Cortez, or Cortés, Hernando, Hernán, or Fernando (1484–1547), the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. He was among the most famous of the conquistadores, the daring and ruthless adventurers who plundered and conquered the Indian lands of the American continents.
Cortez was born in Medellín in western Spain. He studied law at the University of Salamanca, but left school to seek adventure. In 1506 he went to the island of Hispaniola in the West Indies. In 1511 he took part in the conquest of Cuba under Diego de Velásquez.
In 1518 Cortez was put in charge of an expedition to conquer the Aztec empire in Mexico, but at the last minute Velásquez tried to remove him from command. Cortez slipped away from Cuba and landed in Mexico early in 1519. He had 11 ships, some 550 soldiers, 16 horses, and 14 cannon. He defeated the Indians in what is now the state of Tabasco. Then he sailed to the site of Veracruz, where he built a fort and set up his government. He sent one ship back to Spain with treasures for the king and burned the others to keep his men from deserting.
From Veracruz, the Spaniards began their march to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). On the way, they fought and defeated the Tlaxcalans, a warlike tribe that Cortez gained as allies. In November, 1519, the Spaniards reached Tenochtitlán, which was built on an island in the middle of a lake and connected to the mainland by causeways.
Cortez's army was small, but the noise of the cannon and the sight of armored soldiers on horseback filled the Indians with awe and fear. The Aztec empire had many enemies among its subject tribes who were eager to revolt and joined the Spaniards. Also, the Indians looked upon the white men as messengers of their god Quetzalcoatl. Some even regarded Cortez as a god, possibly Quetzalcoatl himself.
Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor, greeted Cortez with great courtesy. But soon Cortez heard that the Aztecs had attacked Veracruz. He promptly seized Montezuma as a hostage and forced him to pay a large indemnity in gold and jewels. Cortez put to death the Aztecs who had attacked Veracruz. He next had to face a Spanish army that Velásquez had sent from Cuba to arrest him. Cortez hurried to the coast and defeated the army of about 1,000 men. He then enlisted the defeated soldiers in his army.
The Aztecs revolted against the small force left at Tenochtitlán and Cortez returned to find his men besieged. When Montezuma tried to stop the revolt, the Aztecs showered him with stones and arrows. He either died of his wounds or was killed by the Spanish. On the evening of June 30, 1520, called by the Spanish the "dismal night," the Spaniards and their Indian allies fled from the capital on a causeway, fighting off Aztec attacks. Cortez lost half his forces.
Cortez built a new army composed of hundreds of Spanish reinforcements coming to Mexico to join in the conquest and of thousands of Indians from rebellious tribes, notably the Tlaxcalans and Texcocans. Cortez's assault on Tenochtitlán began in May, 1521. After weeks of fierce fighting, the city surrendered August 13.
Cortez was appointed captain general and governor of New Spain, as Mexico was called. He made expeditions to the north and south to extend his conquests. He drove the Indians to rebellion and put down their revolts with great cruelty. In Spain many people were jealous of his power and wealth, and they denounced his ruthless methods.
In 1526 Charles V deprived Cortez of the governorship. In 1528 Cortez went to Spain to defend himself and to appeal to Charles V to restore his position. The king refused to return to Cortez his administrative authority, but allowed him to retain the title of captain general and granted him a vast estate in southern Mexico. A viceroy was put in charge of the government of New Spain. Cortez led several military expeditions, including the one that discovered the peninsula of Baja California in 1536.
In 1540 Cortez returned to Spain. He took part in the unsuccessful expedition against Algiers in 1541. Neglected and embittered, he died in 1547, near Seville. Later, his body was brought to Mexico City. In 1823, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the body was hidden to protect it from possible desecration. It was found in 1946 in the wall of the church of the Hospital Jesus Nazareño, in Mexico City.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a companion of Cortez, wrote a contemporary report in his True Account of the Discovery of New Spain (1632). Other books on Cortez include William H. Prescott's classic Conquest of Mexico (1843) and Hugh Thomas's Conquest (1993).