Cortés, Velázquez and Charles V, by J. H. Elliott

Introductory Essay by J. H. Elliott to Letters from Mexico. Translated, edited, and with a new introduction by Anthony Pagden. Revised edition published by Yale University Press in 1986.

Cortés, Velázquez and Charles V{1}

When Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico on April 22, 1519, he was on the point of committing himself to an enterprise of un­known proportions against an enemy of unknown character and strength. After the meeting with the Totonac chief Tentlil on Eas­ter Sunday he knew at least that, somewhere in the interior, there lived a powerful ruler called Motecuçoma, whose dominion in­cluded the peoples of the coastal plain. But this fact of Motecuçoma’s existence was the fact he most needed to know. From Easter Sunday, 1519, a single, supreme objective established itself clearly in his mind. He must reach Motecuçoma and somehow induce him to acknowledge the supreme overlordship of Juana and her son Charles, the sovereign rulers of Castile.

Although everything else was surrounded by innumerable uncertainties, the central objective of Cortés’s Mexican strategy was therefore clearly defined, and he pursued it undeviatingly until it was triumphantly attained. The march into the interior, the entry down the causeway into Tenochtitlan on November 8, the taking of Motecuçoma into custody on the fourteenth, and the “volun­tary” donation of Motecuçoma’s empire to Charles—these repre­sented the critical moments in an exceptionally hazardous but care­ fully calculated military and political exercise, which worked with greater precision than even Cortés himself could have dared to hope. Within nine months of landing, he had made himself master of Motecuçoma’s empire in the name of the sovereigns of Castile.

The magnitude and the brilliance of this achievement can all too easily obscure the fact that Motecuçoma was in some respects the least dangerous of the enemies whom Cortés had to face, and that he had more to fear from some of his own countrymen than from the emperor of the Mexica. From the moment of his hasty departure from Santiago, in Cuba, he found himself in a highly equivocal position, both in relation to his immediate superiors and to the Spanish Crown.

Technically, Cortés was commanding an expedition on be­half of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, who himself was merely the deputy of the hereditary admiral of the Indies, Diego Colón (Columbus). Velázquez, however, was an ambitious man, eager to conquer new lands in his own right. To do this, he must somehow break free from Colón’s jurisdiction, and obtain from the Crown his own license to explore, conquer and colonize. In the two or three years before the dispatch of Cortés, he had made a number of moves directed toward this end. In 1517 and 1518 he had sent out the exploring and trading expeditions of Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva; and for the second of these expedi­tions he had taken care to obtain authorization from the Hieronymite governors of Hispaniola, who were the Crown’s direct repre­sentatives in the Indies, and were independent of Diego Colón. He had also dispatched, in succession, two personal agents to the Span­ish Court—Gónzalo de Guzmán, and his chaplain, Benito Martín —to urge the Crown to grant him the title of adelantado of Yuca­tán, with the right to conquer and settle the newly discovered lands.

Apart from some further lucrative trading, Velázquez’s principal purpose in dispatching Cortés in the wake of the two pre­vious expeditions of Hernández de Córdoba and Grijalva seems to have been to keep his claims alive during the period when he was impatiently awaiting the outcome of his initiative at Court. This would explain the nature of his instructions for Cortés, dated Octo­ ber 23, 1518.{2} The purpose of Cortés’s expedition, according to these instructions, was to go in search of Grijalva’s fleet (of whose return to Cuba Velázquez was still unaware) and of any Christians held captive in Yucatán. Cortés was also authorized to explore and to trade, but had no permission to colonize. The reason for this was that Velázquez himself was still awaiting such authorization from Spain, and had no legal authority to confer a right that was not yet his.

Recent changes in Spain, however, made it reasonably cer­tain that Velázquez would soon secure his title of adelantado, and the rights of conquest and jurisdiction for which he was petition­ing. Ferdinand the Catholic had died in 1516, and in September, 1517, Charles of Ghent arrived in Castile from Flanders to take up his Spanish inheritance. Charles’s arrival in the peninsula was fol­lowed by a purge of the officials who had governed Spain and the Indies during the regency of Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros. Among the councilors and officials who acquired, or returned to, favor with the coming of the new regime was the formidable figure of the bishop of Burgos, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the councilor prin­cipally responsible for the affairs of the Indies during the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella. Fonseca had always had fierce enemies and devoted partisans; and among the latter was Diego Velázquez, who was married to Fonseca’s niece.{3} There was every reason, then, to assume that he would use all his newly recovered influence to sup­port the pretensions of Velázquez.

Cortés, who kept himself well informed of what went on at Court, must have been well aware that, with the return to power of Fonseca, the tide of events in Spain was moving in Velázquez’s favor. If he were ever to be a great conqueror in his own right, it was therefore essential for him to act with speed, and to obtain as much freedom for maneuver as possible. Cortés, who had been quick to learn the tragic lessons of the Spanish Caribbean, had grasped the crucial fact that the key to empire was settlement. It was exactly this which Velázquez’s instructions denied him. But Cortés was skillful enough to secure the insertion of a clause which gave him a certain amount of latitude. Velázquez admitted that it was impossible to foresee all eventualities; and he authorized Cortés, in the event of unexpected emergencies, to take such meas­ures as would conform most closely to “the service of God and their highnesses.”{4} Clearly, Velázquez did not know his man. Cortés had his own ideas about God’s service, and Their High­nesses’, and they were not quite the same as those of the governor of Cuba. Thanks to Article 27, he was now empowered to take such measures as he might consider necessary, and which were not specifically covered by his instructions. But this useful legal weapon, which he had devised to justify an unauthorized act of settlement, would be rendered useless if Velázquez should receive permission to conquer and settle while Cortés was still in Cuba. Hence the indecent haste of his departure from Santiago. On no account must he still be accessible when Velázquez’s warrant arrived from Spain.

In sailing so precipitately from Santiago, Cortés had there­fore defied his own immediate superior, Velázquez, and had poten­tially antagonized Velázquez’s powerful friends at Court. He knew well enough the grave risks he was running. But to Cortés and his friends—Puertocarrero, the Alvarado brothers, Gonzalo de Sandoval—the risks paled before the attractions of the anticipated prize. Nothing could more quickly obliterate the stigma of treachery and rebellion than a brilliant military success and the acquisition of fab­ulous riches. If new peoples were won for the Faith, and rich new lands won for the Crown, there was reason to hope that the original defiance of Velázquez would be regarded as no more than a pecca­dillo, and that Velázquez’s friends and protectors would be silenced by a fait accompli.

The king was the fountainhead of justice. It rested with him to punish the wicked, reward the good, and forgive the occasional act of insubordination—especially when the act was committed, as it would be this time, in the king’s own interest and for the greater glory of God. It was well known that God had specifically en­trusted the sovereigns of Castile with the task of winning for the Church the peoples of the newly discovered Indies, and that this divine mission had been confirmed by decision of the papacy. Cortés, therefore, would from the first act in the name of the king, in order to further this providential mission; and then, insofar as he had offended against the letter of the law, would throw himself on his mercy. This meant that, from the moment of his departure from Cuba, Cortés totally ignored any claims to jurisdiction of Veláz­quez or Colón and behaved as if he were directly subordinate to the Crown alone. Any Indians he met as he cruised along the Mexican coast were regarded as being already the vassals of the Crown of Castile,{5} by virtue of the papal donation. Similarly, he took formal possession of the land at the Tabasco River in the name of the Crown, in spite of—or, more accurately, precisely because of—the inconvenient fact that Grijalva had already taken formal possession at the same spot, on behalf of the governor of Cuba.

That Cortés and his close associates were banking on even­tual vindication by the Crown is further suggested by the jocular exchange on board ship just before the landing at San Juan de Ulúa, as reported by Bernal Diaz.{6} Alonso Hernández de Puertocarrero came up to Cortés, quoting a snatch from one of the romances in the Castilian romancero general:

Look on France, Montesinos,
Look on Paris, the city,
Look on the waters of the Duero,
Flowing down into the sea.

The lines came from the ballad of Montesinos, who was exiled from court because of a false accusation by his mortal enemy, Tomillas. Montesinos, the innocent exile, was seeking permission from his fa­ther to return to court in disguise and take service with the king, in order to avenge his wrong. If Montesinos was Cortés, then Tomil­las, his enemy, was Velázquez; and Cortés could hope to resolve his difficulties, as Montesinos resolved his, by taking service under the king. “He who takes the king’s pay,” continued the ballad, “can avenge himself of everything.” Cortés promptly responded in kind, with a quotation from another ballad about another exile: “God give us the same good fortune in fighting as he gave to the Paladin Roland.”

Success in arms, and resort to the highest authority of all, that of the king himself—these were the aims of Cortés and his fel­low conspirators as they prepared in April, 1519, to compound their defiance of Velázquez by a landing which would mark the real beginning of their attempt to conquer an empire. They were concerned, like all conquistadors, with fame, riches and honor. But behind the willful defiance of the governor of Cuba there existed, at least in Cortés’s mind, a philosophy of conquest and colonization which made his action something more than an attempt at self- aggrandizement at the expense of Velázquez. He entertained, like so many Castilians of his generation, an exalted view of the royal serv­ice, and of Castile’s divinely appointed mission. Both the divine and the royal favor would shine on those who cast down idols, extir­ pated pagan superstitions, and won new lands and peoples for God and Castile. But there was a wrong way, as well as a right way, of going about this great work. In the Antilles, the Castilians had gone about it the wrong way, with disastrous consequences. Cortés had seen with his own eyes how captains and soldiers whose sole con­cern was the quest for gold and the capture of slaves and booty had destroyed the islands and peoples discovered by Columbus only a generation ago. The extension to the New World of a style of war­ fare reminiscent of the war against the Moors in medieval Spain had made a desert of a paradise and had left even the Spaniards them­ selves shiftless and discontented. The failure of Grijalva’s expedi­tion had only served to drive home the lesson already learned by Cortés—that conquest, to achieve any long-term success, required intelligent colonization. Whether Velázquez had learned the same lesson seems doubtful; and Cortés could always point to the ab­sence from his instructions of any order to colonize, to prove that he had not. But in any event Velázquez would be given no oppor­tunity to put the question to the test. Cortés would conquer Mex­ico, and not only conquer it but settle it as well.

It was, then, with the intention of establishing a permanent settlement that Cortés dropped anchor in the harbor of San Juan de Ulúa on April 21, 1519. But some careful preliminary maneuvers were needed before he could openly flout Velázquez’s orders by formally founding a town. There was a strong faction of Veláz­quez’s partisans in the expedition, headed by Francisco de Montejo and Juan Velázquez de Leon. This faction had first to be neutral­ized, and the rank and file of the army be induced to support Cortés. The first months on Mexican soil were therefore taken up, not only with reconnaissance surveys designed to discover the na­ture of Motecuçoma’s empire and the extent of his power, but also with attempts to detach the soldiers from their adherence to Veláz­quez’s men. This was done with considerable skill, by playing on their desire for gold and land. Bernal Díaz’s account{7} suggests how cleverly Cortés forced the Velázquez faction into the open with a demand that the expedition should return to Cuba—a demand with which Cortés seemed ready to comply. At this point the troops, whose expectations had been aroused and now looked like being dashed, came out with what seemed to be a spontaneous demand that the expedition should continue.

Cortés had been given his cue, and the Velázquez faction had been outmaneuvered. But although the practical difficulties in the way of settlement had been overcome, there still remained the problem of finding some legal justification for disregard of Veláz­quez’s orders. It was at this point that Cortés’s knowledge of Castilian law came into its own. That great medieval compilation, the Siete Partidas of Alfonso X, dating from 1256-1263, presented a cogent picture of the organic unity that should naturally prevail between the king and his subjects, bound together in mutual concern for the upholding of the commonweal against selfish private interest. In the context of events in the New World in 1519, Veláz­quez and his friends could be depicted as self-interested officials, moved by greed and ambition, while Cortés and his army repre­sented the true community, motivated by concern for the com­monweal and the desire to serve God and the king. Whereas the private interest of Velázquez busied itself solely with trade and barter, which would fill his own capacious pockets, the common­ weal demanded an expedition of conquest and colonization, which would promote the true interests of the realm.

It was in pursuance of this simple but time-honored political philosophy that the remarkable events of June and July, 1519, were enacted. According to the Siete Partidas, the laws could only be set aside by the demand of all the good men of the land. On the soil of Mexico, these were clearly the rank and file of Cortés’s army, and it was in deference to their demand that he now set aside his instruc­tions. They were united in agreeing that the expedition should not return to Cuba but should remain to attempt the conquest of Motecuçoma’s empire; and they formally constituted themselves a com­munity—the Villa Rica de Vera Cruz—in order to ensure that the king’s interests were upheld. As a municipality, they then proceeded to appoint the usual municipal officials, the alcaldes and regidores. From this point, Velázquez’s instructions were regarded as inoperative, and the authority conferred by them on Cortés was deemed to have lapsed. Supreme jurisdiction in Mexico now resided in the municipality of Vera Cruz, and the charade was duly com­pleted when the municipality, acting on behalf of Charles and Juana, appointed Cortés alcalde mayor and justicia of Vera Cruz, and captain of the royal army.

The effect of this brilliant legalistic maneuver was to free Cortés from his obligations to his immediate superior, Velázquez, and to make him directly dependent on the king. But what seemed plausible enough in Mexico was bound to seem highly implausible in Cuba and at the Spanish Court. Clearly it was essential to win support in Spain for an action which Fonseca and his friends would certainly represent to the king as an act of open rebellion; and this became all the more urgent with the arrival at San Juan de Ulúa on July 1 of a ship commanded by Francisco de Saucedo bearing the not unexpected news that Velázquez, by royal decree of Novem­ber 13, 1518, had been appointed adelantado of Yucatán, and had been granted the right to conquer and settle. Now that Velázquez had obtained his authorization, Cortés’s action seemed to lack even the shadow of legality.

Everything now depended on the successful presentation of his case at Court, where the Fonseca group would certainly do all in its power to destroy him. If possible, Charles and his advisers must be reached and won over before they had time to learn from Velázquez himself of Cortés’s act of rebellion. For this purpose, Puertocarrero and Montejo, who had been detached from the Ve­lázquez faction, were appointed procuradores, or representatives, of Vera Cruz, with full powers to present the municipality’s case to the king in person. To assist them in their mission, they were to take with them, as a gift for the king, all the gold and jewels brought to Cortés by Motecuçoma’s envoys, together with the tra­ditional royal fifth of all the booty so far acquired. They took with them, too, such documentation as was needed to justify their cause. This documentation included the “lost” First Letter of Relation of Cortés—unless, as is perfectly conceivable, he never wrote such a letter, for it would necessarily have involved a number of personal explanations which could well have offered embarrassing hostages to fortune.

The most important document carried to Spain by Puertocarrero and Montejo was the letter from the new municipality of Vera Cruz, addressed to Charles and Juana. This letter, which customarily replaces Cortés’s “missing” First Letter, bears all the stamp of his personality, and was no doubt written largely to his dictation. It should therefore be read, as it was written, not as an accurate historical narrative but as a brilliant piece of special pleading, designed to justify an act of rebellion and to press the claims of Cortés against those of the governor of Cuba.

For all Cortés’s eager insistence that he was providing a “true” relation,{8} he displayed a masterly capacity for suppression of evidence and ingenious distortion. Great care was taken to play down the expeditions of Hernández de Córdoba and Grijalva, and the awkward fact that the latter had taken formal possession of the land was quietly ignored. The letter also missed no opportunity to blacken the reputation of Velázquez—”moved more by cupidity than any other passion” {9} —and to suggest that his financial contribution to the expedition was insignificant. The persistent denigration of Velázquez only served to emphasize, by contrast, the loyalty and the high ideals of Cortés himself, as a man passionately determined to serve God and the king by extirpating idolatry, converting the heathen and conquering rich new lands for the Crown of Castile. At the same time, Cortés was careful to imply that he broke with Velázquez’s instructions only under pressure from the popular will, as represented by the army. It was the soldiers, eager to convert a trading expedition into a military and colonizing enterprise, who had demanded a change of plan; and Cortés, after due deliberation, had accepted their demand as conducive to the royal interest.

Having offered this tendentious explanation of the founding of Vera Cruz, the letter then dwelt at some length on the alleged riches of the country and on the abominable customs of its inhabitants. The object of this was to appeal both to Charles’s cupidity— an appeal skillfully reinforced by the gift of Motecuçoma’s treasures—and to his sense of religious obligation, as a ruler specially entrusted by God and the Pope with the duty of winning new peoples to the Faith. But the letter’s real climax came only after the description of Mexico and the Mexicans, and consisted of a direct appeal to Charles and Juana “on no account to give or grant concessions to Diego Velázquez … or judicial powers; and if any shall have been given him, that they be revoked.” {10} Since the arrival of Saucedo, Cortés was perfectly well aware that Velázquez’s commission had in fact already arrived. Ignorance, however, was the better policy; and Cortés drove home his request with a final denunciation of the governor of Cuba as a man of such patent wickedness as to make him totally unfitted to receive the least token of royal favor.

The first letter from Mexico, then, was essentially a political document, speaking for Cortés in the name of his army, and designed to appeal directly to the Crown over the heads of Velázquez and his friends in the Council of the Indies. Cortés was now involved in a desperate race against time. Montejo and Puertocarrero left for Spain on July 26, 1519, with their bundle of letters and the gold; and unless, or until, they could persuade Charles to sanction retrospectively the behavior of Cortés and his men, Cortés was technically a traitor, liable to arrest and persecution at the hands of an irate governor of Cuba, fully empowered to act in the royal name. The danger was acute, and the blow could fall at any time, perhaps even from within Mexico itself. For there was still a strong group of Velázquez partisans in the expedition, and these men would do all they could to sabotage Cortés’s plans. But Cortés, who had his spies posted, was well aware of the dangers. The friends of the governor of Cuba appear to have been plotting to send him warning of the mission of Montejo and Puertocarrero, so that he could intercept their ship. The plot was discovered, the conspirators arrested, and two of them, Juan Escudero and Diego Cermeño, put to death.{11}

This abortive conspiracy seems to have convinced Cortés that it was not enough simply to cut the bonds of legality that tied him to Cuba. He must also cut the physical links. This was probably the major consideration in his famous decision to scuttle or beach his ships, although their destruction would have the added advantage of enabling him to add their crews to his tiny army. Once the ships were destroyed, all contact with Cuba was broken. A garrison was left at Vera Cruz under the command of Juan de Escalante, and the army began its march from Cempoal into the interior on August 16, knowing that it had openly defied the governor of Cuba and that there could be no turning back.

As long as Cortés could command the loyalties of his army —and this would ultimately depend on his ability to capture and distribute the fabulous riches of Motecuçoma’s empire—he was now reasonably safe from subversion within the ranks. But he was a good deal less safe in the rear than he had anticipated. Montejo and Puertocarrero had received strict instructions to avoid Cuba and make straight for Spain, but Montejo had other ideas. Needing provisions—or perhaps prudently hedging his bets—he chose to put in on the west of the island to make a brief visit to his estate. He arrived on August 23, left letters for a friend, and, on his last night, displayed the Mexican treasures to his major-domo before sailing again on the twenty-sixth. The major-domo duly informed Velázquez, who immediately dispatched two ships in pursuit of the procuradores. But their pilot, Alaminos, took the ship by a new route through the Bahamas Straits, and Montejo and Puertocarrero made their escape into the Atlantic and thence to Seville.

Thwarted of his prey, Velázquez made two moves which were to be crucial for the future course of events. Gonzalo de Guzmán, who had already acted on his behalf at the Spanish Court, was sent back to Spain again in mid-October to counter the activities of the Vera Cruz procuradores, and to convince the Crown and the Council of the Indies that Cortés was a traitor and should be treated as such. Simultaneously, Velázquez began to organize an army to be sent to Mexico against Cortés. News of these preparations greatly alarmed the judges of the highest tribunal in the Indies, the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. Conflicts among rival bands of conquistadors were all too common an occurrence, and the Audiencia was anxious to prevent still more shedding of blood. It therefore sent the licenciado Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon to halt the preparations, but Velázquez was in no mood to listen to the Audiencia, and the expedition was already preparing to sail by the time of the licenciado’s arrival.

At a time when a smallpox epidemic was raging in Cuba, Velázquez felt unable to lead his army in person, and handed over the command to one of his more reliable but less intelligent friends, Pánfilo de Narváez. The army, twice the size of that of Cortés, set sail from Cuba on March 5, 1520, accompanied by Vázquez de Ayllón, who clearly felt that, having failed to prevent it from sailing, the least he could do was to act as a witness and perhaps as an umpire. He was rewarded for his pains by being placed under arrest when Narváez landed at San Juan de Ulúa on April 20.

During the autumn and winter of 1519, therefore, at the time when Cortés was securing the submission of Motecuçoma and had established himself precariously in Tenochtitlan, he was faced with the prospect of a military confrontation with his immediate superior, the governor of Cuba, who himself was acting in defiance of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo. The outcome was likely to be determined on the battlefield, in an internecine struggle of Spaniard against Spaniard, which could well jeopardize and even destroy Cortés’s uncertain hold over the Aztec empire. But in the Spanish monarchy of the sixteenth century a military solution could never be final. Legality was paramount, and the key to legality lay with the king.

Everything therefore turned on the success of Montejo and Puertocarrero in Spain. They duly reached Seville at the beginning of November, 1519, only to find their country on the verge of revolt. Charles had been elected Holy Roman Emperor on June 28. Once elected, his immediate aim was to extract the largest possible subsidies from the Cortés of the various Spanish kingdoms, and then to leave for Germany. When the procuradores arrived in Seville, the emperor was still in Barcelona, heavily preoccupied with plans for his departure; and the Castilian cities were beginning to voice their dissatisfaction at the prospect of heavy new fiscal demands and an absentee king.

At this particular moment the chances of winning the emperor’s support for a still-unknown adventurer on the other side of the world hardly looked very promising. It was also unfortunate for the procuradores that Velázquez’s chaplain, Benito Martín, happened to be in Seville at the time of their arrival. Martín persuaded the officials of the Casa de la Contratación to embargo their ships, together with the Mexican treasure, and so deprived them of their most powerful argument, gold. In spite of this, Montejo and Puertocarrero set out for Barcelona, accompanied by the most faithful of Cortés’s agents in Spain, his own father, Martín Cortés de Monroy. They reached Barcelona near the end of January, 1520, only to find that the emperor had already left for Burgos. But their visit to Barcelona at least enabled them to make a number of influential contacts, and they were lucky to find there Francisco Nuñez, a royal official and a cousin of Cortés, who agreed to act as his legal representative. From Barcelona they moved across Spain in the tracks of the emperor, finally catching up with him at Tordesillas, near Valladolid, early in March. Here, seven months after leaving Vera Cruz, they could at last petition the emperor in person to confirm Cortés in his position as captain general and justicia mayor.

Their petition was fiercely contested, not only by Velázquez’s agent, Gonzalo de Guzmán, but also by his patron, the bishop of Burgos. Fonseca’s position, however, was not quite as strong as it had been. Charles’s Flemish advisers were falling out with Fonseca and his friends, whose collective reputation in the affairs of the Indies had been tarnished by the denunciations made before the emperor in December by that zealous apostle of Indian liberty, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Above all, there was Motecuçoma’s treasure to speak on behalf of Cortés. The precious gold objects and the delicate featherwork had created a sensation in Seville, and such treasures could hardly be left indefinitely impounded in the hands of the officials of the House of Trade. On the emperor’s orders, the treasure was dispatched from Seville and reached him early in April, although Cortés’s friends were able to allege that not everything was there, and that Fonseca had deliberately held some of it back. As was to be expected, the treasure powerfully reinforced the arguments of Montejo and Puertocarrero, who put their case again at Coruña, just before Charles was due to sail. The emperor deferred his decision, but declined to follow Fonseca’s advice and declare Cortés a rebel. This at least was an encouraging start, and the procuradores gained another victory when a royal decree, dated May 10, 1520, ordered the officials in Seville to return their confiscated funds.

When Charles sailed for Germany on May 20, therefore, Cortés’s friends could claim at least a partial success. Their gold, too, would now come into its own. But there was still a very long way to go, and the political climate was menacing. Castile was now in open revolt. Fonseca remained a highly influential figure, and his brother was the royalist army commander. In these circumstances, it was easy enough to tar Cortés with the same brush of rebellion as the Comuneros of Castile. Both in the Indies and in Castile, the emperor was faced with treason and revolt. Could the rebellions be crushed, and the emperor’s authority be preserved? As far as Mexico was concerned, Fonseca pinned his hopes on the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. But in fact, a few days after Charles left for Germany, the fate of Narváez had been decided. Cortés, marching back to the coast from Tenochtitlan, outmaneuvered, defeated and captured him on May 27.

Narváez’s defeat left the governor of Cuba a ruined and broken man. Cortés had defeated Velázquez—geographically his nearest enemy—but he was still without news from the Spanish Court. Moreover, his march to the coast to defeat Narváez had fatally weakened the Spanish position in Tenochtitlan. When Cortés got back to the capital on June 25 it was already too late. The behavior of Alvarado and his men in Tenochtitlan during Cortés’s absence had precipitated an Indian uprising, and neither Cortés’s troops, nor the diminished authority of Motecuçoma, proved sufficient to quell the revolt. Motecuçoma, rejected by his own subjects, died his strange death on June 30. During the course of the same night, the noche triste, the Spaniards made their famous retreat from Tenochtitlan. Cortés might have defeated the governor of Cuba, but he had also lost the empire he had promised to Charles.

It was during the autumn months of 1520, while Cortés was preparing for the siege and reconquest of Tenochtitlan, that he wrote the Second Letter. This letter, like its predecessor from Vera Cruz, is both more and less than a straightforward narrative of events, for it, too, has an essentially political purpose. Cortés, when writing it, was influenced by three major considerations. In the first place, he still did not know what decision, if any, had been reached in Spain on his plea for retrospective authorization of his unconventional proceedings. In the second place, he had by now heard the news of Charles’s election to the imperial throne. Finally, he had won a new empire for Charles and had proceeded to lose it. His letter, therefore, had to be so angled as to suggest that, at the most, he had suffered no more than a temporary setback (attributable to other men’s crimes), and that he would soon be in a position to render the most signal new services to a king who had now become the mightiest monarch in the world.

With these considerations in mind, Cortés carefully contrived his letter to convey a predominantly “imperial” theme. Its opening paragraph contained a graceful allusion to Charles’s new empire in Germany, which was skillfully coupled with a reference to a second empire across the Atlantic, to which he could claim an equal title.{12} This reference set the tone for the document as a whole. The fact that Cortés was no longer at this moment the effective master of the Mexican empire was no doubt inconvenient, but could be played down as far as possible. For the thesis of the letter was that Charles was already the legal emperor of this great new empire, and that Cortés would soon recover for him what was rightfully his.

The entire story of the march to Tenochtitlan and the imprisonment of Motecuçoma was related in such a way as to support this general thesis. Motecuçoma, by his speeches and his actions, was portrayed as a man who voluntarily recognized the sovereignty of Charles V, and voluntarily surrendered his empire into his hands. Whether Motecuçoma did indeed speak anything like the words which Cortés attributes to him will probably never be known for certain. Some passages in his two speeches contain so many Christian overtones as to be unbelievable coming from a pagan Aztec. Others, and in particular the identification of the Spaniards with the former rulers of Mexico wrongly banished from their land, may be an ingenious fabrication by Cortés, or may conceivably reflect certain beliefs and legends, which Motecuçoma himself may or may not have accepted. Whatever its origins, the story of the expected return of lords from the east was essential to Cortés’s grand design, for it enabled him to allege and explain a “voluntary” submission of Motecuçoma, and the “legal” transfer of his empire—an empire far removed from the jurisdiction of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo and from the Caribbean world of Diego Colón and Velázquez—to its rightful ruler, Charles V .

Motecuçoma’s death at the hands of his own subjects left Charles the undisputed master of the field. It was unfortunate that the Mexicans were now in open rebellion—a situation which could only be ascribed to the nefarious activities of the governor of Cuba, acting through his agent Pánfilo de Narváez. But although Narváez’s invasion had nearly brought disaster, the tide had now been turned, because God was on the emperor’s side. With divine help, and through the agency of that most loyal of lieutenants, Hernan Cortés, the land would soon be recovered; and what better name could be bestowed upon it than that of New Spain?{13}

It is clear that this entire letter was superbly designed to appeal directly to Charles over the heads of Fonseca and his friends in the Council of the Indies and the imperial entourage. But Fonseca was still far from ready to admit defeat. It was always possible that Cortés would suffer the fate of other conquistadors, and be unseated by conspirators among his own men. The abortive plot of Antonio de Villafaña during the siege of Tenochtitlan{14} showed that Velázquez still had his friends, and that this was by no means an unreasonable hope. There was a chance, too, that Fonseca could rid himself of Cortés by more subtle means. With Narváez’s defeat, military overthrow had become unlikely; but as long as Charles V declined to pronounce on Cortés’s status, he remained intensely vulnerable to legal action.

When news of Narváez’s defeat reached Spain, Fonseca persuaded Adrian of Utrecht, who headed the regency government during Charles’s absence in Germany, to appoint a royal official to intervene in Mexico. The chosen official was Cristóbal de Tapia, a royal inspector in Hispaniola. He received his commission in April, 1521—the month when the Castilian Comuneros were defeated and crushed at Villalar—and he was apparently ordered to take over the government of New Spain, and, if possible, to arrest Cortés and ship him home. Tapia landed at Vera Cruz on December 4, 1521, four months after Cortés’s army had captured Tenochtitlan. The Aztec empire had been destroyed; but, for all his success, Cortés was in a delicate position. To defy Tapia, who had come to New Spain as the legally appointed representative of the royal authority, would be the height of imprudence, and yet to surrender the empire into his hands would be intolerable.

Once again, however, as the Third Letter makes clear, Cortés showed himself equal to the occasion. Carefully avoiding a personal meeting with Tapia, who would at once have presented him with a royal warrant, he sent a Franciscan, Fray Pedro de Melgarejo, to greet Tapia, and no doubt to pass him an appropriate bribe. At the same time, he had recourse to the device which he had already employed at the beginning of the conquest, and arranged another “spontaneous” assertion of the popular will. The representatives of the various municipalities of New Spain, usefully reinforced for the occasion by the rapid founding of the new town of Medellin, met Tapia at Cempoal on December 24, 1521, and went through the time-honored Castilian procedure followed by those who were prepared to obey but not to comply. With honor thus satisfied on both sides, Tapia took the next ship back to Hispaniola, a wiser, and no doubt a richer, man.

Tapia’s intervention provided Cortés, in his Third Letter of May 15, 1522, with a diabolus ex machina, equivalent to Narváez in the Second Letter. While the letter related in great detail the siege and capture of Tenochtitlan, it also enabled him to smear by implication all those royal officials who placed their own interest before the emperor’s. It was scarcely necessary to contrast their conduct with that of Cortés, who had not only conquered an empire for Charles, but was now offering him yet another vision of fabulous riches—a vision, this time, of the Spice Islands of the Pacific and the world of Cathay.{15}

It must have been bitterly frustrating for Cortés that, in spite of all these services, no word of royal approval had yet been received. This could only be explained, he concluded, by the machinations of his enemies, who were concealing the truth from the emperor. Nor could there any longer be real doubt that the chief among these enemies was Fonseca, the bishop of Burgos. It was Fonseca who had been responsible for the unwelcome intervention of Tapia. It was Fonseca, too, who was responsible in 1523 for a further challenge to Cortés’s position—the intervention of Juan de Garay.

In 1521 Garay, the governor of Jamaica, obtained from Fonseca a warrant authorizing him to conquer and colonize the Panuco region, to the north of Vera Cruz. He landed at Panuco in July, 1523, with an army of four hundred infantry and 120 cavalry. This could easily have been another Narváez affair, and Cortés at once recalled his captains, now dispersed over Mexico, to meet the new challenge to his authority. It was this challenge which he described in the opening pages of his Fourth Letter of October 15, 1524, where for the first time Fonseca is mentioned by name.{16} Tapia and Garay, like Narváez in the Second Letter, are portrayed as self-interested men whose ill-chosen and ill-timed intervention in the affairs of New Spain placed the imperial authority and the achievements of Cortés at risk. Cortés himself emerges, not for the first time, as the loyalist, confronted by a quartet of enemies—Fonseca, Diego Colón, Velázquez and Garay—united in their sinister machinations to accomplish his ruin.

By the time this letter was written, however, Cortés’s battle for recognition had long since been won. During the course of 1521 the balance of power in the emperor’s councils had perceptibly shifted. This year, which saw the defeat of the Comuneros, saw also the siege and capture of Tenochtitlan. If Fonseca’s brother had emerged victorious in Castile, Fonseca’s enemy had emerged victorious in New Spain; and as more and more wealth flowed in from Mexico, something of the significance of Cortés’s achievement began to be realized. His agents were lobbying hard in the regency council of Adrian of Utrecht, and duly convinced the regent that the bishop of Burgos had done the emperor an ill service in persistently supporting the governor of Cuba. He therefore deprived Fonseca of jurisdiction in the suit between Cortés and Velázquez, instituted to determine which of the two could rightfully lay claim to the spoils of New Spain.

Charles V returned to Spain in July, 1522, and received Cortés’s representatives in audience the following month. After hearing their arguments, he confirmed Adrian’s decision, but appointed a new tribunal to receive representations from both parties and to reach a final verdict. This tribunal, which included among its members the grand chancellor Gattinara, eventually decided in Cortés’s favor. It was left open to Velázquez to sue Cortés for debts, but it was ruled that Velázquez’s financial contribution to the original expedition, even if it were larger than that of Cortés, did not entitle him to claim credit for the conquest of Mexico.

The tribunal’s recommendations were accepted by the emperor and embodied in a decree dated October 15, 1522, which named Cortés governor and captain general of New Spain.{17} At last, some three and a half years after his original act of insubordination, Cortés had received the vindication for which he and his agents had worked so hard. The original strategy, so tenaciously pursued, of appealing directly to the sovereign over the heads of his officials, had yielded its expected dividend. Cortés was no longer a rebel— another Comunero—but the emperor’s official governor of the newly conquered realm of New Spain.

The news, however, still had to reach Cortés. It was conveyed to Mexico by his brother-in-law Francisco de las Casas, and his cousin, Rodrigo de Paz, who in due course secured appointment as Cortés’s personal secretary and major-domo. When Garay landed in July, 1523, it had not yet come, but it arrived in September, just in time to give a decisive turn to events. Cortés at once had the contents of the emperor’s decree publicly announced in Mexico City—now rising on the ruins of Tenochtitlan—along with those of another imperial decree forbidding Garay to interfere in the affairs of New Spain. Copies of the decrees were also dispatched to Garay, who saw that he was beaten and gave up without a fight. He duly traveled to Mexico City to visit Cortés, and died there suddenly on December 27.

One after another, then, Cortés’s opponents and rivals, from Velázquez to Garay, had been worsted in the intricate political game which Cortés had played with such skill since the moment he first took ship for Mexico. It was a game whose ground rules he had studied closely, and which he had fought with every weapon at his command. Events in Mexico itself were crucial, because success in Mexico was the prerequisite for success at Court. However skillful the maneuvers of Cortés’s relatives and agents at home in Spain, their chances of success ultimately turned on Cortés’s ability to conquer Motecuçoma’s empire and to replenish the imperial coffers with Mexican gold. But Cortés knew well enough that victory in Mexico would be nothing without victory at Court, and the entire presentation of his case through his letters to the emperor was most cunningly designed to bring this about.

He achieved what he intended to achieve; and yet, in the end, his very success proved his own undoing. By consistently emphasizing his own absolute loyalty to the emperor, he had delivered himself into the emperor’s hands. His acutely sensitive political antennae, which had told him that he must win at Court if he were to win at all, failed him at the very moment of success. For if the Court could make a man, it could also unmake him; and there were reasons enough for unmaking Cortés.

When Fonseca fought his protracted battle with Cortés, he may to some extent have been motivated by personal animosity, but at the same time he was profoundly conscious of his position as the Crown’s principal minister in the government of the Indies. It was the policy of the Castilian Crown, firmly laid down in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, that no subject should be permitted to grow overmighty, and that acts of insubordination should be promptly punished without fear or favor. In persecuting Cortés, Fonseca was doing his duty, even if he did it with some personal relish. But Cortés, in the end, proved too strong for him. The intuitive political genius outmaneuvered and outclassed the bureaucratic mind.

The bureaucratic mind, however, is distinguished by its tenacity; and even if Fonseca himself had failed, his successors in the government of the Indies could hardly afford to let Cortés get away with his success. If the Crown’s authority were to be effectively established on the far shores of the Atlantic, acts of private initiative must at all costs be curbed. It was symptomatic of the Court’s concern at the very magnitude of Cortés’s success that the decree of October 15, 1522, appointing him governor of New Spain, should be accompanied by another, appointing four royal officials to assist him in government.{18} Already the bureaucrats were preparing to wrest power from the military in New Spain.

The four officials—Alonso de Estrada, Gonzalo de Salazar, Rodrigo de Albornoz and Pedro Almíndez Chirinos—duly arrived in Mexico in 1524. In the course of this same year, Cortés’s two great enemies, Velázquez and Fonseca, both died: Velázquez in June and Fonseca in October. But each in his way secured a posthumous revenge.

Once central Mexico had been conquered, Cortés turned his attention to the west and the south. As part of the project for southward expansion, Pedro de Alvarado was dispatched in 1523 to conquer Guatemala, while another of Cortés’s captains, Cristóbal de Olid, was given the task of occupying Honduras. Olid, a former partisan of Velázquez, left Mexico for Havana in January, 1524, to collect reinforcements. In Cuba he met Velázquez, now approaching the end of his life, and was persuaded to defy Cortés, as Cortés himself had once defied the governor of Cuba. Once Olid reached Honduras and had taken possession, he disavowed Cortés’s authority. Velázquez had obtained his revenge at last.

The terrible news of Olid’s treachery helps to account for the bitterness of Cortés’s Fourth Letter. Having at last, after years of waiting, secured the authority that he regarded as rightfully his, he found himself betrayed by one of his own captains, at the prompting of his old enemy, Diego Velázquez. The irony of the situation rubbed salt in the wound. But his fresh denunciations of the archvillain, Velázquez, were this time accompanied by a highly imprudent threat to send a force to Cuba and arrest Velázquez for trial in Spain.{19} Nothing could have been better calculated to alarm the already nervous members of the Council of the Indies. Cortés’s proposal to take the law into his own hands, and pursue a personal vendetta in the royal name, could only be regarded as conclusive evidence of the dangers in leaving Cortés in untrammeled exercise of his powers. The emperor’s reaction was predictable enough. A special juez de residencia, Ponce de León, was appointed in November, 1525, to visit New Spain and conduct a full inquiry into Cortés’s activities.

The threat to arrest the governor of Cuba was not the only misjudgment made by Cortés after receiving the news of Olid’s treachery. Francisco de las Casas was sent to bargain with Olid, who promptly took him into custody. Cortés, in exasperation, then decided to lead a force to Honduras under his own command to deal with his insubordinate captain. The Honduras expedition, which provides the theme of the Fifth Letter, was an extraordinary saga of heroism and suffering. Cortés emerged from it alive, but a different, and in some ways a broken, man. A heightened religious intensity pervades the letter, as if Cortés had suddenly been made aware of man’s weakness in face of the inscrutable ways of a Providence that had seemed for so long to be on his side. The Cortés who staggered ashore at Vera Cruz on May 24, 1526, so thin and weak that people had difficulty in recognizing him, contrasted strangely with the arrogant royal governor who had set out as if on a triumphal procession a year and a half before.

Yet, from the moment of its conception, the Honduras expedition seemed such a wild undertaking that it is questionable whether Cortés had not already lost his touch. The long years of waiting for the emperor’s approval had imposed an intolerable strain upon him, perhaps sufficient in itself to affect his judgment. But it is just as likely that the unwelcome presence of royal officials also played a significant part. As soon as the bureaucrats began to arrive in any number, Cortés would cease to be the real ruler of New Spain. Already by the autumn of 1524 he was beginning to feel hemmed in, and the decision to leave for Honduras may well have been prompted by an impulsive desire to escape into a world where he could again enjoy the delights of supreme command.

Whatever the balance of motives, Cortés’s decision proved to be the most disastrous of his life. No one else in New Spain enjoyed even a shadow of his personal authority, and his departure was the signal for anarchy. As soon as his back was turned, his enemies came out into the open, and the old faction feuds reasserted themselves in a vicious quarrel over the spoils of conquest. The old Velázquez faction, which had felt cheated in the distribution of booty and land, turned for leadership to Gonzalo de Salazar. The followers of Cortés, for their part, grouped themselves around the person of his major-domo, Rodrigo de Paz. There was virtual civil war in Mexico in 1525, and Paz was captured, tortured and killed. But the unexpected news of Cortés’s survival, and of his imminent return to New Spain, encouraged his followers to launch a counter-offensive; and when Cortes made his triumphal entry into Mexico City in June, 1526, he returned to a capital once again controlled by his own partisans.

But the triumph of 1526 was ephemeral. The violent faction feuds in New Spain merely confirmed the determination of the Council of the Indies to bring it under the effective control of the Crown. A few days after Cortés’s return to the capital, Ponce de León arrived to conduct his residencia, and suspended him from his office of governor. The net was slowly closing on Cortés, and each new official pulled it a little tighter around him. Fonseca’s hand stretched beyond the grave.

Embittered by the apparent neglect of his services, Cortés de­cided to seek redress, as he had always attempted to seek it, with the emperor in person. He left Mexico for Spain in March, 1528, and was duly accorded a magnificent reception at Court. He was raised to the nobility with the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and the emperor confirmed him in the possession of numerous vassals and vast estates. But he did not reappoint him to the governorship of New Spain. When he returned to Mexico in 1530 he returned with no office or special authority, and he found that the royal offi­cials assiduously kept him at arm’s length. In the Spanish-style bureaucratic state that was being constructed on the ruins of Motecuçoma’s empire, there was no place for the conqueror of Mexico. In 1540 he retired to Spain, where he lived out the remaining seven years of his life, a disappointed and disillusioned man. He had played the game according to the rules, but these had been laid down by the Spanish Crown. And Cortés, who had devoted such time and thought to their study, had overlooked the most important fact of all: that those who devise the rules are likely, in the last round, to win the match.

J. H. Elliott


In the following notes Cedulario refers to Cedulario Cortesiano, compilación de Beatriz Arteaga Garaz y Guadalupe Pérez San Vicente. Publicaciones de la Sociedad de Estudios Cortesianos No. I, Mexico, 1949.

Below, p. number refers to pages in the book Letters from Mexico. Translated, edited, and with a new introduction by Anthony Pagden. Revised edition published by Yale University Press in 1986.

{1} This brief survey has drawn heavily on the illuminating studies of Cortés and his ideas by Victor Frankl: “Hernán Cortés y la tradición de las Siete Partidas”; “Die Begriffe des Mexicanischen Kaisertums und der Weltmonarchie in den ‘Cartas de Relacion’ des Hernán Cortés”; “Imperio particular e imperio universal en las cartas de relacion de Hernán Cortés.” Frankl’s critical reassessment of Cortés as a reliable source for his own exploits is to some extent inspired by Eulalia Guzmán, Relaciones de Hernán Cortés a Carlos V sobre la invasión de Anáhuac, an annotated edition of the first two letters which is often shrewd and penetrating in its judgments but is vitiated by the author’s antipathy toward Cortés. The most interesting and suggestive attempt so far made to reconstruct the political scene in Spain and the Indies in the first decades of the sixteenth century is to be found in the massively ambitious biography of Las Casas by Manuel Giménez Fernández, to which his Hernán Cortés y su Revolución Comunera en la Nueva España may be regarded as a useful pendant. In addition to these works, I have also made use of the following: Robert S. Chamberlain, “La controversia entre Cortés y Velázquez sobre la gobernación de la Nueva España, 1519-1522,” and his “Two unpublished documents of Hernán Cortés and New Spain, 1519 and 1524”; Richard Konetzke, “Hernán Cortés como poblador de la Nueva España”; José Valero Silva, El Legalismo de Hernán Cortés como instrumento de su Conquista; H. R. Wagner, The Rise of Fernando Cortés.

{2} Cedulario, doc. 1.

{3} The relationship is reported by Francisco López de Gómara, Cortés, The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, p. 327. Giménez Fernández, Hernán Cortés, p. 53, suggests that the “niece” was a daughter.

{4} Clause 27, Cedulario, p. 30.

{5} Below, p. 452, n. 15.

{6} Chap. 36. Frankl, in “Hernán Cortés y la tradición de las Siete Partidas,” was the first to appreciate the cryptic references in the exchange.

{7} Chap. 41.

{8} Below, p. 18.

{9} Below, p. 5.

{10} Below, p. 37.

{11} Below, p. 51.

{12} Below, p. 48.

{13} Below, p. 158.

{14} Below, pp. 277-278.

{15} Below, pp. 267, 327, 444.

{16} Below, p. 289.

{17} Cedulario, doc. 2.

{18} Cedulario, doc. 3.

{19} Below, p. 332.

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