Impact of Hernán Cortés’ Colonial Exploration

Hernán Cortés’ actions had far reaching impact in historical past. His conquest for the Aztec Empire, one of the biggest powers in the New World, led to an increase of the Spanish Colonial Empire and started a trend of colonial exploration. From his humble origins of Medellín, Spain to one of the most successful conquistadors to date, his actions shaped the modern world.[1]

 As Christopher Columbus first found the New World for Spain, it should be expected that Spain was the dominant colonizing force. Spanish settlements popped up around Central and South America where Spain had the biggest presence in the New World. In 1519, Cortés started his conquest which gained Spain most of Mexico and made a precedent for other conquistadors such as, his cousin, Francisco Pizzaro. By the end of 1550, Spain controlled most of the West Indies and Central America, along with its decently sized surviving Native population.[2]

 Born in Medellín, Spain in the year 1485 Hernán Cortes came into this world. His parents were Martin Cortés de Monroy and Catalina Pizzaro Altamirano. His family despite being noble, didn’t have much money. Along with that Cortés’ distant cousin, Francisco Pizarro happened to conquer the Incan Empire later on. In 1501, he dropped from Salamanca University due to his want for an exciting life. This want for an exciting and profitable life got him fascinated by the stories of gold and riches located in the New World. And so, when the time came, he signed up for an expedition there with the governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando. But, unfortunately Cortés sustained a back injury when rubble fell on top of him and couldn’t join Ovando on his journey.

As time went on Cortés became more obsessed with the New World and with its sense of exploration and possibility for riches. Finally in 1504, Cortés sought passage to Hispaniola. When he got there he ensued farming and gathered a lot of wealth. With that subsequent wealth, Cortés acquired several native slaves. Along with that, Cortés served as a notary (someone who functioned to protect the law) to the town council.[3]

After six long years on Hispaniola, gradually increasing his wealth Cortés had the opportunity for an expedition. He joined Diego Velázquez in 1511 on his conquest to conquer Cuba. Successful in their endeavor, Velázquez became appointed governor while Cortés became appointed clerk to the treasurer. Cortés, along with his new position, got the gift of land and Indian slaves, along with the first new house in the new capital of Santiago. Cortés now realized his position of importance and tried to grasp more power. He was elected mayor twice for the town of Santiago.[4] This caused tension between Cortés and Velázquez. What more added to this tension was the matter of Catalina Suarez. Being the sister of Cortés’ friend Juan Suarez and related to Velázquez, Catalina was promised to Cortés. After his expedition to conquer Cuba, Cortés backed out on his to be engagement.  Velázquez, as the governor of Cuba, imprisoned Cortés for not upholding his promise. Eventually Cortés agreed to marry Catalina but the tension between the Velázquez and Cortés had already grown.[5]

Finally a breaking point of all that tension seemed to come when news of Juan de Grijalba’s efforts to set up colonies in the mainland came. It was decided that help would be sent for him and that Hernán Cortés would be named Captain General of this new expedition signed in October 1518. Knowing of New World politics and the resolve of Veláquez, Cortés worked fast to gather supplies for the trip. In one month Cortés acquired 6 boats and 300 men to set sail. Predictably Veláquez started to harbor jealousy for the possibility of gold and glory for Cortés. Soon enough, Veláquez withdrew his order making it illegal for Cortés to set sail. Cortés, however, did not falter and set out disobeying Veláquez’s orders. Picking up more men and vessels at Cuaban ports, and ended up being 11 ships, 508 soldiers, 100 sailors, and about 16 horses.[6]

Cortés eventually ended up in Cozumel, which is a small island off the coast of Mexico. He then proceeded to explore the land for signs of colonization. While doing so, Cortés encountered some of the natives (Mayans) and one of their large pyramids. As he was exploring the pyramid he noticed blood and human remains, learning that this pyramid was used for human sacrifice to the gods. Cortés appalled by this, tried to convert the Indians by taking away their idols and replacing with crosses and Virgin Mary. Cortés then traveled the land using native translators to communicate with the indians and learning some of the Mayan languages himself. Soon enough, Cortés once more set sail.[7]

 In March 1519, Cortés landed at Tabasco in the coast of Yucatán, along Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. The greeting here was much less welcoming that what Cortés received in Cozumel. Cortés and his men clashed with the natives on March 25, 1519. This battle came to be known as the Battle of Cintla, as it took place in Cintla Valley. The natives held poorly under the Spanish Soldiers’ weaponry and armour and eventually lost. In contrast to the 800 tabascans killed, only 2 Spanish men died.[8]

After the victory over the local Indians, he received gold and a female slave. This female slave proved to be of great importance to Cortés. Malinche, baptized marina, knew both Maya and Aztec and served as Cortés’ main interpreter. Along with all this, Malinche served as his mistress, giving him a son of the name of Martin.[9]

After the Battle of Cintla, Cortés traveled farther up the coast of Mexico where he founded Veracruz. By founding this colony he was ensured the position of captain general of the colony. This also relieved him of Veláquez’s authority, making him only responsible to the King of Spain at the time, King Charles V. At veracruz Cortés took many bold actions to make sure he will be victorious in his conquest. He burned all his ships to show that there is no turning back and continued to train his army for the upcoming conquest. After finally getting ready, Cortés marched on the capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlán. [10]

The Aztec Empire started off as the Mexica people built the proud city of Tenochtitlán (which later becomes Mexico City). The people of Tenochtitlán formed an alliance with two other cities: Texcoco and Tlacopan. This alliance would rule the Valley of Mexico until the Spanish came. However, overtime Tenochtitlán outstripped the other two in power, wealth, and population. Hence, Tenochtitlán became the heart of the Aztec Empire.[11]

The Aztec Empire, like most empires, functioned in city-states. As the empire expanded, as most empires usually do, they took over massive amounts of land. The conquered city after city, most of which resisted. While other cities were conquered and began to pay tribute, increasing  the power and wealth of the Aztec Empire.[12]

Of the three cities in the alliance, Tenochtitlán served as the military power for the Aztec Empire. Therefore, Tenochtitlán also served as the driving force for conquering new lands and expanding the empire. Since the Aztec Emperor did not rule all of the city states local governments were implied. Local governments ensured that the locals would keep happy, along with stability and continuity. Regardless of who ruled the city states, the city states still had to pay large taxes to the triple alliance. Where most of the tribute goes to Tenochtitlán as it was the most powerful. By 1519, the Aztec Empire was at its peak. It stretched from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and from Central America to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.[13]

The Aztec Empire, like most powers had social classes inside its boundaries. When the Aztec Empire came to be, everyone was equal in social standing more or less. Under the influence of the Toltecs they decided to crown a king. That king was Acamapchtll who fathered many sons. His descendents started a new social class in the Aztec Empire known as the nobles or pipilitin. The king, from then on, would only be chosen from the pipiltin. Though ruling positions were not hereditary, preference was given to those in ruling families. The nobles along with that also have many other privileges. They usually had fuller and more comprehensive education, they were allowed to wear more sophisticated clothes, and allowed to have decorate houses. They were also able to hold important government positions. But even as a noble there were a few low honor jobs such as craftsmen or palace servants. Those who served with distinction could move up the ranks of the nobility. [14]

[1] “The Ages of Exploration.” Ages of Exploration. Accessed October 22, 2019.

[2] “Unit 1.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed October 23, 2019.

[3] “The Ages of Exploration.” Ages of Exploration. Accessed October 22, 2019.

[4] Innes, Ralph Hammond. “Hernán Cortés.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed October 23, 2019.

[5] “The Ages of Exploration.” Ages of Exploration. Accessed October 22, 2019.

[6] Innes, Ralph Hammond. “Hernán Cortés.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed October 23, 2019.

[7] “The Ages of Exploration.” Ages of Exploration. Accessed October 22, 2019.

[8] “The Ages of Exploration.” Ages of Exploration. Accessed October 22, 2019.

[9] “Aztec Capital Falls to Cortés.” A&E Television Networks, February 9, 2010.

[10] “Aztec Capital Falls to Cortés.” A&E Television Networks, February 9, 2010.

[11] “The Aztec Empire.” Aztec History. Accessed October 23, 2019.

[12] “The Aztec Empire.” Aztec History. Accessed October 23, 2019.

[13] “The Aztec Empire.” Aztec History. Accessed October 23, 2019.

[14] “Aztec Social Classes.” Aztec History. Accessed October 23, 2019.


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