Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1519.
Cortés was born in Medellin, Spain in 1485. He studied and served as a notary, first in Seville and later in Hispaniola, giving him knowledge of the legal codes. This was an age of discovery and conquest following the landing of Columbus in the New World in 1492.
In 1504, at age 18, Cortes went to Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic, where the Governor appointed him a notary of the town of Azua de Compostela. He served in the conquest of Hispaniola and then Cuba from 1511 to 1518. At age 26, Cortes was made clerk to the treasurer. Governor Velázquez was impressed with Cortes and he became secretary to the Governor and was twice appointed municipal magistrate (alcalde) of Santiago.
Cortes Expedition to Conquer the Aztec Empire
In October 1518, Cortes was appointed Captain-General of the third expedition to the mainland, following Cordova and Grijalva, to explore and secure the interior of Mexico for colonization. He gathered an army and in February 1519, landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mayan territory with 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses, and some cannon.
In March 1519, from a warship on the river at Tabasco, Diego de Godoy, a royal notary from Pinto, read a proclamation (Requerimiento) to the Indians demanding submission to Spain. The Indians responded with arrows. Cortés gave the battle-cry “Santiago, and at them!” used in Spain in battles with the Moors. Indian arrows and spears were ineffective against soldiers clad in armor and helmets, equipped with crossbows, muskets (arquebus), cannon and horses. Over 1,000 Indians were killed and only a few Spanish soldiers.
Following the victory, Cortes formally claimed the land for Spain, making three cuts with his sword in a great ceiba (silk cotton tree) in the central square. The soldiers cheered and the royal notary recorded the land claim.
Cortes then moved on to Veracruz, where he scuttled his ships to prevent any retreat.
As he advanced, he used a strategy of building his army by forming alliances with some indigenous people to fight against others. The Requerimiento was read to all Indians encountered, placing them under the king’s authority in return for protection and conversion to Christianity.
Godoy, the royal notary, recorded oaths of allegiance to Spain made by the Indian chiefs. Godoy had previously served as a notary in the Grijalva expedition, claiming the island of Cozumel in May 1518. A report on southern Mexico from Godoy to Cortes is included in Cortes’ Fourth Letter, published in 1525.
At Veracruz, Montezuma sent gifts to Cortes. As the King’s notary, Godoy had a duty to write down all the “gifts”. Among them were:
A large wheel of solid gold with a monster’s face upon it.
2800 pesos d’oro (gold coins).
Two collars of gold with precious stones.
A pair of leather slippers in color much like the skin of pine-martens, sewn with threads of gold.
In another box a huge head of an alligator in gold.
Eighteen shields ornamented with precious stones.
Also: Two books such as the Indians use.
After Veracruz, Cortes moved inland and in November he peacefully entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, home of the ruler Montezuma (Moctezuma II), receiving gifts of gold. The army included war dogs, probably Irish wolfhounds or mastiffs, to attack the enemy. The Aztecs had never seen horses before and were amazed. They believed Cortes might be an emissary or the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
Cortes decided to take Montezuma as a hostage in his own palace. In July 1520, Montezuma was killed, creating a hostile population. Cortes fled to Tlaxcala, leaving much of the looted treasure behind. He regrouped with some allies and reinforcements from Cuba. He placed Tenochtitlan under a 3-month siege and on August 13, 1521, the Aztec Empire was captured. Cortes claimed the city for Spain, renaming it Mexico City.
King Charles appointed Cortes as Governor, Captain General and chief justice of the new territory, named “New Spain of the Ocean Sea”. Cortes initiated construction of Mexico City, destroying Aztec buildings and then rebuilding on the ruins.
Following the military conquest, Franciscan and Dominican friars arrived to convert the indigenous population to Christianity.
Cortes Notary Juan de Cuevas
Notary Juan de Cuevas, from Aranda de Duero, Spain, served under Cortes in the conquest of Mexico from 1519 to 1521. In 1540, he was the Chief Notary for Mines and Reports for His Majesty in New Spain for the Coronado Expedition in the American Southwest.
Aztec Language and Writing System
The Aztecs, who called themselves Mexica, originated in northern Mexico and arrived at the fertile Valley of Mexico in the 14th century. The land was already settled and divided by city states. The Aztecs built the island city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in the marshes of Lake Texcoco. They adopted much of the culture of their neighbors, including a writing system that had been used for many centuries by other nations of Central Mexico. Their language was called Nahuatl.
Nahuatl records were primarily written on deerskin and bark paper and no records before Columbus have survived. Surviving documents contain a mixture of Aztec glyphs and Spanish notes.
When writing, the scribes first made an outline with charcoal. Then the pictures were painted using bright colors with vegetables, minerals, insects, and shells.
A book was called a Codex, composed of long strips of paper made from deerskin or tree bark, 20 centimeters wide and 50 meters long, that folded like an accordion, with a wood cover at each end. Scribes wrote on both sides of the paper.
Nahuatl writing had three primary functions: to mark calendar dates, to record calculations, and to write names of people and places. Pictorial representation of events was used to record history. The most important calendar cycle was the 260-day sacred Aztec calendar.
Aztec Scribes and Notaries
Before the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs used scribes and notaries, known as tlacuilo or amatlacuilo, to record religious, legal, and historical records, in pictorial and glyphic form. Mexica natives pleaded cases before local Indian officials.
After the Spanish conquest by Cortes, Indian officials continued to make judgments based on native customs but also had legal books written in their Nahuatl language and Spanish, detailing their expected duties and procedures under the Spanish colonial law. Indigenous officials included alcades (mayors), regidores (council members), scribes, notaries, and interpreters.
A receptor was a notary with special training to hear and record testimony. Each witness in a case answered a list of written questions before a notary. Before questioning, the notary wrote down the name, race, barrio of residence, occupation, and language of each witness.
Native notaries and interpreters (Nahuatlatos) played an important role in mediating between indigenous people and the Spanish officials. Notaries became more important in shaping legal cases and documents. They were record keepers and prepared documents including contracts, wills, and bills of sale.
The surviving notary records provide valuable insights into life during the Spanish colonization of the Aztec Empire.
Five letters written by Cortes to Charles V of the conquest of Mexico, the cartas de relación, are his only surviving writings.
1. Hernan Cortes with his coat of arms, 19th-century engraving, by anonymous (Book of America, R. Cronau) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Cortez and interpreter La Malinche meet Montezuma II, November 8, 1519, by unknown Tlaxcalan artists [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Mendoza Codex depicting the founding of Tenochtitlan, the Mexican coat of arms, 16th century, author unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons