5th centenary of the arrival of Hernan Cortes to the Mexica empire

In February 2019 we will commemorate the arrival of Hernan Cortes to the Mexica empire. By any consideration, this is one of the most amazing journey of a man in history. It is a journey into a past most Mexicans would rather forget, and I respect that. However it is history, and truly an epic one that brings us to what we all are.

In only two years, Hernan Cortes brought about the downfall of an efficient military civilisation through a combination of diplomacy, warfare, tactics, luck and sheer force of personality. The conquest of the Aztecs is more complicated than the simple myth of European superiority, but it remains an incredible achievement in military history.

In 1966, the historian J.H. Elliott wrote a paper titled The mental world of Hernán Cortés in which he emphasizes the need to

set Cortes very firmly into the context of the society from which he sprang, the society of late medieval and early Renaissance Spain, for he at once mirrors the ideals and aspirations of that society, and shares the pattern of its development.

Hernan Cortes reported his campaigns in five letters to Charles V, the Spanish king. They are called ‘letter of relation’ and can be read in English trough this link.

In Spanish can be read online here: Cortés, Hernán. Cartas y relaciones de Hernan Cortés al emperador Carlos V. Edited by Pascual de Gayangos. Paris: A. Chaix, 1866.

In addition to his descriptions of the Valley of Mexico and Tenochtitlan, his explanations for the actions he took, and his military and administrative directives, have been subjected for years to the close critical scrutiny.

Charles Robinson wrote in his book The Spanish Invasion of Mexico 1519-1521, first published in 2004:

In the spring of 1519, some 600 adventurers led by Hernan Cortes, a failed law student-turned planter and speculator, embarked on the conquest of a ruthless and predatory empire with an army numbering in the tens of thousands. The Spanish conquest of Mexico was the greatest military expedition in history, and in achieving it, Cortes proved himself one of the foremost generals of all time.

The Conquest completely changed the history of the world. The establishment of a European power on the mainland of the western hemisphere opened the door for a complete European hegemony, ultimately leading to the establishment of independent states. Whether this was for better or worse is a question for the philosophers. The fact is that it did happen, and now, some 500 years later, a western hemisphere nation is the dominant power in the world.

And while the United States may be the cultural heir to Great Britain, to a large extent it has inherited civilizing influences from Spain, too: fully one-third of the nation was once a part of “New Spain”, as the Spaniards came to call Mexico. San Antonio, Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Monterey, California, were all seats of Spanish government until 1821, and of Mexican government until even later, and Spanish and English are spoken side by side throughout the American southwest. This is the legacy of Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors.

Reading through Graham Hancock’s account of Cortes and his small group of Conquistadors against the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan (War God 3: Night of Sorrows, 2017), one is struck by how similar is some of this epic to Alexander the Great and his conquests: the heroic speeches and encouragement; the god-like self-confidence; the military brilliance – almost beyond reality – with small armies of battle-hardened troops conquering masses of enemy, generally with little loss on the side of the victors.

Brian Bosworth in A Tale of Two Empires: Hernan Cortes and Alexander the Great has drawn parallels between these two scenarios: the wars of Conquistadors, on the one hand, and the Macedonians, on the other.

Read it in this link to chapter two of the book Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction, edited by A. B. Bosworth and E. J. Baynham.

Hernan Cortes’ journey from Veracruz to Tenochtitlan was a winding route through tropical and mountainous terrain that took the Spaniards across more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) and changed the course of history.

Cortes’s route from Vera Cruz to Tenochtitlan

10 February 1519: Hernan Cortes sails for Mexico

The expedition set out from Santiago, Cuba, on 18 November 1518 to conquer the interior of Mexico. Sailing around Cuba, he finished fitting out at Trinidad and San Cristobal de la Habana. On 10 February 1519, Cortes traveled to Mexico with 11 ships, 508 soldiers, about 100 sailors, six cannons, and 16 horses.

17 February 1519: The expedition reached the coast of Yucatan

Hernan Cortes expedition arrived on the island of Cozumel. He needed that island because it had the closest known harbor to Fernandina, or Cuba, which was on the way to Yucatan. Earlier Spanish expeditions had talked of some Christians stranded on the island, so saving those Christians was one of the orders Cortes had received from the Cuban governor Diego Velazquez.

14 March 2019: Departure from Cozumel

After sailing around Yucatan, Cortes lands in Tabasco on March 22-23, meeting resistance from the natives. On March 25, Annunciation Day, Cortes takes the town of Potonchan; Malinche/Doña Marina joins the expedition. On April 18, Palm Sunday, expedition departs from Tabasco. On April 21, Maundy Thursday, fleet arrives off San Juan Ulua, outside modern harbor of Veracruz.

22 April 1519: Cortes disembarked on the sand-banks of Veracruz on Good Friday

Castilians found Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

8 August 1519: Beginning of the march to Tenochtitlan

Having skirmished their way along the coast, and met with Montezuma’s emissaries, Cortes and the conquistadors set out for Tenochtitlan from their settlement of Vera Cruz. During his march to the Aztec capital, Cortes gathers valuable allies among enemies of Montezuma.

23 September 1519: Alliance is forged

After several weeks of outright confrontation, the conquistadors make peace with the Aztecs’ Tlaxcalan enemies and they enter the city of Tlaxcala, marking the beginning of the alliance between them.

8 November 1519, Cortés faces Montezuma

Cortes faces Montezuma on the great causeway leading to Tenochtitlan. Less than a week later, he seizes the Aztec ruler and takes control of the city.

30 June 1520: Spaniards flee Tenochtitlan

The Spaniards and their allies flee Tenochtitlan on the Night of Tears. Having lost more than half their company, they rally at Tlacopan before retreating to Tlaxcala.

28 April 1521: Start of the battle for Tenochtitlan

Having fought their way back to the lake, the conquistadors launch their brigantines, besiege the city, and the great battle for Tenochtitlan begins.

13 August 1521: Aztecs surrender

After months of fierce fighting, which leaves Tenochtitlan in ruins, the last tlatoani Cuauhtemoc is captured in a canoe on the lake and the Aztecs finally surrender.

This 2016 Mexican documentary Hernan Cortes, un hombre entre Dios y el Diablo, from Fernando González Sitges, won the prize Premio Nacional de Periodismo from Club de Periodistas de México, and was showed at Festival Internacional de Cine de Guadalajara.

Note written on 31 January 2019:

Hernan Cortes’ misfortunes continue five hundred years later. No official commemoration in Mexico or Spain planned. Both current administrations would rather forget all about Hernan Cortes and his legacy. What a pity! In Mexico, instead, new populism is trying to celebrate indigenous fight against invaders. They are planning a huge celebration by 2025 to commemorate the founding of the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. In Spain, politicians are ashamed of brutality shown by conquerors five hundred years ago. Really we can not do better? Yes, both worlds.