Geography and Travels in History Cortes and Mexico Part 1

About the history and geography of the travels of Cortes through Mexico, the Yucatan peninsula and Aztec land.



Before Beginning. Motivated by "Gold, Glory, and God"--in that order--Hernando Cortes (or Cortez) (1485-1547) and 550 Spanish soldiers of fortune invaded and conquered the militaristic Aztec Empire in 1521. The Spanish invasion of Mexico was achieved by the use of gunpowder and horses, which were terrifyingly unknown to the Aztecs, and by the audacious leadership of Cortes.

As a young man, Cortes immigrated to Cuba from Spain and became a plantation and Indian slave owner. A strong, thin, handsome man, Cortes was an ambitious adventurer and an accomplished horseman, swordsman, and philanderer. His love affairs resulted in numerous duels with outraged husbands. However, he survived these contests with only a scarred lower lip. He finally married a rich, aristocratic woman, but soon his marriage and finances were in equally poor condition. Cortes intrigued with friends and relatives to be given command of an exploratory and trading voyage to Mexico in order to escape his creditors and wife. In 1519 the governor of Cuba gave 10 ships to Cortes, who sailed off to gain fortune and fame and to spread Christianity among the heathens.

Footsteps Then. Leaving Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 10, 1519, Cortes sailed westward to the island of Cozumel off the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The island's Indians were friendly, so Cortes was able to replenish his supplies. Sailing from Cozumel, he followed the coastline around the Yucatan to the River Grijalva, which the Indians called the Tabasco River. Short on food and water, Cortes was forced to go ashore, where he was attacked by legions of hostile Indians. With musket fire and cavalry charges, Cortes won his first victory. The Indians sued for peace and provided the Spaniards with fresh supplies and a present of 20 women. Cortes had these women baptized Christians and gave them to his officers as mistresses, keeping one named Marina for himself. She became not only Cortes's mistress but also his interpreter, adviser, and spy.

Proceeding on up the coast, Cortes came to the island of San Juan de Ulua, where he disembarked and celebrated Easter. Crossing over to the mainland, Cortes founded the first Spanish city in Mexico, which he titled Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz ("Rich City of the True Cross"). From this base he traveled north up the coast to Cempoala, which was the major city of the Totonac Indians. The Totonacs had been conquered by the Aztecs and forced to pay heavy taxes and supply people for sacrifices to the Aztec gods. Cortes easily enticed them to rebel against the Aztecs and swear allegiance to him.

In August, 1519, Cortes with 400 Spaniards and 1,000 Indian allies, journeyed into the interior. Marching from the coastal plain up pinecovered mountains and through snowy passes, he came to the city of Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalan Indians also allied themselves with Cortes, who then pressed on to the city of Cholula. There he discovered a gigantic Aztec religious pyramid which measured 1,400 ft. along each side of its base--nearly twice the size of Cheops's pyramid in Egypt. Each year on top of the pyramid, priests cut out the hearts of 6,000 human victims and offered them to the god of war. Then they threw the corpses down to the populace to feast on. Cortes suppressed this practice and tried to convert the Indians to Christianity.

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