Spanish Soldier & Explorer
The Spanish soldier
Cortez is known as the conqueror of Mexico. He was born in the small
town of Medellin in southwestern Spain.
When Cortez was about 18, he sailed for the island of Hispaniola, then
the Spanish headquarters in the West Indies. He was a soldier and a
farmer before he sailed under Diego Velasquez to help conquer Cuba in
1511. Velasquez became the governor, and Cortez was elected Alcalde
(mayor-judge) of Santiago.
When Juan de Grijalva in 1518 reported his discovery of Mexico,
Velasquez picked Cortez to establish a colony there. Velasquez soon
suspected Cortez of ambitions beyond his orders and canceled the
expedition. Cortez, however, assembled men and equipment and set sail.
He rounded the peninsula at Yucatan and touched Mexico on the coast of
what is now the state of Tabasco. During a battle with Indians there he
took many captives, including a young Aztec princess to whom he gave the
Spanish name Marina. She became his interpreter, adviser, and lover.
Cortez continued up the coast. On April 21, 1519, he landed near the
site of Vera Cruz. There, to prevent all thought of retreat, he burned
his ships. Leaving a small force on the coast, Cortez led the remainder
into the interior. The warlike Tlaxcalans attacked--300 Indians to every
Spaniard. After three battles, the Indians became allies of the
Spaniards. On Nov. 8, 1519, Cortez reached Tenochtitlan (now Mexico
City) and was graciously received by Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. Soon
after Cortez established headquarters in the capital he learned the
Aztecs had plundered Vera Cruz. Swiftly he seized Montezuma and forced
him to surrender the attackers. Then he had them executed. Meanwhile
Velasquez had sent 1,400 soldiers to arrest Cortez and bring him back to
Cuba. Cortez defeated this army and enlisted most of the survivors under
his banner. He returned to the Aztec capital.
The leader of the garrison there had slaughtered 600 Mexican nobles. As
Cortez and his men reached the heart of the city, they were attacked by
thousands of Aztec warriors.
Montezuma was brought out to pacify his people, but they stoned him, and
later he died of his wounds. Cortez' army was surrounded and apparently
doomed, but he and three others managed to get to the chieftain of the
Aztecs and killed him, seizing his banner. Dismayed by this apparent
"miracle," the Aztecs withdrew. With fewer than 500 of his men left
alive, Cortez in July 1520 made his way back to his Tlaxcalan allies.
Cortez besieged Tenochtitlan again, from ships, the following May. Then,
on Aug. 13, 1521, Guatemoc, the new Aztec emperor, surrendered. This was
the end of the great empire of the Aztecs.
Cortez spent the next seven years establishing peace among the Indians
of Mexico and developing mines and farmlands. In 1528 he went home and
was received with great honor by Charles V; but he had no skill for
court politics. When he returned to Mexico he went merely as a military
commander. He explored Lower California from 1534 to 1535 and served
against the pirates of Algiers in 1541. The same year he led an
expedition against the Mayas of Yucatan. He died near Seville on Dec. 2,
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