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The Spanish conquest of Yucatán was the campaign undertaken by the Spanish conquistadores against the Late Postclassic Maya states and polities, particularly in the northern and central Yucatán Peninsula but also involving the Maya polities of the Guatemalan highlands region. This episode in the conquest and colonization of the Americas began in the early 16th century, but was a more difficult and lengthier exercise in subjugation than the equivalent campaigns against the Aztec Triple Alliance and the Inca Empire. It would take some 170 years and the help of the Xiu Maya before the last recognized Maya stronghold fell, that of the Itza capital of Tayasal on Lake Petén Itzá, in 1697. Following the great revolt of the seven Mayan provinces to the east, the authorisation of the Indian auxiliaries to enslave any Mayan rebels they managed to catch helped quell the resistance. Except for the Petén region and the Guatemalan highlands, Spanish control over Yucatán itself was effectively in place by 1547 even though as late as 1550, there were only some 1,550 Spanish in all of the colonial provinces.[1]

Unlike the campaigns against the Aztec and Inca states, the Maya had no single political center whose overthrow would hasten the end of collective resistance by the indigenous peoples.[2] Instead, the Maya were organized into a number of independent states, which the conquistador forces needed to subdue almost one by one, and many of these fiercely resisted the Spanish incursions.[3][4]

Particularly in the early stages, a prime motivating factor for the conquistadores was their interest in seizing great quantities of precious metals, such as gold and silver. Since the Maya lands were poor in these resources, they held comparatively little initial interest for the Spanish, who were attracted instead to central Mexico and Peru by promising reports of the greater rewards on offer there. However, with the prospects of new land grants and the acquisition of labour forces, it was not long until Spanish intentions turned to the Maya region, with the first concerted efforts to establish a presence commencing from the 1520s.

After Spanish dominion over the region was finally established, the Maya peoples themselves remained restive against Spanish rule, both under the colonial phase of New Spain and then under the newly independent Mexican state. Maya discontent in Yucatán would later erupt into open revolt in the mid 19th century, in the Caste War of Yucatán. The major portion of this conflict lasted over fifty years, during which much of the southeastern portion of the Peninsula was an effectively independent Maya state, Chan Santa Cruz. Complete suppression of the revolt was difficult to obtain, and skirmishes continued up into the 1930s (Rugeley 1996).

First encounters (1511)

The first known Spanish landing[5] on the Yucatán Peninsula was a product of misfortune, when in 1511 a small vessel bound for the island of Santo Domingo from Darién, Panama ran aground on some shoals in the Caribbean Sea, south of the island of Jamaica.[6] The ship's complement of fifteen men and two women set off in the ship's boat in an attempt to reach Cuba or one of the other colonies. However, the prevailing currents forced them westwards until, after approximately two weeks of drifting, they reached the eastern shoreline of the Peninsula, possibly in present-day Belize.[7] Captured by the local Maya, they were divided up among several of the chieftains[8] as slaves and a number were sacrificed and killed according to offeratory practices.[citation needed] Over the succeeding years their numbers dwindled further as others were lost to disease or exhaustion, until only two were left– Gerónimo de Aguilar who had escaped his former captor and found refuge with another Maya ruler, and Gonzalo Guerrero who had won some prestige among the Maya for his bravery and had now the standing of a ranking warrior and noble. These two would later have notable, but very different, roles to play in future conflicts between the Spanish and the Mesoamerican peoples– Aguilar would become Cortés's translator and advisor, with Guerrero instead electing to remain with the Maya and served as a tactician and warrior fighting with them against the Spanish.

Early expeditions (1517–19)

The next contact was in 1517 when Francisco Hernández de Córdoba sailed from Cuba, possibly in search of slaves to replace the native Cubans who had been dying off in great numbers. The Spaniards were surprised to see stone cities along the coast of Yucatán. Córdoba landed at three towns; some greeted the Spanish with friendship and offered to trade goods with them (the Spaniards acquired a few pieces of gold ornaments this way), but always as prelude to an ambush. The mauling at Cape Cotoche climaxed when the explorers landed at "the Coast of the Disastrous Battle." To Córboda and his men, it was an ambush with some 80 Spaniards being wounded by the first volley of stones, arrows, and darts.[9] The Spanish soon learned that the Mayan arrows, while not attaining any distinct force behind them, tended to shatter on impact leading to a slow and painful death. Despite these shortcomings, the failed attempts to gather water and repair the casks that were issued ultimately caused Córdoba to distribute his remaining sailors and abandon his smallest ship, a brigantine paid for on credit.[10] The expedition returned to Cuba to report on the discovery of this new land.

Diego Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, ordered an expedition sent out with four ships supplied with crossbows, muskets, salt pork, and cassava bread for some 240 men[11] led by his nephew, Juan de Grijalva. The Grijalva expedition had similar, mixed experiences with the native Maya and seemed genuinely anxious to fulfil Velázquez' order to explore rather than settle. He repeatedly refused the gratification of vengeance as they sailed along the coasts of Yucatán for months. Except for a few cannon shots, the desire to exchange beads and Spanish wine for food and other necessities were left in readiness. He was disappointed at gathering very little gold, but came back to Cuba with a tale that a rich empire was further to the west.

This prompted the Hernán Cortés expedition in 1519. Cortés spent some time at the island of Cozumel, tried with mixed results to convert the locals to Christianity, and heard stories of other bearded white men living in the area. He sent messengers to these reported castilianos, who turned out to be the survivors of the 1511 shipwreck, Aguilar and Guerrero. Aguilar petitioned his Maya chieftain to be allowed leave to join with his former countrymen, and he was released and made his way to Cortés' ships. According to Bernal Díaz, Aguilar said that before coming he had unsuccessfully attempted to convince Guerrero to leave as well. Guerrero declined on the basis that he was by now well-assimilated with the Maya culture, had a Maya wife and three children, and he was looked upon as a figure of rank within the Maya settlement of Chetumal where he lived.[12]

Aguilar, now quite fluent in Yucatec Maya as well as some other indigenous languages, would prove to be a valuable asset for Cortés as a translator, a skill of particular significance to the later conquest of the Aztec Triple Alliance which would be the end result of Cortés' expedition.[13]

Although Guerrero's later fate is uncertain, it appears that for some years he continued to fight alongside the Maya forces against Spanish incursions, providing military counsel and encouraging resistance; he quite possibly was killed in a later battle.

First attempted conquest (1527–28)

Monument in Merida to Montejo the Elder and his son.

The richer lands of Mexico engaged the main attention of the Conquistadors for some years, then in 1526 Francisco de Montejo (a veteran of the Grijalva and Cortés expeditions) successfully petitioned the King of Spain for the right to conquer Yucatán. He arrived in eastern Yucatán in 1527 and at first was greeted peaceably, and most local chiefs agreed with his demand that they swear loyalty to the King of Spain, for they had heard news of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. However, as the Spanish advanced they found towns already deserted when they reached them, and the Spanish were first harried as they traveled and then openly attacked. The Spanish set up a small fort on the coast at Xamanha in 1528, but had no further success in subduing the country. Montejo went to Mexico to gather a larger army.

Second attempted conquest (1531–35)

Montejo returned in 1531 with a force that allied with the Maya port city of Campeche.[14] While he set up a fortress at Campeche, he sent his son Francisco Montejo the Younger inland with an army. The leaders of some Maya states pledged that they would be his allies. He continued on to Chichen Itza, which he declared his Royal capital of Spanish Yucatán, but after a few months the locals rose up against him, the Spaniards were constantly attacked, and the Spanish force fled to Honduras. It was rumored that Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spaniard shipwrecked in 1511 who chose to stay in Yucatán, was among those directing Maya resistance to the Spanish crown. Meanwhile the elder Montejo was frequently besieged in his fort in Campeche, and many of his soldiers were tired of a long fight with little to show for it, and stated that they wished to find easier conquests elsewhere. In 1535, Montejo withdrew his forces to Veracruz, leaving the Yucatán once again completely in the control of the Maya.

Final conquests (1540–46)

Ruins of a mission church built by the Spanish in Dzibilchaltún ca. 1590-1600 from the stone taken from the nearby Maya temples

Colonial coat of arms of Yucatán.

Montejo the Elder, who was now in his late 60s, turned his royal rights in Yucatán over to his son, Francisco Montejo the Younger. The younger Montejo invaded Yucatán with a large force in 1540. In 1542, he set up his capital in the Maya city of T'ho, which he renamed Mérida. The lord of the Tutal Xiu of Maní converted to Christianity. The Xiu dominated most of Western Yucatán and became valuable allies of the Spanish, greatly assisting in the conquest of the rest of the peninsula. A number of Maya states at first pledged loyalty to Spain, but revolted after feeling the heavy hand of Spanish rule. Fighting and revolts continued for years. When the Spanish and Xiu defeated an army of the combined forces of the states of Eastern Yucatán in 1546, the conquest was officially complete; however, periodic revolts, which would be violently put down by Spanish troops and Indian auxiliaries, continued throughout the Spanish colonial era.[citation needed]

The Itza of Petén

The Postclassic Itza Maya of the Petén Basin region should be mentioned; while that area is now part of Guatemala, in colonial times it was part of the land under the jurisdiction of the Governor of Yucatán. The Itza capital was in Tayasal, an island city in lake Petén Itza. The Itza land was separated from Spanish Yucatán to the north and Spanish Guatemala to the south by thick jungles with little population. It had been visited by Cortés on his march to Honduras in 1525, when the lords of the Itza pledged loyalty to Spain, but was thereafter neglected by Spanish authorities. In 1618 two Franciscan friars were sent from Mérida to teach Christianity to the Itza. They arrived in Tayasal to find the people uninfluenced by European ways and still worshipping the traditional Mesoamerican gods. While the Itza king received them politely, they made no progress in converting the people to Christianity. In 1622, the Governor of Yucatán sent a force of 20 Spaniards and 140 Christian Indian allies to march on Tayasal, but the Itza quickly killed them. A second force on their way to the Petén in 1624 was ambushed by the Itza and met a similar fate. The Governor of Yucatán decided his energies were best spent elsewhere, and the Itza continued in independence.

In the 17th century, three Maya "provinces" existed in the Lake Petén area. They are Kan Ek' (Canek), Yalain, and Kowoj (Couoh). The Kan Ek' may have been the dominant "province" in the end of the 17th century. The title of the rulers of Kan Ek' was Aj Kan Ek'. Since the late 1690s, the last Aj Kan Ek' started a more open attitude towards the Spaniards, which included receiving and protecting the emissaries from the Spaniards at Noj Peten (also known as Noh Peten or Tayasal).[15]

In 1695, three Franciscans headed to Tayasal accompanied by four Christian Maya singers. They were well received, and a number of the Itza consented to be baptized. The Itza King, however, refused to convert to Christianity or pledge loyalty to Spain; he said a time would come when this would be the proper thing to do but that time had not arrived. A force of 60 Spanish soldiers and Maya allies were sent to the Petén the following year, but were beaten back by fierce Itza attacks. The command in Mérida decided that a major force was needed, and in 1697 sent out a force of 235 Spanish soldiers and tens of thousands of Xiu Maya under the command of Martín de Urzúa y Arizmendi, along with artillery and a large supply train of mules and men to cut a path through the jungle. They set up a fort on the shore of Lake Petén Itza across from Tayasal, and reconstructed a small warship on the lake which had been brought with them in pieces. On March 13, 1697, this force succeeded in conquering the Itza capital of Tayasal. The Spanish burned the Itza library of books "containing lies of the devil", and reported later that the city had so many idols that with almost the entire army set at work, it took from nine in the morning until half past five in the evening to break them all. Mesoamerica was not to see another independent native state for over a hundred years.

See also


  1. See The Spanish Conquest of Yucatán (1526-46) (1999).
  2. See Coe (1987, pp.153 et. seq.) for discussion and description of Maya political structures.
  3. At the time of Spanish arrival, many of the Maya states of northern and western Yucatán were ruled by prestigious dynasties, such as the Cocom and Xiu. Their control had been established in the wake of the 15th-century breakup of the Mayapan polity, which had previously exerted extensive control over much of the region. Once the Spanish succeeded in gaining an alliance of sorts with the ruling Xiu family at Maní, a number of other states followed suit in acquiescing to Spanish rule, which greatly assisted the Spanish cause. Other competing Maya families and states continued with their resistance, however. See The Spanish Conquest of Yucatán (1526-46) (1999), Coe (1987), and also later in this text.
  4. Robert Stoner Chamberlain (1948). The Conquest and Colonization of Yucatan, 1517-1550. Carnegie Institution. Retrieved 16 February 2013. 
  5. The account of the shipwreck and subsequent events follows that in Bernal Díaz's Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de Nueva España ( The Conquest of New Spain ), pp.59–66. Other 16th-century chroniclers differ in many of the details given by Díaz, such as the number aboard, how many survived to reach the shore, and their ultimate fate. Compare works by Cervantes, Gómara, and Martyr. However, all agree that ultimately two survived.
  6. The shoals are named as Los Alacranes ("the scorpions") by Bernal Díaz and Cervantes de Salazar, with Cervantes also calling them Las Viboras ("the vipers"). See Ch. XXII of Crónica de la Nueva España, and also The Valdivia Shipwreck (1511), which follows Cervantes.
  7. The landing place is around the "Rio Hondo" or possibly Cozumel or a little further to the south. See The Valdivia Shipwreck (1511) (1999).
  8. Bernal Díaz uses the term Cacique, a word deriving from Caribbean languages such as Taíno and used by the Spanish generally for tribal chieftains; he also gives the word Calachiones as the local title. See The Conquest of New Spain, p.65.
  9. Clendinnen, Inga; Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570. (pg 11) ISBN 0-521-37981-4
  10. Clendinnen, Inga; Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570. (pg 12) ISBN 0-521-37981-4
  11. The numbers for Grijalva's expedition are as given by Bernal Díaz, who participated in the voyage. See Díaz del Castillo (1963, p.27).
  12. Guerrero is reported by Bernal Díaz to have responded, "Brother Aguilar, I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a Cacique here, and a captain in time of war....But my face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say if they saw me like this? And look how handsome these children of mine are!" (p.60). However, other 16th-century sources say that Aguilar did not actually talk to Guerrero in person, but merely sent him a message (Gómara's version) or was unable to communicate with him at all (Cortés, de Landa), since if Guerrero was indeed near Chetumal that was some 400km from Cozumel. The quote attributed to Guerrero may well be a dramatic invention of Díaz. See discussion in Romero (1992, pp.7—10).
  13. Later in the voyage a young woman, La Malinche, would be given to Cortés as a slave by the Chontal Maya inhabitants of the Tabasco coast. La Malinche spoke Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and a regional lingua franca, as well as Chontal Maya, which was also understood by Aguilar. Cortés used those two to communicate with the central Mexican peoples and the Aztec court. See The Conquest of New Spain, pp.85–87.
  14. Clendinnen, Inga; Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, (pg 23) 1517-1570. ISBN 0-521-37981-4


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