Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hernan Cortes: Hero or Villain?

When we think of the nation of Mexico, we cannot help but to think of the man responsible for the conquest of this land, Hernan Cortes. He was born in 1485 in the city of Medellin to family of lesser nobility and he chose to pursue a life in the New World. He was part of that generation of Spanish “conquiztadores” that colonized the Americas for the Spanish throne.

As a young man, he studied law, but decided to seek his fortune in the recently found New World that Christopher Columbus had recently stumbled upon. He ended up first in the island of Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) in 1504 when he was only 19 years of age. He stayed for 11 years but then he took part in the conquest of Cuba, the year was 1511. He was appointed mayor of Santiago de Cuba up until 1518. He had a taste of power and enjoyed it greatly and because of this his appetite for more conquests was immense.

In 1519, he convinced the Spanish governor of Cuba into letting him lead an expedition into Mexico, it had just been discovered by the Spanish explorer de Cordoba in 1518. Mexico at this time was ruled by the Aztec Empire and led by Mectezuma II. With a little luck, and great ingenuity, Cortes conquered Mexico in 1521. He had the help of a Spaniard named Jeronimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked in 1511 in Yucatan, Mexico and had been held as a slave by the Maya. He was turned over to Cores and with Jeronimo’s knowledge of Mayan language and with a woman named La Malinche who spoke Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs, he was able to conquer the Aztec Empire. The help of other tribes who were anxious to end the rule of the Aztecs because of their brutality and oppression also was a definitive factor in the victory over the Aztec by Cortes.

In the eyes of many pesple, particularly many Mexicans, he is viewed as a villain but is he a villain or a hero? If we begin to think of the profound impact this conquest had on the Americas and the world as a whole, this question is not easily answered. Many people admit that without his victory over the Aztecs, the modern day Mestizo culture of Mexico could not have been founded. Mexico is one of the only areas of the Americas that fully mixed when the Spanish arrived. Many Spanish men in the New World married native women, thus bring up offspring of mix blood and ethnicity. There are valid arguments that suppose that without this mixture of cultures, Mexico would not be what it is today, a nation of mixed peoples and mixed cultures. Culture tends to take hundreds of years to be established, this culture includes and identity. The Mexican people have this culture now established, a distinct Mexican culture that is now renowned around the world. In this aspect, Cortes is a hero.

Many people also argue that because of the death and destruction of the native cultures that took place with the conquest by Spain and other European nations, these men such as Hernan Cortes are villains. Small pox decimated the Aztec people and was also a very important factor that helped Cortes win the war against the Aztecs. As many as two thirds of the population died because of the lack of immunity to this and other diseases that the native had. At the time of the conquest, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world and had a population of several hundred thousand. There was another million people or so living in the immediate areas surrounding Tenochtitlan! Most of the natives became slaves under the Spanish and were considered second-class citizen whom harsh labor was imposed upon. Most of the conquest of the Americas was achieved under the guise of the Catholic Church but was really acted upon because of greed. Cortes was no exception. He craved great power and great riches and would not stop until he achieved this. Is he a villain because of this? Yes he is if we consider these aspects of the conquest.

The question of Cortes being a hero or a villain will never be an easy question to answer. I seem to agree with both leaning on the fact that a new culture was born from his destruction and integration of the native cultures of the area to his own. This Mexican culture lives in people like my husband who does agree with the fact that Cortes and the other “conquistadores” had a significant influence in his culture and believes that without this interaction of people from Spain and Europe with the people of the Americas, the world would be much different today and he would not exist.

Additional Links:

*Works Referenced* In addition to the above links:

Bailey, Beth. Blight, David W. Chudacoff, Howard P. Katzman, David M. Logevall, Fredrik. Michals, Debra. Norton, Mary Beth. Sheriff, Carol. "A People & A Nation Brief 8th Edition". Wadsworth, Boston, MA. 2007.