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Who was Hernan Cortes?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), the conqueror of Mexico, was born in Spain and went to Hispaniola in the West Indies as a young man. He distinguished himself in the conquest of Cuba and was chosen to lead an expedition to the then unknown country of Mexico. In 1519 he set out with about five hundred adventurers, whose firearms were to give them a decisive advantage over their adversaries, and he also had cannons, mastiff dogs and sixteen horses, all terrifying to the Mexicans.

After burning his ships at Vera Cruz to convince his men there was no turning back, Cortes advanced inland, defeating the Tlaxcalans and then making an alliance with them against the Aztecs. At Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), the Aztec capital, he was welcomed by the Emperor Montezuma, who believed the Spaniard to be a god named Quetzal whom he was powerless to resist. Cortes captured the Emperor and began to rule, but when he went back to the coast to deal with a rival expedition the Aztecs rebelled. He returned to lead a desperate retreat from the city and then raised an army from neighboring tribes, built a fleet of ships to cross the lake that protected Tenochtitlan and in 1521 attacked and destroyed the capital.

Cortes governed Mexico for five years until enemies secured his recall to Spain; however, he returned to Mexico later, where he ruled his vast estates, explored the coastline and discovered Lower California in 1536. He returned to Spain in 1540 and died there, neglected, in 1547.


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