Hernán Cortés: Expeditions after Mexico

After the Conquest of Mexico

In August of 1521 explaining that he had conquered the city, leaving a longer account for later. This note did not reach Spain until March 1522. Believing he had accomplished a triumph with no response, he felt ignored but not idle. During this period, he began the reconstruction of Tenochtitlán, a ruthless pursuit of gold, and the beginning of colonization of places beyond Tenochtitlán. What Cortés desired was royal recognition and to live the rest of his life as a duke. Unknown to Cortés, much of the gold and wealth of Mexico was in the hands of the pochteca, the long-distance merchants, and not in warehouses in Tenochtitlán, which they relentlessly pursued to no avail.




In search of Aztec Gold

Since no great treasure or hoard had been discovered, Cortés put off a distribution of gold and directed his soldiers’ attention to the mines and territories outside of the city. While he was consolidating his leadership of New Spain, many of his soldier’s nursed grievances while other Spaniards were jealous and resentful and ready to betray him.

The Conqueror becomes Captain-General of New Spain

Two serious incidents occurred before he received news of his official approval as Captain-General of New Spain in late 1522. His wife Catalina had arrived from Cuba with her brother, sister and mother to take her place as first lady of the land Cortés had conquered. At this time, his mistress Marina gave birth to his eldest son, christened Martin. Several months later, on All Saints Day, Cortés and his wife Catalina fought publicly during the festivities and she was found dead by Cortés in the middle of the night. No one knows how she died but Cortés was brought up on criminal charges, which were later dropped. Her mother continued with a civil suit and won. Nearly 100 years after her death, money was still being paid by Cortés’s descendents to the great-grandchildren of his first mother-in-law. The second incident was the mysterious death of the Governor Garay of Jamaica who died after dining with Cortés on Christmas Day. At this time, he was attempting to settle in Pánuco, near La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. These deaths would provide more fodder for his enemies to use against him.

New Expeditions and death of Ponce de Leon

By 1526, Cortés had found a convenient overland passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. This became strategically important to Spanish expansion in the Pacific. Even today, as the Panama Canal becomes increasingly inadequate to accommodate inter-oceanic shipping, this road, which was first opened by Cortés, is still the focus of serious attention. Cortés embarked on further territorial expansion, sending Pedro de Alvarado to conquer Guatemala and Cristobal de Olid to conquer Honduras. Alvarado succeeded, but with little gain, and de Olid, with Velázquez’s encouragement, betrayed Cortés, who then set off on his ill-fated expedition to Honduras. Royal authorities became disturbed with Cortés’ willingness to take the law into his own hands, and while
he was gone, his enemies seized his property back home and told everyone he was dead. Upon his return, the King had sent Luis Ponce de Leon to Mexico City to conduct a formal inspection of Cortés’ actions from 1522 forward. Ponce de Leon died after a feast provided by Cortés from unknown causes. Again, Cortés was placed under suspicion and was required to return to Spain and plead his case directly to the King. He placed his personal affairs in order, equipped two ships with gold, silver, jewels, various Indian crafts and animals unknown in Europe such as jaguars, opossums, pumas and armadillos, along with Indian albinos and dwarfs, and sailed to Spain in 1528.




Cortés Pleads His Case to the King and Returns to New Spain

The entourage arrived in Spain after forty-two days in early May 1528. Returning to his hometown, he found his father had died and took his mother with him to see the King, Charles V. He graciously received Cortés, validated his conquest, made him the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, and re-confirmed him as Captain General of New Spain but not as Governor. Charles gave Cortés a twelfth of the profits of all his conquests and accepted that he should have an encomienda of 23,000 vassals, thereby making him one of the richest men in Spain. He also blessed his new marriage to Juana, daughter of Carlos, the Count of Aguilar, whom he had met in Europe. With her, Cortés had one son and three daughters. During this time, Pope Clement VII legitimized three of his illegitimate children. He then returned to New Spain in the middle of 1531 with his mother, his new wife and
400 other passengers.He was refused entrance to his house in Tenochtitlán because the
investigation initiated by Ponce de Leon was still underway. His mother died in Texcoco on the trip to his property in Cuernavaca, where he built a palace. Much of his time was spent defending himself in the courts against charges of profiteering during the conquest, killing Indians unnecessarily and killing his wife Catalina, among other allegations. These proceedings lined the pockets of notaries and have provided priceless information for historians, with questionable results. His time as Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca was spent in a semicordial relationship with the newly formed Audiencia. He agreed to go to the west coast to visit shipyards at Zihuatanejo, Acapulco and Tehuantepec and to pursue his exploration of the southern sea in accord with his agreement with the King. He did not really want to become embroiled again in the political fracas of the capital, and the Audiencia feared that his presence would endanger the system of regulations
that the lawyers were trying to impose upon the fiercely individualistic Spanish settlers.

Pacific Expeditions

When a Viceroy was appointed to New Spain in 1535, Cortés lost a lot of his power. He became restless and embarked on several expeditions to the Pacific. He spent much of his own money,
discovered California, naming the state after Queen Califia, who was a character in a Spanish romance novel he had read. He quarreled with the Viceroy over his actions and returned again to Spain in 1540 to plead his cause. The King grew tired of his demands, ignored him and with these events, Cortés realized he had passed his prime. He lived out the remainder of his life in Seville, where his last years were passed in disillusion.

Final Years

After many years, Cortés decided to give up his pursuit of the King’s recognition and prepared to return to New Spain. However, he became sick with a bout of fever, pleurisy and dysentery. Sensing this might be his last illness; he executed the will he had drafted with Gómara, his biographer. Cortés was 63 years old, worn out and after confessing his sins and receiving final absolution, died on December. In his will, he made full provisions for his wife, left most of his property to his legitimate son, Don Martín, then 15 years old, ample amounts for his other legitimate and illegitimate children, and endowed three institutions — the Hospital de Jesús in Mexico City as the
repository of his remains, a bilingual training school in Coyoacán for missionaries to work to convert native Americans to Christianity, and a nunnery in Coyoacán. After his death, his biography, written by Gómara, was published in 1552, which prompted Díaz to write his version of the Conquest in 1568, which was not published until 1632. Diaz’s version of the conquest was very different than Cortés’s since he was an eyewitness without a hidden agenda. Cortés wrote to defend his actions; Díaz’s stated reason was “as a gift to his children, since he had nothing else to offer them”. Of special
note is his claim that Cortés did not “burn” his ships but merely destroyed them, and giving the credit for making this decision to his men, not Cortés. He is also complimentary of the contributions made by Malinche, which Cortés hardly mentioned at all.