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World Explorers: Hernán Cortés

6 minutes

(female narrator) Hernán Cortés conquered one of the most powerful empires in the New World, claiming vast territories of Mexico for Spain. But was it courage or cunning that made him

the most remembered conquistador of all time?

Growing up in Spain in the early 1500s, Hernán Cortés watched arriving ships regularly, laden with colorful textiles, spices, and gold from the Indies-- islands of the so-called New World. In 1504, dreaming of gold for himself, Cortés boarded a ship bound for Hispaniola-- Spain's first permanent settlement in the Indies. He was 19 at the time. There, Cortés saw Spain's influence. In Spain's encomienda system, all newly discovered lands were property of the crown and the native people, the Taíno, were forced into labor, creating wealth for Spain. Cortés lived on the island for six years. As contact between Europe and the New World widened, exploration and military conquest often went hand in hand. Soon, Cortés joined an expedition that conquered Cuba and brought him prestige, both in the New World and back in Europe. Yet, Cortés was ambitious and dreamed of more. The mainland of Mexico had barely been explored by Europeans and there were rumors of gold there that Cortés couldn't ignore. In defiance of a direct order from the Cuban governor, Hernán Cortés led an expedition to the mainland of Mexico in 1519. He arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula with 11 ships, 600 men, and 16 horses. Cortés quickly gathered information and cooperation from the local Indians, the Maya. One leader gave him a gift of 20 slaves, including a woman who spoke the Maya language as well as the Aztec language Nahuatl. She was instrumental as a translator and negotiator. Her name was Doña Marina in Spanish. Doña Marina told Cortés tales of the great city, Tenochtitlán, the capital of the vast Aztec civilization, where priests and nobles presided over lavish ceremonies in devotion to the many Aztec gods. Aztec power reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Anyone living in their territory was forced to pay tribute to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma. To conquer Mexico, Cortés would have to defeat the Aztecs, known for the human sacrifice of their enemies. Cortés and his soldiers were marching inland toward danger, but Cortés couldn't return to face the wrath of the Cuban governor. He made a risky decision. He sank his own ships. There would be no turning back. He would conquer the Aztecs. Thousands of local Indians, tired of Aztec rule, joined Cortés's men and helped him form an army. Aware of his movements, Montezuma sent gifts to Cortés and his men as a strategy to avoid war and to gather information. The Aztecs had never seen horses before, or European armor. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish soldier who chronicled the expedition, described their reaction. Montezuma, terrified Cortés might be the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, received him with great honor in the magnificent Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. It even appeared the conquistadors might take the city without a fight. However, news arrived that the governor of Cuba had caught up with Cortés and was coming to arrest him. Cortés left Tenochtitlán with his men and rushed to deal with the approaching force. In his absence, war broke out. When Cortés returned, he and his army had to fight for control of the capital. He finally secured the city on August 13, 1521. Montezuma died during the struggle. This victory marked the fall of the weakened Aztec Empire and Cortés claimed all of Aztec territory for Spain. The story of Cortés and the conquistadors is central to Mexico's history and paved the way for Spanish colonization and culture, including the Spanish language and Catholic religion, which still characterize the region. The harsh effects of colonization and brutal treatment of Mexico's indigenous people are a part of the Cortés legacy. Doña Marina remained in her homeland and is often remembered as an invincible survivor of the conquest of Mexico. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

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Known as one of the most remembered conquistadors of all time, Hernán Cortés conquered vast parts of Mexico for Spain. While Cortés brought about the end of the Aztec civilization, his legacy is marred by his brutal treatment of Mexican natives. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 6 minutes

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