The Endless Conquest of Yucatán

The subjugation of the Aztecs by the Spanish conquistador or conqueror, Hernan Cortez, took twenty-one years with the support of thousands of Tlaxcala and Otomi Indian allies. The unrelenting conquest of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, however, spanned 125 of the 374 years history of a long and adversarial coexistence. In defiance of defeat upon defeat on the battlefield, the native Maya-Yucatec fiercely resisted their foreign foe. The peninsula at that time was heavily populated, with cities of three thousand people and more, five or fewer miles from one another, interspaced with hamlets. Among numerous clashes, the fall of Aké (Ak’e’) stands out, for it was the first decisive armed confrontation between the Spanish and the indigenous people of the Yucatán. Aké, however, was only the beginning of a struggle that would only wane on the doorsteps of the twentieth century.

The First Incursions

The first entrada or incursion, by the Spanish Francisco de Montejo (the Elder), was from the east of the peninsula, between 1527 and 1529. It was followed by a second incursion from the west, headed by his son, also known as Francisco de Montejo (the Younger), from 1529 to 1535. It all started on December 8, 1526, when Spain’s Council of the Indies granted Montejo the Elder the capitulación, or patent, for the conquest of the “Islands of Cozumel and Yucatán” with the title and office of adelantado or governor and captain general. At that time, this unexplored part of Mexico was thought to be two islands. The patent was the legal foundation of the Spanish Crown policies for political, religious, and mercantile aspects of its conquered overseas possessions. Montejo sold his properties and got into debt to obtain the royal patent to finance his expeditions, an investment he expected, like all conquistadores or conquerors, to recover from captured lands. For his first incursion, he selected as his second in command, Alonso Dávila, he knew from past battles in the Indies who was wise in council. In mid-June 1527, with about four hundred men plus the ships’ crews, Montejo stepped on board the armed merchantman San Jerónimo and, accompanied by two caravels, sailed  down the Guadalquivir to the Atlantic, heading to Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola.

There he recruited more men and bought twenty-five more horses and a large stock of supplies. Other officers were Pedro de los Rios as lieutenant governor and Gonzalo Nieto, veteran of many battles and standard bearer of the army. Well trained officers and soldiers idle after the Reconquista, the ousting of the Moors from Spain, completed his forces, together with the Franciscan friar Juan Rodriguez de Caraveco, Montejo’s own chaplain, and surgeon Iñigo Lòpez of Seville. Among other officers was Roberto Alemán, a Fleming in charge of the light artillery, and his wife Talina, the only woman on the roster.

Montejo sailed west from Hispaniola leaving the brigantine La Gavarra to follow later with reinforcement and landed with three ships and four hundred men on the island of Cozumel off the eastern coast of the Yucatán in September of 1527. The Maya had already met the Spaniards Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1517, Juan de Grijalva in 1518, and Hernán Cortés in 1519. The cacique or chief, Naum Pat, greeted Montejo and his men amiably. The chief informed Montejo about the lay of the land on the continent, and the main chiefdoms he would encounter and with which he may have to contend. Toward the end of that month, Montejo sailed to the mainland and came ashore at or near the small village of Xel Há, which he called Salamanca de Xhelhá in honor of Salamanca, his birthplace, making it his main base on the coast. To quell a mutiny that had been brewing since leaving Santo Domingo, Montejo set fire to two of his ships, while the caravel Nicolasa sailed back to Santo Domingo. Thirty sailors from the burned ships who had participated in the frustrated mutiny elected to return. The Nicolasa captain was instructed to bring back supplies, horses, and men.

The remaining crews of the two burnt ships joined Montejo’s force. He then left a lieutenant in command of the outposts at Salamanca de Xhelhá, with forty men and Talina Alemán, and sent another twenty to set up camp at Polé, a few miles north on the Caribbean coast, to gather foodstuff from neighboring villages. Meanwhile, most of the natives, fearful of the newcomers, fled into the dense forest. On the way, the Spaniards had their first taste of a difficult land and the hostility of its people. The hot and humid climate was hard on the Spaniards, especially during clashes with Indian warriors. They adopted indigenous body protection for close combat, for Spanish armor was too hot and cumbersome. They used long thick tunics quilted with cotton, which they called escuipiles, to protect them to the knees. Footmen, crossbowmen and arquebusiers were likewise protected from head to toe, as were horses with quilted armor. The ferocious Spanish dogs of war were protected by their ferocity.

The notable characteristic of the Maya Early Classic period (250-550AD) was the emergence of independent states across much of the Yucatán peninsula. Sharer and Textler explain that “documentary evidence of the Early Classic era is sporadic in the north. No single major center dominated the political and economic arena of the period, but several important states developed with prominent chiefdoms such as Aké, Acanceh, Izamal and Oxtintok” (2006). The major chiefdoms on the peninsula were those of Cochuah and Ekab, while those yielding the most political power were the Tutul Xiu of Mani and the Nachi Cocom of Sotuta. Both political powerhouses played major roles during the conquest.

The Tutul Xiu promptly allied with the Spanish and kept their friendly disposition throughout the conquest, as a counterpoint no doubt, to their enduring antagonism with the hated Nachi Cocom. Most of the villages in Montejo’s report, such as Xaman Há, Mochis, and Belma, no longer exist. The latter may be identified with the settlement of El Meco, near Puerto Juárez today. From Belma, the little army proceeded to Cónil, in the province of Ekab where they were welcomed and rested for two months. As befits a military leader, Montejo did not let down his defiance of the locals, for he was wary of possible treachery. So, with his captains he organized his army’s stay at Cónil under a twenty-four-hour guard watch.

In the spring of 1528, the army left Cónil for the major town of Choaca or Chauac Há in the neighboring province of Chinkinchel. They traveled through an uninhabited area devoid of water for a week but were soon greeted by a crowd of Choaca people on the outskirts of their town. As Chamberlain explains the Choaca considered themselves “superior to other people  in culture and intelligence, for they were great traders” (1966:51). At first, the contact was respectful but ladened with mistrust, for the caciques or chiefs were warned of the Spaniards arrival. The leaders received the Europeans with gifts of food and shows of friendship. Unlike at Cónil, however, Montejo seems to have let his guard down and did not prepare for possible treachery. After a week, over a few nights, the inhabitants slowly moved their people and supplies out of the city. Montejo and Dávila eventually realized that the unusual silence  around them was ominous and understood what would be coming next.

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Deadly Aké –  ©georgefery.com

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At mid-morning of the fifth day of the second week, without warning and in complete silence, the warriors attacked shooting thick flights of arrows, using spear throwers (atlatl) to hurl javelins with fire-hardened spear tips, and hard wood clubs four to five feet in length studded with sharp obsidian flints. The Spanish officers quickly rallied their men and faced the onslaught. The Spaniards, making the most of superior weapons, military discipline, and an irresistible cavalry, together with their dogs of war, succeeded in checking the first onrush  of the Maya. After regrouping the men quartered in other parts of town, Montejo counter attacked. After the hardest kind of fighting, in which both sides showed intrepid determination, the Spaniards broke the Maya’s resistance, and dispersed them. The Europeans won a clean-cut victory in the first pitched battle of the conquest, however, they paid dearly for it, with ten or twelve of their small army killed or wounded. For the Choacas, however, it was a disaster with hundreds of lives lost, among which were ten village chiefs and other principals. After their defeat, the lords of the Chinkinchel province decided against further resistance and, the following day, they sued for peace.

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Merciless Encounter – (CC BY-SA 3.0)  ©wikipedia.org Public Domain

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After a two-week rest, the Spaniards left Choaca hampered by heat, a difficult terrain, and lack of water. They were unprepared for the absence of rivers or stream in northern Yucatán. They moved toward Aké, ten miles north of today’s town of Tizimin. The Choacas had warned Aké’s paramount chief that the Spaniards were coming to steal their food and their wives. Over a three-day trek, the cavalry, arquebusiers, foot soldiers and war dogs clashed with Aké’ warriors and remnants of Choaca fighters and their allies, who relentlessly fought to slow down the invaders. The Mayas were aware that they did not have the military expertise nor the weapons to overcome the enemy. Their plan of action, according to the Relación de Juan Farfán (1579), was to build a succession of half-moon-shaped palisades, called albarradas in Spanish, tied to tree trunks and bushes on each side of the trail leading to the town, to slow down the enemy. More than the Spanish weapons, however, the Maya were terrified of the horses and, worse still, of the fierce dogs of war.

The Spaniards entered Aké late on the fourth day. The Maya fought furiously all the way inside their city. Alonso Dávila, along with a handful of veteran officers and soldiers, was among the few Spaniards with experience in this type of warfare; he and Montejo led their men by example, at the head of the fight. Horsemen could not be used efficiently due to dense trees, a rocky ground, and bushes, but they did much damage. The merciless fight lasted all day with no relief until late afternoon, when the Maya retired for the night. At daylight the following day, the fight resumed with the same fierceness and rage, but military discipline, their swords and dogs of war again broke the Maya onslaught in mid-afternoon. According to Montejo’s notes recorded by the chronicler Cárdenas y Valencia (1937:15-16):

“…at Aké, the Indians appeared in large numbers banging drums made from the shell of large sea turtles with deer antlers used as drum sticks; they were blowing big conch-shells to rally warriors that, together with screams of rage from hundreds of throats magnified the deafening noise; they all had weapons they use in war such as bows and quivers of arrows, stone throwers, poles with their tips hardened by fire, lances with point of sharp flints, two-handed swords of very strong wood inset with obsidian blades, large conch-shells of the sea; naked except for the shameful parts which were covered with a cloth; daubed with earth of colors, they appeared as most ferocious devils; their nose and ear plugs were adorned with bones and stones of varied colors; but all this did not cause the conquistadors to flinch.”

Even though many Maya warriors were killed and wounded during the fight, many more came in to fill the gaps and kept fighting not allowing the Spaniards any respite. The casualties were important for the Spaniards, with twenty-three men dead or seriously wounded, and three horses killed or maimed, as were dogs. The casualties, however, were horrendous for the Maya, with over 1,200 dead warriors on the battlefield in the northwest part of the large plaza, including local village chiefs. Aké was the turning point of this first entrada or incursion, showing the Mayas the resolve and military prowess of a dangerous foe.

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It’s not over –  ©georgefery.com

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The emotional impact of the disaster was devastating to the locals. “This epic battle became by tradition one of the most renowned engagements in the long and bloody conquest of Yucatán” (Chamberlain, 1966). The overwhelming victory of Spanish arms at Aké brought immediate results over a wide territory. Not only did the surviving chastened lords of Aké hastened to pledge their allegiance, but as the Spaniards victory came to be known throughout the region, many headmen sent delegates to Montejo seeking peace and friendship. The battle, however, gave the Spaniards a taste of the implacable antagonism that would simmer long into the future. In that future, the spirit of Aké would be kept alive through ceaseless strife.

Montejo remained at Aké long enough to help his wounded soldiers and reap the rewards of his victory. He then moved on to Zizha, a large town about fourteen miles away, where he and his men were well received. Montejo looked for a broad inland stream to access the hinterland from the sea; there were none. In the process, the Spaniards were coldly received, as the paramount chief and his war leaders clearly showed their dislike of the unwelcome foreigners. By this time, Montejo had achieved about all he could with the men he had. He explored a large part of northeastern Yucatán and won the nominal allegiance of a large area. In line with the requerimientos or requirements under Spanish law, if a chief or his representatives gave fealty to a Spanish leader or his captains, the entire district over which he ruled was considered to have passed under Spanish dominion.

Montejo left Loché in mid-1528 with a depleted force and, after a three-week trek, returned to Salamanca de Xelhá on the Caribbean coast, to regroup and resupply. Cogolludo (1688) records that of the 125 men Montejo led on this first incursion, only about seventy-five returned relatively unscathed. The number of men according to Cogolludo and Fernández de Oviedo (1535), seems to be less than was previously recorded in Spanish archives. On arrival at Salamanca de Xhel Há, Montejo found his settlement in desperate straits. Of the forty or so Spaniards he had left there, only twenty-seven were alive, including Talina, while all of those stationed at Polé had been massacred. The entire original force now numbered less than a hundred able men. Thankfully, the support ship was back from Santo Domingo with men, horses, weapons, and supplies. Within a few weeks, Montejo boarded the Nicolasa and sailed south along the coast while Alonso Dávila followed him overland to join him at the Bay of Chetumal.

This first incursion of the Yucatán was followed by the second in late 1532 under the command of Francisco Montejo “the Younger”, who took up the task from his father to   conquer the interior of the peninsula, moving in from the north. From the beginning, his aim was to seize and establish a major Spanish settlement at Chichén Itzá that he would call Ciudad Real. The site was elected for important communities in its vicinity. At first, the Spaniards were welcomed, but within a few years, the Mayas’ hostility increased as the result of abuses by encomenderos, conquistadors who were granted land and people for their services to the crown, and the forced conversion to the Catholic faith. Growing antagonism between Europeans and natives came to a head with the killing of the Maya paramount chief Naabon Cupul during his failed attempt at killing Montejo the Younger. The latent antagonism turned to rage and reached the breaking point when the Maya laid siege to Ciudad Real. The Spaniards took refuge in the more readily defensible  pre-Columbian ruins nearby, a refuge that quickly became a trap. An attempt to break the encirclement cost the Spaniards dearly, with over 150 men killed or captured and sacrificed. While in the past indigenous clans often warred with each other, their failures in battling the foreign foe led to unlikely alliances and, in some cases, to de facto confederation. Unlike in central Mexico with the Aztecs, the peninsula of Yucatán was ruled by seventeen chiefdoms. Cogolludo’s record is again the reference to understand what happened to the besieged Spaniards at Chichén Itzá in 1532:

The situation was dire and getting worse. They had to move out or die in Ciudad Real.  The Indians, however, had a flaw in their fighting order as found at Aké and other encounters, they did not fight at night, why? Because the twelve Lords of the Night, in Xibalba the “place of fright” or underworld Hun Came (One Death) and Vucub Came (Seven Death) in particular, did not like to be disturbed and would not look kindly on the warriors. The Indians knew they could not defy two powerful foes at the same time. The Spaniards, aware of that precept, had to leave at night but they needed to keep the Indians believing that they still were in the compound at sunrise. So, they had a dog tied up with a rope linked to a bell, with food and water several feet away, out of reach. Through the night, the Indians heard the bell they associated with Christian rituals and the dog barking. In the dead of night, the Spaniards abandoned Ciudad Real and headed for the coast about forty miles away, their only salvation route. Early in the morning the Indians realized the ploy and small groups of warriors ran after the fugitives. Short but violent battles broke the indigenous scouts attempt at stopping the Europeans. Exhausted, Montejo with the remnants of his party, safely reached the port of Dzilam.

By 1535, but for the cities of Mérida and Campeche, the Spanish had been driven out of the Yucatán. In a twist of history, however, food became so scarce that the Yucatec warriors lifted their siege of the remaining towns held by the Spaniards because, it is said, flying ants signaled the corn planting season, so they hastened to their corn fields. Ten years later, the 1542-1545 re-conquest of the east and interior of the peninsula kept the Spanish fighting again to pacify the land, to no avail.

Relentless Conflict

The Great Maya Revolt of 1546-1547 was started by a Cupul priest inspired by ancestral divinities led by the exalted priest Chilam Anbal. He set the date for the Great Uprising on the full moon of the night 8-9 November 1546, corresponding to 5-Cimi (death) and 19-Xul (end), in the Maya calendar. Chamberlain reports that “at the appointed time the Mayas of the eastern provinces rose in sudden and overwhelming fury. The carnage and unspeakable cruelty knew no bounds and killed Spaniards of all ages in large numbers together with over 600 naborias, Maya converts to Christianity. The heads, hands and feet of Spaniards were cut and sent throughout the land to incite others to greater fury and ruthless carnage” (1947). Few cities such as Valladolid were barely able to resist the onslaught, but most were on the brink of collapse when Montejo (the Younger), and his captains from Mérida and Campeche, regained control of the provinces that were emptied of Spaniards and mestizos, albeit through years of conflict interspaced with periods of precarious peace. The burden of occupation was far worse for the Maya, however, since they had to endure untold hardships from their new masters, who were dedicated to bend them to a new faith and way of life. Inter-polity warfare before the arrival of the Europeans was endemic and of a brutal nature, however, the natives found common grounds in the face of a new and deadly foe.

In 1567, another Maya prophet, the Chilam Cuoh, preached the supremacy of the ancient ways and prophesied a war of religion around the Spanish settlement of Bacalar (in today’s Quintana Roo). As armed resistance intensified, the Spaniards requested the provincial in Mérida for help in quelling Cuoh’s rebellion. The Chilam was captured in 1569 and sent under armed guard to bishop Fray Francisco de Toral in Mérida, for exemplary punishment. It would take another nineteen years of brutal and bloody conflicts for the Yucatecs to be somewhat pacified. Hostility and defiance at all times simmered close to the surface. But as Farris summarizes, “the conquest may have taken longer were it not for three separate epidemics that took a heavy toll on the Yucatecs, causing the population to fall by half and weakening traditional social structures” (1984). Nonetheless, Chamberlain further notes that “Maya culture, in common with that of other advanced peoples of New Spain, Colombia and Peru, was too ancient, too deeply grounded and too tenaciously conservative to be easily swept to one side” (1947). In Spanish colonial times, the Yucatán and most of New Spain, was set under a legal caste scheme where peninsulares (those born in Spain), were at the top of the social order. Next were the criollos, born in the colonies but of Spanish lineage. At the next level were the mestizos, or creoles of European and indigenous descent; followed by the descendants of the natives who had collaborated with the Spaniards during the conquest. At the bottom of the social system were the “others”, the indios.

Through history, the Maya showed tenacious resistance to Toltec and Spanish invaders. They overcame the hardships of the smallpox epidemic of 1514. Then there was the uprising of Bacalar 1639-1641, followed by the one of 1668-1671 and the rebellion of Jacinto Canek in 1761. The Maya showed no less tenacity during the Caste War of Yucatán (1847-1901), that bloodied the peninsula for 54 years. Central to this unremitting antagonism was the appropriation of socio-economic and political control by the Spaniards and mestizos of Indian and European descent, and their efforts at spiritual domination through conversion.

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The Caste War of Yucatan –  ©georgefery.com

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The Spaniards were helped in their quest for domination by successive epidemics of infectious diseases. The vector by which they were transmitted was not understood by European science at the time, for germ theory did not begin to take hold until 1854. Local resistance flared up time and again, until it was somewhat tamed after the brutal fifty-four years Caste War of Yucatán (1847-1901). Countless lives were lost on all sides before the Cruzob movement was crushed by the Mexican General Ignacio Bravo, that ended the Caste War on May 5, 1901. General Bravo, on instructions from the government in Mexico City, implemented reforms that stamped out the root causes of Maya rebellion.

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We shall not kneel. ©georgefery.com

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The history of wars and insurrections in the Yucatán make plain that the indigenous population at large, after three centuries of conflict and hardship, still regarded Spanish and creoles alike, as foreign domination. As Farris’ underline “The Caste War has received its name precisely because it was not a simple peasant rebellion seeking to redress grievances, one that called merely for “bread and land” for The colonial Maya could not escape the reality, which the caste barrier enforced and preserved, of belonging to a group distinct from the unassimilated overlords(2). At the core of this unremitting antagonism was the appropriation of socio-economic and political control by the Spaniards and their efforts at spiritual domination through conversion.

Forced evangelization was unrealistic for the Spaniards had limited resources. Fifty years after the first entrada, there were still not enough evangelists for such a large and diverse population, speaking hundreds of languages in towns and villages, spread out from the dry deserts and canyons of the north to the tropical jungles of the south. Hope for peaceful coexistence lingered among the Maya, but their hopes did not have the same meaning as those of the foreigners, for it was grounded in their ancient religion, their customs and a spirit that did not die with the fierce defenders of their belief, their identity, and their freedom.

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Image, Top Right: Statue of a Spanish conquistador. ©krasnyniejasny.com

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Bibliography/References:

Bernardino de Sahagun, 1905 – Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España.

Carballo, David, M., 2020 – Collision of Worlds

Chamberlain Robert S., 1966 – The conquest and Colonization of Yucatán,

1517-1550

Diego López de Cogolludo (1610), 2006 – Historia de Yucatán

Fray Diego de Landa, 1959 – Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatán

Reed, Nelson, A., 2001 – The Caste War of Yucatán

Freelance writer, researcher and photographer, Georges Fery (georgefery.com) addresses topics from history, culture, and beliefs to daily living of ancient and today’s indigenous societies of the Americas. His articles are published online at travelthruhistory.com, ancient-origins.net and popular-archaeology.com, and in the quarterly magazine Ancient American (ancientamerican.com). In the U.K. his articles are found in mexicolore.co.uk. The author is a fellow of the Institute of Maya Studies instituteofmayastudies.org, Miami, FL and The Royal Geographical Society, London, U.K. (rgs.org). He is a member in good standing with the Maya Exploration Center, Austin, TX (mayaexploration.org) the Archaeological Institute of America, Boston, MA (archaeological.org), NFAA-Non Fiction Authors Association (nonfictionauthrosassociation.com) and the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. (americanindian.si.edu).

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