Did Cortés’ sex life alter the course of history in the New World? Consider the role that sex played in his timeline, from Spain to the New World.
When Hernán Cortés was 19, he lived a shiftless life in his hometown of Medellín, Spain. After dropping out of university, he considered the military. But the military would have sent him east, to the old world of Italy. Instead, he chose a path west, to the new world.
His parents were eager for him to do anything. So, they arranged for him to travel to the new world with distant relative Don Nicolás de Ovando. This is important in the timeline — Ovando was to be the governor of the indies, the top position in the new world. He was departing Spain with a fleet of 30 ships and over 2,500 men. It was the largest voyage yet to the new world.
But, before he was to leave, Cortés decided on one last night of passion.
She was a married woman, and this required sneaking in through her balcony. After the escapade, he attempted to escape the same way he entered. Unfortunately, he slipped and fell, injuring his back. The cost of this tryst: several months in bed, and he missed his ticket to the new world with Ovando. He would not have another chance for two years.
Meanwhile, Ovando arrived in Hispaniola to find the native Taíno population in revolt. Forced labor and disease took their toll on the natives. Ovando suppressed the rebellions in brutal fashion. He also (with forced native labor), developed the mining and sugar cane industries.
It is hard to say where a 19-year-old Cortés would have ended up had he made the journey with Ovando and 2,500 others. With a two-year head start in the new world, would he have worked himself into a position of power? Perhaps taken the lead on some of the early expeditions to surrounding islands? Or would he have blended in with the Spanish population influx, never making an impact? Would he have been held back by his immaturity? Of course, it is hard to say.
In any case, Cortés’ opportunity came in 1504.
Upon arrival, Cortés used his family connection to call upon the house of Governor Ovando. He stated his intentions to seek gold, not “till the soil like a peasant.”
But there was an order to things in the New World, and the present need was for men to farm the land. Ovando granted him some land and native labor on Hispaniola, and he settled for a few years.
During this time, Cortés worked to establish himself in the Spanish order. Governor Ovando appointed him notary of a town called Azua, an important government position. This position gave him access to a wealth of dealings within the nobles of the new world. Ovando also introduced Cortés to a prominent noble, Diego Velázquez. As we will see just ahead, this introduction would change his life. In Hispaniola, Cortés would accompany Velázquez on several small expeditions to subdue minor native rebellions, forging their lifetime connection.
Again, the question remains: what if Cortés never fell down that balcony in Medellín? Would he have met Velázquez? Remember, he still had the family connection to Ovando. But did the two extra years of growing up in Medellín lead him to become bolder upon arrival?
Onward to Cuba and the Saga of the Suárez Sisters
Even so, Cortés joined Velázquez on an expedition to conquer Cuba in 1511. He had now been in the new world for seven years.
His performance in Cuba brought him favor. When Velázquez became governor of the conquered Cuba, Cortés received several important government positions. First, he became clerk to the treasurer. Here, he was responsible for diverting one-fifth of Cuba’s profits to the king. Next, Velázquez appointed him his personal secretary.
Cortés also became wealthy in Cuba. His large grant of land there contained several productive mines and had ample room for cattle.
Meanwhile, Velázquez wished to build an ideal, Spanish-like society in Cuba. To do this, he needed high-quality Spanish women to marry Spanish men. Enter the Suárez family: a widow, her four beautiful daughters and a son, just arrived from Spain. Velázquez gave the Suárez family a plot of land, managed by the son. Velázquez selected Cortés, now an experienced settler, to be his mentor.
In a world with few Spanish women, the Suárez daughters were in demand. They could afford to be picky. The eldest, Catalina, decided that she wanted to marry Cortés. He accepted this proposition. The only problem: he was gallivanting with one of her younger sisters in secret. When it came time to follow through with Catalina, he backed off.
This angered and embarrassed Velázquez. He set this arrangement in motion by connecting Cortés with the Suárez family. Now, Cortés’ lust threatened the order of it. Velázquez again asked Cortés to clean up his act and marry Catalina. He refused, so Catalina sued him. Velázquez took her side. Cortés was now out of favor with Velázquez and out of a job.
Cortés then associated with a group men who also felt disaffected by the rule of Velázquez. He had a list of indictments against Velázquez from his time in his inner circle. These men supported his indictments and wished to deliver them to Hispaniola. This represented a severe undermining of Velázquez’ authority in Cuba. Before Cortés departed with the list, he was captured.
Cortés escaped this captivity twice. On the run, he decided to do what he promised: marry Catalina. Legend has it that the fugitive Cortés sneaked into Velázquez’ sleeping quarters one night. It was there he and his former mentor reconciled. Cortés agreed to withhold the list of grievances and marry Catalina. In exchange, he would receive his freedom. He would no longer be secretary, but would return to his land and build a house for his new wife.
Here again, what if Cortés’ sexual appetite remained under control, and he never ran around with the younger Suárez sister? Would he remain Velázquez’ secretary? Would he have been appointed to captain one of the earlier missions that ended up in Mexico? Would those missions have turned out more successful under the leadership of Cortés? Or did he use their fateful experiences to build upon the success of his own? After all, he could have suffered the tragic fate of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who we will read about below.
No longer a fugitive, but out of favor, Cortés again waited for his turn.
The Spanish began their conquest of Mexico by accident. The native labor pool in Hispaniola and Cuba was in shambles. Forced labor and disease took their toll. In search of new native labor sources, Velázquez commissioned an expedition. Led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, it was a disaster.
Storms pushed it off course and they ended up at the cape of the Yucatán peninsula. Here, they found native groups that seemed more advanced. These had structured buildings and villages, clothing and more advanced weapons. Unlike the peaceful natives on Hispaniola and Cuba, they were cunning and aggressive. The first encounter found the Spanish drawn ashore, then ambushed.
Some of the Spanish escaped and took refuge in some prayer huts outside of the village. Here, they discovered something that would change everything: gold. They were small, carved and forged gold objects, left as offerings to the native gods. But they were more advanced and significant than anything found in the new world so far. They grabbed the items and retreated to the ships as soon as they could.
Each time Córdoba’s men reached shore in search of drinking water, they sustained hostilities. They lost so many men that they had to burn one of their three ships, not having enough crew to man it. By the time the remaining two ships returned to Cuba, more than half the men were dead. Córdoba, injured, died shortly after the return.
Despite the disaster of the mission, the gold awakened a new lust for exploration. In just one year, Velázquez authorized another mission, this one with four ships and as many as 240 men. The captain was his own nephew, Juan de Grijalva.
Grijvala’s mission was more successful than Cordoba’s. Two Mayans, captured during the Córdoba mission, traveled with Grijvala. Now, the Spanish could address the natives in their own language. They communicated their intentions to trade for gold. While there were a few minor skirmishes, this communication led to gifts of gold from the natives. The natives also indicated that the gold came from the west, inland. Then, an excursion brought the Spanish into contact with Aztecs for the first time.
Grijalva had more proof of gold in this land. But, food supplies dwindled and he had to decide. Would he establish a permanent settlement in this land? Or take what significant gold he found so far back to Cuba? He opted for the latter, which enraged Velázquez. This meant that Velázquez still did not have a claim to the land. Grijalva fell out of favor, and Velázquez began planning another mission.
Cortes, at long last, has his shot. And the rest, is history.
The rest of this long story will be short, because this is not about Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. It is about how he got there, and how his sexual escapades affected his path.
Through some clever political maneuvering, Cortés positioned himself as a capable leader of the next expedition. He also set himself up as someone Velázquez could trust to not challenge his authority. Of course, history tells us how this turns out. Cortés played on Spanish infighting and native rivalries and alliances on his path to conquering Mexico in just over two years. A bird’s eye view of world history speaks of Cortés, not Velázquez, when it comes to this era. Cortés, not Velázquez, became governor of “New Spain,” a vast and seemingly limitless mainland territory.
Was all of this fated out his sexual activity? From delaying his entry into the new world after his injury in Medellín, to falling out of favor after exploits with his betrothed’s sister in Cuba. Both led to consequences, to be sure. But those consequences led to him being positioned to pursue his final destiny and place in history: the defeat of the Aztec, one of the great world civilizations, and the conquest and governorship of New Spain, or Mexico.
Some excellent sources I used in learning about the life of Cortés. This personal essay on Cortés sex life was born out of a basic history project for a Latin American Civilization class, which unfortunately, did not touch on his sex life.
History of the Conquest of Mexico & History of the Conquest of Peru, by William H. Prescott
Cortés: The Great Adventurer and Fate of Aztec Mexico, by Richard Lee Marks
The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Diaz; excerpts available in Victors & Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico, edited by Stuart B. Schwartz