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Hernan Cortes- The Conquistador's legacy of genocide?

Updated on March 28, 2013

Conquest of Meso-America

There is still a lot of stigma and controversy attached to the life and legacy of Hernan Cortés. And much that has been written of him has a definite pro or anti Spanish edge, which questions the reliability of the sources. This makes it difficult to truly grasp the essence of the man and who he was. Anti-Catholic and Anti-colonial sources will happily paint him as a leader who plundered the mighty Aztec Empire of her material wealth, and signed the death warrant of thousands of the native population.

Those who support the legacy of Cortes will be quick to point out that the events in the Spanish main are mirrored in the colonialism of every other colonial expansion throughout history. Descriptions of Cortes tend to be simplistic at best and are still likely to be blackening his name or lionizing his achievements.

Spanish treasure ship
Spanish treasure ship

Cortes in the New World

Cortés was born in the year 1485 in Medellín, Spain. His family was of minor nobility, and the ambitious Cortés like many other gentry in Spain chose to pursue his fortune in the New World. He visited the colonies in Hispaniola and later moved on into Cuba. While in Cuba he became a magistrate of the second Spanish settlement.

By 1519 Cortés knew his destiny was to leave the Caribbean islands and explore the mainland, where he heard stories of great riches and rewards. He was made the leader of the expedition which he had part self-financed. The Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, recalled the expedition at the last moment at the last moment, partly due to each others hatred of one another Cortés ignored the wishes of the Governor and pressed on regardless into the mainland.

Conflict and Conquest

Upon landfall on the Mexican coast, Cortés decided to find native allies and exploit their tribal differences. This tactic proved successful, and Cortés quickly developed a foothold in the country and was able to move through the interior quite quickly. Cortés tactic of divide and conquer allowed him to use disenchanted natives to bolster his small expedition force. He used a native woman, Doña Marina to act as an interpreter to smooth any potential problems with the natives. Their relationship proved fruitful as she would later give birth to Hernan Cortés baby son.

When the Governor of Cuba sent an armed force to arrest Cortés, he fought them and won, using the extra troops as reinforcements. Upon defeating his Cuban rival Cortés wrote letters directly to the king asking to be acknowledged for his major success of destroying the Aztec Empire. Cortés was instrumental in engineering a steady stream of riches to flow into the Spanish Treasury. Cortés would rather not stand trial for disobeying the Governor of Cuba's direct orders.

Aztec ruins are now preserved as part of the countries rich heritage
Aztec ruins are now preserved as part of the countries rich heritage | Source

The Legacy of Cortes

Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, became 1st Marquis of the Oaxaca Valley in recognition of his victories in the new world. Hernan brought large portions of mainland Mexico
under the control of the King of Castile. Hernán Cortés was the pioneer and architect of Spain's dominance of Mexico.

He was the first of Spanish colonizers that began the Spanish settlement of the Americas. Hernan was responsible for destroying an Aztec Civilization that practiced human sacrifice, and he opened the new territories to the Catholic faith of Spain. But he also opened the door to new disease and new suffering for the native population of the new territories.

Is Cortes deserving of his bad reputation?

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    • Ignatius J Reilly profile image

      Ignatius J Reilly 7 years ago from London

      I certainly think genocide is a bit of an exaggeration. It's true that there was great suffering as a result of the conquest, and that the Conquistadors were both cruel and brutal, but the vast majority of those who died did so from smallpox and other infectious diseases from the "Old World", that the Meso-Americans had no immunity to. However - it is easier to accuse the Conquistadors of "Cultural genocide", as they willfully burned every indigenous book they could find, in an attempt to wipe out their former culture, and replace it with the catholic church.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 7 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      Cortes is certainly an interesting historical character. Clearly he was a conqueror and destroyed an indigenous race of Mexico. It's true that he was not unique in history regarding his ruthless methods and agenda, (Americans did something similar to the native Indians) but its hard to reconcile genocide under any circumstances. His military skill was impressive but ultimately, his legacy is a dark one.