After Columbus found the “New World” many more explorers
began to head there. They went for riches, power and to become
famous. One of these young men, Hernando Cortes, arrived in the West Indies, or the
islands of the Caribbean in 1503 when he was just 18. He spent his first several years
gaining powerful friends and becoming important in government. He volunteered for
many explorations and took on any government job that was open. By his late 20’s he
was a very experienced politician and knew how to get things done in the New World.
Most of the people running the new colonies in the Caribbean were older men that knew
royalty back in Spain, but the men arriving in the New World were young desperate men
like him. He became very important because the new men arriving looked up to him, and
the older men in charge let his power grow. Before he was thirty years old he owned a
huge plantation growing crops, using Native Americans as slaves. This made him even
more powerful - - but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to be a “Conquistador”—a Spanish
conqueror of new lands… he had heard that on the mainland in a place called Mexico
there was a great empire with much land and gold called, “The Aztecs”.
In 1518, he was given a small army and told to explore and conquer any
rich lands. As his small army moved through Mexico he realized that all of the non-
Aztec Native Americans were willing to join him to defeat the Aztecs. Even though he
only had several hundred Spanish soldiers with weapons like horses guns and armor—he
had many more thousand non-Aztec Native Americans with him. When he marched to
Tenochtitlan the Aztec capital. Their Emperor Montezuma II gave Cortes presents of
gold and told him to go away. In return Cortes hid out in the Palace and took the Emperor
hostage. For a while the Aztecs did nothing because they feared that Cortes may have
special powers. Eventually they fought back and kicked his small army out of the city –
but they did not kill him. The Aztecs killed Motezuma for being so weak—they felt that
he should have seen through Cortes’ act and crushed and killed the Spanish when they
could. Not long after, Cortes returned with a larger force. He did this while the Aztec
city was being ravaged by an epidemic of disease and they could not fight back. Cortes
declared himself the governor of “New Spain” (Mexico) and sent the riches of gold he
took from the Aztecs back to the Spanish king.
He began to rebuild Tenochtitlan and renamed it Mexico City. Cortes would
inspire many, many, many more young European men to come to the New World.
Because of Cortes’ success, these men believed that if they could just make to the New
World in time they could find gold and power and fame.
Why was Cortes so powerful when he was so young?
What mistakes did the Aztecs make?
Can you blame Cortes for anything he did, or was he just ambitious?