Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Cortés, Hernán

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CORTÉS, Hernán, or Hernando, soldier, b. in Medellin, province of Estremadura, Spain, in 1485; d. near Seville, 2 Dec., 1547. His parents, Martin Cortés and Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, were both of good family, but in reduced circumstances. He was a sickly child, and at the age of fourteen was sent to the University of Salamanca, but returned home two years later without leave. He then determined upon a life of adventure, and arranged to accompany Nicolas de Ovando, likewise a native of Estremadura, who was about to sail for Santo Domingo to supersede Bobadilla in his command. An accident that happened to him in a love adventure detained him at home, and the expedition sailed without him. He then sought military service under the celebrated Gonzalo de Cordova, but on his way to Italy was prostrated by sickness in Valencia, where he remained for a year, experiencing great hardship and poverty. Returning to Medellin, he was able in 1504 to sail from San Lucar for Santo Domingo. Ovando received him cordially, and he obtained employment under Diego Valasquez in the suppression of a revolt, on the termination of which he was assigned the control of a large number of Indians, and appointed a notary. He was at this time remarkable for a graceful physiognomy and amiable manner as well as for skill and address in military matters, and he held successively various important offices. In 1511 he accompanied Diego Velasquez, who was sent out by Diego Columbus to subdue and colonize Cuba. Later he held the office of alcalde of Santiago in the new colony, and meanwhile he married Catalina Juarez, a Spanish lady who had come over in the suite of Maria de Toledo, the vice-queen. After his marriage he employed himself and his Indians in getting gold. “How many of them died in extracting this gold for him, God will have kept a better account than I have,” says Las Casas. Grijalva, a lieutenant of Velasquez, had just discovered Mexico, but had made no attempt at its settlement. This displeased the governor, and Cortes was given the command of a new expedition about to start for the conquest of the newly discovered province. At the last moment, Velasquez appears to have regretted the appointment, possibly fearing that Cortes would carry off all the glory as well as the profit of the enterprise, and endeavored to recall the expedition; but Cortes hastened his preparations, and on 18 Nov., 1518, left Santiago with 10 vessels, 550 Spaniards, nearly 300 Indians, a few negroes, 10 brass guns, a dozen horses, and some falconets. Collecting stores on his way, he arrived at Trinidad, and later at Havana, at both of which places he found orders from Velasquez depriving him of his command, but in neither place could they be enforced, so, after writing a letter of remonstrance to the governor, he sailed, on 10 Feb., 1519, for the island of Cozumel, on the coast of Yucatan. On 4 March he first landed on the shores of Mexico, in the province of Tabasco, advancing slowly along the gulf. Sometimes taking measures to conciliate the natives and sometimes spreading terror by arms, he finally reached and took possession of the city of Tabasco. The noise of the artillery, the appearance of the floating fortresses that had transported the Spaniards over the ocean, and the horses on which they fought, all new objects to the natives, inspired them with astonishment, terror, and admiration. At San Juan de Ulua, Cortes first learned that the native ruler was called Montezuma; that he reigned over an extensive empire, which had lasted for three centuries; that thirty vassals called caciques obeyed him; and that his power and riches were very great. These facts induced him to undertake the conquest of the empire. He laid the foundation of the town of Vera Cruz, and caused himself to be chosen captain-general of the new colony, then burning his ships so as to make retreat impossible, and to augment his army by the seamen, and taking the part of several native tribes against the tax-collectors of Montezuma, thus gaining allies, he set out for the city of Mexico, the residence and capital of Montezuma. The republic of Tlascala, a province between the coast and the capital, although hostile to Montezuma, opposed Cortes with its forces. After four severe battles, in each of which he defeated large numbers of Tlascalans, he entered the capital city of Tlascala on 18 Sept., 1519, and, dictating peace on moderate terms, converted the natives into powerful allies. He endeavored to persuade the Tlascalans to abjure their religion, but in vain, although he succeeded better in prevailing upon them to own themselves vassals of the king of Spain. After a stay of twenty days in this capital he pushed on toward Mexico by Cholula, accompanied by several thousand of his new allies. An attempt was made to check his advance by an ambuscade prepared by the Cholulans at the instance of the Mexicans; but this he escaped, although not until after he had taken vengeance on the Cholulans. He then continued his march, and reached the city of Mexico early in November, at the head of a force consisting of 6,000 natives and a handful of Spaniards. Ambassadors from Montezuma had met Cortes before he entered Tlascala, and he was now received with great ceremony by the Mexican monarch. The natives, believing him to be a descendant of the sun, prostrated themselves before him, and he was assigned quarters in one of the beautiful palaces of this magnificent city. This he at once fortified so as to prevent surprise or capture, and was considering what plans to pursue in order to possess the wealth of the empire when he was informed that an attack had been made on the garrison at Vera Cruz. The importance of this event was very great, for hitherto the Mexicans had believed the Spaniards to be immortal, and they were only undeceived by the receipt of the head of one of the soldiers. Cortes conceived and executed a most brilliant and daring project, which, being successful, doubtless prevented the massacre of the entire Spanish force. Accompanied by his officers, he went at once to the palace of Montezuma, and, taking him prisoner, threatened him with instant death if he in any way appealed to his people; then, having captured the Mexicans who had participated in the attack on Vera Cruz, he burned them alive in front of the imperial palace. Meanwhile he placed Montezuma in irons, and compelled him to acknowledge himself a vassal of Charles V. Caminatzin, the bravest of Montezuma's nephews, was likewise made prisoner, and, with many of the nobles of the empire, induced to take the oath of allegiance to the king of Spain. Soon after the Mexican ruler was restored to a semblance of liberty, but not until he presented Cortes with 600,000 marks of pure gold and a large quantity of precious stones. Scarcely had he accomplished all this when he received intelligence that an army under Narvaez had been sent by Velasquez to compel him to renounce his command. Leaving 200 men in Mexico under the command of a lieutenant whom he recommended to the care of Montezuma as a vassal of Charles V., he marched with 70 men, and, after being joined by 150 more, whom he had left at Cholula, captured Narvaez, who had encamped near the city of the Cempovallans with a force of 900 men, 80 horses, and 10 or 12 pieces of artillery. The defeated troops, after the death of their leader, readily joined the army of Cortes and returned with him to Mexico, where he found that the people had risen against the Spaniards. Montezuma, still a prisoner, endeavored to pacify his subjects, but was attacked by the mob and so injured by stones that he died in a few days. A new emperor was chosen, under whose leadership they attacked the Spaniards and drove them out of the city. Cortes's rear-guard was cut to pieces, and, after a harassing retreat of six days, the Mexicans offered battle on the plains of Otumba. With the advantages offered by his artillery and fire-arms, Cortes, on 7 July, 1520, gained a great victory, which decided the fate of Mexico. The celebrated noche-triste (or “unhappy night”) tree, shown in the illustration, is in the village of Popotla, near an old church in the environs of Mexico. Cortes is said to have sat under this tree lamenting his misfortune after the retreat of the Spaniards during the night of the evacuation. The tree is known by the Indians as the “ahuehuete,” and in Spanish is called “sabino.” It is a species of cedar and is ten feet in diameter at the base, about forty feet in height, and surrounded by a substantial iron railing. After his success, Cortes proceeded to Tlascala, where he collected an army of natives, and again marched against the city of Mexico, which, after a gallant defence of seventy-seven days, was retaken on 13 Aug., 1521. The extent of his conquest, due entirely to his genius, valor, and profound but unscrupulous policy, caused his irregularities to be forgiven by his sovereign, who, disregarding the pretensions of Velasquez, appointed Cortes governor and captain-general of Mexico, also conferring on him the marquisate of Oajaca with a considerable revenue. His course of conquest, however, was not such as to conciliate the natives; he was over-zealous to destroy their idols, and anxious to convert them to Christianity, even using force for this purpose. These actions so embittered the Mexicans that, reduced to despair, they again revolted, but in vain. The arms, valor, and zeal of the Spaniards succeeded everywhere. Guatimozin, the new emperor, a man of much greater force than Montezuma, was, with a number of the caciques, accused of conspiring against the conquerors, and was publicly executed with circumstances of great cruelty by Cortes. Meanwhile his successes produced jealousies in Madrid, his ambition and great popularity with the soldiers caused him to be feared, and commissioners were sent to watch his conduct and thwart his proceedings. While he was engaged in conquest, his property was seized and his retainers imprisoned and put in irons. Indignant at such treatment, Cortes returned to Spain to appeal to the justice of his master, and presented himself with great splendor before the court. He was received by Charles with every distinction, and decorated with the order of Santiago. Cortes returned to Mexico with new titles and honors, but with diminished power, a viceroy having been intrusted with the administration of civil affairs, although Cortes still retained military authority, with permission to continue his conquests. This division of power led to continual dissension, and caused the failure of several enterprises in which Cortes was engaged; but in 1536 he discovered the peninsula of California and surveyed part of the gulf that separates it from Mexico. Subsequently, however, tired of struggling with unworthy adversaries, he returned to Europe, hoping to confound his enemies. He was coldly received by Charles; but, concealing his feelings, he served in the disastrous expedition to Algiers in 1541. During this unfortunate campaign, which was his last, he served with great bravery; and, had his advice been heeded, the Spanish arms would have been saved from disgrace, and Europe delivered nearly three centuries earlier from the scourge of organized piracy. On his return he was utterly neglected, and could scarcely obtain an audience. On one occasion he forced his way through a crowd that surrounded the emperor's carriage, and mounted on the doorstep. The emperor, astounded at such audacity, demanded of him who he was. “I am a man,” replied Cortes proudly, “who has given you more provinces than your ancestors left you cities.” This declaration of services could scarcely fail to offend the proud monarch, and Cortes retired to Seville, where he passed the remainder of his days in solitude. Five letters addressed to Charles V., detailing his conquests, are his only writings. See “Letters and Despatches of Cortes,” translated by George Folsom (New York, 1848); Prescott's “Conquest of Mexico” (Boston, 1843); and Sir Arthur Helps's “Life of Hernando Cortes” (London, 1871).


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