Cortés Was in Cozumel, but Not on Vacation

A portrait of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Photo:


The question is not if (since it will surely happen), but how well will the conquest of Mexico’s Aztec Empire fare in the celebration of its 500th anniversary by Hernán Cortés? The truth is that, half a millennium later, Mexicans are split over how they feel about Cortés, the ensuing 300 years of colonial rule and the brutality that came to an end in 1821. And if there is anything to celebrate 500 years on.

While we await an answer, the first fact is that on Feb. 21, 1519, Cortés arrived in the Yucatan island of Cozumel, accompanied by 400 well-armed and armored battle-hardy Spaniards aboard 10 caravels.

Sometimes historians wonder what took so long for the initiation of the conquest to reach the by-then well-mapped shores of Mexico. Previous to Cortés’ arrival in Cozumel, Spain had established a military beachhead in Cuba from which parts of the continent – mainly the Yucatan – were visible to the naked eye on a clear day.

Cuban Governor Diego de Velázquez had order two expeditions led by captains Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva. For various reasons, both expeditions failed, with the ensuing loss of ships and men in the process.

These mishaps did not dismay De Velázquez. On the contrary, he sought a new caption from among the soldiers under his command already stationed in Cuba and found an enthusiastic Cortés, who had already proven his worth and valor during the battles to conquer the island. On Oct. 3, 1518, Gov. Velázquez upgraded soldier Cortés to the rank of captain both of cavalry and caravels and made him mayor of the recently founded city of Santiago de Cuba, now better known as Havana. Another mission Cortés was given was to establish a Spanish settlement in the Yucatán peninsula.

Though a prestigious bureaucratic position, the role of being mayor of Santiago de Cuba was not particularly attractive for Cortés. Now empowered by De Velázquez, Cortés set his mind on preparations for a tour to of the Yucatan in order to establish a beachhead in the new continent.

Cortés, nicknamed “El Extremeño” for being a native of the Extremadura region in middle Spain, immediately set about the task of acquiring 10 caravels and recruiting the best of the best of seasoned soldiers available in Cuba, beginning with ship pilot Antón de Alaminos, who had miraculously survived the previous two shipwrecks. The crew also included Cuban conqueror Pedro de Alvarado, Juan de Escalante, Francisco de Montejo, Alonso de Ávila and Diego de Ordás, plus nearly 400 more men and horses.

With De Alaminos at the helm of the small Spanish armada, the expeditioners left Cuba on Feb. 18, 1519, to a place that De Grijalva knew the exact location of, the Caribbean island of Cozumel, where he had been once before in one of the two previous expeditions.

The voyage was easy, and three days later, according to Cortés in his memoirs, the expedition arrived and headed immediately to the island’s main worshiping center, dedicated to Mayan fertility goddess Ixchel, only to find it empty, or “unpopulated,” as Cortés put it. The group soon found out that the natives had fled the center of the island and gone in two different directions in fear of the newcomers.

Cortés delivered a message of peace and inviting the indigenous Maya to convert to Catholicism and become vassals of the Spanish Crown. Should they accept, Cortés promised, they would “receive great favors.”

Since the answer was silence and time went by, the impatience-ridden Cortés divided his army in three groups, keeping with him a guard with 200 men while his two captains were allotted 100 men each to go to both extremes of the island to talk to the leaders of caciques and bestow on them gifts and a promise to respect their lives. The Maya leaders  were also once again promised that Cortes’ visit was full “of good intentions” and told that the visitors would not budge from the place until they talked to the caciques.

Days later, Cortés wrote, the main leader showed up to talk with the great conqueror. Cortés convinced him to have all his people come back to their dwelling townships and hamlets and return to their daily chores, but mainly, he convinced them to admit and recognize that the Spaniards were their new lords. They renamed Cozumel Santa Cruz (Holy Cross).

After two weeks in Cozumel, Cortés and his army decided to set sail for the modern-day Mexican state of Yucatán. Prior to leaving Cozumel, Cortés came upon a pleasant surprise, the appearance of Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had survived a shipwreck eight years earlier and had been imprisoned by the native mainland Maya. During that time, De Aguilar became perfectly fluent in Maya , which immediately proved to be an invaluable asset to the Spanish conquistadores in their quest for the continent.

Historian Enrique Villarreal Ramos, in daily newspaper Excelsior wrote last Feb. 15: “Cozumel served Cortés as an experimental field for future conquests. He combined intimidation with diplomacy, and political and military pressure with the gift of “little mirrors” to please the natives. He took advantages of their cosmogony, the fears and goodwill of the Maya.”

Notice that in this first encounter there was no violence. There was intimidation, but not imposition.From the start, it was clear to the conquistadores that Cozumel was as good as any place to begin their long gold-seeking journey, which would eventually lead to the main prize, Tenochtitlán, modern-day Mexico City.

Again, it is a wonder now that the 500th anniversary (shall we say celebrations?) of an event that changed the very nature of the American continent into whatever it is nowadays are currently taking place.

Will Mexicans perhaps now begin reminisce their own history? Or will they pay tribute to Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztec Empire?

Some people will surely remember, even today, the Cortés – you can see him portrayed in the Diego Rivera mural at National Palace – was a butcher. Will there be some homage paid?

Officially, there is no motive nowadays in the federal government to commemorate nor reminisce about the Conquista.






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