Cortes at Cozumel

While waiting in Cozumel for the repair of one of his vessels, Cortés met Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who had been shipwrecked off the coast of the Yucatan and had been captured by the Maya. During his eight-year captivity, he became fluent in Chontal Maya and therefore was recognized as an asset by Cortés, who allowed him to accompany him on his expedition as his interpreter.


After sailing westward, the expedition stopped in Potonchán, near the mouth of the Grijalva River. After initial hostilities, the native Americans presented gifts to Cortés, one of which was a slave girl
who spoke both Maya and the native language of the Aztecs. Her Nahuatl name was Malinal.

How did Cortes communicate with the natives

Many have labeled Malinal as a traitor, a “sellout” and the mother of Mexican mestizos (Spanish-American Indians). We found her to be an intelligent, resourceful and kind woman. She was born the daughter of the Lord of Paynala, on the southeastern border of the Aztec Empire. Her father was the cacique of his tribe but died when she was very young. When her mother remarried and had a son of noble birth, they sold her to itinerant traders who in turn passed her on to a Maya cacique in Tabasco. Her mother feigned her death, and mourned over the body of a young slave child of a
similar age who had conveniently turned up for the purpose. She remained with them until she was presented to Cortés. With Malinal and Aguilar, Cortés had the means to understand and communicate with the local people. He spoke Spanish to Aguilar, Aguilar relayed the message to Malinal in Maya and she relayed the message to the intended in Nahuatl. One might question the reliability of the translation, but this is the system they used.

Doña Marina

Malinal has had several names throughout history. Her original name was Malinal Tenepal, derived from Malinalli, a sign of the 12th day of the Mexican month. Her name at baptism was Marina but the native people could not pronounce the “r” so they changed it to an “l” and the added the tzin, which is the title for respect. She became Malintzin to the natives, which was changed into Malinche by the Spaniards. Malinche learned Spanish very quickly, which could be the result of her intimate relationship with Cortés. After this, Aguilar was no longer needed and Cortés relied more on her to handle negotiations with the native Americans. She remained loyal to Cortés and had one son by him named Don Martin, and at least one other child, possibly a daughter. Malinche was a very “Christian” woman in the sense that she showed great compassion by forgiving her mother and half-brother for the injustice she had suffered from their abandonment of her. Another piece of evidence of her religious tendencies is a 1537 painting of her standing with Cortés, holding a rosary, over a man who was condemned to death. Cortés arranged for her marriage to Juan Jaramillo and she died in 1551.

Cortes leaving his ships

Proceeding west from Potonchán, they arrived at San Juan de Ulúa and then to La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz on Good Friday, April 19, 1519, where Cortés declared himself governor of the new town, thus providing legitimacy for his expedition. He sent one ship to Spain with treasures he had acquired and a letter explaining his rationale for the expedition. It is in this town that several historians reported that he “burned” his ships to ensure his men could not return to Cuba and
that he forced them to continue inland. According to Winston A. Reynolds, he did not actually “burn” his ships but scuttled or beached them, thus destroying them. This distinction is important because the erroneous belief that he burned his ships placed Cortés among heroic figures such as Caesar and other ancient heroes. Cortés’ deeds, one way or the other, remain a universal symbol of bold vision and heroic action.

The Aztec God Quetzalcoatl

Cortés then set out to the Mexican interior on his march to Tenochtitlán, sometimes resorting to force, sometimes showing amity toward the local native Americans, but always careful to keep conflict to a minimum because his goal was the riches of the city. Since the nation of Tlaxcala was engaged in a chronic war with the Aztec Empire, its leaders realized it would be to their advantage to become allies of Cortés, thus providing him with several thousand warriors. By the time he entered the city of Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519, he had a small force of Spanish soldiers and a contingent of Tlaxcalans. Motecuhzoma did not resist Cortés and thought that he might have
been an incarnation of the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl. Cortés decided to take the city and with Malinche’s aide, persuaded Motecuhzoma to become his prisoner.

Letters to King Charles V

It is during this time that he began writing the second of his five letters to King Charles V. The running theme of all five letters is that Cortés is a great man who will bring wealth and glory to Charles V, while overcoming amazing obstacles presented by the native Americans and Spaniards alike. Many of these letters start with phrases such as “Great and Powerful, Very Catholic Prince, and Most Invincible Emperor” (Gomez pp. 160, 310). It is obvious Cortés is trying to impress the King and to rationalize his actions as the de facto Governor of New Spain. The second letter purports that the Muslims’ expulsion from the city of Granada in 1492 is similar to his own actions against the native Americans in New Spain. It also states that he is not betraying the orders of Velasquez in Cuba; he is spreading the Christian faith to the native Americans. The letters also include details of military capabilities such as how many horses it takes to cross a bridge, the height of temple walls, the ability of arrows to reach these walls and their ease of climbing over them. Also contained are a description of Motecuhzoma and the layout of the capital.

Noche Triste

Cortés remained in the city for five months and virtually governed the kingdom. In April, Cortés learned of a Spanish force landing on the Gulf Coast by Pánfilo de Narváez, who was sent by Velázquez to relieve Cortés of his command and bring him back to Cuba for trial. He left Pedro de Alvarado in charge, defeated Narváez, and returned with his soldiers, thus increasing the size of Cortés’s force. Upon his return, he found Motecuhzoma’s palace besieged by the Aztecs after Alvarado had massacred many leading Aztec chiefs during a festival. This action prompted retaliation by the Indians against the Spanish. It was during this time that members of the Aztec elite decided to replace Motecuhzoma with his brother, Cuitlahuac. In late June, Motecuhzoma was killed; it is still not known by whom. Angry and without food, on June 30, 1520, Cortés decided to leave the city under the cover of darkness, later to return. However, before his soldiers could complete their escape, the people of Tenochtitlán discovered their plot. As a result, many men on both sides lost their lives in the canals that surrounded the city that night. Cortés’ men had attempted to escape with gold in their pockets and were found drowned in the waters the following day. This night was later called the Noche Triste, The Night of Sorrows.

Cortes Triumphant

Cortés and his men withdrew and rejoined their allies, the Tlaxcalans. Cortés returned in December with a better-prepared contingent, more reinforcements from Cuba and Jamaica, new ships, cannons, a layout of the city and a siege mentality. In the interim, an epidemic of smallpox had broken out in the city and many people died, one of which was the ruler Cuitlahuac, who had been replaced by Cuauhtémoc. Upon Cortés’ return, he cut off the water and food to the city, combined an assault by lake and land and fought for 3 months. The city finally fell with the surrender of Cuauhtémoc on August 13, 1521.