Conquest of the Yucatán

Conquest of the Yucatán
Conquest of the Yucatán

The Spanish invasion and subjugation of the Maya peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula, the highlands of Chiapas, and the lowlands stretching into the Guatemalan Petén contrasted sharply with their swift defeat of the Aztec Empire in 1519–21.

Lacking a centralized political structure, Maya polities and communities in these regions resisted Spanish incursions for decades, some for centuries. In the absence of gold, silver, or other riches, the region became a colonial backwater and was never fully conquered. The result was a far more ambiguous, incomplete, and partial conquest than in the Basin of Mexico, Peru, and even Central America.

The first Spanish encounters with Yucatán’s Maya inhabitants came in 1502, when Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage, traded with coastal merchants. In the next decade, at least one shipwreck left several Spaniards stranded on Yucatán; at least two survived, one of whom, Jerónimo de Aguilar, became Hernán Cortés’s interpreter.

Further contacts occurred in 1517–18 with the expeditions of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva, respectively, that culminated in the conquest of Mexico. As elsewhere, these initial encounters brought virulent European diseases to Yucatán and beyond, killing tens of thousands of natives years before military incursions began.

Subjugation Efforts

The first major effort to subjugate Yucatán’s inhabitants began in 1527 under Francisco de Montejo, chartered by the Crown to pacify the peninsula. After some initial failures, between 1529 and 1534, Montejo and his men had explored much of Yucatán’s north and center.

What they found was very unlike what Cortés had found in Mexico—a diversity of ethnolinguistic groups spread out in towns and villages across a flat, riverless, and to Spanish eyes, featureless landscape, with no large city, no political center on which to focus their assault.

The boundaries between towns and provinces appeared fuzzy and hard to discern, while the inhabitants’ receptions of the invaders often seemed fickle and capricious. Frustrated, Montejo and his crew abandoned Yucatán in 1534, reporting to the Crown that “no gold had been discovered, nor is there anything [else] from which advantage can be gained.”

For the next five years, no Spaniard set foot on the peninsula. They returned in 1540, mainly to enslave the inhabitants, as native labor was considered the region’s most valuable marketable commodity.

Founding the town of Mérida in 1542 atop the ruins of the Maya city of Tihó, after a prolonged conflict with thousands of local Maya, the Spanish soon founded a second, Valladolid. In response Maya communities adopted the hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla war, to which the Spanish responded with massacres and enslavement.

By the mid-1540s, Spanish encomenderos, granted Indians in encomienda by the Crown, began settling in the two towns and their rural districts. During this same period, in 1544, the first group of eight veteran Franciscan missionaries arrived in Yucatán to direct the religious conversion of the natives.

The Great Maya Revolt

Two years later, on November 8, 1546, came what was later called the Great Maya Revolt, when natives of seven provinces launched a coordinated attack on Valladolid and its environs, populated by some 200 to 300 Spaniards.

After slaughtering numerous Spaniards and their native allies and nearly sacking the town, the rebels retreated in the face of a withering counterattack, which by spring 1547 had effectively quelled the insurgency.

An eyewitness account by Franciscan friar Lorenzo de Bienvenida details the murders, mutilations, and other atrocities inflicted by the Spanish in their suppression of the rebellion. At the time fewer than 1,500 Spaniards lived in the northwestern corner of the peninsula.

In 1549, nine more friars, including one Diego de Landa, arrived. Courageous and indefatigable, the 37-year-old Landa set off into the interior to convert the natives. In the coming years, Landa would play a central role in the political and religious life of the peninsula, while centuries later his writings on all aspects of Maya culture would serve as an invaluable resource for Maya scholars.

By this time, friction had developed between encomenderos, who insisted on exploiting Indian labor to the greatest extent, and friars, whose principal concern was the natives’ religious conversion and basic physical well-being. Similar tensions between religious orders and settlers erupted throughout the Spanish-conquered territories.

The Franciscans proposed congregating (or “reducing”) scattered Indian hamlets into larger nucleated settlements, or reducciones, a proposal fiercely resisted by encomenderos but implemented in many areas. By 1557, the Franciscans established their first missions and schools.

In 1561, the General Chapter of the Franciscans in Spain combined the missions of Guatemala and Yucatán into a single province. Soon after, the friars of the new jurisdiction elected Diego de Landa as their first provincial, or leader. By 1562, 12 monasteries had been founded, while some 200 churches and schools were scattered throughout the interior.

Also in 1562, a chance encounter led to the discovery of ongoing idolatry among the friars’ native charges. The discovery prompted Provincial Landa to launch a major investigation. Arresting thousands of natives suspected of idolatry, Landa supervised the torture of more than 4,500 people over the course of three months; many were tortured to death.

On July 12, 1562, at the Maní mission, Landa oversaw a huge auto-da-fé, a public spectacle meant to demonstrate the superior moral and political power of the Christian Church. Huge piles of idols were set to the torch and many convicted idolaters were put to the lash. Soon after, Landa uncovered evidence suggesting that the natives were still practicing ritual human sacrifice.

The inquisitions and tortures continued, as did the destruction of idols. Many of the so-called idols were Maya sacred books. Only three survived the fires. Scholars consider the destruction of these sacred Maya texts among the most tragic losses of accumulated human knowledge in world history.

The sacred writings continued in secret, as Maya priests and elders produced new books to preserve their collective knowledge. Over time, some 14 of these sacred books came into the possession of outsiders, and some of these into the hands of scholars. Collectively they are known as the books of Chilam Balam (books of the spokesmen of the jaguar lords). The best known is the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel.

The conquest of Yucatán and adjacent highlands and lowlands was never fully achieved. As late as 1680, the Spanish occupied only the northwestern third of the peninsula, while numerous polities, most notably the Itzá kingdom, endured in the jungles of the Maya lowlands to the south.

A major offensive into the southern lowlands in 1697 conquered the Itzá while failing to eliminate or reign in autonomous indigenous communities outside the orbit of Spanish control. In short, many parts of the Maya zone were never conquered.