In 1518, Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba chose Hernán Cortés to command a Spanish expedition into Mexico. In a vague series of events that even 16th-century historians hotly debated, Velazquez soon reneged on his choice of Cortés as expedition leader, but the charismatic and politically savvy Cortés used his network of powerful friends to maintain control of the expeditionary forces. Despite no longer having Velazquez’s blessing, Hernán Cortés was able to pull together a fleet of eleven ships and sign more than six-hundred men up for his expedition, of which over five-hundred were conquistadors willing to fight on land. For much of his preparations, Cortés had his headquarters in the city of Trinidad, but by the first two months of 1519, Cortés decided to gather his ships and troops in a southern Cuban port called Havana (not to be confused with the modern-day city).
For whatever reason, Cortés led his fleet out of Trinidad at night, with the leader of the expedition proudly spearheading the convoy from his large flagship. As the fleet floated through the darkness, the ships began to lose sight of each other. Nevertheless, each ship knew the way and they were able to anchor in Havana separately. Yet, when the light of morning arrived, the expedition quickly realized something was wrong. A single ship was missing from their fleet and it happened to be the most important vessel in the whole convoy—the large flagship of the expedition (and Hernán Cortés) was nowhere to be seen. For at least seven days, the expeditionary force worriedly waited in Havana without any sign of their commander. As every day passed, new claimants tried to position themselves as possible replacement captains of the expedition if Cortés remained missing.
Unbeknownst to the fleet, their embarrassed leader was not far away. Hernán Cortes, the mighty leader of the expedition that would eventually topple the Aztec Empire, had run his flagship aground on a shallow bar of sand near one of the islands off the southern coast of Cuba. No matter what Cortés did, he could not sail or row or push his ship free. Therefore, he eventually started filling the flagship’s smaller rowboats with his cargo and ferried the supplies to the nearby island. After rounds of paddling back and forth from the ship to the island, Cortés finally reduced the weight of the flagship enough for it to float free of the obstacle. Although his ship was unstuck, his troubles were not over—all of his cargo was still on the island. Therefore, Cortés anchored the ship in deeper water and hopped into his rowboat to begin the frustrating task of ferrying all of his cargo back onto his flagship. Finally, with his ship free and his cargo restored, the much-delayed Hernán Cortés resumed his voyage to Havana and destiny.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Shipwreck painted by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.