History brims with crazy villains from the past: men and women who are remembered for the horrible things they did. Without doubt, Hernan Cortes, the notorious Spanish conquistador, deserves a spot on that list. Spanish conquistadors were generally a terrible lot, as they violently exploited natives in their quest for gold. But Cortes was worse than your average conquistador in some ways because he was a trailblazer - he was the first one to make significant inroads in what is today modern Mexico, and his actions led to the demise of one of the most powerful empires in the Americas.
Born into a noble family in Spain in 1485, Cortes passed a restless childhood, dreaming of fame and fortune. Spain's increasing exploration of the Americas gave the young Cortes the chance he was looking for. In 1504, he finally followed his fortunes westward - and brought disaster in his wake.
How Cortes went about destroying the Aztec world demonstrates the kind of terrible guy that he was. By all accounts, he was arrogant, vainglorious, cruel, greedy, and generally indifferent to the disaster he unleashed in the lives of native people. Some of these Hernan Cortes atrocities would be unbelievable if they weren't true. From murdering innocent people to enslaving natives and attempting to stamp out their religion and culture, his horrible exploits make him one of the most controversial figures in history. All of the terrible things Hernan Cortes did prove that he was, in fact, the absolute worst.
Before even Christopher Columbus set sail, the Aztec Empire was a powerhouse in Mesoamerica. Centered in what is today Mexico, the Aztecs were a Nahuatl-speaking people whose networks of alliances had built an empire throughout the region. They had a complex religious, social, and cultural life. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was one of the most vibrant and biggest cities on earth at the time, rivaling European cities in culture and population. To put this into perspective, the only European city larger than Tenochtitlan at the time was Constantinople.
In 1521 - coming directly as a result of Cortes's arrival in Mesoamerica - the Aztec Empire collapsed, marking an important phase in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Though Aztec culture would adapt and survive in interesting ways, the fall of the Aztec Empire began Spanish colonialism in modern-day Mexico, and this would have repercussions for centuries.
As Cortes and his army were proceeding towards Tenochtitlan, they passed through Cholula, an Aztec city. Though Cortes's army entered the city without any resistance, rumors began to circulate that the Cholulans would slaughter the Spanish in their sleep. Persuaded by his Tlaxcalan allies, Cortes decided to strike first.
All of the priests and nobles of Cholula were rounded up in a square in front of the city's temple. Cortes and his men blocked all exits from the square, slaughtered the unarmed citizens, and set fire to the city. In a matter of hours, the Spaniards and their allies killed anywhere from 3,000 to 30,000 people.
While in Cuba, Cortes married Governor Velazquez's sister-in-law, Catalina Juarez. After the conquest, Catalina arrived in New Spain - probably to Cortes's annoyance, since he had a string of mistresses and did not seem to miss his wife very much. After months of being with Cortes in New Spain, she had yet to provide him with an heir.
In 1522, Catalina died under mysterious circumstances. Indeed, her maids even claimed that her corpse had bruises on it, suggesting foul play. As the man with the most to gain by Catalina's death, suspicion immediately turned towards Cortes, and several people explicitly accused him of murder. The incident was so shocking that a formal inquiry was launched, though it was inconclusive.
Cortes was a conqueror in all aspects of his life - he was a prolific womanizer, and this often overlapped with his career. As a teenager, he gave up a colonial appointment after he severely injured himself as he fled the bedroom of his married lover. He took his sex drive to new heights in the Americas. Soon after arriving in Hispaniola, he contracted syphillis from a native woman.
Indeed, throughout his campaign in Mesoamerica, he took scores of native women as lovers. Most prominent of them was the woman known as La Malinche. In 1519, she was one of 20 slave women presented to Cortes at the Mayan city Potonchan. She quickly proved her worth as both a mistress and a translator for Cortes - she even bore him a son in 1522. Her interpretation skills were vital to Cortes. His affair with Moctezuma's 17-year-old daughter also produced an illegitimate son. In total, he had 5 children out of wedlock with as many native women. To his credit, he provided for both his illegitimate and legitimate children in his will.