Spanish conquest of the Mayans

The Spanish Conquest and its Aftermath
May 23, 2021 – 08:16 pm
Spanish conquest of Guatemala
A Late Postclassic Maya chronicle, known as the “Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel”, notes that “11 Ahau was when the mighty men arrived from the east. They were the ones who first brought disease here to our land, the land of us who are Maya, in the year 1513”.

The first contact

The first contact between Europeans and the Maya, however, was made just over ten years before. It was, in fact, in 1502 when during his final voyage to the New World Columbus came across a trading canoe near the Bay Islands in the Gulf of Honduras. Columbus recorded that the canoe was very long, about 8 feet wide and that it had a crew of 24 men plus a number of women and children. The cargo in the canoe included cotton clothing, cacao, copper bells and axes, pottery and macanas (wooden clubs inlaid with obsidian chips). It is believed that the trading party was headed from the Yucatan to the Motagua valley.


The next recorded contact between Spaniard and Maya is in 1511. A Spanish vessel under the command of an officer named Valdivia was sailing from Panama to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). The boat sank on the way but Valdivia and 18 of his men managed to escape in a small boat. When they finally beached along the east coast of Yucatan the exhausted survivors were captured and Valdivia and four of his men were sacrificed. Eventually only two Spaniards, Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, remained alive. When Cortes reached the Yucatan in 1519, Aguilar was still serving a Maya lord while Guerrero had married the daughter of Nachan Can, ruler of Chetumal (Santa Rita, Corozal).


Between 1515 and 1516 a great pestilence known as the mayacimil (or “easy death”) devastated the Maya people along the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula. “Characterised by great pustules that “rotted their bodies with great stench” (see Sharer 1994: 733), it is believed that this epidemic may have been caused by small pox that had been introduced by the Spanish. Not having any immunity to these new diseases, many Maya died within days of contracting the disease.
The years between 1515 and 1524 witnessed several more encounters between Maya and Spaniard. It is also during this time that Cortes sailed to Veracruz and proceeded with the conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) people. Another of his trusted captains, a man named Pedro de Alvarado, subsequently attacked the Cakchiquel and Quiche Maya in Guatemala. Following his brutal conquest of the highland Maya, Alvarado established the first Spanish capital of Guatemala at Iximche.


The most astounding expedition of the time was made by Cortes in 1524. Having received word that one of his captains who he had sent to control Honduras was rebelling against him, Cortes decided to march from Mexico city to Honduras to deal with the problem. This long (6 months) tortuous journey took Cortes, his 140 soldiers, and about 3, 000 native allies through the heart of the Maya lowlands. On the way they briefly stopped at Tah Itza (Flores, Peten) where they met with the Peten Itza ruler Canek. From Flores they traveled to the southeast crossing the Sarstoon River at the Gracias a Dios rapids near the border between Belize and Guatemala.


The conquest of the Yucatan was undoubtedly the most prolonged and difficult campaign attempted by the Spanish. The first unsuccessful attempt was led by Francisco Montejo the elder. Following 13 years of failure, Montejo eventually (in 1540) entrusted the conquest of the Yucatan to his son, Francisco Montejo the younger. Several more years of difficult campaigning followed and finally, in 1546, most of the northern portion of the peninsula came under Spanish control. The city of Merida was founded in 1542 and served as the capital of the region and the base for further Spanish incursions to the south.


Like their brethren to the north, the Maya of Belize and the Peten remained defiantly independent long after the fall of other Mesoamerican people. Many years after the conquest of the northern Yucatan, the Spanish moved into the province of Uaymil. They erected a fort on the shores of Lake Bacalar and from here they attempted to convert and subjugate the Maya to the south. In 1618 two Spanish priests, Fray Bartolome de Fuensalidas and Juan de Orbita journeyed from Bacalar to Tah Itza. On the way these Franciscans journeyed up the Dzuluinicob (or New) River making stops at Lamanai, Zaczuus (near Roaring Creek), Tipu (Negroman), and eventually reaching Tah Itza (Flores, Peten) about six months later. We know that at Lamanai, Zaczuuz and Tipu the Spaniards constructed churches for the christianization of the Maya. At Tah Itza they were not so welcomed and the padres eventually left and returned to Merida.


A second expedition was led into the interior by Francisco Mirones in 1622. Mirones was accompanied by another Franciscan missionary, Fray Diego Delgado, 20 soldiers and about 140 native allies. Annoyed at Mirones’ treatment of the Maya, the priest decided to leave the expedition at a community known as Sacalum. Following their arrival in Tipu the padre headed west with several Tipuans but when they reached Lake Peten they were captured and shortly thereafter were sacrificed. Two years later the Maya also attacked Sacalum where they captured Mirones and his men and sacrificed them as well. The next few years saw revolts by the Maya of Tipu, Zaczuus and Lamanai. Churches that had been built in these communities by the Spanish were all burnt and destroyed. Eventually the Spaniards built a second church at Lamanai but they made few other incursions to the south for nearly 75 years.


Between 1695 and 1696 the Spanish decided to subjugate the Peten Itza by force. Several battles followed but the Itza managed to stave off the Spaniards. Finally, in January 14th, 1697 an expedition headed by Ursua left Campeche on a newly constructed road to Lake Peten. Following their arrival the Spanish began preparations for storming the city. On the 13th of March, they placed their guns on galleys and headed out to the lake. After repeated requests to the Maya to surrender the Spaniards opened fire. The last independent Maya city was finally destroyed on that 13th day of March in 1697.
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