Hernán Cortés was born in modern day Extremadura Spain in 1485, he studied law but dropped out to seek gold power and fame in the newly discovered Americas, he arrived at the Spanish colony of Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and The Dominican Republic) in 1504. Cortes befriended Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar and joined him in the Spanish conquest of Cuba. Velázquez became the first governor and granted Cortés land, soon Cortés became magistrate of Santiago. In 1517 on behalf of King Charles V of Spain, Velázquez sent an expedition to Mexico, when the explorers returned they brought gold and slaves and stories of human sacrifice! Another expedition set sail in 1518, and soon after a third. This was Cortés chance for gold power and fame, he volunteered himself, Velázquez gave Cortés his approval but started to question Cortés loyalty and changed his mind, Cortés ignored Velázquez orders to stand down and left on February 1519, he took with him 11 ships 500 men, several horses and cannon.
Before Cortés landed on the Yucatán Peninsula, he stopped off on the island Cozumel, where he recruited Gerónimo de Aguilar a Spaniard who had been living with the indigenous people after he was shipwrecked in the surrounding area. Aguilar had learnt the Mayan language and would prove to be very useful to Cortés. The Conquistadors continued their journey and when they arrived in Potonchán, the indigenous people put up a bloody fight but soon found they were no match for the Spanish horses and weaponry, after the Spanish victory they were presented with gold and slaves, one of them was La Malinche, christened Doña Marina by the Spanish, like Aguilar she spoke Mayan but she also spoke the Aztec language Nahuatl, this was great news for Cortés – through these two translators Cortés could communicate with the indigenous people, he asked for gold, they all told him to head west inland to the Aztec empire where the King Moctezuma II demand tribute – not only gold but slaves for sacrifice.
Cortés founded modern day Veracruz this way he could be in charge of the colony, cutting out Velázquez in between himself and King Charles V, this made what he was doing more legal, but the fact still remained that Velázquez never gave Cortés his authorisation. In Veracruz Cortés was greeted by an embassy from the capital of the Aztec empire Tenochtitlan on behalf of the Aztec leader Moctezuma II they gave the Spanish gold and told them to return to where they came from. Cortés refused and asked the embassy if they have any more gold, for he and his men suffer from a disease of the heart that only be cured by gold, yes they replied. Cortés decided to march inland towards Tenochtitlan, soon some of his men voiced their concerns – mutiny was ripe, so Cortés killed the ringleaders and destroyed all the ships, now his men had little choice, together they marched inland through Coatapec and Xico and saw thousands of skulls next to sacrifice alters, joining Cortés ranks were hundreds of indigenous soldiers who were angry with the high tribute they had to pay and allied themselves to the Conquistadors in hope of change. Cortés also found allies in the Tlaxcalans who were bitter enemies of the Aztecs, several thousand Tlaxcalans joined the conquistadors. Cholula was the next city the Conquistadors passed through, although he had been warned by his indigenous allies that the Cholulans were not to be trusted – Cortés continued, soon an unsuccessful ambush took place. Cortés summoned the Cholulan nobility to a meet and he told them they had committed treason, the Conquistadors killed them all. The city was then sacked and thousands more Cholulans were killed.
Cortés and his men finally arrived in Tenochtitlan, Venice of the west, with a population over 200.000 Tenochtitlan matched any city in the old world. The conquistadors and their allies marched across a narrow bridge open to attack – Moctezuma could have had them killed, that was probably his best chance to do so. Moctezuma welcomed Cortés and showed him to his quarters. Velázquez heard news of Cortés illegal invasion of Mexico and sent 1000 men to arrest him, Velázquez would have him hanged for his crimes. Moctezuma showed Cortés around the Templo Mayor, there was blood everywhere and hearts from captives sacrificed to the gods. As a Christian Cortés was horrified he told Moctezuma that his gods were devils and they should put a picture of the Virgin Mary and a cross in the temple, Moctezuma was offended and refused. Days past, what was Moctezuma doing? Moctezuma was haunted by a legend of an exiled god who would one day return to claim his throne, did he believe Cortés was a god? And did Cortés know what he was doing? Well his next move was daring he took Moctezuma prisoner, if he refused Cortés said he would kill him. So Moctezuma joined the Spanish in their quarters, he continued to control his empire, just, Cortés controlled him. The Spanish stole golden monuments and other gold items and melted them down into gold bars.
Cortés heard news of the 1000 man army led by Pánfilo de Narváez sent to arrest him so put Pedro de Alvarado in charge of Tenochtitlan with 100 other men, Cortés along with the rest marched back to Veracruz to stop Narváez and his men whatever the cost, Cortés successfully defeated Narváez and recruited his men, together they returned to Tenochtitlan but had to fight their way back in, there was an Aztec rebellion, while Cortés was away Alvarado had slaughtered numerous Aztecs because he thought they were plotting to kill the Spanish, but it turned out it was just a religious festival. There are two theories about what happened next. 1. Cortés orders Moctezuma to control his people but they threw stones at him which consequently killed him. Remember Moctezuma has been living with the Spanish in their quarters for a while now, so the people might have thought their king as a traitor. 2. Cortés kills Moctezuma, after all the only reason he was alive was to prevent an incident like this from occurring. Either way unfortunately Moctezuma was killed.
The Spaniards where now surrounded and were stuck in Tenochtitlan the Aztecs had destroyed the bridges out, Cortés and his men built mobile bridges which they carried with them, at midnight they left with all their stolen gold, but they were soon spotted and the alarm was raised, war canoes wreaked havoc, more than half of Cortés men were either killed, drowned weighed down by the stolen gold or sacrificed, the sacrificed would have been taken to the top of the pyramid had their hearts pulled from their chests and then thrown off the pyramid. The remaining Conquistadors and their allies returned to Tlaxcalon, but Cortés wasn’t giving up on his dream of gold and fame, he wanted to return to Tenochtitlan, he had Martín López a shipwright build 13 brigantines to siege Tenochtitlan. While the brigantines were being built Cortés took his armies to raid and sack surrounding towns to raise moral. When they returned the ships were ready, Cortés had them dismantled and 8,000 Tlaxclalon men carried the parts to Tenochtitlan, the ships were then rebuilt attached with cannons and on May 1521 reinforced by thousands of indigenous warriors Cortés and his conquistadors laid siege on Tenochtitlan, by 13th August 1521 Cortés had conquered the Aztec empire but ultimately destroyed it.
Source – BBC & History Channel
All pictures from latinamericanstudies.org