Hernán Cortés: Biography, Expeditions

Hernan CortesHe was the Spanish conqueror responsible for the conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521, managing to annex the Mexican territory to the Spanish empire. During the process of colonization of Mexico, he had a very influential role, but also very controversial. This was mainly due to two of his qualities : intelligence and ambition.

Also known as Hernando Cortés, this adventurer was one of the most successful Spanish conquerors of America . He is recognized as a man committed to the mission of converting Native Americans to Catholicism. ANDn the 16th century, he was considered a hero, although he never hid his desire to plunder the lands in search of gold and riches.

The historical accounts highlight their participation in the enslavement process of a large part of the native population, leaving aside all their achievements. In the same way, they emphasize their responsibility for the destruction of many of the indigenous peoples. These disappeared because of European diseases.

Thus, very little reference is made to how Hernán Cortés actively participated in the construction of Mexico City, which continues to be the capital of the Mexican nation. He also played an important role in the colonization of Cuba and contributed to the opening of a path for further exploration and conquest of Central America to the south.


Early years

In 1485, Hernán Cortés was born in Medellín, near Mérida, Extremadura, Castilla (Spain). He was the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, both belonging to families of ancient lineage, but with little wealth. He was a distant cousin of Francisco Pizarro, the explorer who with his travels conquered the Inca empire in Peru.

As a young child, Hernán Cortés was frequently ill, but during his teenage years his health improved markedly. From a young age he showed signs of precocious intelligence. At the age of 14, he was sent to study law at the University of Salamanca, in west-central Spain.

However, his haughty, mischievous, quarrelsome, and very given to women character soon put an end to these educational plans. Hernán Cortés, frustrated by boring provincial life and motivated by the stories of the New World that Columbus had just discovered , embarked for the port on the east coast of Valencia to serve in the Italian wars.

First trip to the New World

Christopher Columbus had landed in San Salvador and had explored the West Indies in 1492, when Cortés was a 7-year-old boy. His hope was to find a route to Asia or India, seeking to incorporate Spain into the world trade of nutmeg, cloves, pepper and cinnamon from Indonesia and India.

For his part, Hernán Cortés also had an adventurous spirit and wanted to be part of the exploratory movement of the new lands. Furthermore, he wanted to belong to the dynamic trade movement between India, China, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. In 1504, at age 19, he set sail for fortune and adventure in Hispaniola (Dominican Republic).

Years in Hispaniola and Cuba

Hernán Cortés spent seven years in Hispaniola, living in the new city of Azua and working as a notary and farmer. This agricultural activity brought him a lot of wealth and the possession of native slaves. Nevertheless, the conqueror wanted a life of action, and was still fascinated by the tales of gold and riches in the New World.

Finally, he had his first exploration experience when he joined a mission to conquer Cuba under Diego Velázquez in 1511. After the conquest of these new territories, he served as secretary to the treasurer and later as mayor of Santiago.

While Cortés was in Cuba, Velázquez was appointed governor. This fact brought many benefits to him. One of them was the granting of a repartimiento (gift of land and Indian slaves) and a luxury home in the newly erected capital of Cuba.

Hernán Cortés was twice elected mayor of Santiago. During all that time a fame grew around him that he was a great and correct gentleman. Therefore, it was the natural choice of the governor of Cuba when he entrusted the expedition to help in the conquest of the Mexican coasts in the New World.

His great adventure

The great adventure of Hernán Cortés began after setting sail from Cuba to the Mexican coast. This trip was considered one of the great military expeditions in history. The march of this Spanish conqueror is compared to the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar.

Just 34 years old and with almost no war experience, he led some 600 men and a dozen horses into uncharted territory. The new lands were inhabited by bloodthirsty warriors who outnumbered the expeditionary forces.

Faced with this challenge, Cortés exploited fierce tribal rivalries to conquer them. He imposed his wishes with the help of gunpowder, smallpox and the assistance of many allies, knowing how to combine goodness and cruelty to achieve his purposes. His soldiers not only subjugated, but mixed with the Indians creating a new mixed race.


Among the slaves received as tribute for one of his triumphs over the Indians, Cortés received a one called Malintzin. She was also known as La Malinche or Doña Marina and spoke both the Aztec and Mayan languages. This made it very useful for the Spanish expeditionary.

Later, La Malinche learned Spanish, and became Cortés’s personal interpreter, guide, and lover. Actually, she had quite a high status for a native woman during this time and place among the Spanish.

Cortés and La Malinche had a son named Martin together, who was sometimes called “El mestizo.” He was one of the first children of the racial heritage resulting from the mixture of the indigenous and peninsular races.

Historians disagree on whether Cortés openly acknowledged his relationship with La Malinche and his son Martín. The doubt arises because the conqueror very eagerly wanted to maintain his reputation and position among the Spanish community that did not look favorably on these relationships.

Last years and death

During the years following his conquest of Mexico, Cortés was very active in the political life of the New World. He held the position of governor, but was expelled from power by political compromises of antagonistic groups in the year 1524.

So, he went to Spain to meet with the Spanish king to claim his title, but he never got it back. He returned to Mexico after his failure with the monarch and participated in various expeditions throughout the New World.

Finally, he retired to Spain in 1540. He died seven years later on December 2 at his home in Castilleja de la Cuesta (Seville) suffering from pleurisy, a lung disease.

Hernán Cortés expeditions

First expedition

In 1519, Hernán Cortés left Cuba with some 600 men and headed for the Yucatán region of Mexico. He first arrived on the island of Cozumel and began to explore the land with the ultimate intention of colonizing it. Upon arrival, his attention was captured by a great great pyramid that he found and where he noticed bloodstains and human remains.

Right away, he knew that this pyramid was used for human sacrifices to the gods of the natives. So, horrified, Hernán Cortés began the process of converting the natives to Christianity. As an initial action, he demolished all his idols and replaced them with crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary.

Expedition to Mexico

In order to prepare expeditions to the interior lands, Cortés used indigenous translators and guides to communicate and be able to travel safely. Some time after their arrival in Cozumel, Cortés and his men began an expedition to Mexico.

In this expedition, they landed in Tabasco. Here, Cortés and his men clashed with the natives on March 25, 1519, in the Cintla Valley. That day, the two sides collided in the battle known as the Battle of Cintla. The natives were notoriously overwhelmed by the weapons and armor of the Spanish soldiers.

As a result of the confrontation, some 800 indigenous people were killed and only 2 Spanish conquerors lost their lives. In the end, the Tabasco people swore their loyalty to Spain. They also provided the Europeans with food, supplies and 20 women.

Expedition to Tlaxcala

Having conquered the Tabasco people, Cortés moved to the coast of Tlaxcala, a city of the powerful Aztec empire. At that time, the Aztecs were not always popular rulers among the inhabitants of the cities they had subdued. When Cortes found out about this, he used it to his advantage.

So he arranged meetings with the Aztec ambassadors and told them that he wished to meet the great Aztec ruler Moctezuma Xocoyotzin. On the other hand, Xicotenga, an enemy ruler of Moctezuma, from the city of Tlaxcala, saw in Cortés an ally. This was his opportunity to seize the capital city of Tenochtitlán.

Then, an alliance between the two leaders was made. As a result, several thousand Tlaxcala warriors were incorporated into the Spanish ranks. However, contrary to his advances in alliances, the situation of Cortés’s relationship with his boss, Velásquez, began to deteriorate.

The fundamental cause for this estrangement was the constant insubordination of Cortés. Specifically, the expedition to Tenochtitlán did not have the approval of Velásquez. Similarly, Hernán Cortés’ situation with his men was not good either. Complaints about the treatment received were frequent.

On the eve of an expedition to the city of Tenochtitlan, the complaints intensified. This forced Hernán Cortés to destroy all his ships, a measure of pressure that forced them to accompany him to the new expedition. According to the chronicle of Díaz del Castillo, those who wanted to defect were forced to continue in the company. 

Expedition to Tenochtitlan

Having destroyed the means to return to Cuba, the possibility of mass desertion was conjured. All of Cortés’s men marched on the new expedition and reached the capital of the Aztec empire on November 8, 1519.

Although he was not convinced of the good intentions of the Spanish, the ruler of the Aztec civilization graciously welcomed them. In addition, he accompanied them on a tour of his palace, and complimented them with extravagant gifts. Unfortunately for Moctezuma, this fueled the greed of the Spanish and relations turned hostile shortly after.

So Cortés took Moctezuma captive and the Spanish invaded the city. In the course of these events, the leader of the Mexica was assassinated, stoned by his own people.

Meanwhile, this invasion that disobeyed Velázquez’s express orders began to generate political unrest in Cuba. In 1520, a Spanish force sent from the island led by the Spanish expeditionary Pánfilo Narváez arrived in Mexico. His mission was to deprive Cortés of his command and arrest him for insubordination.

In a swift maneuver, Cortés left Tenochtitlán in charge of Pedro de Alvarado, one of his commanders. Then, he left to face the opposing Spaniards. After defeating them, he returned to the Aztec capital to find a rebellion in progress.

He immediately reorganized his men and allies, taking control of the capital in 1512. This marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Hernán Cortés was named governor and later established Mexico City. This was built on the ruins of the defeated Aztec capital.

Other expeditions

In 1524, driven by his restless desire to explore and conquer, Cortés embarked on a new expedition. This time south to the jungles of Honduras, but the two arduous years he spent in this disastrous endeavor damaged his health and position.

On the other hand, during the course of this adventure, his properties were confiscated by the officials he had left in charge. This setback stilled his adventurous spirit. Hernán Cortés spent the rest of his life trying to make up for the losses incurred by his last expedition.


  1. Hammond Innes, R. (2018, May 15). Hernan Cortes. Taken from britannica.com.
  2. The Mariner’s museum. (s / f). Hernan Cortes. Taken from exploration.marinersmuseum.org.
  3. Szalay, J. (2017, September 28). Hernán Cortés: Conqueror of the Aztecs. Taken from livescience.com.
  4. The Economist. (2014, December 17). On the trail of Hernán Cortés. Taken from economist.com.
  5. O’Brien, PK (2002). Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford.
  6. Ramen, F. (2004). Hernán Cortés: The Conquest of Mexico and the Aztec Empire.
    New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *