What was viewed by the Europeans as a discovery of new territory was, from the point of view of the native inhabitants of these lands, an
. We will now move on to a more in-depth study of Hernando Cortés and the conquest of Mexico, with the purpose of gaining a greater appreciation of these two differing perspectives.
Hernando Cortés the quintessential ‘Quattrocento man’. was a true figure of his times, and by studying him a representative portrait of the conquistador (conqueror) will emerge. Cortés was born in 1485 and grew up in the harsh and poor province of Extremadura, an environment that would aptly prepare him in many ways for the hot and often unbearable climate of Mexico, where he sought to find his fortune. He grew up in a part of the world accustomed to both military organization and tradition. The young men adopted a very glorious image of war, considering it an ideal way to test one’s manhood .
Cortés was born at a time when the medieval ‘Spains’ were giving way to a new Spain. In 1469 the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella unified the nation under the banners of Castile and Aragon, not only forging a political and religious unity but also a new national spirit and image. These monarchs also built an army which would later become the most powerful one in Europe. As already noted, the Spanish people(s) had struggled against foreign invaders, the Moors, for some seven centuries. This age-old struggle, The Reconquista, “had shaped a warrior people, created a dominant language, Castilian, and fostered ardent Catholicism” (Lyon 30). The Spanish people had had to match Muslim religious ‘fanaticism’ with a brand of their own, —a fact often offered as explanation for the notorious nationalistic and warlike character of Catholicism of the type which Cortés was to bring with him to Mexico.
After two years at university studying law, Cortés, restless and dissatisfied, decided to seek his fortune in the New Worlds where, as in the case of many conquistadors, he would be able to live as a nobleman, a lord of serfs and villages, while in the Old World there would be no such opportunities (White 37). It was in 1504 that Cortés, barely nineteen years old, sailed for the New World.
The motives of the conquistadors were, of course, complex, —love of adventure, penetrating new frontiers, desire for fame and fortune (particularly in gold), the service of God, king and country. As White describes in his book,
Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire
, “entire nations would be swept away in order to assuage that headlong drive towards wealth and success” (38). The conquistadors identified themselves with the heroes of antiquity, such as Caesar and Hannibal. They were quite willing to fight, but they expected a compensation for their efforts, either in the form of gold or of an entitlement. In competition with the Portuguese to find a western route to the East, they ultimately lost the race to Magellan, but their reward was to be the great empire they founded in Central America .
Influenced by the Spanish Inquisition, Cortés and his men firmly believed it was their Christian duty to invade and annex the ‘Indies’ in order to bring ‘heathen souls’ to God. His conquest of Mexico was often portrayed as ‘the last of the Crusades’ .
In 1518, Cortés’s great opportunity came in the form of a proposition offered to him by Diego Velázquez to command a third expedition to the mainland (Mexico). He had previously joined Velázquez in the conquest of Cuba. What particularly appealed to Cortés was the opportunity to
an expedition, as he did not wish to serve in a subordinate position. It was this fierce independence which Velázquez later feared in Cortés, and, regretting the commission he had given to him, Velázquez actively tried to have it rescinded, but in vain. Carefully equipping the expedition (and actually going bankrupt in the process) with some six hundred men, 16 horses and 10 field pieces, Cortés set sail for Mexico.