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Hernan Cortes: A Conquistador's Legacy of Genocide.

Updated on February 15, 2018
Asp52 profile image

The Author of this hub is well read in history, having studied history at University in England. He has been on HubPages for many years.

Conquest of Meso-America

There is still a lot of stigma and controversy attached to the life, deeds and legacy of the Spanish explorer, Hernan Cortés. Unfortunately for those in the modern world, much that has been written about him, has a definite pro or anti Spanish edge. This ultimately makes us questions the reliability of the sources that we use to unmask the man.

Was Hernan Cortes the butcher of the Aztec nation? Or did he do what ever other explorer of his time did? This dilemma makes it very 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. His actions may have signed the death warrant of thousands of the native population, yet could he truly foresee those consequences?

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.

A portrait of Hernan Cortes.
A portrait of Hernan Cortes.

Cortes in the New World

Hernan Cortés was born in the year 1485 in Medellín, Spain. His family were of minor nobility, and the ambitious Cortés like many other gentry in Spain chose to pursue his fortune in the New World were he believed great riches where waiting to be discovered. At a young age, he visited the Spanish colonies in Hispaniola and later moved on into Cuba. While in Cuba he became a respected magistrate in a prosperous Spanish settlement.

By the year 1519, Cortés knew his destiny was to leave the Caribbean Islands and explore the mainland. It was here, where he had heard tall stories of great riches and priceless rewards. He was made the leader of the expedition of which he had helped to finance with his wealth.

The Governor of Cuba at the time, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, recalled the expedition at the last moment. This was due to each others hatred of one another, Cortés willfully ignored the wishes of the governor and pressed on regardless to explore the mainland and seek his own fortune.

Spanish treasure ship
Spanish treasure ship

Conflict and Conquest

Upon landfall on the Mexican coast, Cortés decided to find native allies and enacts a plan to exploit their tribal differences to suit his own ambitions. This tactic proved successful for Cortés, he quickly developed a strong foothold in the country and was able to move through the interior with relative ease. Cortés continued his tactic of divide and conquer, which 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 of this foreign land. Their relationship developed along more romantic lines, which proved fruitful, as she would later give birth to Hernan Cortés' son.

When the Governor of Cuba sent an armed force to arrest Hernan Cortés, he fought them and beat them convincingly. Cortes then used the remaining troops as reinforcements to his own ranks. Upon defeating his Cuban rival, Hernan Cortés wrote letters directly to the King of Spain, which asked for him to be acknowledged for his major success of destroying the Aztec Empire. The King of Spain granted the request, from this point on Cortés was instrumental in engineering a steady stream of riches to flow back to Spain where it was gratefully received into the Spanish Treasury. Hernan Cortés did not wish to stand trial for disobeying the Governor of Cuba's direct orders but the riches he supplied to the king, made any potential charges disappear without further comment.

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

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The Legacy of Cortes

The King of Spain showed great favour to his conquistador. Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, became First 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 Spanish Empire and stopped rival European powers from exploited the resources of South America. History remembers Hernán Cortés as both a pioneer and the architect of Spain's dominance of the lands now known as Mexico.

He was perhaps, the best known of the Spanish colonizers that spread new settlements throughout the Americas. As a result of his thirst for new wealth, Hernan was responsible for destroying an Aztec civilization that practiced human sacrifice. The removal of Aztec supremacy opened these new colonial territories to the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, it also opened up the native tribes to poor health and fresh suffering. The native population in the new territories lacked any immunity to these foreign diseases.

Modern Mexico does not celebrate Hernan Cortes as he is seen as an unwelcome link to the exploitation of colonial times. He is a historical figure intrinsically linked to the accumulation of silver and gold by the Spanish Empire. There are a few streets named after him across many of the Mexican states and there is one statue dedicated to him on the site of the first colonial hospital. Hernan Cortes is often depicted in murals alongside the Aztec ruler Montezuma II, but more love is shown towards the defeated emperor than to the Spanish invader.


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    • Asp52 profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Stewart 

      5 weeks ago from England

      Yes I agree, I suppose we have to remember that no side is perfect, and cruelty is within us all as much as peace.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago

      The Aztecs not only owned five million slaves, whom they treated with utter cruelty, they also had a little festival in which they cut the beating hearts out of 80,000 human beings in four days. Their butchers worked in shifts, four at a time, round the clock, on convex killing tables, so efficiently that they could kill fourteen victims a minute!

      Cortes looks like Mother Teresa compared to them.

    • Ignatius J Reilly profile image

      Ignatius J Reilly 

      8 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


      8 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      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.


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