In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hernán Cortés

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Cortés’s Role in Modern Mexican Identity

Latin American Studies Hernán Cortés
Peter Sorensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0232


Hernán Cortés (b. 1485–d. 1547) was a central figure in the military, political, and economic colonization of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, and most notable for his role in the destruction of the Aztec Empire in 1521. Córtes’s role in colonial history and the conquest of Mexico has long been controversial. Some people laud his military expertise and political maneuvering as evidence that he was a brilliant tactician who won against incredible odds, while others consider him a ruthless (and sometimes lucky) conquistador who left a trail of destruction in his wake due to his obsession with gold; while more recent historiography has tended to marginalize his individual importance. The centrality of Córtes’s role in the narrative of Spain’s colonial empire, and the destruction of indigenous empires, means he has continued to play a central role in the development and expression of national identity in Mexico from independence until the present. When he is analyzed, Cortés is frequently paired with Moctezuma II, one of the last important Aztec emperors, or his translator and consort Malinche (or Malintzin). Relatively little is known about Cortés when he went to Honduras to crush a rebellion, or about his time in Algiers after he returned to Europe. Ultimately his descendants lost control of his considerable land holdings, tributary, and lordly rights south of Mexico City and died a lonely death. Cortés was born in Medellín, Extremadura, Spain, and died in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Andalusia, and against his last wishes was not buried in Mexico. Cortés’s bones were eventually moved to Mexico City and now reside in the Hospital de Jesús, assigned to a poorly lit corner with a simple plaque bearing his name, date of birth, and date of death.

General Overviews

General overviews fall into two main forms, the first being focused on individual and collective identity and backgrounds of conquistadors (Grunberg 2001, Elliott 1967, Himmerich y Valencia 1991, Pohl 2001, and Restall and Fernández-Armesto 2012) and tend to focus on the transition from military fighters to more established settlers, or encomenderos. The second consists of more generalized histories of either the Spanish Empire (Elliott 1963, and Maltby 2002) or a general history of Mexico (Knight 2002a and Knight 2002b). These general overviews highlight four important elements that made up the world Cortés lived in; the Spanish Empire, New Spain within the empire, the conquistadors that defined the early decades of the colonial period, and brief biographical information about Cortés himself.

  • Elliott, J. H. Imperial Spain: 1469–1716. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1963.

    Considered a classic work on Imperial Spain. Chapter 2 deals specifically with the conquest of Mexico and details how the processes of conquest, most specifically La Reconquista, contributed to the military, spiritual, and economic conquests of Mesoamerica.

  • Elliott, J. H. “The Mental World of Hernán Cortés.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 17 (1967): 41–58.

    DOI: 10.2307/3678719

    Elliott contextualizes the world that Cortés’s grew up in that led to his mentality and decision-making process. By looking at Cortés’s background as coming from the lesser nobility with limited means of Extremadura, as well as his experiences with notarial documents during his time in the Caribbean, Elliott argues that Cortés was intelligent and crafty, though not a well- read, man of his times.

  • Grunberg, Bernard. Dictionnaire des Conquistadores de Mexico. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001.

    Contains a brief reference and section dedicated to Cortés, as well as numerous other conquistadors.

  • Himmerich y Valencia, Robert. The Encomenderos of New Spain, 1521–1555. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

    An extremely useful analysis with details of every one of the 506 encomenderos of New Spain. A brief biography of Cortés, as well as references to his importance in the early colonial period in Mexico can be found throughout the work.

  • Knight, Alan. Mexico: From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002a.

    Part 4 of this work contains a concise explanation of Spain leading up to 1519 and a quick description of the conquest of Mexico and Cortés’s role in it.

  • Knight, Alan. Mexico: Volume 2, the Colonial Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002b.

    The beginning of this work has frequent references to Cortés and his legacy in the early colonial period, and his role in the conquests of Central America, and western and northern Mexico.

  • Maltby, William S. The Reign of Charles V. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-62908-0

    An overview of the reign of Charles V with a focus on the general imperial history of the Habsburgs. Chapter 3 and 4 focus on the conquests and early colonial efforts and the deeds of Cortés.

  • Pohl, John. The Conquistador. Oxford: Osprey, 2001.

    A concise introduction to the world of conquistadors, with numerous references to Cortés.

  • Restall, Matthew, and Felipe Fernández-Armesto. The Conquistadors: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780195392296.001.0001

    Focuses on the first eighty years of conquest in the Americas by analyzing a number of themes that encompass the world that created the conquistadors. Cortés is frequently mentioned in relation to his role in Mexico and Mesoamerica, though there is no specific analysis of Cortés.

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