Hernán Cortés was descended from a turbulent family
in the little fortified town of Medellín, in Estremadura, the
wildest part of Castile. Cortés was born in 1484, and was a sickly
child. At the age of 12, he spent two years with his father's
family in the university town of Salamanca, and, while there,
seems to have had lessons in Latin and grammar as a preparation
for a career in law. When Cortés was 17 he returned to Medellín,
and, to the disappointment of his family, decided on a career
not in the law, but in arms.
Cortés left Spain for the Indies in the summer of 1506, at age
22. He lived first in Hispaniola, where he rapidly gained the reputation
of a dissolute gallant - "immoderately addicted to women and to
gambling." Hispaniola was devastated by disease and greed -
and the native population decimated by rapacious colonists.
Cuba, however, remained relatively pristine and Cortés moved
there in 1509, settling in Baracoa, a picturesque little town
at the island's eastern end. As the first notary there, he became active in shipping
and soon became the first man to own cattle in Cuba.
But Cortés' biggest interest was gold.
Credit: © Bettmann/Corbis