Hernán Cortés and the Montezuma Treasure

The man at the heart of my series, The Cortés Trilogy, Hernán Cortés, was, of course, a real person and a great explorer. Much of what I included in the series is based on fact. What follows is a short insight into the history and legend behind the series, including the Montezuma Treasure.

Hernán Cortés

Cortés was born in Medellín in 1485 and spent much of his youth in Extremadura. His father was an infantry captain of distinguished ancestry but little tangible wealth, while his mother was of Pizarro descent. Because of her, Cortés was a second cousin once removed of the famous Francisco Pizarro and the other Pizarro cousins, who played such a decisive part in the ruin of the Inca Empire. Through his father, Cortés was also a relation of Nicolás de Ovando, third governor of Hispaniola, a connection that would in part go on to shape much of his later career.

How Cortés performed as a youngster is, sadly like many of history’s greats, mostly unrecorded. Later reports of him are far from impressive: most accounts have a tendency to downplay his potential as a sickly, pale boy of questionable endurance. At the age of fourteen, there is some evidence to suggest Cortés was sent to study Latin at the University of Salamanca under another relation; however, if he did so, he certainly didn’t last more than two years. By age sixteen, accounts by his first biographer paint Cortés as a restless rebel and troublemaker, clearly unsuited for a long career in the law. By the turn of the century, Cortés had found himself a new hero in the form of Christopher Columbus and, after a period of directionless wanderings around the south of Spain, ventured to Hispaniola himself for the first time in 1504. After two years becoming established there under the watchful eye of Ovando, Cortés became personally involved in putting down violent uprisings in Hispaniola and later the conquest of Cuba, earning him a vast estate and several native slaves.

From 1511 onward, a series of events took place that would go on to shape much of his later life. After assisting in the conquest of Cuba, Cortés became known to Ovando’s aide, Diego Velázquez, leading to him being made clerk to the treasurer on Velázquez’s appointment as governor before being later promoted to secretary. As Cortés’s power and influence continued to grow, relations between the pair became tense, not least after Cortés married Velázquez’s sister-in-law. Later in 1518, Cortés also led a mutiny against Velázquez after he was formally removed as leader of an expedition to mainland Mexico in a bid to colonise further land for the Spanish. After flouting Velázquez’s orders, Cortés put together a fleet of eleven ships and five hundred men and proceeded anyway, landing on the Maya-dominated Yucatán Peninsula and heading inland. After gaining further land both in the Yucatán, and later Tabasco, Cortés allied himself with many of the Aztecs’ indigenous enemies and later carried out the highlight of his career by meeting with, and subsequently defeating, the Aztec lord Montezuma and bringing an end to the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlán and completing the conquest of Mexico for Spain.

Of Cortés’s career post the conquest, things are more of a mixed bag. Despite Velázquez’s attempts to have him arrested, Cortés achieved some praise from the Spanish Crown for his achievements, capped off by being granted his own coat of arms in 1525 and later being made Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca in honour of his efforts in the colonisation of New Spain. Nevertheless, his failure to be awarded the coveted title of viceroy was a point of discord. After returning briefly to Spain in 1528 to receive his new titles and defend himself against the accusations of his enemies, he returned to Mexico in 1530 and spent a further eleven years there, albeit without the same trappings of power he had earlier enjoyed. Rather than pursuing further conquest, the next chapter of his life saw the exploration of the Pacific result in mixed success. After exploring the west coast and playing a significant role in the discovery of the Baja California Peninsula, he returned to Spain in 1541, participating in his final expedition against Algiers before dying in 1547.

Like Columbus, he died a moderately wealthy man who wholeheartedly believed he never received the credit he deserved.

Christopher Columbus

Long famed as the discoverer of the New World, it is generally accepted that he was born in Genoa in modern-day Italy sometime between October 1450 and 1451, and first went to sea at the age of ten. During his teenage years he conducted his apprenticeship for many prominent Genoese families that captivated his interest in both seafaring and trade. Inspired by the possibility of opening up trade relations with the East Indies via an alternative route, Columbus petitioned the rulers of Portugal, Genoa, Venice and Spain for backing to conduct a return voyage to Asia by sailing across the Atlantic. After seven years of ongoing frustrations, Columbus finally got the backing of the Spanish Crown in January 1492, who backed his voyage to the Indies. Though history now accepts that he was not the first European to discover the Americas, he can indeed be credited as having been the man who opened up lasting contact with them. During his four voyages to the New World, Columbus discovered San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, as well as parts of Venezuela and Central America.

Mesoamerican Locations

Of all the ground covered in this trilogy – all the ground I’ve ever covered as an author – little rivals the scope of the Mesoamerican civilisations when it comes to stoking the imagination. Just like the Templars, a mere mention of the name can be enough to open up a can of worms that can enthral even the most tacit observer. Over the years they have been linked with anything and everything from the Ark of the Covenant to Area 51! Without question, researching them has been of terrific interest, in no small part because of the immense scale there is for discovering new facets of history. Ever since I first read up on Hernán Cortés and La Noche Triste, there was something about them that made the possibility of including them in a story irresistible. The frequent lack of clear focal points and ambiguities in their history and mythology makes this all the more tantalising. Much of this can be put down to the actions of Cortés and the conquistadors themselves. Between them, they destroyed vast amounts of Maya and Aztec literature in the 1500s.

Every group of people mentioned in The Cortés Trilogy did exist. The Olmecs are believed to have been the first of the major civilisations. The Maya, the Toltecs, the Aztecs and the mysterious unnamed tribe who founded Teotihuacán are all known to have existed. The city of Tenochtitlán also existed, and references to it in this tale are real. The idea that it was inspired by an older, greater, city is plausible but not historical.

That a city of Tollan did exist has long been known. The Toltecs founded it near the city of Tula, their capital. That this was the city of myth, however, is false. Whether the mythical Tollan ever existed or not is another contentious issue that could itself be worthy of its own book. Like Atlantis or El Dorado, it is one of those places that most people want to believe in, but no one has ever found the definitive proof to substantiate. Like most of the creation myths, precise descriptions of the city tend to vary. According to some, it was here the seven caves were found, named in this book, Chicomoztoc. The existence of Chicomoztoc, either independent of Tollan or as part of it, was an important belief held by many Mesoamerican tribes. Just like the Garden of Eden, it was their point of creation. Over the years many candidates have been put forward for the location of the fabled mountain.

None are universally accepted.

The exact truth as regards the Mesoamerican creation myth is, sadly, almost certainly lost to history. Because of the destruction of Aztec literature, there are still gaps in our knowledge of their past. That Chicomoztoc was a central feature is one loosely known fact; another is the legendary island of their origin. The island, known as Aztlán, was believed to have been located north of the Valley of Mexico - the exact opposite of my location in the trilogy. The history of the Aztecah, mentioned in the trilogy as their sole inhabitants, is an equally grey area. Much of what is known of them belongs as much to mythology as history. The very word, written in Nahuatl, actually means, ‘people from Aztlán’. In the 1400s, the Aztecs sent out a party of explorers to find Aztlán.

Inevitably they were never seen again.

That something of significance still awaits discovery in the Olmec Heartland cannot be dismissed. The important sites of La Venta and San Lorenzo have not always been known to the wider world. The possibility that primitive settlements once existed there is hugely likely, albeit not on the scale I mentioned in these novels. If the original Aztlán does exist, chances are it would be a relatively simple place with any pyramids in keeping with the clay-built arrangements that typified the Olmec era. The idea that civilisation began when a flint knife was thrown to earth is based on a real myth.

The idea that a historical meteor inspired it is speculation.

The Noche Triste Treasure

The Noche Triste Treasure is recorded among the texts of the conquistadors as having been real. When the conquistadors attempted to flee Mexico, it is known that they carried large swathes of treasure with them. Much of what they took appears to have been recovered. Some had been tossed into the, now drained, Lake Texcoco. For almost five hundred years, rumour has abounded that large swathes of the treasure remain hidden, be it in Mexico or another part of the world. Whether true or not, is unclear.

To this day, the treasure has never been found!