Hernando Cortés
(1485–1547)

Imposing leader and builder

Hernando Cortés, the conqueror, never spoke to a priest without first uncovering his head and bowing. And he became almost physically ill at the sight of Aztec idols.

Hernando Cortés, the Christian, could draw Cholula Indian leaders into a trap and then mercilessly slaughter them.

Such was the paradoxical character of this man.

Cortés studied law briefly at the University of Salamanca in Spain, but he was restless for adventure in the New World. In 1504, though not yet 20, he was granted an estate in Hispaniola, and after joining an expedition to conquer Cuba, settled there. Then, hearing of gold in Mexico, Cortés formed an expedition. Cuban Governor Velázquez, wary of Cortés’s power, forbade his departure, but Cortés left anyway.

Cortés reached Mexico in 1519 with a fleet of eleven ships and about 650 men, some of whom were troubled by Cortés’s actions. Immediately, he burned all but two of the ships. He told his men one ship was for communication with Spain and the other for those who wished to return to Cuba. Cortés asked who wanted to return. Once he knew who did not fully support his mission, he burned the “Cuban-bound” ship. He now had complete psychological control of the men, a lasting characteristic of his leadership.

After five long months, Cortés reached Tenochtitlán (Mexico city), the Aztec capital. Along the way, he made alliances with Indian tribes who had suffered under Aztec rule. He also made full use of the Aztecs’ belief in coming white-skinned gods. When Cortés met Motecuhzoma II (Montezuma II), the Aztec leader, he gave him a choice: submit or die. Cortés began ruling the Aztecs through Montezuma.

Cortés presented the gospel to various Indian chiefs, ...

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