Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

Five hundred years ago exactly, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés waged his first bloody battle against the Aztecs in the New World. But why is Mexico's president dragging it up now?

Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?
A statue of Hernán Cortés in Medellin, Extremadura. Photo: orensbruli/Depositphotos

Who was Hernán Cortés?

The body of Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who launched three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico, today  lies all but forgotten in a Mexico City church, even as a new debate rages over his legacy.

The story of how it got there is as complicated and dramatic as the conquest itself, launched 500 years ago when Cortés, a talented, cunning and ambitious adventurer, defied his boss' orders and sailed off to conquer the Aztec empire.

That violent collision between the Old and New Worlds surged into the headlines this week when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on the king of Spain and the pope to apologize for the abuses of the conquest drawing a resentful response.

Amid the row, the remains of the Spaniard who started it all lie in oblivion in the Mexican capital, a silent reminder of both countries' shared past.

It is an unlikely fate for a man who rose from nothing to conquer an empire and build another in its place, winning fame and fortune along the way.   

“There's a very complicated and theatrical story behind Cortés's remains, worthy of a TV special,” said the historian Miguel Pastrana Flores, of Mexico's largest university, UNAM.

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row

Losing it all

Cortés was a smart but rebellious thirty-something when he launched the conquest in 1519 — defying his boss, the governor of Cuba, who had told the young official to stay put on the newly colonized island.

Instead, Cortés not only set sail for the mainland, but destroyed his own ships on arrival, leaving his several hundred men little choice but to try and colonize it.

With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World — and alliances with other indigenous groups, Cortés overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521, claiming it for Spain.

He governed the new colony for several years, but was haunted by his own insubordinate streak: legal problems and frayed relations caused by his defiance of the nobility would dog him the rest of his life.

Cortés died in Spain in 1547, aged about 62, diseased and indebted.   

In his will, he asked his family to build a convent south of Mexico City and bury him there. But that never happened.

Dead man walking

Buying time, Cortés' heirs put his body in a mausoleum in Seville, then moved him to a nearby tomb three years later when another noble needed the space.

That was just the beginning.

“His remains have been moved from place to place” for centuries, Mexican writer Hector de Mauleon told AFP.   

Cortés' family finally sent his remains to Mexico in 1566. He was buried near his mother at a church north of Mexico City.   

In 1629, Cortés' last male heir died, and the colonial government ordered Cortés reburied alongside him in the capital's Franciscan monastery in a lavish ceremony.

Cortés' bones — now in a velvet-lined urn — were later transferred to the monastery's altar, locked with a key that passed from one generation of monks to the next.

In 1790, he was moved again, to a stately tomb inside the church that adjoins the Hospital de Jesus, the first hospital in the Americas, which he founded.

Mystery disappearance

But then Mexico declared independence in 1810.   

By 1823, “Mexico City was aflame with pamphlets, with calls to kick out the Spanish, to dig up Cortés' remains and drag them through the streets,” said De Mauleon.

A conservative historian and writer, Lucas Alaman, decided not to let that happen. He slipped into the church and removed Cortés' body from its tomb.   

For more than a century, its whereabouts were a mystery. Historians speculated it was in Spain or Italy.

Then, in 1946, a refugee of the Spanish civil war and a Cuban student invited the historian Francisco de la Maza to a secretive meeting. There, they told him they had a letter left by Alaman with a map to Cortés' body.

The remains, it turned out, were just meters from where Alaman had taken them, sealed inside a wall at the very same church.   

With the government's permission, De la Maza led a secret excavation — and found what experts confirmed was Cortés's body.   

It was a far cry from the image of the virile young conquistador, said De Mauleon.

“He had one tooth, various injuries sustained in combat, and his bones seemed eroded by venereal disease,” he said.   

The government ordered the body returned to the same spot. Today, it is marked by a discrete plaque: “Hernán Cortés, 1485-1547.”

Revisiting history

Pastrana criticized Mexico's request to Spain — two countries that didn't even exist as such at the time — and said the idea of good “Indians” versus evil conquistadors was overly simplistic.

“We have to try to understand these figures in their enormous complexity,” he said.

“Two civilizations… met without a single reference point. It's as if we went to Jupiter and found another civilization.”   

Spanish academic Guillermo Seres said it was “unjust” that Cortés, “a man of action, but also… of science and letters,” had been cast as a villain.   

“He has come to represent everything bad in Spanish history,” he said.

By AFP's Jean Luis Arce and Joshua Howat Berger

READ ALSO Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.