Hernan Cortez defied a direct order from a superior officer and took 600 guys to Mexico, where he founded Veracruz, took on the Aztec Empire, convinced them he was the physical incarnation of an ancient god, then conquered the largest, most warlike, and most badass Native American civilization the continent of the Americas had ever seen despite having just a handful of troops, a few guns, a couple suits of steel armor, and a little bit of smallpox. Once that was done he built Mexico City on the ruins of the civilization he'd just razed into dust, changed the genetic makeup of the Mexican population forever, discovered California, and retired to a life of luxury in Seville.
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The most hardcore Spanish Conquistador to ever impale the indigenous population of the Americas in the face at point-blank range with a large caliber musket ball was born in Castille, Spain, somewhere in the vicinity of 1485. The only son of an aristocratic family that had lost all of its money for some reason, Cortez's dad sent him to study law at a University, but that was a bunch of crap so Cortez flunked out like a badass, quit school, and decided to join on as a mercenary soldier on a ship destined for adventure on a hostile, untamed continent that had only just been discovered 10 years earlier.
Cortez's first attempt to venture to the New World ended up being a failure – apparently, the night before he was supposed to leave, he scaled a stone wall to sneak into his girlfriend's second-story bedroom, but the wall collapsed under him, pinning the horny teenage Spaniard under several hundred pounds of rock, and by the time he pulled himself out of the rubble his ship had already left. It wasn't until later in the year 1504 that the 19-year-old adventurer finally set sail for Hispanola, ready to discover, explore, conquer, and destroy all that stood before him in the name of the Spanish King, Catholicism, and the good-old-fashioned manly desire to plunder gold, silver, and other shiny objects anywhere he can find them.
In Hispaniola (the present-day Dominican Republic) Cortez earned a name for himself as a stone-cold asskicker who ruthlessly squashed native uprisings with the sharp side of his Spanish broadsword and a healthy dose of gunpowder, but when he was offered a land grand by the local Spanish governor he responded like a badass, saying he was there to get gold, "not till the soil like a peasant." In 1511 he joined Diego Velazquez in the Spanish conquest of Cuba, where he brought the King's Will to the Cubans, ate some sweet sandwiches, smoked a few cigars, was cited for bravery in battle, fought a couple duels over girls, suppressed another native uprising, married his commanding officer's sister-in-law, and ruled as the mayor of Santiago.
Around 1518, reports started coming in of a super-rich civilization to the West, where guys went to work in gold-plated flying cars and wallpapered their homes in sapphire dust and first-edition copies of original Fantastic Four comic books. Cortez was intrigued, and asked Velazquez permission to go over there and plunder the hell out of them. Velazquez said ok, cool, sounds like a plan, but then eventually changed his mind and was like no way Jose but Cortez ignored this and went anyways. In February 1519, the 34-year-old Conquistador landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 men, 16 horses, 11 cannons, and no support, founded the city of Veracruz, dismantled all of his ships, and told his men the only way they were getting out of there was through brutal conquest and ultimate destruction.
Then he beat up on some local Indian tribes just to show them who's boss. They fought hard, but it's kind of tough to put up a half-decent struggle when you're in a loincloth, carrying a sharpened spear, and have never seen a horse before in your entire life and now you're facing plate-armored European heavy cavalry that suddenly materialized out of thin air armed with crossbows, steel swords, and friggin' guns.
After subduing the local tribes on the Yucatan, Cortez started to hear rumors of an insanely-powerful, ultra-warlike tribe known as the Aztecs – a bunch of stone-cold asskickers who beat the snot out of every major tribe in Mexico, ritualistically disemboweled their still-living enemies on an altar to the Sun God, and carried badass obsidian saw-sword weapons so hardcore they could decapitate a horse with one swing. When Cortez learned they also had a lot of gold and silver, he was obviously interested, and the whole horse-decapitation, forging-an-empire-out-of-eviscerated-corpses thing didn't seem to deter him from taking on the New World's most hardcore warrior culture with 600 guys and a handful of guns. Cortez made the 3-month journey to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, a city of 200,000 people built in the middle of a lake where the tallest structure was a giant pyramid that featured daily human sacrifices.
Luckily for Cortez and the Spaniards, their arrival just so happened to coincide with an ancient Aztec prophesy about white-skinned gods arriving from the East with advanced weaponry and godlike powers. When the Aztec Emperor Montezuma came out and asked Cortez if he was the physical incarnation of the Serpent God Quetzalcoatl, Cortez was like, "Uh… yes?", then captured Montezuma, ransomed him for a crap ton of gold, and ruled the Aztec Empire through him.
"Sure, I'm… uh… Quetzalco-whatever…"
Just for fun, here are two images of Quetzalcoatl.
Yes, this is a blatant, egregious violation of the Starfleet Prime Directive exploited solely for personal gain and an insane lust for power, but you kind of have to give Cortez props for convincing the indigenous population that he was the second coming of this dude:
Well, sure, ruling the Aztecs was fun, but there was also that whole issue of disobeying a direct order from his commanding officer not to plunder and pillage an entire human civilization, and in April of 1520, Governor Velazquez sent a massive force of 900 Spaniards to Mexico with orders to arrest Cortez and bring him to justice. Cortez, undeterred, left just 120 troops in Tenochtitlan to police 200,000 Aztecs, hauled ass back to Veracruz, ambushed the 900-man invasion force with just 260 troops, defeated them, captured their commander, and convinced any Spaniard left standing to join up with him and plunder the Aztecs for personal gain and profit. By the time he returned to Tenochtitlan, not only was he still running amok as a loose cannon, but he'd somehow managed to double the size of his army.
Unfortunately for him, the situation kind of went to hell while he was gone. When he returned, he found his 120-man garrison was pinned down inside the Aztec palace, besieged by a city full of angry, pissed-off badasses who wanted nothing more than to gut them like fish.
Spanish POWs sacrificed to Aztec gods.
Rolling up on a 16th-century Black Hawk Down, Cortez first put Montezuma out there to try and calm the horde, but the Aztecs killed him by chucking giant rocks at his face. Then they stormed the palace, fearlessly charging head-on into rifle and crossbow fire, and Cortez was only able to beat them back with massive blasts of grapeshot at point-blank range. Battling an enemy that one Spanish soldier described as being tougher than the Moors and the French combined, Cortez and his men fought their way through the streets of a hostile city, besieged and attacked on all sides by livid native warriors armed with a vast assortment of ultra-deadly weapons.
During the intense, two-day struggle to escape Tenochtitlan, the Spanish troops fought their way up the Aztec Temple, through one of the causeways, and finally out into the open, where a charge of heavy cavalry drove off the pursuing Aztec army. Of his 1,100 troops, Cortez suffered 600 dead, lost all of his cannons, and was forced to leave a huge portion of his treasure behind.
He vowed to come back and get vengeance.
Back in Veracruz, Cortez sent ships to Jamaica to buy artillery and supplies, appealed to Cuba for Spanish reinforcements, and recruited the local Tlaxcalan tribe (you may remember them from the Tlahuicole story) to join him in an all-out attack on the Aztec Capital. By 1521, he had a force of 86 cavalry, 118 crossbowmen/riflemen, 700 heavy infantry, and over 20,000 Tlaxcalan Native Warriors.
By the time he returned to Tenochtitlan, he'd also managed to unwittingly wipe out nearly half the population of the Aztec civilization by accidentally leaving behind a little thing called Smallpox when he was in town the first time.
Cortez attacked Tenochtitlan in a 3-month siege, blocking off all the island city's bridges and causeways, cutting off their aqueducts, bringing cannon-bearing ships onto the lake, and finally assaulting the city itself. Over the next 10 weeks both sides fought bitterly, with the Aztecs throwing body parts of sacrificed Spanish POWs at Cortez's men and charging fearlessly in to hand-to-hand combat, and the heavily-armored Spanish responding by hacking and slashing with heavy steel blades and firing guns at point-blank range into a throng of raging native warriors. Tenochtitlan fought heroically, but was ultimately taken, burned to the ground, and its population nearly entirely wiped out.
Cortez built Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, dismantled the Aztec religion, brought in Catholicism, and forever changed the genetic makeup of the Mexican people. The city he founded would serve as the center of Spanish America for the next 300 years, not only changing the face of the New World forever, but bringing so much gold and silver home that Spain would dominate Europe for decades.
The King eventually forgot about the disobeying orders thing in the name of gold and made Cortez governor of New Spain in 1523. He crushed his enemies, suppressed a revolution, poisoned a few Spanish rivals, built cities, and Catholicized the population before being removed from power in 1526 on charges of assassinating Ponce de Leon (seriously). He continued to explore, searched for a sea route through North America, and discovered (and named) California before retiring to Seville in 1541. He died in 1547 of a lung infection.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Sandler, Stanley. Ground Warfare. ABC-CLIO, 2002.