Early Life and youth of Cortes
Cortés was born in 1485 to Martín Cortés de Monroy and Donða Catalina Pizarro Altamirano — names of ancient lineages in the town on Medellín, Spain. According to Gómara, Cortés’ biographer, “They had little wealth but much honor, a thing that rarely occurs except among those of virtuous life” . It may seem surprising that Cortés was a small, sickly and colicky infant who was suckled by
a wet nurse because his mother felt breastfeeding led to excessive breast enhancement. The town of Medellín contained a small abandoned castle, which was used in the war against the Moors. Cortés and his friends used this as their personal playground and he learned much from these experiences, which he would utilize later in his life.
Childhood and later years
Not much is known of his early childhood, but at age 14, his father gathered enough money to send him to Salamanca to live with his father’s sister, Inéz de Paz, and to attend the university there to study law and grammar. He found his studies fascinating but excelled more in the areas of horseback riding, shooting, swordplay and the use of the lance. Perhaps due to a lack of funds, adolescent amorousness, recurring illness, or some combination of these, he returned home
after two years without a degree, much to his parents’ disappointment. At this time, his parents hoped his being a lawyer would provide him a better place in society than their own.
A new world filled with riches and adventure
After returning home, he became some trouble to himself and his parents. He was restless, haughty, disrespectful and mischievous, not unlike many other teenagers who have experienced freedom and then move back with their families. At this time, King Ferdinando I of Spain ordered the outfitting of two major expeditions to Naples and the West Indies. Cortés chose to go on the Indies expedition because his father knew Nicolás de Ovando, who was appointed Governor, and he had also seen the gold being brought back on the ships from that area. However, when Ovando was arranging for his ships’ departure, Cortés was caught by a jealous husband outside his house
and was nearly killed by him. Due to this amorous adventure, he failed to sail with Ovando. When healed, he set out for Valencia to join the Naples’ venture but instead traveled around Spain for over a year, living from hand to mouth like other poor wandering students who had left their schools.
He then returned to Medellín, resolved to travel to the Indies, which he finally did in 1506, with his parents’ blessing and funding. In Moguer, near Huelva on the Tinto River, he found a trader who was taking five ships loaded with merchandise to the West Indies and booked passage for himself. He was 19 years old and had neither position nor any preconceptions of the New World, other than it being a place where he could become rich. He sailed to the island of Hispaniola where he renewed his familial relationship with Ovando, soon after his arrival there.
Life on Hispaniola
Disembarking on Santo Domingo, he signed the registry of newly arrived residents, was granted some land for farming, given a plot intown for a house, and given the assurance that he should soon be the lord of native Americans. He boasted of his legal training in Spain, which resulted in his being appointed notary for the town council in Azúa. For five or six years, he worked around the town as a farmer, “doing a little mining, a little trading, and a lot of gaming, wining, and as much fornicating as he could manage”. Controversy surrounds the issue of whether or not he contracted syphilis at this time. Also, during this time he had planned to sail to Veragua with Diego de Nicuesa but developed an infirmity in his right leg, a circumstance that he owed his life because this expedition ended in a shipwreck. What brought an end to Cortés’ easygoing existence on Hispaniola was that Velázquez had obtained permission to conquer Cuba.
Great Adventures in Cuba
To conquer Cuba, the governor of the Indies supplied Velázquez with arms, men and provisions. Cortés had accompanied him as clerk of the treasurer, responsible for collecting the King’s Fifth, which was a tax on objects from gold to slaves sent back to the King of Spain. He was 26 when he became Velázquez’s secretary and was granted a large parcel of land. From this land, he extracted a great deal of gold with the help of the native Americans, accumulated some wealth, established a hacienda and had a daughter, Catalina, by an Indian girl, christened Leonor Pizarro. Governor Velázquez was the child’s godfather.In 1514, Cortés had his first disagreement with Velázquez while
leading a group of discontent settlers who did not agree with Velázquez’s distribution of land and native Americans. Under the cloak of darkness, Cortés attempted to dispatch their written complaints to the Audiencia but was discovered and arrested. In the end, Velázquez pardoned him and gave way under pressure to some of the demands of the settlers. The following year, Juan Xuárez arrived from Santo Domingo with his widowed mother and four sisters. With few marriageable white women on the island, the Xuárez sisters were in great demand. Cortés
courted the oldest sister Catalina while having sexual relations with another sister. He had promised to marry Catalina but then became reluctant to go through with the marriage. Velázquez implored him to marry Catalina, but he refused, so she sued him for breaking his promise. After a public scolding, Velázquez arrested him, put him in stocks from which he escaped several times. After holding out for nearly a year, the two friends reunited and he finally married Catalina but was
not reinstated as secretary to Velázquez. He and Catalina had no children and it was said later by Cortés that Catalina was often ill, had a bad heart, and had been lazy. They moved to Santiago de Cuba, which became the capital city of the island, and Cortés re-established himself in the favors of Velázquez and became the chief magistrate.Having shown little interest in the early exploratory voyages of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba or Juan de Grijalva to the Yucatan Peninsula, Cortés was nevertheless chosen to lead an expedition to find de Grijalva, Velázquez’s nephew, in late 1518. With Velázquez’s pledged to pay for half of the expenses and Cortés’s appointment confirmed, he utilized all of the money he had and pledged his encomienda to borrow more, with which he bought ships, arms and provisions for his exhibition. By the time Cortés was ready, de Grijalva had returned, Velázquez had withdrawn his financial support, and Cortés had learned that Velázquez was in the process of revoking his appointment. Swiftly, Cortés set sail from Baracoa with more than
300 Spaniards and six ships on November 18, 1518, on what was to be a mission of trade and exploration. He made several stops in other cities in Cuba for more provisions, men and financial backers and finally cleared Cuba on February 18, 1519 with approximately 600 men, 11 ships and 16 horses. Shortly thereafter, the expedition arrived at Cozumel on the Yucatan Peninsula