History brims with oppressive, self-serving, and indifferent people. Hernán Cortés, the notorious Spanish conquistador, was one of them. Spanish conquistadors were generally insensitive and exploitive to indigenous peoples in their quest for wealth and power. Cortés was a trailblazer - he was the first Spaniard to make significant inroads in what is today modern Mexico. However, his actions led to the demise of one of the most powerful empires in the Americas.
Born into a noble family in Spain around 1485, Cortés experienced a restless childhood, dreaming of fame and fortune. Spain's increasing exploration of the Americas gave the young Cortés the chance he was looking for. In 1504, he followed his dreams westward.
Cortés subsequent actions ultimately led to the fall of the Aztec world. By all accounts, he was arrogant, defiant, self-serving, greedy, and generally indifferent to the indigenous people he sought to conquer. From slaughtering innocent people to enslaving natives and attempting to eradicate their religion and culture, his exploits make him one of the most controversial figures in history.
Before Christopher Columbus set sail, the Aztec Empire was a thriving and highly developed civilization in Mesoamerica. Centered in what is today Mexico, the Aztecs were a Nahuatl-speaking people whose networks of alliances built an expansive empire with a complex religious, social, and cultural life. Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was one of the largest and most vibrant cities on Earth at the time, rivaling European cities in culture and population. It's believed that the only European city larger than Tenochtitlan was Constantinople.
In 1521, the Aztec Empire collapsed following on-going battles with Cortés' relentless forces. Many factors contributed to the fall of the Empire, including advanced weaponry, armor and horses used by Spanish troops, disease unknowingly introduced by the Spanish, and neighboring Aztec rivals joining forces with the Spaniards. The fall of the Empire marked an important phase in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Although Aztec culture would adapt and survive in interesting ways, the fall of the Aztec Empire marked the beginning of Spanish colonialism in modern-day Mexico, having repercussions for centuries.
As Cortés and his army journeyed towards Tenochtitlan, they reached the city of Tlaxcala where they allied with its people. Long-time rivals with the Aztec city of Cholula, the Tlaxcalans persuaded Cortés to travel with them to the city to conquer its people. Cholula was the second-largest and one of the most important Aztec cities of Mesoamerica, as well as one of the most sacred. Its inhabitants had a very small army and relied heavily on the protection of the gods.
Upon the arrival of Cortés and his troops, the unsuspecting priests and nobles of Cholula were rounded up in a square in front of the city's temple. Cortés 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, Cortés married Cuba Governor Velázquez's sister-in-law, Catalina Juárez. After the conquest, Catalina arrived in New Spain. She shared an awkward marriage with Cortés because she was kin to Valázquez, with whom Cortés no longer got along. Nevertheless, he welcomed her, but became discouraged when she bore him no children. Meanwhile, he had a number of mistresses, including an indigenous woman called La Malinche who served as his guide and interpreter. La Malinche and Cortés had a son together.
In 1522, Catalina died under mysterious circumstances. As the man with the most to gain by Catalina's death, Cortés immediately fell under suspicion. A formal inquiry was launched, however, it was inconclusive and Cortés was never found guilty.
As a teenager, Cortés gave up a colonial appointment after he severely injured himself as he fled the bedroom of his married lover. Soon after arriving in Hispaniola, he contracted syphilis from a lover.
Throughout his campaign in Mesoamerica, Cortés had many indigenous women as lovers - usually against their will. Most prominent of them was the woman known as La Malinche. In 1519, she was one of 20 enslaved women presented to Cortés at the Mayan city Potonchán. She was forced to be a mistress, translator, and cultural liaison for Cortés and bore him a son in 1522. His liaison with Moctezuma's 17-year-old daughter, Isabella, also produced an illegitimate son. In addition, he had multiple children out of wedlock with indigenous women.