The conquistadors tore through the New World, destroying civilizations as they went. Sometimes, they also destroyed each other.
Hernan Cortes was the most effective conquistador of the Spanish Empire. His main sponsor was Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the first governor of Cuba. Velázquez turned that Caribbean island into the nerve center from which Spanish control of the New World spread.
Velázquez and Cortes worked together to advance Spanish rule in the Americas. Still, their interests sharply converged, and the two learned to hate each other.
Velázquez Heads to the New World
We know little of the early days of Velázquez. The sketchy details of his younger years suggest he may have risen to power from humble origins.
As a member of the second expedition led by Christopher Columbus, Velázquez was one of the first Spaniards to land in the Americas. While most early colonists in the Caribbean either left or died of diseases, he stayed on and made his home in the island of Hispaniola (which today contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
Over the years, Velázquez developed into one of the most influential and wealthy individuals in Hispaniola. He was put in charge of the island’s westernmost villages and occasionally sat as acting governor of the island.
The Birth of Spanish Cuba
Columbus’s son Diego inherited his father’s role as governor of the Indies in 1508. King Ferdinand II ordered the new governor to expand Spanish crown holdings and take the island of Cuba. Velázquez was transferred from Hispaniola to this new frontier.
There he participated in a fierce war between the conquistadors and the Taino natives on the island. The legendary leader of the resistance, a native general by the name of Hatuey, was reportedly burned at the stake by the Spanish.
Cuba is a relatively large island, and it took the conquistadors years to consolidate complete control of the island. Velázquez was in charge of several expeditions deep into the island to subdue resistance. In 1513 he was part of the Taino’s final major defeat on the south coast of Cuba.
Velázquez soon rose to the top in Cuba, just as he had in Hispaniola. When gold was discovered on the island, it replaced Hispaniola as the central Spanish island in the West Indies.
The Mesoamerican Frontier
Rumors began to circulate that a larger and richer land existed to the west of the Indies. Velázquez was chief amongst those who pushed for a naval expedition westward to expand Spanish holdings.
He commissioned Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to lead the search for this new land, and a group of conquistadors landed in Mesoamerica in 1517. A major military defeat at the hands of the Mayans brought an end to that effort. Cordoba died soon after.
Cortes and Velázquez
In 1511 Hernan Cortes accompanied Velázquez to Cuba and immediately stood out as one of the most talented conquistadors in the West Indies.
At first, Velázquez promoted and mentored Cortes. However, he soon began to distrust him for two reasons. First, Cortes was involved in a coup attempt against his superior. The younger conquistador was almost sentenced to death for this ill-conceived move, but Velázquez pardoned him.
If that was not enough, Cortes became involved with his superior’s sister-in-law. Velázquez distrusted the younger man’s intentions and pressured him into marrying his relative to preserve her honor.
Cortes and the Conquest of Mesoamerica
Velázquez had never doubted Hernan Cortes’ talents, but he now had severe misgivings regarding the conquistador’s character. Nevertheless, he appointed him to lead an expedition into Mesoamerica, hoping Cortes would succeed where Cordoba had failed.
However, warnings from other officials that Cortes was untrustworthy led Velázquez to change his mind again. But Cortes would not relinquish his command and left anyway, creating a massive breach with his superior.
An angry Velázquez sent a military force to subdue Cortes, but they were unsuccessful. Cortes managed to convince many conquistadors to switch sides and defeated the rest in battle. The result was a devastating blow to Velázquez and his authority.
Cortes would conquer Mesoamerica and destroy several local kingdoms and empires, including the Aztec and Mayan ones. Later in life, he would play an instrumental role in spreading the Catholic faith throughout what was now called New Spain.
Velázquez remained in Cuba and died a few years later, a defeated and bitter man. However, we shouldn’t feel too sorry for him. In his final years, Velázquez was widely regarded as “the richest Spaniard in the Americas.”
Still, by all accounts, sponsoring Cortes was one of the greatest regrets of his life. The Mayans and the Aztecs would likely concur.