On 8 November 1519, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés reached Tenochtitlan – capital of the Aztec Empire. It would prove to be an era-defining moment, signalling the beginning of the end for the American continent’s great civilisations, and the start of a new and terrible age.
Starting afresh in the New World
Like many men who set off to explore distant lands, Cortés was not a success back at home. Born in 1485 in Medellín, the young Spaniard was a disappointment to his family after quitting school early and allegedly badly injuring himself whilst escaping out of the window of a married woman.
Bored of his small-town life and distant family, he left for the New World in 1504 aged just just 18, and settled in the newly created colony of Santo Domingo (now in the Dominican Republic.) Over the next few years, he caught the eye of his colonial masters as he took part in expeditions to conquer Hispaniola (Haiti) and Cuba.
With Cuba newly conquered by 1511, the young adventurer was rewarded with a high political position on the island. In typical fashion, relations between him and the Cuban governor Velazquez began to sour over Cortes’ arrogance, as well as his rakish pursuit of the governor’s sister-in-law.
Eventually, Cortés decided to marry her, thus securing the good will of his master, and creating a newly wealthy platform for some adventures of his own.
Into the unknown
By 1518, many of the Caribbean islands had been discovered and colonised by Spanish settlers, but the great uncharted mainland of the Americas remained a mystery. That year Velazquez gave Cortés permission to explore the interior, and though he quickly revoked this decision after another squabble, the younger man decided to go anyway.
In February 1519 he left, taking 500 men, 13 horses and a handful of cannon with him. Upon reaching the Yucatan peninsula, he scuttled his ships. With his name now blackened by the vengeful governor of Cuba, there would be no going back.
From then on Cortés marched inland, winning skirmishes with natives, from whom he captured a number of young women. One of them would one day father his child, and they told him of a great inland Empire stuffed with staggering riches. In what is now Veracruz, he met with an emissary of this nation, and demanded a meeting with the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma.
Tenochtitlan – the island city
After the emissaries haughtily refused him many times, he began to march onto the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – refusing to take no for an answer. On the way there he met with other tribes under the yoke of Moctezuma’s rule, and these warriors quickly swelled the Spanish ranks as the summer of 1519 went slowly by.
Finally, on 8 November, this ragtag army arrived at the gates of Tenochtitlan, an island city said to have been astonishingly rich and beautiful. Seeing this host at the gates of his capital, Moctezuma decided to receive the strange newcomers peacefully, and he met with the foreign adventurer – who was basking in the local belief that this strange armoured man was actually the serpent God Quetzalcoatl.
The meeting with the Emperor was cordial, and Cortés was given large amounts of gold – which was not seen to be as valuable to the Aztecs. Unfortunately for Moctezuma, after coming all this way the Spaniard was fired up rather than placated by this show of generosity.
Cortés’ bloody road to power
While in the city he learned that some of his men left by the coast had been killed by locals, and used this as a pretext to suddenly seize the Emperor in his own palace and declare him to be a hostage. With this powerful pawn in his hands, Cortés then effectively ruled the city and its Empire for the next few months with little opposition.
This relative calm did not last long. Velazquez had not given up on finding his old enemy and dispatched a force which arrived in Mexico in April 1520. Despite being outnumbered, Cortés rode out of Tenochtitlan to meet them and incorporated the survivors into his own men after winning the ensuing battle.
In a vengeful mood, he then marched back to Tenochtitlan – in his absence, his second-in-command, Alvarado, had ordered the killing of hundreds of Aztec people after they attempted to perform a ritual human sacrifice as part of their celebrations for the festival of Toxcatl. Shortly after Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma was killed. Despite claiming that it had happened in an uncontrollable riot, historians have suspected foul play ever since.
As the situation in the city escalated terribly, Cortés had to flee for his life with a few of his men on what is now known as La Noche Triste: in his confidence, he had underestimated the Aztecs, failed to understand their tactics and overestimated the ability of his own troops. He lost 870 men, a significant percentage of the Spanish forces in Mexico, as a result.
After forming alliances with local rivals, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan and besieged the city, almost razing it to the ground, and claiming it for Spain under the name of Mexico City. With no one to tell him otherwise, he then ruled as the self-styled governor of all Mexico from 1521-1524.
In the end, Cortés got what he probably deserved. His demanding of recognition and wilful arrogance gradually alienated the King of Spain, and when the ageing explorer returned to the Royal court he met with a chilly reception.
Cortés retired back to Mexico, where he spent time on his extensive states, as well as engaging in some Pacific exploration: he is credited with the Western ‘discovery’ of the Baja California peninsula.
He eventually died, embittered, in 1547, having left behind a legacy of European empire-building in the Americas, and wiped a powerful civilisation off the face of the earth.