Hernan Cortes: Accomplishments, Exploration Route & the Aztecs

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  • 0:03 Before the Conquest of Mexico
  • 0:23 The Early Years
  • 1:16 The Conquest of Mexico
  • 3:36 Post Conquest
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Juliette Parsons

Juliette has a PhD in History from USC and a BA in History from Yale. She has taught courses at the middle school, high school, and college level.

A young soldier with little military experience named Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico with only 500 men in 1521. This lesson will explain how he defeated one of the greatest empires in the world.

Before the Conquest of Mexico

Hernan Cortes was a Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztecs in only three months. He was born to a poor but noble family in 1485. Despite his humble upbringing, Cortes wanted to be wealthy more than anything in world. In 1504, he went to the New World in search of gold.

The Early Years

In 1511, Cortes helped the Spanish conquer Cuba under the command of Diego Velasquez. Velasquez became governor of Cuba and made Cortes his secretary. In 1518, Cortes became mayor of Santiago, the capital of Cuba. While in office, he was quite promiscuous, having sexual relations with several women.

That same year, Cortes asked Velasquez's sister-in-law Catalina to marry him, but got cold feet right before the wedding. Velasquez was furious when he found out and imprisoned Cortes, releasing him only when he eventually agreed to marry her.

Velasquez never forgave Cortes, and soon got his revenge. He asked Cortes to go explore Mexico, then cancelled the mission right before its departure. But the explorer took 500 men and went anyway, and in February 1519, he began his conquest of Mexico.

The Conquest of Mexico

Now, the Aztec Empire had ruled over Mexico for 200 years. The Aztec Empire was one of the largest and most powerful civilizations in the world when Hernan Cortes invaded them in 1521. Their capital city of Tenochtitlan was the seventh-largest city in the world. Since 1250, the Aztecs had controlled most of Mexico, but they had also made a lot of enemies among the people they subjugated. The other peoples of Mexico resented the Aztecs for their brutality and use of human sacrifice and were more than happy to help Cortes defeat the empire. In the town of Tabasco, Cortes met a woman named Malinche who hated the Aztecs for killing her family. She became Cortes' mistress and translator.

Ultimately, the Spaniards were able to enter Tenochtitlan peacefully. When Cortes arrived in 1520; the Aztecs mistakenly thought that he and his men were gods sent by their most powerful god, Quetzalcoatl. According to an Aztec prophecy, Quetzalcoatl was supposed to send men with white skin from the East to save the Aztecs at the end of the world. The emperor, Montezuma, made the Spaniards guests in his palace.

The Aztecs figured out too late that the Spaniards were not gods. Cortes captured Montezuma and made him a hostage in his own palace. The Spaniards demanded that the Aztecs pay a huge ransom, and Montezuma was murdered, although no one knows who killed him. Angered about the murder of their emperor, the Aztecs rose up against the Spaniards and drove them out of the city. Cortes sought help from the Aztecs' enemies. He quickly recruited a huge army.

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