Émulo De Agatocles

“Émulo De Agatocles: Imitador De Timarco: Digna Copia De Lauria,” Hernando Cortes conquering Mexico, The Mariners’ Museum.

Hernando Cortes

1485 CE - 1547 CE

Spain

Primary Goal:

To explore and eventually conquer the Aztec empire.

Achievement:

He conquered Mexico, explored the Pacific coast of Central America and the Baja peninsula of California.


Hernán Cortés was born in the Spanish town of Medellin. His father, Martín Cortés, was a minor member of the Spanish nobility and well known in town as a just and fair man. Hernán's mother, Catalina Pizarro Altamirano, was a member of the Pizarro family; while relatively minor in Spain, several members of the Pizarro family went on to play major roles in the conquest of Peru in the New World. Unfortunately, young Cortés was a sickly child, and prone to ill health his whole life, but he did apparently receive an excellent education in Spain.

At 14, his father Martín decided that it was time for Cortés to make something of himself, and sent the boy off to the University of Salamanca. Here, Cortés studied Spanish law, a skill that would serve him well later on in his career as a conquistador, but he did not seem cut out for the life of a lawyer or even a scholar. After two years, he dropped out of school without telling his parents, and quietly moved back to Medellin, where he constantly found himself in trouble with the authorities for getting into fights. Needing an outlet for his more adventurous tendencies, Cortés signed up with an expedition to the New World led by Nicolás de Ovando, who was the governor of Hispaniola.

But an accident prevented Cortés from sailing with the fleet headed towards the riches and adventures of the New World. At the age of 18, he was scampering over the rooftops of Medellin, supposedly on his way to secretly meet with a girlfriend (who, legend has it, was the wife of an important Medellin resident) when he fell and broke his leg. While recovering from his injury (nearly made worse when a sword-wielding home-owner came out to investigate why someone had fallen off his roof), Cortés developed a fever that kept him bed-ridden for weeks. Ovando's fleet sailed without him, and his chance to see the New World was gone.

In 1504, at the age of 19, Cortés was ready to try his luck in Italy, where Spain was fighting a costly war against France, and energetic young men could quickly rise to prominence in the Spanish army. On his way to the front however, the easily distracted Cortés stopped in the Spanish town of Valencia, where he apparently spent his time drinking and gambling rather than fighting. Eventually, Cortés signed on with a merchant ship headed to the New World, and after a very rough crossing, arrived in Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. Here, he sought out Nicolás de Ovando, but the governor was not on the island at the moment. It was suggested to Cortés that he settle down and try his hand at farming. By one account, Cortés forcefully asserted that he was there to find gold, not corn, but common sense soon prevailed and for a few years, young Hernán Cortés turned into a gentleman farmer on Hispaniola.