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Spanish conquest of Yucatán

The Spanish Conquest of Yucatán was a long and involved process taking some 170 years to complete. The Maya had no single leader (like the Inca of Peru), but instead lived in numerous independent states, some of which fiercely resisted foreign domination. Also, the land had no gold or silver except for small amounts acquired by trade, so many early Spanish Conquistadores were attracted instead to central Mexico or Peru, which seemed to offer quicker and easier riches.

Early Contact between the Spanish and the Maya of Yucatán

The first Spanish arrived in Yucatán by accident in 1511 when a small boat with a dozen men was blown there by a severe storm. They were taken captive and several were killed, and the rest impressed as slaves, but after learning the language they were given their freedom. They unknowingly brought an epidemic disease, probably smallpox, to the region, which killed a great many people in waves for the next 5 years.

The next contact was not until 1517 when Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba sailed out from Cuba 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. Cordoba landed at several towns; some greeted the Spanish with friendship and offered to trade goods with them (most interesting to the Spaniards they acquired a few pieces of gold ornaments this way), while other towns greeted him with hostility and shot arrows when the Spanish approached close to shore. The expedition returned to Cuba to report on the discovery of this new land. Diego de Velasquez, the governor of Cuba, ordered an expedition sent out with four ships and 200 men led by his nephew, Juan de Grijalva. The Grijalva expedition had similar mixed experiences with the native Maya as it sailed along the coasts of Yucatán for months. 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 Hernan Cortes expedition in 1519. Cortes spent some time at 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 white men, the survivors of the shipwrecked boat from 1511. One, Geronimo de Aguilar, joined Cortes's expedition as a valued translator. Another, Gonzalo de Guerrero, sent a letter back stating that he was happy in the employ of the lord of Chetumal, had a Maya wife and children, and had no desire to return to the company of Spaniards.

First Spanish Attempt at Conquest

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 Cortes 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 peacably, 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. Despite killing over 1,200 Maya in battle at Chauca the natives would not surrender, and Montejo returned to the coast under constant harassment. 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 Spanish Attempt at Conquest

Montejo returned in 1531 with a force that conquered the Maya port city of Campeche. 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 de Guerrero, the 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 control of the Maya.

Third (Successful) Spanish Invasion

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 continued throughout the Spanish colonial era.

The Peten Itza

The Itza Maya of the Peten 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 Peten. 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 Cortes 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 Merida 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 Peten 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 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 Peten the following year, but were beaten back by fierce Itza attacks. The command in Merida decided that a major force was needed, and in 1697 sent out a force of 235 Spanish soldiers and as many Maya allies, with horses, artillery, and a large supply train with mules and men to cut a path through the jungle. They set up a fort on the shore of Lake Peten 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 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. Thus ended the last independent native state of Mesoamerica.

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