Hernán (or Hernando) Cortés was a Spanish conquistador in the employ of recently instated Cuban Governor Diego Velazquez. He gained his place in history for his impressive conquer of the Aztec nation of over five million people with only one thousand Spanish soldiers. The time period he lived in was one of violent expansion by European countries that were desperate to gain power over the territory and resources found in the new world. This expansion came with great violence and disrespect to the native cultures, ultimately leading to the fall of many civilizations that had thrived for centuries. The material culture that had made the conquistadors so successful was their mastery over steel for weapons and armor.
The time period Cortes lived in is referred to as the Age of Discovery which started in the 1500's shortly before Cortes' birth and ended in the 17th century. This time period was filled with Spanish and Portuguese sponsored expeditions to find wealth and primarily a faster route to “the Indies”. Though they never found a particularly good route to the Indies, these expeditions did yield to the discovery of a profitable new world. This long distance sailing was made possible by such creations as a compass, celestial charts, and the astrolobe.
Hernando Cortes was originally a law student, however he left university to pursue more prosperous means in the new world. After briefly staying in Santo Dominico, he sailed to Cuba in 1511 to assist Diego Velazquez in his conquering of the land. After proving to Velazquez that he was an apt and brave commander on the battle field, he was given a commission to lead an expedition to the recently discovered Mexico in 1518. When he arrived on the land he was originally mistaken for the white skinned God of the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl. Coincidentally, his landing also coincided with a prophecy that predicted the return of Quetzalcoatl. Throughout his exploration of Mexico, he encountered several hostile tribes, however they held great animosity for the Aztecs and joined Cortes on his journey to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. During his early battles Cortes cleverly used his technology to bolster his native army and foster peace with hostile tribes. Rachael Kostler-Grack writes of such a story, “He (Cortes) ordered out his largest cannon and two strong horses. As he spoke, he gave a signal for the cannon to be fired. The thundering bang of the gun and whistle of the ball through the air terrified the natives. “The cannons are still angry from being attacked,” Cortes claimed. Then the sailors brought out the two horses whinnying and stomping. Again, the natives froze in horror. “The horses, too, are restless,” Cortes added. The commander explained that the guns and horses would settle down now that the natives wanted peace.“ (Koestler-Grack, 79) Believing he was Quetzalcoatl, Montezuma II welcomed him heartily and with lavish gifts of gold. Cortes is quoted as saying, “"Tell Motecuhzoma that we are his friends. There is nothing to fear. We have wanted to see him for a long time, and now we have seen his face and heard his words. Tell him that we love him well and that our hearts are contented." (Leon-Portilla) This provided Cortes with inside information of the city and it's weaknesses, and proved that the Aztecs had much wealth to be plundered.
Good relations with the natives soon soured, and Cortes ended up taking Montezuma hostage in his own paranoia of attack. Miguel LeonPortilla writes on the brutality, “The Spaniards hanged a chief from Acolhuacan named Nezahualquentzin. They also murdered the king of Nauhtla, Cohualpopocatzin, by wounding him with arrows and then burning him alive. When this had been done, the celebrants began to sing their songs. That is how they celebrated the first day of the fiesta. On the second day they began to sing again, but without warning they were all put to death. The dancers and singers were completely unarmed.“ (Leon-Pontillo) Cortez demanded a large ransom from the Aztec people for their leader. In 1520, Valazquez sent an expedition to capture Cortes upon hearing of his immense cruelty towards the natives. When Cortes went to fight the expedition, a revolt broke out in the Aztec capital. Miguel Leon-Portilla dictates, “The Sun had treacherously murdered our people on the twentieth day after the captain left for the coast. We allowed the Captain to return to the city in peace. But on the following day we attacked him with all our might, and that was the beginning of the war “ (Leon-Pontillo) When he returned, the Aztec citizens threw stones and killed their traitor king Montezuma and forced the Spanish out of their city. Cortes regrouped and returned to lay siege to the city in 1521. After three months, smallpox and other European diseases had ravaged the Aztecs and their city fell.
By 1523, Cortes had conquered all of what was deemed New Spain and ruled as governor in Mexico City, which was built on top of the ruins of the Aztec capital. Spain, however, feared that Cortes was gaining too much power. He was ordered to return to Spain in which he was deemed able to still rule as a general in New Spain, but had severely limited power. He continued as an explorer in which he tried to find a passage connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic. However, he ended up
discovering, and naming, California. Hernando Cortes died December 2nd 1547 on his estate in Spain as a shamed and bitter man of magnificent conquests.
The conquering of the Aztec people was made exponentially simple by a technology that Europe had had since the 4th century BC, steel. Spanish conquistadors used steel swords that were about three feet in length and sharpened on both sides. Whereas the native Aztecs used wooden swords that were edged with obsidian. This was practical for the Aztecs in their culture as they used war prisoners as human sacrifices for the Gods, therefor they wanted their weapons to wound, but not kill. Conquistador swords easily cut through the inferior Aztec ones, and when the Aztecs were able to land a blow it would merely bounce of the Spanish armor. Armor was one one aspect that failed to reach Aztec culture. The Aztec warriors would wear the skin of the jaguar in hopes that it would make them as fierce and agile as the animal. This however did not protect them against cold hard steel.
In conclusion, the conquer of the central and south America was, to state plainly, a little embarrassing for the natives. However, Europeans had had centuries of trade to improve on their technologies, whereas the Americas were relatively cut off from each other. It is because of their prehistoric societies that the advanced and “civilized” Spanish viewed them as savages and decimated their societies. Though Cortes was an undeniably cruel man, his success in Mexico and central America was great, albeit so could credit it to pure luck that his arrive coincided with their calendar.