Hernán Cortés: Visionary and Creator of a New Nation – Part 1
Hernán Cortés led a fascinating life. With limited resources and a lot of intelligence and political astuteness he defeated the most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. He was determined to create a great Mestizo nation, with a deep respect for the ancestral indigenous culture, and without Spanish domination.
The life and legacy of Hernán Cortés are unquestionably among the most important and most forgotten chapters in the history of Mexico because paradoxically his image was maligned by the Spanish nobility.
My fascination with Cortés lies in his role at the origin of a complex nation. The successes and failures of Cortés mark us to this day.
There are multiple accounts of Cortés as a historical figure. The most common is the negative depiction, simplistically taken out of context, which paints a portrait of an entrepreneur who embarks on an adventure that becomes the seed of a new nation.
Nothing has damaged our collective subconscious more than disqualifying the entrepreneur who risked everything, leaving behind his status as the richest man in Cuba, to embark on a journey into the unknown and launch what we now call Mexico.
The official story, which simplifies, polarizes, and even caricaturizes the origin of our nation, dividing us between "conquerors" and "conquered", victims and victimizers, not only slights the achievements of our ancestors but also engenders a vision that divides and degrades us.
The historical narrative without nuances and based on absolute truths, has only resulted in Mexicans entering into conflict with their own origins. What more harmful discourse could we could encounter?
Luckily, there are more balanced view on the principles of our great nation. For example, the book “Cortés, the most enlightening biography” by Christian Duverger, offers a detailed account of the conquest of Mexico and the public administration and social organization put into place by Cortés in the new territories.
Another author whose works I have discussed in this blog, Juan Miralles, has written a book on this complex historical figure entitled "The five routes of Hernán Cortés". In the future I will discuss his other work, "Hernán: the inventor of Mexico".
Duverger’s book offers a comprehensive and objective view with an appreciation that goes far beyond the caricature presented in textbooks. Let's take a closer look.
Arrival in the new world
At the age of19, with an entrepreneurial and adventurous spirit, the young Cortés arrived in the Americas in 1504. He lived for some time in what is today Haiti and Cuba, where despite occupying important public posts and being a respected figure, he felt tremendous indignation over the exploitation and cruelty toward indigenous peoples. This terrible abuse led to the despair and suicide of the local population and its extermination.
In his search for options to develop a new mestizo nation, with values that would transcend the Middle Ages and taking advantage of the opportunity presented by Diego Velazquez, governor of Cuba, for an expedition to Mexico, Cortés sold his property, obtained loans, and in 1519 set sail for Yucatan.
Determined to explore and colonize new territories, Cortés left with 10 boats with their respective canons, about 500 infantrymen, 16 horses, and 13 shotguns, among other minor artillery.
How could a man with so few military resources conquer an empire of more than six million inhabitants, with enormous fighting abilities? His leadership, political savvy, ability to detect opportunities, make decisions and act quickly according to the circumstances, as well as the untenable situation of the peoples living under Aztec domination, were crucial factors.
From Yucatan, Cortés set sail in the Gulf of Mexico to the Grijalva River, where he came across Mayans who, as a sign of peace, following a harsh welcome, gave the Spaniards 20 young slaves.
One of them, of great beauty and intelligence, was Malinche or Doña Marina to the Spaniards. She would be Cortés’ interpreter, adviser, accomplice, and life-long companion and with whom she would have a son, an example of their commitment to develop a mestizo society. Thanks to Malinche, Hernán Cortés learned about and admired pre-Hispanic culture.