Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was a Spanish conquistador, responsible for the audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire in Central Mexico in 1519. With a force of 600 Spanish soldiers he was able to conquer a vast Empire that had tens of thousands of warriors. He did it through a combination of ruthlessness, guile, violence and luck.
Like many of those who would eventually become conquistadores in the Americas, Cortés was born in the Castilian province of Extremadura, in the small city of Medellín. He came from a respected military family but was a rather sickly child. He went to the distinguished University of Salamanca to study law but dropped out before long. By this time, tales of the wonders of the New World were being told all over Spain, appealing to teens like Cortés. He decided to head to Hispaniola to seek his fortune.
Life in Hispaniola
Cortés was fairly well educated and had family connections, so when he arrived in Hispaniola in 1503 he soon found work as a notary and was given a plot of land and a number of natives to work it for him. His health improved and he trained as a soldier, and took part in the subjugation of those parts of Hispaniola that had held out against the Spanish. He became known as a good leader, an intelligent administrator, and a ruthless fighter. It was these traits that made Diego Velázquez select him for his expedition to Cuba.
Velázquez was tasked with the subjugation of the island of Cuba. He set out with three ships and 300 men, including young Cortés, who was a clerk assigned to the treasurer of the expedition. Ironically, also along on the expedition was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who would eventually describe the horrors of the conquest and denounce the conquistadores. The conquest of Cuba was marked by a number of unspeakable abuses, including massacres and the burning alive of native chief Hatuey. Cortés distinguished himself as a soldier and administrator and was made mayor of the new city of Santiago. His influence grew, and he watched in 1517-1518 as two expeditions to conquer the mainland met with failure.
Conquest of Tenochtitlán
In 1518 it was Cortés’ turn. With 600 men, he began one of the most audacious feats in history: the conquest of the Aztec Empire, which at that time had tens if not hundreds of thousands of warriors. After landing with his men, he made his way to Tenochtitlán, capital of the Empire. Along the way, he defeated Aztec vassal states, adding their strength to his. He reached Tenochtitlán in 1519 and was able to occupy it without a fight. When Governor Velázquez of Cuba sent an expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez to rein in Cortés, he had to leave the city to fight. He defeated Narváez and added his men to his own.