Born in 1484 in Medellín (Extremadura, Spain).
Parents: Martín Cortés de Monroy and Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. Both of his parents were hidalgos (lower class noblemen, with limited economic resources). Accounts about the descent vary: Francisco López de Gómara exalts the family as ancient and noble, while Las Casas gives a more negative account: “hijo de un escudero… harto pobre y humilde, aunque cristiano Viejo y dicen que hidalgo”.
Education: arguably (according to different contemporary sources), studied law and Latin at the University of Salamanca at the age of 14. According to some other sources, received his education at home of a notary, working as a secretary.
1504: the Crown named the governor of La Española, fray Nicolás de Ovando. Ovando took a group of volunteers from Extremadura to accompany him to the New World. Cortés, was one of Ovando’s volunteers, who arrived in Santo Domingo in 1504. He was about to spend 15 years in the Caribbean islands.
1511: Admiral Diego Colón (Columbus’ brother) entrusted the conquest and governing of Cuba to Diego Velázquez who became the lugarteniente of the island. Velázquez organized an expedition of 300 men to Cuba. Stephen Merriman affirms that this expedition gave opportunity to Cortés to gain excellent military experience. Others disagree since the conquest of the Caribbean was quite easy and “pacific”; moreover, according to Gómara and Las Casas, Cortés’ role in it was primarily administrative.
After the conquest of Cuba was completed, Cortés established himself in Baracoa (future Santiago) and became an official secretary and colonizer (letrado y colono).
He married Catalina Juárez, known as la Marcaida.
1513: Vasco Núñez de Balboa conquered the isthmus of Panama.
Velásquez decided to organize an “entrada” into the continent and set up two expeditions. The first one, under Captain Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, left on February 8, 1517, for Yucatán (it turned out to be a complete disaster since the inhabitants rebelled and killed the captain himself). The second expedition, directed by captain Juan de Grijalva, left on January 25, 1518. It explored and took possession of Cozumel and Yucatán, went up to the coast of Tabasco and, for the first time, explored the vast and rich territories ruled by Motehcuzoma.
Velázquez prepared the third expedition and Cortés requested to be named captain. October 23, 1518, las Capitulaciones were signed and Cortés was appointed captain. Cortés and Velázquez, at the time, were great friends. Cortés, at that time, was still an inexperienced military leader. These were the reasons for which he was not expected to rebel against Veláquez, which is precisely what he did.
Neither Velázques himself nor Cortés were authorized by the crown to conquer and settle, only to discover and trade. Bernal Díaz writes that Cortés openly proposed to his soldiers to go in order to “conquer and settle”. His plans were so well known that last minute Velázquez decided to name a different captain. It was too late, however, since by then Cortés was already in Trinidad obtaining necessary provisions and adding soldiers to his expedition.
Feb 10, 1519, an armada of 10 ships with 600 Spaniards, 300 Antillean Indians, 12 horses and 10 canyons left Cuba for Yucatán.
The expedition went up Cozumel, the coast of Yucatán. It, then, followed the coast of the Gulf of Mexico up to Tabasco. From the beginning, Cortés initiated the conquest and not just trade. In order to continue, Cortés had to break his formal ties with Velázquez. In order to do so, he created the municipality of Veracruz, after which the participants in the expedition became an independent community that dealt directly with the Spanish Crown.
The establishment of the municipality of Veracruz marked the beginning of the long letters, Cartas de relación, directed to Emperor Charles V, with the objective of receiving his legal approval of the conquest and win against Velázquez, who, in his turn, contacted the emperor denouncing the rebellion of Cortés.
Five relations were written between 1519 and 1526, years of greatest activity for Cortés. During this time, in 1522, he was named the first governor in the New World. In 1526 Cortés’ post as a governor was revoked.
When Cortés returned to Spain in 1528, he received honorary titles and dominions in New Spain. However, no more administrative powers were given to him.
Cortés returned to New Spain in 1530 and then traveled back to Spain in 1540, looking to resolve his rights and claims to property and power. Charles V, however, had stopped supporting Cortés. He spent the rest of his life writing formal complaints and pleas.
In 1547 Cortés died in a village near Seville.
In the Peninsula, El Cid was the hero of the Reconquest. Cortés became esteemed in Spain as the greatest hero of discovery, who brought Christianization and Europeization to the New World. In his time, Cortés was considered a live legend. Only recently has he become a polemical figure.