Ferdinand Cortès—His character—His appointment—Preparations for the expedition, and attempts of Velasquez to stop it—Landing at Vera-Cruz—Mexico and the Emperor Montezuma—The republic of Tlascala—March upon Mexico—The Emperor is made prisoner—Narvaez defeated—The Noche Triste—Battle of Otumba—The second siege and taking of Mexico—Expedition to Honduras—Voyage to Spain—Expeditions on the Pacific Ocean—Second Voyage of Cortès to Spain—His death.

Velasquez had not waited for Grijalva's return before sending off to Spain the rich products of the countries discovered by the latter, and at the same time soliciting from the council of the Indies, as well as from the Bishop of Burgos, an addition to his authority, that he might attempt the conquest of these countries. At the same time he fitted out a new armament proportioned to the dangers and importance of the undertaking that he proposed. But though it was comparatively easy for Velasquez to collect the necessary material and men, it was far more difficult for him—whom an old writer describes as niggardly, credulous, and suspicious in disposition—to choose a fit leader. He wished indeed, to find one who should combine qualities nearly always incompatible, high courage and great talent, without which there was no chance of success, with at the same time sufficient docility and submissiveness, to do nothing without orders, and to leave to him who incurred no risk, any glory and success which might attend the enterprise. Some who were brave and enterprising would not be treated as mere machines; others who were more docile or more cunning lacked the qualities required to insure the success of so vast an enterprise; among the former were some of Grijalva's companions who wished that he should be made commander, while the latter preferred Augustin Bermudez or Bernardino Velasquez. While this was pending, the governor's secretary, Andrès de Duero, and Amador de Larez, the Controller of Cuba, both favourites of Velasquez, made an arrangement with a Spanish nobleman named Ferdinand Cortès, that if they could obtain the appointment for him, they should be allowed a share in his gains.

Bernal Diaz says, "They praised Cortès so highly, and pointed him out in such flattering terms as the very man fitted to fill the vacant post, adding that he was brave and certainly very faithful to Velasquez (to whom he was son-in-law), that he allowed himself to be persuaded, and Cortès was nominated captain-general. As Andrès de Duero was the governor's secretary, he hastened to formulate the powers in a deed, making them very ample, as Cortès desired, and brought it to him duly signed." Had Velasquez been gifted with the power of looking into the future, Cortès was certainly not the man he would have chosen.

Ferdinand Cortès
Ferdinand Cortès.
From an old print.

Cortès was born at Medellin in Estramadura in 1485, of an ancient, but slenderly-endowed family; after studying at Salamanca for some time, he returned to his native town, but the quiet monotonous life there was little suited to his restless and capricious temper, and he soon started for America, reckoning upon the protection of his relation Ovando, the Governor of Hispaniola.

His expectations were fully realized, and he held several honourable and lucrative posts, without counting that between times he joined in several expeditions against the natives. If he became in this manner initiated into the Indian system of tactics, so also, unfortunately, did he grow familiar with those acts of cruelty which have too often stained the Castilian name. He accompanied Diego de Velasquez in his Cuban expedition in 1511, and here he distinguished himself so highly, that notwithstanding certain disagreements with his chief, a large grant of land as well as of Indians was made to him as a recognition of his services.

Cortès amassed the sum of 3000 castellanos in the course of a few years by his industry and frugality, a large sum for one in his position, but his chief recommendations in the eyes of Andrès de Duero and Amador de Sarès his two patrons, were his activity, his well-known prudence, his decision of character, and the power of gaining the confidence of all with whom he was brought into contact. In addition to all this, he was of imposing stature and appearance, very athletic, and possessed powers of endurance, remarkable even among the hardy adventurers who were accustomed to brave all kinds of hardships.