01/29/14

Hernán Cortés, (1485-1547).

CortesConquistador and conqueror of the Aztec Empire. Born in Estramadura, Cortés studied at a fairly high level at Salamanca but, at age 19, he left for the Caribbean to try his hand as a plantation farmer in Hispaniola. He first fought in the New World with a conquistadore army that brutally occupied Cuba in 1511. There, he witnessed a mindless slaughter of Indians. A decade later he said he was determined to avoid repeating this error when he invaded Mexico. It was not moral sensibility that drove him to that conclusion: his preference was to instead exploit Indian labor within the encomienda system. He left Cuba on February 18, 1519, under orders from the governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez, to conquer Mexico. He had just 11 ships carrying 550 men, 16 horses, some war dogs (mastiffs), and 10 brass cannon. They landed on the Tabasco coast where they allied with the Totonac people, a coastal tribe that was nominally a vassal of the Aztec. They supplied 20 young girls and women slaves to Cortés, who took “La Malinche” as his interpreter and mistress. Cortés moved up shore, then paused for four months to reconnoiter the Aztec position. Bypassing his superiors in Cuba, he sent a ship laden with gold and a secret letter written directly to Charles V, asking for the concession of the conquest of Mexico. Meanwhile, he mishandled two Aztec tax collectors, the first representatives of that empire he met. Puzzled, Emperor Moctezuma (Motechuzoma) II sent an embassy bearing gifts of gold, religious costumes, and food. Cortés thereafter received orders from Diego Velásquez, who had learned of his insubordinate correspondence with Charles V, to return to Cuba. Cortés disregarded the command and instead made his base camp at a site he named Vera Cruz (“The True Cross”). From there he gathered more intelligence from the Totonac and other tribes. He learned that many tribes and cities were fiercely opposed to the Aztecs and hated their submission to a tribute system that exploited them economically and took people from their communities for ritual sacrifice in the Great Temple in Tenochtitlán. Indian warriors willing to fight alongside Cortés were thus legion. In the Spanish telling, Cortés added thousands of Mesoamerican slingers and javelin throwers to his tiny army. From the vantage point of the Totonac and other Indians, they added small but unique Spanish military capabilities to an armed rebellion they were preparing to rid themselves of the Aztecs.

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