Gateway to the Classics: Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by Frederick A. Ober
Hernando Cortes Conqueror of Mexico by  Frederick A. Ober

In Spain and Hispaniola


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the youth of Spain had become inspired with the hope, if not the belief, that wealth and honors awaited them in the West Indies, and what more natural than that many of them should wish to try their fortunes there? Among those who looked towards the Occident for the betterment of their birthrights was the boy who, as a man, became the conqueror of Mexico, Hernando CortÚs. He was born to poverty, but could boast descent from most distinguished ancestry, as the son of a retired captain of the Spanish army, Don Martin CortÚs de Monroy, and his worthy wife, Dona Catalina Pizarro Altamirano.

Hernando CortÚs was seven years old when America was discovered by Columbus. Unlike the great navigator who revealed a new continent to Europe, he was a native of Spain, and inland born. His eyes first opened to the light in the mountain hamlet of Medellin, in Estremadura, which is scarcely better known to-day than it was in that far-distant time when the event occurred which constitutes almost its only claim to fame.

Very little is known of his youth, but at the age of fourteen he might have been found in the famous university of Salamanca, whence, although his parents indulged in great expectations for their precocious son, he eventually returned to his home, without having accomplished anything at all to his credit, except "the writing of Latin, prose and verse, indifferently well."


Hernando CortÚs

As to entering the profession of the law, for which his fond parents had hoped he would equip himself, he had no such intentions, but, rather, inclined to that of arms. When, therefore, at about the age of seventeen, he proposed enlisting in the army for Italy, commanded by the Gran Capitan, or Great Captain, Gonsalvo de Cordova, his father and mother freely gave their consent. They were, in truth, inclined to the belief that, after all, military training, and especially its discipline, might be good for the wayward boy, whose midnight and other adventures were already the talk of the town.

He felt within him the craving for a life of adventure, whether military or otherwise, and in the end decided that the newly discovered regions in the Western World held more of promise in this direction than the well-trodden fields of the Old World, even under that glorious commander, the Gran Capitan.

His native hamlet of Medellin was distant from Seville, and from Palos, whence Columbus had first sailed, only a two-days' journey, and young Hernando had doubtless met and conversed with more than one mariner who had made the great Atlantic voyage. He resolved, at all events, to go to America, and secured permission to sail with Don Nicolas de Ovando, who had been appointed the royal commissioner at Hispaniola, as successor to Columbus and Bovadilla in the governorship of that island.

During the first decade of the sixteenth century, and well into the second, the island of Haiti, or Hispaniola (discovered by Columbus in 1492), and the second city founded there, called Santo Domingo, were objects of absorbing interest to all Spain.

By a freak of fortune not uncommon in those days, the brothers Columbus (Christopher, Bartholomew, and Diego) fell into disfavor with the Spanish sovereigns, and a royal commissioner was sent out to investigate their conduct. This person was Don Francisco de Bovadilla, an obscure knight of Calatrava. His head was turned by his sudden elevation to power and prominence, and he so far exceeded the instructions of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand as to seize the properties of the three brothers and cast them into prison.

Columbus, the great discoverer, the Spanish sovereigns' own "Admiral of the Ocean Sea" (to whom they were indebted for all that was embraced in the term America), was not only imprisoned, but placed in chains. The fettered Columbus was returned to Spain in the year 1500, and within two years, or on February 13, 1502, Don Nicolas de Ovando sailed for Santo Domingo, bearing a warrant to displace the great admiral's immediate successor.

Don Nicolas, himself a native of Estremadura, was acquainted with young CortÚs, and seemed to like him, so the occasion appeared most propitious; but, unfortunately, the lad's inclination for rash adventures led him into difficulty at the very time Ovando's armament was being prepared, and delayed his departure for the New World by at least two years.

Young as he was at this time, Hernando showed himself possessed of a love for intrigue, which proved so detrimental to his fortunes later in life. Going out one night, "to speak with a lady," he fell from a high wall he was scaling in the dark, and received such injuries that he was still confined to his bed when Ovando's fleet sailed for America.

As this fleet of thirty-five sail was the largest that had yet sought the shores of distant America, and as it was commanded (in effect) by one well disposed to the recreant youth, it would seem that young CortÚs had lost, by giving rein to indulgence, a golden opportunity. His chagrin was great, and, that of his parents being yet greater, he took the first occasion presenting after his recovery to leave Medellin for Valencia, with a view of carrying out his original intention, of enlisting under the Great Captain for the wars in Italy. But the critical moment found him ill again, and, after a year of extreme poverty and hard usage in Valencia, he returned home, humbled and penitent.

Expeditions from Spain to the New World were relatively numerous in those days, and when, in 1504, CortÚs learned that a fleet was fitting out at San Lucar, bound for Santo Domingo, he hastened to secure a passage. He was furnished by his father with just sufficient money, from his scant savings, and given the paternal blessing. For the latter, the heartless Hernando little cared (it is said), nor reeked he that his means were small; for he then had health, good looks, abundant wit, an audacious manner, and great flow of spirits, all which made him a universal favorite.

The voyage was an unfortunate one for all concerned, the vessel in which he took passage having been blown out of her course, dismasted, buffeted by adverse winds, and nearly wrecked by tempests. When finally landed at Santo Domingo, CortÚs jauntily betook himself to the governor's house, confident that his many merits would be promptly recognized.

Governor Ovando was away on an Indian-hunting expedition, the natives of Higuey, the easternmost province of Hispaniola, having risen in rebellion, because one of their caciques had been torn to pieces by Spanish blood-hounds. Hunting the Indians with blood-hounds was a pastime in which Ovando frequently indulged, for he was the most cruel of all the governors sent out to Hispaniola.

After running the rebellious Indians to earth, hanging their last great cacique (or chief), Cotubanama, and cutting off the hands of many red-skinned rebels, Governor Ovando finally returned to the capital. He was in great spirits (having at last overcome the worst of the rebels), and when Hernando CortÚs preferred his request—for an estate in the gold region and a license to mine the precious metal—he was not disappointed. Ovando's secretary had previously assured him that he should have a grant of land, with an encomienda  of Indians to till it; but the proud hidalgo had retorted: "Senor Secretario, know you that I came here to get gold, and not to cultivate the soil like a peasant!"

Finding, however, that the gold-mines were nearly exhausted, and that the poor Indians were a free gift, going with the soil in repartimientos  (or apportionments), this youth of nineteen, who had no other fortune than his sword, graciously consented to receive them. He finally settled down as a planter and slave-driver, and also received an appointment as notary in the town of Azua. This town was founded that very year, 1504, by one of Ovando's most energetic lieutenants, Diego Velasquez, of whom we shall hear more anon.

It is probable that CortÚs accompanied Velasquez to the site of the settlement and assisted at its birth, though his friend had visited the section before. It was the year before, in 1503, that Ovando, under pretence that the natives of Xaragua, the south-western province of Hispaniola, were meditating a revolt, marched upon them with an army. While he was the honored guest of Queen Anacaona and her chiefs (who had assembled, at his request, for consultation), Ovando gave the order that resulted in such a slaughter of the inoffensive Indians that very few of them were left alive. Thousands were butchered in the plaza of the Indian town, forty caciques were either hanged or burned alive, while women, babes, and children were murdered in cold blood. The artless and innocent Anacaona was taken to Santo Domingo, where, after a pretence of trial, she was hanged in the plaza of the capital and her remains thrown to the dogs.

Diego Velasquez was one of that band of assassins which had committed the massacre, for it was known that he guarded one of the huts containing the caciques who were burned alive, and afterwards assisted at the hangings. His character may be implied from acts like these, which he was prone to commit with little provocation; and the subsequent career of Hernando CortÚs furnishes abundant proof that he profited by his companion's teachings.

CortÚs and Velasquez were thrown much together, and, so far as the scant records inform us, became almost inseparable companions, buried as they were in that lonely settlement, nearly one hundred miles from the capital city. You will find Azua, to-day, a miserable hamlet, on the south coast of the island, occupied mainly by colored people. Though it was founded four hundred years ago, it can boast no important structures, as it has been several times shaken to pieces by earthquakes and burned by revolutionists. In the Bay of Ocoa (a few miles from which Azua is situated) Columbus sought shelter from a hurricane that destroyed Bovadilla's fleet, in the year 1502, and which he had accurately predicted. It is probable that when the aged admiral returned to Santo Domingo, from his disastrous voyage to Jamaica, CortÚs may have seen him there, for it was in the summer of 1504. Thus Hernando CortÚs forms a link in the human chain connecting the discoverers, like Columbus, with the conquistadores  (or conquerors), like Velasquez and Pizarro, who subjugated Cuba and Peru.

At the time of his advent in the West Indies, the Indians had been largely "pacificated"—in other words, nearly exterminated—and the few survivors not laboring on the plantations of the Spaniards were hiding in the mountains. Without taking an active part in any pitched battle with the natives, or even in many skirmishes, yet CortÚs was often employed in hunting them down, going out with Velasquez on his murderous forays. In this manner he acquired an intimate knowledge of Indian modes of warfare, which served him well in after-years.

The life led by CortÚs and his boon companions in Hispaniola was wild and licentious, without restraint of any sort whatever. Their treatment of the natives was most atrocious, as not only did they hold their honor in light esteem, but they frequently struck off an Indian's head or hand merely to "try the temper" of their swords. In default of fugitive Indians to harry, CortÚs sometimes found vent for his flow of spirits in duels with his countrymen, the scars from which he is said to have carried to his grave.

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