The Hernán Cortés 1519 expedition was one of history’s great military campaigns. Considering how many Conquistadors there were, the results were remarkable.
On 18 February 1519, Hernán Cortés set sail from Cuba with eleven ships of varying sizes. The ships were loaded with men, weapons and provisions for an expedition into a little-known land that promised much but had so far revealed little. The powerful Aztec Empire was little more than a rumor, but rumors of wealth were enough to drive this small band of Conquistadors into the heart of an alien and potentially hostile land.
Much of what is known about the expedition comes from Bernal Díaz, a Spanish Conquistador who wrote of his experiences in The Conquest of New Spain. Díaz participated in both the 1519 Cortés expedition and the earlier expedition of Juan de Grijalva.
How Many Conquistadors Were There?
A few days after leaving Cuba the fleet assembled on Cozumel, an island just off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was here that Cortés was able to inspect his forces for the first time. His party consisted of the following personnel:
508 swordsmen – Swordsmen, including those that owned horses, made up the bulk of the expedition’s military contingent.
100 to 110 crew – The fleet was manned by about 100 crew including ships’ captains, pilots and sailors. Sailors generally manned the ship’s cannons whether on deck or repositioned on land.
1 chaplain and 4 priests
A handful of carpenters
2 professional blacksmiths
8 to 12 native women – Female “housekeepers” presumably brought from Cuba.
At least 100 Cuban natives – These Cuban slaves acted as porters to the Europeans. There may have been more than 200 Cuban porters in total.
1 Mayan-speaking native fisherman captured during the earlier Juan de Grijalva expedition.
African slaves – African slaves were present in the Cortés expedition but most probably in small numbers. Díaz comments upon Juan Sedeño, reputed to be the richest man in the fleet, and his “Negro.” The presence of this Africa slave was noteworthy for Díaz because “At that time Negroes and horses were worth their weight in gold.”
Cortes 1519 Expedition – Weapons and Supplies
Supplies and equipment had previously been gathered in Trinidad and Havana. Food was prepared, armor was made and Conquistador weapons were collected from wherever possible. By the time the fleet sailed, the most important items carried by the fleet included:
16 horses – According to Díaz, these horses were “all fit to be used for sport or as chargers.” Slings were assembled on board the ships to support the horses during the voyage; no other item carried by the expedition would prove more valuable.
10 brass lombards – These ten lombard cannons were probably too heavy and unwieldy to be deployed early in the campaign, says historian John Pohl in The Conquistador 1492–1550. Later, however, they would be used against the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.
4 falconets – Breech-loading cannon with a 2 to 3 inch bore. Falconets were usually used for ship defense but the Conquistadors carried them inland on makeshift carriages.
Quilted cotton armor – Cortés had previously ordered the fabrication of quilted cotton armor for distribution among those men who did not posses their own metal armor. Quilted cotton armor, as worn by the Aztecs themselves, would soon become standard protection for most Conquistadors.
War dogs – War dogs were taken to act as sentries, trackers and, when necessary, in battle. Mastiffs and wolfhounds were the most common breeds.
Supplies of powder, shot and arrows.
Salted pork and cassava bread – These were prepared in large amounts before the fleet set sail.
Goods for barter – Large amounts of glass beads (which were of little value) were taken to barter with the native population.
Each Conquistador was in charge of his own weapons, armor and belongings. Cortés provided basic armor and supplies but this was not a state-organized military body. The expedition comprised a mixed band of individuals, with each man (or each European, at least) motivated by his own needs and desires.
Conquest of Mexico – One of History’s Great Military Campaigns
That the Cortés expedition would ultimately bring about the fall of the Aztec Empire is, at the very least, remarkable. Cortés used all his guile and tactical ability to ally his party with native tribes at the first opportunity. European diseases also helped to weaken the Aztecs before they were fully engaged. Conquistador methods can be questioned and atrocities were undoubtedly carried out during the conquest. Looking at the original roster and inventory, however, it is hard not to see the 1519 Cortés expedition as one of history’s greatest military campaigns.