Hernando Cortés

Imposing leader and builder

Hernando Cortés, the conqueror, never spoke to a priest without first uncovering his head and bowing. And he became almost physically ill at the sight of Aztec idols.

Hernando Cortés, the Christian, could draw Cholula Indian leaders into a trap and then mercilessly slaughter them.

Such was the paradoxical character of this man.

Cortés studied law briefly at the University of Salamanca in Spain, but he was restless for adventure in the New World. In 1504, though not yet 20, he was granted an estate in Hispaniola, and after joining an expedition to conquer Cuba, settled there. Then, hearing of gold in Mexico, Cortés formed an expedition. Cuban Governor Velázquez, wary of Cortés’s power, forbade his departure, but Cortés left anyway.

Cortés reached Mexico in 1519 with a fleet of eleven ships and about 650 men, some of whom were troubled by Cortés’s actions. Immediately, he burned all but two of the ships. He told his men one ship was for communication with Spain and the other for those who wished to return to Cuba. Cortés asked who wanted to return. Once he knew who did not fully support his mission, he burned the “Cuban-bound” ship. He now had complete psychological control of the men, a lasting characteristic of his leadership.

After five long months, Cortés reached Tenochtitlán (Mexico city), the Aztec capital. Along the way, he made alliances with Indian tribes who had suffered under Aztec rule. He also made full use of the Aztecs’ belief in coming white-skinned gods. When Cortés met Motecuhzoma II (Montezuma II), the Aztec leader, he gave him a choice: submit or die. Cortés began ruling the Aztecs through Montezuma.

Cortés presented the gospel to various Indian chiefs, urging them to replace their idols with a Christian altar, cross, and images of the Virgin Mary. Once, when Cortés stumbled upon a room filled with Aztec idols—its walls stained with blood from human sacrifices—he exclaimed, “O God, why do you permit the Devil to be so greatly honored in this land?” Then he began to smash the idols with an iron bar, shouting, “Shall we not do something for God?”

In the meantime, 900 of Velázquez’s soldiers had landed to capture Cortés, the outlaw. Cortés surprised Velázquez’s forces on the coast and convinced them (by threatening death and bribing them with the riches of conquest) to join his men.

When Cortés returned to Mexico City, the Aztecs were restless, having suffered a slaughter at the hands of one of Cortés’s lieutenants. He was forced to retreat, losing more than 400 men on what has been named Noche Triste, “Night of Sorrow.” Over the next few months, he rebuilt his troops and weapons. With new Indian allies, he retook the island capital in 1521 after a three-month siege.

After the conquest, Cortés ruled a feudal-style lordship over thousands of square miles. He was probably the wealthiest man in the New World.

Cortés kept his men from plundering the Indians; when two of his soldiers were caught stealing from Indians, he had them hanged. He also proved energetic, erecting a palace in Cuernavaca, planting orchards of mulberry trees to help provide silk, and importing cattle and sheep.

Cortés’s popularity and wealth made the Spanish crown curtail his power. Eventually, he led other expeditions to Honduras and Lower California. He finally returned to Spain, where he died in 1547. Some criticized him as evil and violent, while others lauded his achievements as greater than Caesar’s.

Francisco Pizarro

Repentant adventurer

Marooned on a small island off Ecuador with 150 of his men, Francisco Pizarro became angry when a rescue ship came to take the emaciated crew back to Panama. He whipped out his sword and drew a line in the sand.

“Those on that side return to Panama to be poor,” Pizarro reportedly said. “Those on this side go to Peru to become rich. Any good Spaniard will know the right choice.”

Thirteen did cross over to Pizarro, and they later joined the small army that penetrated present-day Peru and conquered the Inca Empire, which stretched for 3,000 miles along South America’s west coast.

Today, Pizarro’s island challenge is depicted on a huge mosaic in the Cathedral of Lima, Peru, showing the tight relationship between the conquest and Christianity.

As a young man in Spain, Pizarro tended livestock and never learned to read. He became a soldier and sailed for the New World in 1502. “A grim man of few words,” he became a fairly wealthy landowner in Panama, with a number of Indian slaves. But at age 50 he started south to find a culture even greater and wealthier than the Aztecs’.

After years of failures and sacrifice, Pizarro’s hardened band of 170 men and 60 horses encountered the chief Inca himself, Atahualpa. The chieftain was surrounded by an army of thousands, and a young Spanish page recalled seeing“many Spaniards urinate without noticing it, out of pure terror.”

Pizarro decided a bold thrust was his only hope. By plan, the Spaniards’ Dominican priest, Vicente de Valverde, and an interpreter approached Atabualpa, seated upon the royal litter. Valverde delivered a summary of the Christian faith, the infamous requerimiento, which demanded submission to the Catholic faith and Spanish emperor.

As expected, Atabualpa was angered by the demand, and when Valverde showed him a prayer book, the Inca impatiently tossed it to the ground.

Valverde shouted, “The gospel on the ground! Christians, vengeance! Don’t you see what is happening? Why dispute further with this arrogant dog! The fields are filling with Indians. At him, and I absolve you!”

A bloody route ensued, as the Incas panicked in the face of Spanish horses, trumpets, and flashing swords.

Pizarro was the only Spaniard wounded—by one of his own men when he was saving Atahualpa from attack. Eventually, Pizarro agreed under pressure to have Atahualpa killed, even after the Inca paid a ransom. The murder earned Pizarro a reprimand from King Charles.

Pizarro became governor of the conquered land, but he never tried to control the excesses of Spanish adventurers, who raped and pillaged.

Because of a betrayal, Pizarro executed one of his former allies, whose supporters then attacked the aging Pizarro. Pizarro fell, mortally wounded, and reportedly “placed his fingers in the sign of a cross over his mouth and begged confession for his sins,” wrote attacker Juan Barragan

“[But I] took an urn that was full of water and smashed it from on high into [Pizarro’s] cross, and said to him, ‘In hell! You will have to confess in hell!’ ”

Today, Pizarro’s bones lie in an ornate tomb in the Lima Cathedral, perhaps partly because in his will he had written, “Because of the malice, ignorance, and persuasion of the Devil, I have often offended God my Creator and Redeemer.… I repent of all these sins, which I now acknowledge and confess and for which I now beg forgiveness.”