Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?

Five hundred years ago exactly, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés waged his first bloody battle against the Aztecs in the New World. But why is Mexico's president dragging it up now?

Who was Conquistador Hernán Cortés?
A statue of Hernán Cortés in Medellin, Extremadura. Photo: orensbruli/Depositphotos

Who was Hernán Cortés?

The body of Hernán Cortés, the conquistador who launched three centuries of Spanish rule in Mexico, today  lies all but forgotten in a Mexico City church, even as a new debate rages over his legacy.

The story of how it got there is as complicated and dramatic as the conquest itself, launched 500 years ago when Cortés, a talented, cunning and ambitious adventurer, defied his boss' orders and sailed off to conquer the Aztec empire.

That violent collision between the Old and New Worlds surged into the headlines this week when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called on the king of Spain and the pope to apologize for the abuses of the conquest drawing a resentful response.

Amid the row, the remains of the Spaniard who started it all lie in oblivion in the Mexican capital, a silent reminder of both countries' shared past.

It is an unlikely fate for a man who rose from nothing to conquer an empire and build another in its place, winning fame and fortune along the way.   

“There's a very complicated and theatrical story behind Cortés's remains, worthy of a TV special,” said the historian Miguel Pastrana Flores, of Mexico's largest university, UNAM.

REACTION: Anger in Spain, eyerolls in Mexico over conquest row

Losing it all

Cortés was a smart but rebellious thirty-something when he launched the conquest in 1519 — defying his boss, the governor of Cuba, who had told the young official to stay put on the newly colonized island.

Instead, Cortés not only set sail for the mainland, but destroyed his own ships on arrival, leaving his several hundred men little choice but to try and colonize it.

With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox — all unknown in the New World — and alliances with other indigenous groups, Cortés overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521, claiming it for Spain.

He governed the new colony for several years, but was haunted by his own insubordinate streak: legal problems and frayed relations caused by his defiance of the nobility would dog him the rest of his life.

Cortés died in Spain in 1547, aged about 62, diseased and indebted.   

In his will, he asked his family to build a convent south of Mexico City and bury him there. But that never happened.

Dead man walking

Buying time, Cortés' heirs put his body in a mausoleum in Seville, then moved him to a nearby tomb three years later when another noble needed the space.

That was just the beginning.

“His remains have been moved from place to place” for centuries, Mexican writer Hector de Mauleon told AFP.   

Cortés' family finally sent his remains to Mexico in 1566. He was buried near his mother at a church north of Mexico City.   

In 1629, Cortés' last male heir died, and the colonial government ordered Cortés reburied alongside him in the capital's Franciscan monastery in a lavish ceremony.

Cortés' bones — now in a velvet-lined urn — were later transferred to the monastery's altar, locked with a key that passed from one generation of monks to the next.

In 1790, he was moved again, to a stately tomb inside the church that adjoins the Hospital de Jesus, the first hospital in the Americas, which he founded.

Mystery disappearance

But then Mexico declared independence in 1810.   

By 1823, “Mexico City was aflame with pamphlets, with calls to kick out the Spanish, to dig up Cortés' remains and drag them through the streets,” said De Mauleon.

A conservative historian and writer, Lucas Alaman, decided not to let that happen. He slipped into the church and removed Cortés' body from its tomb.   

For more than a century, its whereabouts were a mystery. Historians speculated it was in Spain or Italy.

Then, in 1946, a refugee of the Spanish civil war and a Cuban student invited the historian Francisco de la Maza to a secretive meeting. There, they told him they had a letter left by Alaman with a map to Cortés' body.

The remains, it turned out, were just meters from where Alaman had taken them, sealed inside a wall at the very same church.   

With the government's permission, De la Maza led a secret excavation — and found what experts confirmed was Cortés's body.   

It was a far cry from the image of the virile young conquistador, said De Mauleon.

“He had one tooth, various injuries sustained in combat, and his bones seemed eroded by venereal disease,” he said.   

The government ordered the body returned to the same spot. Today, it is marked by a discrete plaque: “Hernán Cortés, 1485-1547.”

Revisiting history

Pastrana criticized Mexico's request to Spain — two countries that didn't even exist as such at the time — and said the idea of good “Indians” versus evil conquistadors was overly simplistic.

“We have to try to understand these figures in their enormous complexity,” he said.

“Two civilizations… met without a single reference point. It's as if we went to Jupiter and found another civilization.”   

Spanish academic Guillermo Seres said it was “unjust” that Cortés, “a man of action, but also… of science and letters,” had been cast as a villain.   

“He has come to represent everything bad in Spanish history,” he said.

By AFP's Jean Luis Arce and Joshua Howat Berger

READ ALSO Sorry not sorry: Spain rejects Mexico's demand for apology for colonial abuses

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner