Letters of Cortes to Emperor Charles V - Vol 1/Early days

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FERNANDO CORTES, son of Martin Cortes y Monroy and of Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, his wife, was born in 1485 at Medellin, an unimportant town in Estremadura. The house in which he first saw the Hght stood in the Calle de la Feria until it was destroyed by the French in the campaign of 1809. (Alaman, Dissertazioni sulla Storia del Messico; Dissert. V.) Both his father's and his mother's families were of good descent, and respected, though poor. Martin Cortes had been a captain of fifty light cavalry, and he is further described by the anonymous author of De Rebus Gestis as "pietate tamen et religione toto vitæ tempore clarus," while to his wife the same writer gives the highest praise, saying, "Caterina namque probitate pudicitia et in conjugem amore nulli ætatis suae feminæ cessit." Las Casas also states that he had known Martin Cortes in a poor and humble condition, but that he was a Cristiano viejo, and said to be a gentleman. Later when the great fame of Cortes had converted him into an ancestor of whom the most illustrious family might be proud, ingenious genealogists sought to prove him also the descendant of very noble, and even royal, forefathers; but these unconvincing efforts must seem somewhat unimportant in the case of one whose name and place in history were won by his own achievements, unaided by the support either of influential family or superior fortune. During his early childhood his health was so frail that he was several times thought to be at death's door. It seemed, therefore, all important to provide him with a powerful patron saint, who was finally chosen by drawing lots among the twelve apostles, the choice thus falling upon St. Peter, to whom Cortes rendered profound devotion during all his life and to whose protection he constantly attributed his victories.

When their son was fourteen years old, his parents sent him to the University of Salamanca to prepare himself for the practice of law, which was held in high esteem and opened a promising career to a young man of ability. During the two years he remained there, he lodged in the house of his paternal aunt, Inez de Paz, who was married to one Francisco Nuñez Valera. This brief course of study was sufficient to prove that he was in no way fitted for the profession his parents had chosen for him, so in 1501 he caused them the liveliest chagrin by returning to Medellin.

An idle year of rather disorderly life followed. The boy's taste was for arms and adventures, and, after hovering between the rival attractions of the Italian campaign under Gonsalvo de Cordoba, and those of service with Don Nicolas de Ovando, the recently appointed Governor of Hispaniola, he finally decided to join the latter, who was preparing to sail, with an important fleet of thirty ships, fitted out at the royal expense, to take possession of his office. In this he was urged, probably, by the consideration that the Governor was a family friend, who might be counted upon to advance his interests. Just before sailing, however, Cortes had the mishap of falling from a wall which he was scaling to keep an appointment with a lady, an accident which might have ended fatally for him but for the intervention of an old woman who, attracted by the noise of his fall at her very door, arrived just in time to prevent her son-in-law from running him through the body as he lay prostrate. As it was, his bruises laid him up until after Ovando's fleet had sailed, and, upon his recovery, he went to Valencia with the intention of embarking for Italy to join the forces of the great Captain. What defeated his purpose is not recorded, but, upon his return to Medellin about a year later, his parents consented to his following Ovando and provided him with the money for his journey. He was thus enabled to sail from San Lucar de Barameda in 1504 on the trading vessel of one Alonzo Quintero of Palos, bound with four others carrying merchandise to the Indies.

The little fleet touched first at the Canaries which was the usual route. Alonzo Quintero was a shifty fellow, who, twice on the voyage, sought to overreach his brother captains by detaching himself from the fleet in the hope of making port ahead of them and disposing of his cargo to advantage and without their competition. Both times, however, untoward weather overtook him, and, the second time, his pilot, Francisco Niño, lost his bearings, and the ship, in a bad condition, short of water and provisions was like to be lost. At dawn on Good Friday a dove was seen perching on the rigging, and, by following the flight of the bird of good omen, land was sighted by Cristobal Zorno on Easter Day, and four days later, the weather-beaten craft reached port where the others of the fleet had long since arrived and disposed of their goods.

Seekers after signs and wonders were not slow to claim the appearance of this dove to guide Quintero's ship at such a critical moment as evidence of the celestial protection and miraculous intervention of providence in the direction of Cortes's fortunes, of which numerous other similar examples are cited, and to which he himself was always ready to ascribe his success; and, in the early chronicle, De Rebus Gestisof authoritative but unknown authorship, it is stated that, even at the time of this occurrence, there were those present who claimed to recognise the Holy Ghost in the white-winged pilot sent to rescue the hapless ship.—"Alius, Sanctum esse Spiritum, qui in illius alitis specie, ut mæstos et afflictos solaretur, venire erat dignatus."

The Governor being absent, his secretary, Medina, who already knew Cortes, met him upon his landing, and gave him hospitality in his house, acquainting him with the condition of things in the island, and adding him to settle near the town. To this Cortes is said to have replied that he had come to seek gold rather than to till the ground. During the war against Queen Anacoana of Hayti, which followed close upon his arrival, the horrors of which have been described first by Las Casas and later by Washington Irng, Cortes gave a very good account of himself, and upon the establishment of peace he received a grant of good land and a repartimiento of Indians at Daiguao where he was likewise appointed notary of the newly founded town of Azua. (Gomara, Cronica. Cap. iii; De Rebus Gestis). During the five or six ensuing years, his life was that of a planter, and was barren of any salient event, though Bemal Diaz says that he was involved in several affairs about women which led to quarrels and duels, in one of which he was wounded in the lip. He was prevented by an opportune illness from joining the luckless expedition of Alonso de Ojedo and Diego de Nicuesa to Darien. Don Nicolas de Ovando was succeeded in the office of Governor by Don Diego Columbus, who in 1511 fitted out an expedition for the conquest of Cuba, which he placed under the command of Don Diego Velasquez, and in which Cortes volunteered.

His conduct at this time advanced his interests in every respect, for his genial character and lively conversation soon made him a favourite with his companions in arms, while his bravery and address acquired him the best reputation as a soldier and attracted the attention of his commander. This conquest afforded indeed but scanty opportunity either to the commander or the soldiers of the invading force to display their prowess, for the pacific natives were hunted through the island like timorous hares to yield after the feeblest resistance only. Thus they were brought into subjection with the barest semblance of serious military operations. Yet such mild warfare and the equally nerveless conflicts in the island of Hispaniola (San Domingo) supplied Cortes with the only training in campaigning he ever received. The skill he later displayed in military tactics, and his masterly generalship, were due to his latent genius, which sprang fully fledged into consciousness in response to the first demand made upon it, furnishing him liberally with an equipment for conquest which less gifted commanders must wrest from experience.

He received in recognition of his services in Cuba, an encomienda of Indians at Manicaro where he settled, becoming a citizen of Santiago. Gomara states that he was successful in the management of his estate, and was the first of the colonists to introduce certain breeds of sheep and cattle into the island. He had as his partner at Manicaro, Juan Xuarez.

Here may be said to close the first period of the life of Cortes, which might have been that of any spirited young Spaniard of his class and times, fretting within the restrictions of a provincial town, averse to the plodding career offered him by his parents, and finally cutting loose and winning his place in a new life in the colonies, by force of valour in feats of arms, and his ability in managing affairs.