The period that spanned from 1517 to 1546 was marked Spanish conquistadors waging a fierce and bloody war in Guatemala and Mexico against the Maya states. The invaders eventually were able to break the will of the local belligerent people and expand their rule across all of the Maya lands except the vicinity of Lake Petén Itzá in northern Guatemala. The Indians who had settled there contrived to resist external domination for another century and a half.
Indian fortress on the lake
The Itzá once consolidated on the Yucatán Peninsula by force and arms and founded their empire there, subordinating all of the Maya tribes that lived on the peninsula. However, the power of the conquerors was short-lived, and after the fall of their capital city of Chichén Itzá they migrated south. In the mid 1400s, the Itzá found a new site for their city on the large freshwater Lake Petén in northern Guatemala, although some scholars believe they had explored these lands even earlier — in the 12th–13th centuries. The lake was surrounded on all sides by dense, impassible jungle.
The remains of Tikal, one of the great Mayan cities of the Classic Period, were some 60 kilometers from Petén. Although it was long abandoned, the area was inhabited by descendants of the once powerful Tikal population. The Itzá aliens were a well-organized, hawkish people and soon ensured their dominance in the region. Having adopted the Mayan culture, the conquerors quickly mixed with the locals and became the new Maya-Itzá people. In the 17th century, the Spanish chronicler Juan de Villagutierre wrote:
“Having settled in these places, the Itzá gained a footing on the islands and in the lagoons, amidst numerous tribes, barbarous and savage, though none was as strong and powerful as theirs.”
The lake became known as Petén Itzá (Lake of the Itzá). The city built on one of its islands was called Tah Itzá (Place of the Itzá), or Nojpetén (Island City or Chief City), and became the center of a new independent Indian kingdom, known to the Spanish as Tayasal.
There were as many as five Mayan tribal formations around the lake, which the Spanish called kingdoms (reino). The centers of the largest tribes were the cities of Nojpetén, Zacpetén and Yalain. By the start of the 16th century, Nojpetén had dominated the region, and all of the lakeside Mayan kingdoms were subdued to its will.
The little problem of great Cortés
At that very time, conquistador Hernán Cortés, who was staying in the northern city of Mexico, built on the ruins of the Aztec capital, discovered that he was faced with a serious challenge in Honduras. After the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1522, some Spaniards were discontented that Cortés and his friends had reaped most of the benefits. To deal with discontent, Cortés decided to send an expedition to establish a colony in Honduras. Cortés put together a 370-strong group of potential rebels and placed Captain Cristóbal de Olid in charge. The latter seemed to have no reason whatsoever to be offended by the new Mexican authorities, but that reason was found as soon as he was asked to lead the posse of troublemakers deep into the jungle. In 1523, the expedition left the shores of Mexico.
De Olid gathered that he would be unable to suppress the rebels, and therefore it would be more reasonable — and profitable — to lead them. At his own risk, he decided he would not follow Cortés’ orders, but instead create a kingdom of his own for himself and his new friends. Cortés hated the idea, though, and in 1524 sent his cousin Francisco de las Casas with a small unit to capture de Olid. But de las Casas fell into a trap set by the experienced leader of the rebels.
Cortés’ prestige was threatened and he decided it was time to act. His army of 270 Spaniards and 3,000 Aztec warriors marched out of Mexico. For unclear reasons, Cortés chose the land route through wild dangerous jungle and mangrove swamps. In addition to the soldiers, the ruler of New Spain took along all his concubines, as well as servants, musicians, and doctors. Indians traditionally formed the core of the army: instead of the originally allied Tlaxcalans, Cortés opted for the defeated Aztecs. Their elite, including the former emperor Cuauhtémoc, chose to serve the Spanish, but it was still dangerous to leave the Aztecs in Mexico unsupervised. Anyway, Cuauhtémoc was a Spanish hidalgo only briefly: during the campaign he was accused of treason and executed on February 28, 1525.
The Thunder Tapir of the Spanish conquistador
Cortés and his army arrived on the north shore of Lake Petén Itzá on March 13, 1525. The experienced warrior reckoned with the advantageous defensive location of the Indian capital and decided to enter into negotiations. Cortés later recalled:
“… I camped on these shores and brought together all my people, accommodated and took the best care of them, because the guide from Mazatlan told me there are many people here who are skilled in the trade of war, so that all the neighboring provinces are very afraid of them.”
The leader of the Spanish expedition and the king of Nojpetén with the generic name of Kan-Ek’, agreed on a meeting. Cortés accepted the invitation to visit the capital of the lake kingdom, which the Spanish called Tayasal, and did so with a small detachment of soldiers.
The Indians agreed to supply the dangerous aliens with everything they required to continue their journey as quickly as possible. The delighted Spanish soldiers served a thanksgiving mass, after which Kan-Ek’ announced that he was deeply impressed and interested in converting to the new religion:
“On the following day, Kan-Ek’ arrived in five or six boats accompanied by about 30 men… I [Cortés – author] received him very courteously, and since <…> the hour of mass came, I ordered it to be celebrated with singing and music, very solemnly.”
Before parting, Cortés asked the Indian king to take care of his favorite horse, Morcillo. The horse had been injured during a deer hunt and was unable to continue the journey. Cortés said he intended to collect his pet on his way back.
It is not known whether the Indians were more impressed by the never-before-seen beast or the conquistador’s army with their muskets, but the Mayan ruler assured Cortés that he would take care of Morcillo. Spanish chroniclers later wrote that the Indians fed the poor animal meat and it died, but this is highly doubtful, since the conquistadores had an excellent translator of the Yucatec language spoken by the Itzá.
Either out of fear of Cortés’ wrath or as a symbol of their friendship with the powerful alien sorcerer, the Indians built a temple in Morcillo’s honor. The Spanish warhorse became Tzimin Chac, or Sacred Thunder Tapir, and his large statue was revered as the object of religious ceremonies.
Cortés and the remains of his army eventually reached the Gulf of Honduras, only to find that Cristóbal de Olida’s mutiny had already been crushed. Cortés returned to Mexico by ship, with only eighty Spanish soldiers and two hundred Indians surviving the six-month jungle campaign.
By 1546, the Spanish had subdued all Mayan lands except Nojpetén. The population of the last Indian kingdom grew rapidly as the Maya fled the northern Yucatán with its forced labor, epidemics, burdensome taxes, and thousands of Indians being taken away as slaves to Cuba. Isolated by forests and swamps, the Maya-Itzá maintained their independence while the Spanish crown consolidated its control over Mexico and Guatemala. The Tayasal Kingdom was some 300 kilometers from Guatemala City and 480 kilometers from the city of Merida on Yucatán, offering refuge to fugitive Maya and turning into a real problem for the Spanish.
By the end of the 16th century, however, the days when the mere existence of an indigenous city was a challenge to the furious conquistadors had long been gone. It became clear that the forest Indians had no gold, which meant that no dangerous and risky campaign would ever pay off. Functionaries followed warriors to the new Spanish colonies, thinking more about personal enrichment at the expense of previously conquered lands, rather than a distant indigenous kingdom. However, fervent Catholic monks dreamed of converting pagans to their own faith.
In 1617, a Franciscan by the name of Juan de Orbita reached Nojpetén and persuaded the governor to send a delegation with him to the Spanish colonial capital of Merida. According to available reports, the Mayan envoys agreed to submit peacefully to Spanish rule and returned home. The following year, de Orbita, accompanied by another monk named Bartolomé de Fuensalida and a certain colonial official from Bacalar set out for Tayasal to formalize the transition of the lake kingdom to the Spanish monarchy. They reached their destination six long months later.
The lord of Nojpetén, king Kan-Ek’ (the son of the former king, also named Kan-Ek’) received the guests and expressed a polite interest in Catholic ceremonies, but refused to convert, claiming that the time was wrong. On the other hand, the hosts agreed to show the guests their country. While visiting one of the Indian temples, the priests saw a statue of Tzimin Chac and asked what it was. Once they realized that the Indians were worshipping Cortés’ stallion, the Franciscans became enraged — de Orbita climbed the idol and smashed it with a stone. This understandably infuriated the hosts, and the Spaniards were asked to leave Tayasal and never come back.
On their way back, de Orbita and de Fuensalida discussed the situation and made up their minds to return to the lake. Kan-Ek’ had to listen to exhortations and religious sermons over again, but after eighteen days the local priests conspired with warriors, and they forced the strangers out. The monks recalled being put into a boat without water or food, as Indians were shouting, “Don't come again! We don’t need your bearded god! Only death awaits you here!” The Spaniards made it back to Merida, and the mission to Christianize the inhabitants of Tayasal failed.
Spanish military expedition
Decision-making by the colonial authorities was by no means rapid, and arrangements to deal with the unruly Indians were not put in place for another five years. In 1622, it seemed the best idea to revive the methods of the conquistadors and simply conquer Tayasal. The governor of Yucatán ordered Captain Francisco de Mirones to lead a small but well-armed force of 20 Spanish horsemen and 140 friendly Indians. Both the Europeans and their native allies were equipped with Spanish steel weapons.
On March 30, 1622, the unit embarked on its campaign, accompanied by hundreds of porters. Monk Diego Delgado volunteered to accompany the soldiers. As soon as the Spaniards left their recently acquired domain, they started to harass their Indian allies, calling them enemies and rebels (we are unaware of the reasons for that behavior). After the Spaniards devastated the settlements on the outskirts of Sakalum (on the border with Tayasal), Father Delgado refused to continue with the posse. Accompanied by 80 Christian Indians from the border village of Tipuj and 10 Spanish soldiers, he was the first one to reach the shores of Petén Itzá in December 1624. A small 26-strong troop of Mayan warriors was expecting them — they had long been following the aliens. The monk and his companions were invited to get into boats and cross to Nojpetén. What followed was something that Delgado had never expected. All of the Christians were captured and sacrificed to the Mayan gods. The obsidian knife of a Mayan priest cut open the priest’s chest, and the palpitating heart of the Spaniard became a symbol that there was no turning back — the enemies had to be eliminated.
The news of the Spanish priest’s martyrdom was delivered to Captain Mirones by two Christian Indians who had managed to escape from the Itzá. Soon afterwards, on January 27, 1624, warriors from Nojpetén, led by the AjKʼin (high priest) named Pʼol, benefited from the perfect moment for a decisive attack on Sakalum — they caught the Spanish soldiers off guard and unarmed in the church. Mirones and the local priest were sacrificed right on the church altar, the soldiers were hanged and beheaded, and their corpses were impaled on stakes and burned. Many local Christian Indians were also hanged. Soon Pʼol’s scouts reported the approach of a Spanish unit led by Juan Bernardo Casanova. As they retreated, Itzás took all the weapons and burned the town.
Following these massacres, Spanish garrisons were stationed in several towns in southern Yucatán, and significant rewards were offered for captured attackers. One of the allied Mayan chiefs named Fernando Kamal led 150 Christian warriors to track the retreating enemy. They were able to capture high priest Pʼol, together with silverware from the looted Sakalum church. The prisoners were taken to Merida, tortured and tried. They were then decapitated and their heads were displayed in the plazas of the cities of colonial Yucatán. Nevertheless, the attempt to conquer Tayasal failed.
The remote location, prudent strategy of their rulers and courage of their warriors enabled the Maya-Itzá kingdom and its dependent lands to maintain their cultural, religious and political independence even 78 years after the other Indian states of Yucatán, Guatemala and Mexico were subdued by the conquerors. The last free Maya were left all alone to offer resistance to the invaders.
To be continued
- Grant D. Jones, The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom, 1998, ISBN: 9780804735223;
- Reina, Ruben E. (1966). «A Peninsula That May Have Been an Island: Tayasal, Peten, Guatemala», USA: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, ISSN 0014-4738;
- Rice, Prudence M. (2009a). «The Kowoj in Geopolitical-Ritual Perspective». ISBN 978-0-87081-930-8. OCLC 225875268;
- Rice, Prudence M.; Rice, Don S. (2009). «Introduction to the Kowoj and their Petén Neighbors». In Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice (eds.). The Kowoj: identity, migration, and geopolitics in late postclassic Petén, Guatemala. Boulder, Colorado, US: University Press of Colorado. pp. 3–15. ISBN 978-0-87081-930-8. OCLC 225875268;