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Hernando Cortes
At the same time, Conquistadors were invading and attempting to settle areas of South America
and the Caribbean that Columbus had discovered. Montezuma, the emperor of the Aztec nation had
prophesized the fall of his empire when he experienced several evil omens such as an image of „men on
deer fighting‟. He also saw a lake flood several homes, woman running in the streets at night screaming
„my children, we must flee far from this city‟, and a fiery comet. Aztec scrolls often documented
Montezuma and his people‟s fears that were justified as the Spanish had already settled in Cuba and
Hispaniola and were now preparing to make a move westward towards Aztec lands.
By 1517, expeditions had already been made to the nearby Yucatan. Reports of riches and gold
wealth had captivated the Spanish, especially a young leader named Hernando Cortes. The Spanish
governor of Cuba, Diego de Velásquez, told Cortés that he would provide two or three ships if Cortés
would find the rest of the money, and lead the army. Cortés agreed and on October 23, 1518, Velásquez
appointed him "captain-general" of a new expedition to the Yucatan.
Velasquez became worried about Cortes‟ plans and actually tried to stop him from sailing with the
300 men provided but Cortes found out about the plan through his brother in law and decided to quicken
his pace and set sail against Velasquez‟ wishes. The crossing from Cuba to the Yucatan is only 120 miles,
and Cortés coasted down to Cozumel, where, for the first time, he saw the Mayan pyramids, with their
thatched sanctuaries on top. Almost immediately, he had an incredible stroke of luck. The people of the
island told him that in the next-door land, known as "Yucatan," there were two Christians who had been
carried there a long time ago in a boat, and held as captives. One of those men was Geronimo de Aguilar,
who had been shipwrecked near Jamaica in 1511. Thanks to Aguilar's survival, Cortés now had a translator
who could speak the local Mayan tongue.
Cortés continued round the tip of the Yucatan and disembarked at Potonchan, where the natives
gave him small offerings of food and a gold mask, but then asked the Spanish to go: ''We wish neither war
nor trade,'' they told Cortés. ''We have no more gold - you will be killed if you do not leave.'' Ultimately, the
conversation ended in a battle in which 400 Indian warriors were driven off with heavy losses. The Indians
submitted and gave the Spanish gifts, including 20 women to cook tortillas and serve them. Cortés
discovered that one of these women, named Malinali, or Malinche as she is generally known, spoke both
Mayan and Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Cortés had stumbled upon the key to his ambitions - through
Geronimo de Aguilar, he would be able to talk to Malinche in Mayan, and then through her speak with the
Mexicans in Nahuatl.
In April of 1519, Montezuma would send a steward out to greet Cortes and his men that had
stopped in the Isle of Sacrifices where they were received by the Totonac people who were at war for
their independence from Mexico at the time and saw the Spaniards as possible allies. Teudile, the steward,
would eventually see a demonstration of the Spaniards‟ power as Cortes ordered some of his men to ride
on horseback at full speed along the beach, bring out their swords, and most impressively, fire a cannon
shot that literally dropped the audience to the ground in fear. The messengers went back to Montezuma
with tales of their guns, horses, dogs, and quest for gold. Montezuma now feared that Cortes‟ was the
reincarnation of the deity Quetzalcoatl.
Cortes knew that he could never return to Cuba because he had defied the ruling of the Viceroy
and instead decided that his only option was to create a settlement. To do this he needed to capture the
cities and rule the surrounding tribes. After much fighting and a show of absolute dominance in warfare,
the smaller, less advanced kingdoms would eventually submit to Cortes‟ demands.
Cortes‟ and his new army marches onwards to Tenochtitlan and were welcomed by Montezuma
who wanted to avoid war with the Spaniards and offered gold, food, and housing. As both parties were
paranoid about the other scheming a massacre against them, tensions rose and Cortes decided to
capture Montezuma and try „ruling‟ through him. Eventually, Montezuma lost all of his political power when
he could not stop the Spanish from replacing their idols with Christian symbols and the Spanish decided
to kill him as he was no longer of use to them. Soon after, Panfilo Narvaez was sent by Vasquez to capture
Cortes and the two would meet in battle. Cortes surprised the troops by attacking at night and enticed the
remaining forces to join him back in Tenochtitlan. While this was going on, small pox had obliterated much
of the population.
An all out attack took place in the city and over a few months the city would fall and the allies of
the Spanish who were ancient enemies with Montezuma ransacked the city and left little behind.
The fall of Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521 marked the end of the great Aztec empire and the
beginning of the Spanish conquests in Mesoamerica.
The lust for gold and valuable minerals in South America led to more Spanish men arrivals that
carried disease and greed. Natives turned into slaves and the population rapidly decreased from
estimates of 25 million to approximately 1 million natives by 1630.
World History II: Hernando Cortes Worksheet
1: Why did Cortes venture towards South America in the early 1500‟s?
2: What types of prophecies did Montezuma have? Why would these sights be considered “true”
prophecies by the Aztec leader and not just strange occurrences?
3: What was the importance of Geronimo de Aguilar and Malinali?
4: Why do you think it was a bad idea for the natives to give Cortes a gold mask as a gift?
5: What did Cortes and his men do when they met Teudile, the steward?
6: Who or what did Montezuma think Cortes was the reincarnation of?
7: Why did Cortes decide to make a settlement instead of plundering and leaving?
8: What was Cortes‟ plan that involved Montezuma? How did it end for each of these men?
9: What is the date of the fall of Tenochtitlan and what happened to the natives that survived all of the
10: What else did the Spanish bring that killed people besides guns and dogs?