Loosely defined, the historical Age of Exploration lasted for 200 years, from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the first attempt to chart Australia in 1644. In all that time, the explorer who arguably made the biggest impact was Hernan Cortes. He was born in 1485 to an impoverished noble family. He trained as a notary before sailing to Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic) as a colonist in 1504. After becoming the colony’s notary, he played a key role in the conquest of Cuba in 1511.
In 1518, he embarked on an expedition to conquer the interior of Mexico. He arrived in 1519 with 500 soldiers. By July, he had removed himself from the Cuban governor’s authority, scuttling his ships to prevent his army from retreating. He marched on Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire. Emperor Montezuma II, facing a huge force that had been swollen by tribes who were hostile to him, welcomed Cortes into the capital and showered him with gifts. This generosity merely confirmed Cortes’s hopes that Mexico held a vast amount of gold.
On entering the capital, Cortes seized power and made Montezuma his puppet. A rebellion against his rule – during which Montezuma was killed – failed and Cortes formally subjugated the country on 13 August 1521, ending the Aztec Empire. King Charles I of Spain rewarded Cortes with titles, but the monarch also sent other officials to keep him under control.
As it was, the Aztec subjugation marked the high point of Cortes’s career. Subsequent expeditions to Honduras and northern Mexico were financial disasters. Cortes died in Spain in 1547, heavily indebted, while awaiting a return voyage to Mexico. However, his conquest of Mexico laid the ground for Spanish control over Latin America, which continued until the beginning of the 19th century.
Also on this day
The Prince of Wales opened the longest bridge in the world – the Forth Bridge in Scotland, on this day in 1890. Read more here.