North America 1519: Cortés’ expedition to Mexico
In 1518 and 1519 the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Santiago (Jamaica) sent expeditions to explore the Gulf of Mexico, establishing its extent and discovering the Aztec Empire. In late 1518 Governor Velázquez of Cuba gave the magistrate Hernán Cortés command of a follow-up expedition to secure a foothold on the mainland, but the ambitious Cortés soon broke away from Velázquez’s authority, gathering over 500 adventurers to join him. Sailing to Mexico, he established the town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (Veracruz) on the coast of the Aztec Empire in April 1519.
Jan–?? 1518 Grijalva’s first expedition▲
In January 1518 Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish governor of Cuba, sent his 28-year-old nephew Juan de Grijalva on an expedition to explore the lands recently discovered by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. With four ships and over two hundred men, Grijalva sighted Cozumel island on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in May, before traveling west to defeat the Maya of Chakán Putum in battle, discover the land of Tabasco, and briefly visit the previously-unknown Aztec Empire in June. Grijalva then continued north as far as Cabo Rojo before returning to Cuba, where he was reprimanded for not establishing any colonies.
18 Nov 1518–22 Apr 1519 Cortés’ expedition to Mexico▲
In October 1518 Governor Velázquez of Cuba appointed the 34-year-old magistrate Hernán Cortés to lead an expedition to secure a foothold in Mexico. Cortés quickly mustered seven ships and more than 300 volunteers, leaving Santiago de Cuba in November in the face of Velázquez’s alarmed attempts to recall and replace him. Traveling to western Cuba, Cortés gathered more followers—11 vessels, 530 troops, 50 sailors, 16 horses, and 14 large artillery in total—before proceeding to Yucatán and then westwards along the coast. In April 1519 he landed on the mainland near the island of San Juan de Ullúa, where he was greeted by the local Totonac people, subjects of the Aztec Empire.
Dec 1518–May 1519 Hispaniola Smallpox Epidemic▲
In December 1518 smallpox was noticed among the African slaves working in the mines of Hispaniola; the disease soon spread to the island’s indigenous Taíno population, who had no natural immunity. By May 1519 up to a third of Hispaniola’s Taíno had died from smallpox and the epidemic was already raging in the neighboring islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.
25 Mar 1519 Santa María de la Victoria▲
In March 1519 Hernán Cortés landed outside the Chontal Maya town of Potonchán, where he located a ship that had become separated from his fleet during an earlier storm. When negotiations broke down, the Spaniards used their horses and artillery to defeat the Maya at the Battle of Centla, destroying Potonchán and founding the village of Santa María de la Victoria in its place. As tribute, the Maya gave Cortés a number of slaves, including a woman, Malinche, who would soon become his translator and counselor (and later gave birth to his first son). Shortly after Cortés left, the Maya besieged Santa María de la Victoria; it would remain in a precarious situation until the Spanish conquest of Tabasco in 1528–37.
Mar 1519–Jan 1520 De Pineda’s expedition▲
In March 1519 Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, financed by Governor Francisco de Garay of Santiago (Jamaica), set sail for Florida with four ships and 270 men. Pushed west by winds, de Pineda explored the mouth of a great and deep river—either the Mississippi or Mobile Bay and the Alabama River—before traveling along the coast from Texas to central Mexico. When he arrived in Veracruz, Hernán Cortés—who had arrived shortly beforehand—threatened him with arrest. De Pineda fled north to Huastec country, where he and all but 60 of his crew were massacred just before a relief expedition reached them in early 1520.
22 Apr 1519 Foundation of Veracruz▲
Landing in Totonac land, part of the Aztec Empire, on Good Friday 1519, Hernán Cortés founded a settlement of palm huts as Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (literally “Rich Town of the True Cross”). He then resigned as captain general of his expedition and established himself as mayor of the new town—a series of legal maneuvers which allowed Cortés to cut ties with Velázquez’s government in Cuba and report directly to the Spanish king. Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz would soon become known as Veracruz, Mexico’s most important port.