Hernán Cortez (also Hernando and Cortéz or Cortés) was born in Medellin, Spain in 1485 in a time of daring ocean exploration.

According to the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia, his parents:

"... sent their son to school at Salamanca when he was fourteen years of age, but study was irksome to him, his restless and ambitious temper chafed under restraint, and he returned home much to the displeasure of his parents. As he was the only son, they looked upon him as their hope and future support, and had wished that he would adopt the profession of the law. Dissatisfied at home Cortés turned his eyes to the newly discovered Western world...."

The University of Salamanca was Spain's oldest university (founded in 1218), and located in Salamanca. Cortez attended the law school which taught Roman and Justinian law as well as canon law.

Hernan CortezIn 1504, the law school drop-out sailed for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, then a single Spanish territory known as Hispaniola. There, Cortez' legal training was recognized and he was appointed notary and given some land, and he later took part in the Spanish conquest of what is now Cuba.

Cortez did so well in the organization of the newly conquered island of Cuba that he was appointed magistrate, a post that included administrative as well as judicial functions (to the Spanish, these positions were known as alcades).

News came from the Mexican expeditions of gold and Cortez began to hire men and ships for his own expedition. Finally, in 1518, he received an assignment to explore the interior of Mexico. It was revoked at the last minute but Cortez left anyway.

He landed on the Yutacan Peninsula, Mexico, right in Mayan territory. although Cortez had as yet no knowledge of the extent of the Mayan civilization, then unspoiled by European contact or conquest. He claimed the land for the King of Spain.

Cortez' paused to absorb what he could of this novel civilization, the better to destroy it. He wrote back to his king:

"I believe there is a judicial system to punish the wicked."

He took a liking to a captured Mayan slave, Malina, and taught her Spanish, giving himself an invaluable Mayan interpreter to translate the Aztec language, Nahuatl. She confirmed the rumors of gold.

The ruler of the Mayan, Montezuma II (also Moctezuma), heard of the floating mountains and strange men who worshipped a woman and a baby (Mary and Jesus) with fire sticks on big deer (they had never seen firearms or horses).

Montezuma sent an ambassador to meet with the strange man and gave them lavish gifts and a request that they depart. Cortez insisted he meet with Montezuma himself but when he continually declined, Cortez put together a small force of 600 - but with horses, canon and rifles. When he reached Cholua on his way to the Mayan capital, Malina gave him a local rumour, that the Cholulans intended to sacrifice the Spaniards.

Cortez committed the first of many acts of barbarism designed to intimidate the Mayans. In Cholua, Cortez demanded 2,000 soldirs from the Cholulans who, thinking this would be their chance, gleefully assembled in the public square. In the shadow of the largest pyramid in the world, the Spaniards opened fire and simply shot most of them.

On November 8, 1519, Cortez arrived at the Mayan capital, the island of Tenochtitlan, at the head of his small army of Spaniards and large number of members of tribes rivals to the Mayans, including the subdued Cholulans. Montezuma was there to meet him (image, right). Cortez let it slip that he sought gold and Montezuma gave him too much as it drove the Spaniards to seek more.

Record show that Montezuma and the Mayans were setting Cortez and the Spaniards up to kill them but Cortez beat them to it.

First, though, Cortez had to beat back another Spanish force coming to reel him in. After doing so, he returned to the Aztec capital where the Aztecs attacked. Cortez pushed Montezuma out onto a balcony to calm his people but he was promptly stoned to death.

Grossly outnumbered, Cortez had to shoot and hack a path through the hostile Aztecs as he ran across the causeway with most of his men. He just barely escaped the Aztec capital with his life, having to leave most of the gold behind.1519, Cortez and Montezuma meet

He regrouped and with the liberal use of gunpowder and ships he had hastily built on the shores of Lake Tenochtitlan, and with the Mayans reeling from a smallpox epidemic the Spaniards had inadvertently left behind, they were no match in their loin-cloths.

Cortez cut off all fresh water and supplies routes to Tenochtitlan. When Cortez entered the city, he was pelted with rocks. He ordered a city block by city block destruction of the city.

Part of his fury against the Aztecs was his conviction that their religion was the work of the Devil, as demonstrated by their human sacrifice rituals and cannibalism.

By August 1521, as Spanish settlers poured in, Cortez finished the eradication of the Aztec civilization, unawares or careless as to the historical consequences of this act. He rebuilt and renamed Tenochtitlan Mexico City and Spain awarded him by appointing him governor of Mexico until 1524.

Soon, though, the former notary became belligerent even to the Spanish royalty. King Charles V of Spain had reason to suspect Cortez and so appointed deputies nominally to assist Cortez, but also to monitor him. This, Cortez resented.

Cortez continued his genocide, razing cultural masterpieces and burning manuscripts and with the whip of the Spanish Inquisition, insisted that the mexicas convert to Christianity. What Aztec documents survived were later collected and burnt by Christian missionaries.

But in 1528, Cortez was a sensation when he sailed back to Spain. Charles V, the primary recipient of the Aztec gold, give Cortez a hereditary title by which historians still sometimes refer to: Marquis del Valle de Oaxaca.

Cortez returned to Mexico in 1530 but his quarrels with other Spanish administrators continued unabated. Cortez simply could not share power.

Once again, in 1541, Cortez returned to Spain was he was quickly served with numerous law suits especially for alleged debts. The king ignored him, much to Cortez' dismay.

He joined an ill-fated Spanish expedition to North Africa but on his return to Spain, he died in Castille on December 2, 1547 at the age of 62. At his request, and after a delay caused by family bickering, he was finally buried in Mexico but not without controversy. Cortez' legacy is understandably despised by many Mexicans and there have been several attempts to desecrate his remains, as is also the case with any attempt made in Mexico to formally celebrate Cortez.