Cortés, Hernán

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Cortés, Hernán,


Hernando Cortez

(kôrtĕz`, Span. ārnän`, ārnän`dō kōrtās`), 1485–1547, Spanish conquistadorconquistador
, military leader in the Spanish conquest of the New World in the 16th cent. Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, and Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, were the greatest of the conquistadors.
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, conqueror of Mexico.

Expedition to Mexico

Cortés went (1504) first to Hispaniola and later (1511) accompanied Diego de VelázquezVelázquez, Diego de
, c.1460–1524?, Spanish conquistador, first governor of Cuba, b. Cuéllar, Spain. He sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage (1493) to Hispaniola and in 1511 commanded an expedition sent by Diego Columbus to conquer Cuba.
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 to Cuba. In 1518 he was chosen to lead an expedition to Mexico. Although Velázquez later sought to recall his commission, Cortés sailed in Feb., 1519. In Yucatán he rescued a Spaniard who had learned the Mayan language; after a victory over the native people of Tabasco, Cortés acquired the services of a female slave Malinche—baptized Marina—who knew both Maya and Aztec. Having proceeded up the coast, Cortés founded Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz and was chosen captain general by the cabildo; thus he discarded Velázquez's authority and became responsible only to Charles V.

Fall of the Aztec Empire

Cortés, learning that the Aztec empire of MontezumaMontezuma
or Moctezuma
, 1480?–1520, Aztec emperor (c.1502–1520). He is sometimes called Montezuma II to distinguish him from Montezuma I (ruled 1440–69), who carried on conquests around Tenochtitlán.
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 was honeycombed with dissension, assumed the role of deliverer and rallied the coastal Totonacs to his standard; he also began negotiations with Montezuma. Scuttling his ships to prevent the return of any Velázquez sympathizers to Cuba, he began his famous march to Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City), capital of the Aztec empire. He defeated the Tlaxcalan warriors and then formed an alliance with the so-called republic of Tlaxcala; practically destroyed CholulaCholula
or Cholula de Rivadabia
, city (1990 pop. 53,673), Puebla state, E central Mexico. The site of the famous Teocali de Cholula, a pre-Columbian pyramid of great antiquity, the city was an old Toltec center and, when the Spanish came, was an Aztec sacred
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; and arrived at Tenochtitlán in Nov., 1519. There the superstitious Montezuma received the Spanish as descendants of the god Quetzalcoatl. Cortés seized his opportunity, took Montezuma hostage, and attempted to govern through him.

In the spring of 1520, Cortés went to the coast, where he defeated a force under Pánfilo de NarváezNarváez, Pánfilo de
, c.1470–1528, Spanish conquistador. After service in Jamaica, he aided Diego de Velázquez in conquering Cuba and was sent (1520) to Mexico by Velázquez to force Cortés into submission.
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. Pedro de AlvaradoAlvarado, Pedro de
, 1486–1541, Spanish conquistador. He went to Hispaniola (1510), sailed in the expedition (1518) of Juan de Grijalva, and was the chief lieutenant of Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico.
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, left in command, impetuously massacred many Aztecs, and soon after Cortés's return the Aztecs besieged the Spanish. In the ensuing battle, Montezuma was killed. The Spanish, seeking safety in flight, fought their way out of the city with heavy losses on the noche triste [sad night] (June 30, 1520). Still in retreat, they defeated an Aztec army at Otumba and retired to Tlaxcala.

The next year Cortés attacked the capital, and after a three-month siege Tenochtitlán fell (Aug. 13, 1521). With it fell the Aztec empire. As captain general, Cortés extended the conquest by sending expeditions over most of Mexico and into N Central America. In 1524–26, Cortés himself went to Honduras, killing CuauhtémocCuauhtémoc
, d. 1525, Aztec emperor. Succeeding the brother of Montezuma II in 1520, Cuauhtémoc failed to unite the native city-states of the Valley of Mexico against the Spanish after the expulsion of Hernán Cortés from Tenochtitlán.
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, the Aztec emperor, in the course of the expedition.

Later Career

In Cortés's absence his enemies at home gradually triumphed, and after his return his power was made more fictitious than real by the audiencia. Although on his visit to Spain (1528–30) Cortés was made marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, Charles V refused to name him governor. Returning to Mexico, he vainly sent out maritime expeditions, frustrated more than once by Nuño de GuzmánGuzmán, Nuño de
, or Núñez Beltrán de Guzmán
, d. 1544, Spanish conquistador. After serving as governor of Panuco in NE Mexico, he became president of the first audiencia of New Spain (1528).
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. Subsequently he quarreled with the viceroy, Antonio de MendozaMendoza, Antonio de
, 1490?–1552, Spanish administrator, first viceroy of New Spain (1535–50) and viceroy of Peru (1551–52). Of noble family, Mendoza held high offices before going to Mexico, where his wise rule earned him the appellation "the good viceroy.
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, and in 1540 he again sought justice in Spain. There, neglected by the court, he died.


The best-known contemporary account of the conquest is that of Bernal Díaz del Castillo. See the letters of Cortés (tr. by F. A. MacNutt, 1908); W. H. Prescott, Conquest of Mexico (1937); H. Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1994); studies by S. de Madariaga (1942, repr. 1969) and H. R. Wagner (1944, repr. 1969).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Cortés, Hernán


Bora in 1485; died Dec. 2, 1547. Spanish conquistador; the conqueror of Mexico.

The son of a nobleman of modest means, Cortes was educated at the University of Salamanca. From 1504 to 1519, he was an official and owned encomiendas in the West Indies (Santo Domingo, Cuba). From 1519 to 1521 he led an expedition of conquest to Mexico, during which Spanish rule was established in the central part of the country. In conquering Mexico, Cortes displayed considerable military and political ability along with extreme cruelty and perfidy in dealing with the Indians. From 1522 to 1528 he was governor and captain general of New Spain (Mexico); from 1529 he was captain general. In 1540 he returned to Spain, where he died.


Relaciones de H. Cortes a Carlos V, vols. 1–2. Mexico City, 1958.


Ocherki novoi i noveishei istorii Meksiki. Moscow, 1960.
Madariaga, S. de. Hernán Cortés, 6th ed. Mexico City-Buenos Aires, 1955.
Valle, R. H. Bibliografía de Herndn Cortés. Mexico City, 1953.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.