Hernándo Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca (1485 – December 2, 1547), was a Spanish conquistador, explorer and politician, who achieved the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 by toppling the eponymous empire after a few years in battles. He also kickstarted the Spanish Conquest of the Maya and advanced the exploration of the Pacific Ocean, and at one point suggested to start planning the conquest of China, although that's another story. In any case, he is one of the most important people in the history of Mexico, which is no small thing, so let's talk about him.
Born in the lower nobility of Extremadura, cradle of many conquistadores, Cortés traveled to Cuba in the search of fortune, which came to him in earning the job of mayor of Santiago de Baracoa, the second Spanish city founded in the island. However, his dreams and ambition reached much farther: against the wishes of Diego Velázquez, the corrupt governor of Cuba and soon his Arch-Enemy, Cortés sailed off in an expedition to the continent and founded the city of Veracruz to become his own authority, from where he initiated a calculated campaign to hijack the nearby Aztec Empire and its many riches.note Cortés, a man without formal military experience but with a a love for ancient Greek and Roman story, played indigenous politics like a statesman of yore and attained a multi-national alliance with the confederacy of Tlaxcala, the Totonac peoples, and every other indigenous state that wanted the Aztecs dead, all of which would be unvaluable local allies for the rest of the Spanish conquest of America. Although his first attempt to seize the empire top down was ruined by Velázquez trying to illegally arrest him,note Cortés gathered his allies and conquered the Aztec capital by force, being then appointed governor of the newly called New Spain.
His late career was marked by constant conflicts with his political enemies, as well as the discontent of Spaniards who believed (apparently with some reason) Cortés was taking too much of the booty for himself and his own interests. In order to keep his men busy and rich, Hernán initiated expeditions to assimilate the nearby Purepecha Empire and Mayan states, making them the next acquisitions in the list, although it backfired when one of his lieutenants revolted against him in Honduras and aligned with Velázquez. Cortés ultimately solved the issue and had the traitor assassinated, but he decided to go himself there with an entire land army just in case, and in the process he committed the mistake to send some positively untrustworthy people back to warm his seat in México. During his hellish journey through the jungle, in which his mental health was compromised by fevers, wounds and a probable PTSD and/or clinical depression, Cortés was officially considered MIA, and under this premise, his political power in New Spain disintegrated, not being able to fully restore it upon his return. He had somewhat better luck in the Spanish court, where King Charles V compensated his lost governorship by making him captain general of the territory and a marquis.note
The rest of Cortés' life was uneventful, spent in hosting parties with the new Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza and promoting naval expeditions around the Pacific coast from his new marquisate, eventually drawing California on the maps. He could not travel very far himself, though - by this point, he was respected and feared enough in New Spain that conflicts calmed down at the moment they heard Cortés was coming, and several factions of both Spaniards and indigenous wanted his presence in order to arbitrate among them or just to avoid the uprisings that might arrive with a new disappearance (to show his status overall, it used to be entertained back then that Cortés had all the resources and connections to revolt and proclaim himself King of the New Spain if he wished).note He did have a brief return to Spain and participated as an informal consultant in the climatically disastrous 1541 Algiers expedition, but he was not consulted too much (he even requested to stay in Africa to try and mount a local rebellion, only to be denied) and ended up just losing a ton of money. Cortés then died of illness in the palace of a friend in Spain before he could be given license to return to America, asking for his body to be buried in Mexico in his last will.
Being himself a lover of many women, without much regard for race or marital status, Cortés was one of the first personal promoters of mestizaje in México, an attitude especially useful given the indigenous custom of Altar Diplomacy. Although far from being the first Spaniard to do the deed, Hernán himself fathered a mestizo son (Martín, who would become King Philip II's page and lieutenant) with his underrated indigenous adviser La Malinche, followed by a daughter (Leonor, whose descendants are still out there) with Aztec princess Isabel de Moctezuma,note as well as another daughter from an unknown princess that was born disabled. He left eight other children from his successive Spanish wives. Francisco Pizarro, his counterpart in the Spanish Conquest of the Inca Empire, was a distant maternal uncle to Cortés, although contrary to popular belief, it seems they did not know each other personally.note
Needless to say, you'll get different opinions on the man depending on who and where you ask. By all accounts, though, Cortés' recorded biography should be separated from his colourful reputation in pop culture and all the modern charge that has been piled upon him. In spite of the stereotype, Cortés never really went out of his way to make a difference between whites or natives in his conquest, rather preferring to divide people between those who were in his side and those who were not, which helped him to secure the support of many indigenous powers that stayed loyal to Spain for centuries after his death.note Indeed, he took care to rebuild the damages and start developing every native population he seized by force, and spent several points of his career basically acting as the chief of police of the Indies against the abuses of lesser conquistadores, much to his chagrin. Also, while he was still obviously a conqueror and a brutal Combat Pragmatist in battle, he was first and foremost armed with diplomacy and was a believer in Defeat Means Friendship, to the point some of his men reportedly snarked that, like his idolized Alexander the Great, he often treated the vanquished better than the victors. Admittedly, one does not simply conquer Mexico.
Of course, completely reliable information on him is pretty scarce. One of his close lieutenants, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, wrote a insanely detailed chronicle that attempted to distance itself from both flattery and slander, The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, and as you can imagine, historians have been debating for centuries about its degree of faithfulness to the real facts. Modern Hispanic media, even when not influenced by the Spanish Black Legend, likes to throw around the stock "Hero or villain?" subtitle when writing about him.
A lot of what Cortés built is still standing, with a special mention to the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Mexico City, the first western hospital in the history of America (built, as said above, to tend people of any color or race), which is still active 500 years later. Cortés' bones are currently buried in its church.
- Alternative Character Interpretation: Because of the scarcity of reliable information, it's hard to judge his personality and motivations. As such, depictions of him are either scathing or idealizing, and those that attempt to draw a middle line are always doubtful.
- Amazon Brigade: Surprisingly for someone of his reputation, Cortés was ultimately tolerant to the idea of female soldiers and actually employed official units of them in his expeditions. Those were usually wifes of regular soldiers who volunteered to take up weapons and serve as both fighters and battlefield medics, often shocking the expeditions's chroniclers with their bravery and effectivity. Some of the best known were Isabel Rodríguez, Beatriz Palacios and Beatriz Bermúdez.
- Ambiguous Situation: He was accused of murdering his first wife, Catalina Suárez, whom he had an unhappy marriage from the start (he was forced to marry her just when he wanted to break up, she later tormented by being a spendthrift wife, and he tormented her in turn for his usual infidelities), and although he was declared innocent in trial, whether he really murdered her or not remains unknown. Modern reviews of the case opine there is a high probability that he did murder her, or perhaps that it was a complot by his enemies that got him set up. He still dressed in mourning for a long time for her, and her relatives zig-zagged over the years between accusing him of the misdeed and working with him no problem.
- Ape Shall Never Kill Ape: Despite the fact that Europeans in Cortés' day weren't exactly above killing other peoples in wars, or burning their own citizens on the stake for refusing to share the same religion, he and his men were still shocked at the fact that those inhuman Aztecs sacrificed their own people to the sun. Justified in that the Aztecs forced their subjects of other tribes to give them people for sacrifices every once in a while (and more often that not, said people included children). It's really no wonder several indigenous nations decided to side with the Spaniards, even though every indigenous nation sacrificed people, only in different numbers.
- Asskicking Leads to Leadership: He was the leader of the Spanish conquistadores and was recognized as such by the indigenous people. The fact that he led his ragtag group of 400-ish soldiers to conquer an empire with forces numbering in the tens of thousands probably helped - although, of course, he had the help of tens of thousands of allied indigenous warriors, whose loyalty he still had to work hard to earn.
- Badass Boast: During his conquest of the Aztec Empire, Cortes had to defeat the army of the Governor of Cuba, which was sent after him. He bested them, even outnumbered and outgunned, AND convinced most of the army to just surrender and join him. Accounts say that the army's general spoke to him like this:
Narvaez: Mister Cortés, it is a great victory for you to capture me.
Cortés: Capturing you is the least of everything I've done in this land.
- Big Good: It seems after the conquest of the Aztecs, Cortés became the go-to figure for the indigenous to appeal every time they had a trouble with the Spaniards or other tribes. He became an organizer of sea expeditions towards the end of his life, but he couldn't travel himself very far because the former enemies of the Aztecs often begged him not to, fearing the Aztecs would capitalize on his absence to revolt and try to reinstate their empire. Of course, there's always the doubt of how faithful chronicles really are, but Cortés being seen as a benefactor isn't as farfetched as it sounds: he was still the most powerful man in New Spain, sported a long history of collaborating with natives for mutual benefit, and had many connections with different factions of those, all of which made him an effective arbitrator - not to mention the indigenous had seen much worse from people like Pánfilo de Narváez or the Aztecs themselves.
- The Conqueror: Managed to conquer a big empire with few European men and weapons by determination, cunning, manipulation, alliances, and of course, luck.
- Corrupt Church: Seems to have believed that this was true as far as low-ranking clergy went. He requested in his letters to Charles V that the king send Franciscan and Dominican friars to proselytize the Natives, fearing that the corrupt behavior of the average priests would tarnish the image of their faith (and make everything even more difficult).
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: Averted. While some stories, for the sake of irony, say that on his return to Spain he was utterly neglected in his home country and could scarcely obtain an audiencenote , in reality he was inducted to the Knights of Santiago, granted a coat of arms commemorating his deeds, and raised to the peerage as the Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley on his first return to Spain to make his case before Charles V against his various political enemies.
- Everyone Has Standards:
- After conquering the Aztec Empire, he found himself often sending armies to stop the misdeeds of other Spanish expeditions that were less law-abiding than him, like those of Francisco de Garay, Nuño de Guzmán and Pedrarias Dávila, who had no qualms about attacking indigenous villages to sack and pillage.
- During his first return to Spain, the administrators handling his estates in the New World betrayed him and initiated a reign of terror, engaged in various abuses such as over-taxation of the natives. When he heard about it, he sent word back to have them deposed, and later engaged in a lawsuit regarding these abuses.
- Full-Circle Revolution: Native tribes who allied with him hoped that he would save them from Aztec rule, which he did, but obviously, only in exchange for trading their old Aztec overlords for new Spanish ones. Some of the tribes were still comfortable with this, while others weren't so much, and a couple attempts of rebellion among Mayans happened in the first decades of the conquest.
- God Guise: There was a legend saying that the god Quetzalcoatl who was expelled from the city of Tula and went to the west would come back to retake his kingdom describing him as being white and bearded, and that the Aztecs believed Cortes was the god returned; this legend, however, only appears many years after the conquest by the influence of religious writers. It seems that during the conquest, the Spaniards were actually called teules (from teotl, which does translate as god but not necessarily means that in the Aztec Mythology, being also a word for supernatural), but this was more due to their otherwordly weapons, horses and actions than any literal belief that were immortal gods themselves. Judging by Díaz del Castillo's chronicle, Emperor Moctezuma II didn't:
Moctezuma II: [Our enemies], I know, have informed you... that I was a god, or made myself one, and many other such things... [opening his robes] You see that I am composed of flesh and bone like yourselves.
- Worth noting is that no authentic images of Quetzalcoatl have ever been found that actually depict him this way. He's actually supposed to be a snake with bird wings, and on the rare occasion where he does take human form, he looks just like everyone else of the region.
- Gold Fever: Wanted gold and got gold from the Aztecs, but this often got him trouble among his men.
- Historical Hero Upgrade, Historical Villain Upgrade and Historical Villain Downgrade: Some sources see him a benevolent explorer who wasn't half as cruel as you'd expect from a conquering conquistador. Others see him as basically the same type of immoral genocidical gold hungry conquistador as all the others, who destroyed the Aztec Empire. Some compromise by calling him a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
- The Kingslayer: He ended up having Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, executed, allegedly for conspiring to kill him and other Spaniards. According to the chronicle, Cuauhtémoc did admit they had considered to kill him, but he claimed to have ultimately refused, which made his execution very unpopular among the Spaniards themselves.
- Military Maverick: In 1518 Velázquez put him in command of an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. At the last minute, due to disagreements between Velázquez and Cortés, he changed his mind and revoked his charter. Cortés ignored the orders and went ahead anyway, defeating or assimilating several forces sent by Velázquez against him.
- Only in It for the Money: Depends on what side of the story you adhere to. He has been the subject of flanderization, focusing on him wanting money. The facts are that he always paid his own taxes, defended the indigenous whenever he could, and his last will was to be buried in México.
- Rape, Pillage, and Burn: He and his men carry this reputation nowadays, although it seems it was his own indigenous allies, who hated the Aztecs and capitalized on every opportunity to make them pay, who did most of the misdeeds.
- Sex Slave: He received one of those named Malinalli (a.k.a Marina or La Malinche), as Aztecs and other natives were no strangers to the concept and gifted the Spaniards with several women (even Moctezuma II gave one of his daughters, Techichipotzin, to Cortés as this). However, Malinalli shed her slave status due to the Spanish laws and was baptized as a Christian.
- Spell My Name With An S:
- His last name has been spelled with and without an accent and ending with either an s or a z.
- Despite generally being called Hernan, he used the form Hernando.
Cortés in fiction:
- Depicted in rather sympathetic light in the Suske en Wiske album Het Gouden Paard (The Golden Horse)
- In Lilith, one of the bearers of the Triacanto the time-traveling protagonist is hunting down is a member of his expedition, leading to Lilith helping the Aztecs capturing them all and use the guise of a sacrifice to hide as she searches the Triacanto, starting from Cortés himself as she had come to despise him and really wanted to make sure he died a painful death even if he wasn't the bearer.
- In Disney's Pocahontas, he's mentioned by Governor Ratcliffe in the song "Mine, Mine, Mine": "The gold of Cortés, the jewels of Pizarro / Will seem like mere trinkets by this time tomorrow."
- In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Cross of Coronado is said to have been given to Coronado by Cortés in 1520. Which is pretty remarkable considering that in 1520, Coronado was a ten-year-old child still living in Spain and Cortés was conquering the Aztecs on the other side of the Atlantic.
- Cortés is a supporting character in The Road to El Dorado. Miguel and Tulio end up stowaways on his ship, and in escaping the brig, end up in El Dorado, along with Cortés' Cool Horse.
- Cortés and his conquest of the Aztecs figure prominently into the Backstory of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. As explained by Captain Barbossa, "This is Aztec gold. One of 882 identical pieces they delivered in a stone chest to Cortés himself. Blood money paid to stem the slaughter he wreaked upon them with his armies. But the greed of Cortés was insatiable. So the heathen gods placed upon the gold... a terrible curse." Many years later, this Aztec gold is stolen by Barbossa's crew and they are turned into Ghost Pirates by the curse.
- Cortés is depicted by Ian Ziering in the Syfy Channel Original Movie Aztec Rex where he leads a small group of conquistadors that arrive in Mexico only to discover an Aztec tribe that worship a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
- In one of The Three Investigators books, The Mystery of the Headless Horse, he figures in the Backstory due to him having supposedly given a jeweled ceremonial sword to the ancestor of the boys' clients. There's a wooden statue of him on their lands, and there is a certain valorization of him in the text, but it's otherwise unobtrusive as he is involved just to give the boys a lost heirloom to find.
- Deadliest Warrior: He appeared on this show as one of the warriors.
- Hernán: El Nombre de la Conquista, a coproduction between The History Channel, Amazon Prime and TV Azteca, which tells in Anachronic Order the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Cortés (played by Óscar Jaenada) and his indigenous allies, with the first season starting with the arrival of the Spaniards into the shores of Mexico. A second season is in the works since November 2019.
- A miniseries also produced by Amazon, Cortés y Moctezuma, was in the works at the same time as the previous before being cancelled in 2020.
- He's the villain of The Time Tunnel episode "Idol of Death". Doug Phillips calls him "one of the worst butchers in history", and he lives up to that title by ruthlessly killing the Tlaxcalan natives, who he regards as subhuman "savages".
- Scion: Has an appearance here too.
- He does not appear but is briefly mentioned in Carmen Sandiego's Great Chase Through Time during the Aztec Empire case (set in 1519), where if you first click on one of the gold nuggets in the room where you build Moctezuma's headdress, Ann Tickwittee says this disturbing and slightly tragic line:
Ann Tickwittee: The Aztecs had plenty of gold nuggets like this one. Unfortunately, a surplus of gold can bring unwanted attention. The gold-hungry Spanish, under Cortes, will arrive in Aztec lands in just a few more months.