Hernán Cortés was born in Extremadura. He was a central figure in the conquest of Mexico at the turn of the 16th century, overthrowing the Aztec empire which, under the Crown of Castile, became known as “New Spain”.
On his expedition to America, he took part in the conquest of the Haitian chiefs on the island of Hispaniola, after which he served as a public scribe.
While holding this new position, in 1511 he was appointed mayor of Santiago de Cuba and recruited by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, who sought to entrust him with the expedition to the Yucatán peninsula.
Cortés set out on his journey to Yucatán without requesting the governor’s authorisation, which would earn him the governor’s enmity.
The Battle of Centla culminated in the taking of the city of Potonchan, and the founding of the town of Santa María de la Victoria.
Among the gifts offered by the defeated was a woman known as La Malinche, who came to be known as Doña Marina and who would become a key figure in the conquest of Mexico through her role as an interpreter of the indigenous languages and her loyalty to the Spaniards. Cortés had a son with her named Martín.
After conquering Potonchan and founding the city of Veracruz, Cortés became aware of the existence of Tenochtitlán, the capital of the empire ruled by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, and home to great treasures.
It was then that he was named captain general by his soldiers so that he would submit to King Charles I and not to the governor of Cuba, who did not recognise his authority. Cortés sent jewels and treasures from these lands to support his cause before the king.
To prevent desertions, he ordered the rest of his ships to be dismantled, hence the saying “burn the ships” as a synonym for not turning back.
The Spaniards’ first alliance was with the Totonaca culture, who contributed 1,300 warriors to his troops. They subsequently gained the support of the Tlaxcaltecas who hated the Aztecs due to the human sacrifices they perpetrated against them.
Finally, the Spanish contingent and their allies oversaw a great victory in the Aztec-allied city of Cholula.
It is said that, when Moctezuma saw Cortés and his troops, he thought it was the second coming: “From the East will come white, bearded men sent by the God Quetzalcoatl”.
Moctezuma received Cortés without putting up a fight, but was taken hostage because of the Spaniards’ fear that they might be killed. Shortly afterwards, two important events took place: the Battle of Nautla between the Mexica and Juan de Escalante – in which the latter was killed – and the deployment by the governor of Cuba of troops under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez, whom Cortés convinced to side with him.
Suspicion of a revolt by the Mexica against the Spaniards led to the Toxcatl massacre, after which the Spaniards sought refuge in Axayácatl’s palace and Moctezuma, in an attempt to calm the spirits of his subjects, was stoned and killed by them.
Given this situation, Cortés and his soldiers fled the city on what was known as “The Sad Night”, when they were driven out and made their way to Otumba, where the Spaniards took on the Aztecs and defeated them.
In the wake of this, Cortés reorganised his forces before again marching on Tenochtitlan and taking all the artillery and weaponry at his disposal to Veracruz where he built brigantines to fight in the lagoon. The attack strategy began by cutting off the city’s freshwater supplies and, after a three-month siege, on 13th August 1521, the ruler Cuauhtémoc was captured and the city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, was finally conquered.