Hernán Cortés and the Montezuma Treasure

Hernán Cortés

Cortés was born in Medellín in 1485 and spent much of his youth in Extremadura. His father was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but little tangible wealth, while his mother was of Pizarro descent. Because of her, Cortés was a second cousin once removed of the famous Francisco Pizarro and the other Pizarro cousins, who played such a decisive part in the ruin of the Inca Empire. Through his father, Cortés was also a relation of Nicolás de Ovando, third governor of Hispaniola, a connection that would in part go on to shape much of his later career.

How Cortés performed as a youngster is, sadly like many of history’s greats, mostly unrecorded. Later reports of him are far from impressive: most accounts have a tendency to downplay his potential as a sickly, pale boy of questionable endurance. At the age of fourteen, there is some evidence to suggest Cortés was sent to study Latin at the University of Salamanca under another relation; however, if he did so, he certainly didn’t last more than two years. By age sixteen, accounts by his first biographer paint Cortés as a restless rebel and troublemaker, clearly unsuited for a long career in the law. By the turn of the century, Cortés had found himself a new hero in the form of Christopher Columbus and, after a period of directionless wanderings around the south of Spain, ventured to Hispaniola himself for the first time in 1504. After two years becoming established there under the watchful eye of Ovando, Cortés became personally involved in putting down violent uprisings in Hispaniola and later the conquest of Cuba, earning him a vast estate and several native slaves.

From 1511 onward, a series of events took place that would go on to shape much of his later life. After assisting in the conquest of Cuba, Cortés became known to Ovando’s aide, Diego Velázquez, leading to him being made clerk to the treasurer on Velázquez’s appointment as governor before being later promoted to secretary. As Cortés’s power and influence continued to grow, relations between the pair became tense, not least after Cortés married Velázquez’s sister-in-law. Later in 1518, Cortés also led a mutiny against Velázquez after he was formally removed as leader of an expedition to mainland Mexico in a bid to colonise further land for the Spanish. After flouting Velázquez’s orders, Cortés put together a fleet of eleven ships and five hundred men and proceeded anyway, landing on the Maya-dominated Yucatán Peninsula and heading inland. After gaining further land both in the Yucatán, and later Tabasco, Cortés allied himself with many of the Aztecs’ indigenous enemies and later carried out the highlight of his career by meeting with, and subsequently defeating, the Aztec lord Montezuma and bringing an end to the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlán and completing the conquest of Mexico for Spain.

Of Cortés’s career post the conquest, things are more of a mixed bag. Despite Velázquez’s attempts to have him arrested, Cortés achieved some praise from the Spanish Crown for his achievements, capped off by being granted his own coat of arms in 1525 and later being made Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca in honour of his efforts in the colonisation of New Spain. Nevertheless, his failure to be awarded the coveted title of viceroy was a point of discord. After returning briefly to Spain in 1528 to receive his new titles and defend himself against the accusations of his enemies, he returned to Mexico in 1530 and spent a further eleven years there, albeit without the same trappings of power he had earlier enjoyed. Rather than pursuing further conquest, the next chapter of his life saw the exploration of the Pacific result in mixed success. After exploring the west coast and playing a significant role in the discovery of the Baja California Peninsula, he returned to Spain in 1541, participating in his final expedition against Algiers before dying in 1547.

Like Columbus, he died a moderately wealthy man who wholeheartedly believed he never received the credit he deserved.