of his country house. It had to be removed to a little known park, the Jardín Xicoténcatl, Barrio de San Diego Churubusco, to quell protests. The statue depicts Cortés, La Malinche and their son Martín. A statue by Sebastián Aparicio, in Cuernavaca, was displayed in the hotel El Casino de la Selva. Cortés is barely recognizable, so it sparked little interest. The hotel was closed to make a commercial center, and the statue was put out of public display by Costco, the builder of the commercial center. Cortés has never appeared on a Mexican stamp.

Spain – Scott #754-755 (1948)

Hernán Cortés has appeared on relatively few stamps, especially when compared to other explorers. There have been a few issues by his native Spain and a small number by stamp-issuing entities known for abusing topicals. The Grenadines of St. Vincent issued a Dinsey/Mickey Mouse stamp with Big Pete in the role of Cortés “discovering” México (Scott #845). Spain even issued a cartoon-styled stamp depicting the conquistidore’s scuttling of his ships (Scott #3121d). An odd set of stamps released by Spain in 1992 included a line drawings of various explorers’ faces, focusing on their eyes, along with represtative symbols. The Cortés stamp pictured a stylized serpent representing Queztalcoatl and México (Scott #2574). The sole stamp issued by México bearing Cortés’s name depicts Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca (Scott #C424, released in 1974). The fertility of the lands in the area compelled the conquistador to found his favorite residence here and Juana de Zúñiga, Cortes’s wife, lived in Cuernavaca in the palace that was constructed in 1526.

Spain – Scott #754 (1948) first day cover with Madrid postmarks

Spain – Scott #754 (1948) first day cover with Medellin postmarks

The first stamp issued by Spain portraying Cortés was part of a pair released on June 15, 1948 (the other stamp portrays Mateo Aleman). These were both recess printed and Scott #754 is perforated 12½ x 13. There were 5,000,000 copies printed of the black 25-céntimo stamp.

Spain – Scott #754 (1948)

2 thoughts on “Hernán Cortés & His Conquest of the Aztec Empire

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