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Conquest of Tayasal

An account of the elimination of resistance by the Itzas in Guatemala to Spanish rule.  The time line:  Tenochtitlan fell on August 13, 1521; the conquest of the Maya Itza took another 175 years.  Of the two, the Nahuas and the Mayas, the Mayas to this day continue as the more persistent and culturally resilient.



The Expedition from Guatemala Reaches Cahabon. It will be remembered that Fray Alonso Cano, the Augustine friar who had accompanied the first, and unsuccessful, entrada from Guatemala, had returned to that city in the autumn of 1695. He remained there until December of that same year, when he set out once more for the north, reaching Cahabon in January, 1696. There Cano and his companions awaited the arrival of Doctor Don Bartholomé de Amezquita, who, in his capacity of Oidor and Alcalde Ordinario of the Audiencia of Guatemala, was to lead the expedition. Amezquita arrived early in February, and with him came Captain Juan Diaz de Velasco. They found Cahabon in a bad condition on account of the lack of preparations and because of the heavy rains.

Preliminary Movements and Plans. In order to appease the zeal of those who were urging that the expedition proceed with all speed, it was decided that Captain Diaz de Velasco should go ahead of the main body of troops. He took with him seventy soldiers and thirty Indians; Cano went with him. Guided by the Itza named Cuixam or Cuixan, Diaz de Velasco set forth from Mopan (whither the force had moved) on March 7. It was arranged that, from a place called Yxbol, near Tayasal, Cuixam was to be sent on to ascertain Canek’s attitude, and that the Captain, Diaz de Velasco, and his men were to wait for him. On the tenth of March, Amezquita and Cano left Mopan. They kept receiving letters and messages from those ahead until they reached the Chacal River, where all traces of their vanguard completely vanished.

The Fate of Diaz de Velasco; Amezquita Follows him. The reason for this cessation of communication was briefly as follows: Captain Diaz de Velasco sent Cuixam ahead, as had been planned, to Tayasal. Cuixam reported that two Franciscans were on the island. The Captain would not believe this. Still, he was so bold as to embark in a canoe rowed by natives, who, as soon as the vessel was clear of the shore, began a sharp struggle which resulted in the death of all the Spaniards in the party. In due course Amezquita followed in the footsteps of the ill-fated Captain. On arriving at the shores of the lake he learned the fate that had befallen Diaz de Velasco. Seeing that there was nothing he could do with so small a force as that which he had at his disposal, Amezquita withdrew to Chacal, and later on, by the order of Don Gabriel Sanchez de Berrospe, the new President of the Audiencia of Guatemala, he withdrew to Guatemala City.

Conclusion of the Subjection of the Itzas Begun. After the series of events which we have just studied came to an end there was, for a time, a lull in the war. Our knowledge of the incidents which followed the break is derived from Villagutierre y Sotomayor. (Lib. v, caps. 7, 8, etc.) According to this authority, events occurred in the following order.

Parades is Ordered to March to Los Dolores. Ursua determined to bring matters to a satisfactory conclusion by means of another expedition into the Itza country. Accordingly he sent his orders to Alonso Garcia de Paredes, who, with the soldiers of that unsuccessful expedition on which Avendaño had gone, was still in Tzucthok. In substance Paredes was ordered to go and place himself and his men under the orders of the President of Guatemala or his successor. To this end he was to go south from Tzucthok, and always “trying to incline his route a little toward the left hand, or towards the east, was to place himself in sight of the town of Lacandones, which the President had discovered and named Nuestra Señora de los Dolores.” Paredes was to fortify himself there about five leagues from the town of Lacandon, and he was to stay there without molesting the surrounding settlements. From the time of receiving these instructions to the time when he built his stockaded redoubt he was to take especial care to inform himself concerning the people round about, and especially those along the road which was being built. On arriving in the neighborhood of Lacandon and after the founding of the redoubt, Paredes was to go to the President so as to hand over to him the various letters that he bore and so as to place himself under his orders. Thereafter, if circumstances permitted, he was to go as soon as possible to the Itzas, together with a suitable number of Padres and soldiers. He; was ordered to subject and catechize the natives.

Paredes appointed as officers Don Joseph de Estenoz, Pedro de Zuviaur, Joseph Laynez, and Mateo Hidalgo, who had been picked out by Ursua for their various posts. From this point on we have the account of Avendaño to rely upon until after the Padre’s withdrawal to Merida. An uprising on the part of the Cacique Covoh, as we know, was the immediate cause of the retirement. It did not have, however, a permanently discouraging effect.

Canek’s Ambassador, Can, Arrives at Merida. In the last third of December, 1695, while Avendaño was still in the wilderness, an ambassador named Can arrived at Merida from Canek. He was accompanied by three kinsmen of his, together with some Muzules Indians. Ursua himself came out to meet him with a great following. The parties met at the convent of the Mejorada; thence the embassy was taken to the cathedral and to the palace. Can then said that his uncle, Canek, asked for Padres so that Christianity might be introduced among the Itzas. A suitable reply was given, and the ambassador was baptized. (Villagutierre, lib. vi, caps. 3-5.) Can told Ursua that his uncle, Canek, had four Kings under him who were his vassals. They were Citcan, Ahamatan, Ahkin, and Ahitcan, as well as Ahatsi. Can was baptized Martin Francisco Can and his brother Miguel Can. Finally, after many ceremonies and solemn masses, Ursua sent them home with much good feeling. An escort headed by Captain Francisco de Hariza or Ariza of Bacalar set forth for the Itzas. Ursua sent word of all these developments to Paredes, ordering him, as well as Hariza, to do all that was necessary for the winning or conquering of Canek and his vassals.

Meanwhile the new President of Guatemala, Escals, was taking all possible precautions for the furtherance of the design. His division of the expedition, of which Fray Agustín Cano was a part, left Guatemala in January, 1696. There is no need to tell again what happened, as Cano has already told us all up to a certain point.

Zuviaur Goes to the Lake. The early weeks of 1696, then, were spent by Avendaño and the men of Yucatan in Peten and in the wilderness between it and Tipu, to which the Padres were enabled to flee by Canek, who knew well the plots that were being hatched against them by Covoh and by Canek’s wife.

Shortly after Avendaño reached Merida and made his report, Ursua dispatched Captain Don Pedro de Zuviaur with seventy men, enough Indians, and Padre Juan San Buenaventura to the lake by way of the route so lately followed by Avendaño. The Itzas received them armed for war. Padre San Buenaventura, however, partly calmed them by smooth words; fighting did not, however, entirely cease, and before long Zuviaur returned to the royal camp. At about the same time an Indian messenger arrived from Hariza, who was in the neighborhood of Tipu, with the information that the Franciscans who were administering the villages along the road were meeting with a fair measure of success, and that the Itzas were the only remaining obstacle to the completion of the undertaking. Hourly they became more threatening and more dangerous. Several skirmishes took place between them and the men of Paredes. Finally, forced by lack of supplies, Paredes withdrew with all his men into the province.

Ursua Determines to Take Vigorous Measures. Clearly enough, in Ursua’s opinion, things were far from being in a satisfactory condition. He made up his mind that a stop must be put to the menace of the Itzas at all costs, and he determined to go in person upon this definitive expedition. He made especially elaborate and adequate preparations, doing things which should have been done long before. He assembled a sufficient number of carpenters to build brigantines and pyraguas on the shore of the lake, and he got together ample stores. Nothing was said of all this to the King of Castile, as it was notorious that he would have frowned upon such military preparations.

Lawsuits between Soberanis and Ursua. At this time the old enmity between Soberanis and Ursua reawakened. Soberanis was at the viceregal court, where, during the reign of the Conde de Galve, he opposed Ursua’s interests and plans with some success. Galve was succeeded, however, by Don Juan de Ortega Montañes, Bishop of Michoacan, who was appointed Viceroy ad interim of Mexico. Ortega, being a broad-minded man, could see the good of the wishes of both sides, and he determined that the whole matter should be laid before the Council of the Indies. The result was a long lawsuit, during which it became clear that Soberanis wished for more territory for his King, while Ursua wanted more vassals. A series of lawsuits, stained by false charges, perjury, and petty recriminations (mostly on the part of Soberanis and his party), followed. It is a matter which is very involved and for us unimportant, as it did not alter the current of events in the region of Tayasal.

Captain Parades at Tzucthok. While these lawsuits were dragging on, Captain Alonso Garcia de Paredes arrived at the bank of the large river (Nohukum?). After building a pyragua he and twenty men embarked on it and went up the river to its source, where they captured ten canoes. Soon after they returned to Tzucthok on account of the rainy season.

Captain Hariza at Tipu. Meanwhile Can, with Captain Francisco de Hariza and an escort of thirty soldiers, had returned to Tipu from Merida. At the former place they learned how Paredes had sent soldiers to the lake under Zuviaur, how some had been taken prisoners there and put to death, and how the Gran Cayo and its islands were devastated because the Indians had wished to kill their King Canek on account of his friendly attitude toward the Spaniards. In the trial of one Pablo Gil of Salamanca, who at this time was accused of conspiracy, it came out that this revolution at Peten had occurred soon after the departure of Can for Merida. The zamaguales or common people were incensed with Canek because he had sent his nephew to Yucatan. When Can returned to Peten he found that his uncle was still in power but not entirely secure. Can was unable to return to his own village eight leagues away because it was subject to Cintanek, who was at war with Canek.

The Cacique Cintanek’s Villages. The five villages of Cintanek were Chaltuna, Sac peten, Maconche, Saca, and Coba. The nine villages subject, at this time, to Canek were Oraptun, Zacpui, Chee, Chacha, Sacfinil, Linil, Oboncox, Chulul, and Eckixil. (Cf. Villagutierre, p. 435.) The people in these villages were very numerous; they knew nothing of the Kingdom of Guatemala beyond the fact that some five leagues away was a place called Mopan.

Can’s Report. The Indians, Can and others, related how fifteen Spanish men came to the Indians of the Gran Cayo and asked for provisions, which were brought to them. (These Spaniards were, no doubt, a party sent out by Paredes just before he withdrew.) Even as they were eating, musket shots were heard on the shore. At once those who were eating on the island judged their companions were in danger and hastily armed themselves. A fight quickly took place, and the Spaniards even attacked the person of Canek himself. At length, however, the Spaniards fled.

The Commands of King Charles II. At last the letters and reports which, at the insistence of Ortega Montañes, the Viceroy Bishop, had been sent to the court of Spain earlier in the year, bore fruit, for the King sent new dispatches ordering Don Martin thus: acknowledgment was made of the good work done by Sargento Mayor, Don Martin de Ursua y Arizmendi, as well as of that done by Captain Alonso Garcia de Paredes, Captain Joseph Fernandez de Estenoz, and others. Don Roque de Soberanis y Centeno was ordered to give all possible assistance to Ursua and to refrain from hindering him in any way. The cedulas were signed at Buen Retiro on May 29, 1696. These dispatches, together with a commendatory letter from the Conde de Adanero, President of the Council of the Indies, arrived in Yucatan late in 1696. Fortunately Ursua had already made all his preparations for the next campaign. Don Martin sent copies of the cedulas and letter to the newly arrived Viceroy of Mexico, the Conde de Moctezuma, to the Audience of Guatemala, and to the Reverendissimo Don Fray Antonio de Arriaga, Bishop of Yucatan.

Before setting out there was one more formality to go through. Ursua therefore sent the orders of the King to Don Roque, asking him at the same time for certain aid. (Villagutierre, lib. viii, cap. 2.) Straightway Don Roque sent Don Juan Geronimo de Abad to Campeche to inform Ursua that Soberanis would give him all necessary aid for the fulfilment of the royal will. He also ordered Ursua to pick out those persons whom he thought ought to be captains, and Don Roque promised to confirm the appointments.

Soberanis and Ursua in Agreement at Last. Abad executed his errand and Don Martin replied that only the very numerous infidel Indians of the Laguna del Itza stood between him and the successful completion of the road, which was already open on the north almost as far as the lake and on the south as far as Cahabon. The intervening region contained the Itzas, whom Ursua purposed to conquer. He had already chosen as captains Alonso Garcia de Paredes, Joseph Fernandez de Estenoz, Pedro de Zuviaur, and Roque Gutierrez. At the same time Don Martin informed Abad that he had prepared all sorts of supplies and munitions, and he begged Don Roque de Soberanis to furnish him with advice as to the proper payment for various things. Don Roque approved of everything that Don Martin proposed, and he ordered that Abad, together with a scrivener and an interpreter, should see to the proper financial arrangements.

The Part to be Taken by Indian Villages. Ursua then asked that the mountain villages of Tecax and Oxcuscab should be made to supply service Indians. These, if granted, were to be under the orders of the captain of Tecax; but Soberanis pointed out that those villages had already done their share, and so he ordered that the Caciques of Zotuta, Yaxcava, Tixcacal, and Peto should furnish the needed labor. The part each was to take was as follows:

16 mules;
16 arrieros;
16 other Indians
12   ”
12    ”
12   ”       ”
12   ”
12    ”
12   ”       ”
20   ”
20    ”
20   ”       ”
All these Indians were to be in charge of Don Juan del Castillo, captain of Tecax. Indians from Mani were to carry the supplies.

On January 23, 1697, Don Martin de Ursua set forth from Campeche after giving thanks for aid received. On arriving at Tzucthok they took the same road as on previous occasions. They camped at length two leagues from the lake, having passed through Batcab. On the way south they learned that the cacique of Tzucthok and some of the Indians of that village had retired to such places as Apelchen, Bolonchen, Chabuhic, and Sacauchen. Some of the Chanes, however, remained faithful, for which Ursua rewarded them with presents. At about this time also, although Ursua probably did not know of it, Berrospe had ordered the troops of Guatemala to withdraw definitely from Mopan and other places.

The Road Completed as Far as the Lake. At the end of February and in early March the two leagues of road between the camp and the lake were completed. Pyraguas had already been built and were finished by the time the army encamped on the lake shore. Seeing such a display of power, the Indians tried to rival it, but when they saw the galley and pyraguas they retired to their island. There were sundry attempts to make friends with the Indians, but they showed themselves utterly undeserving of confidence. On March 10, 1697, Don Martin Can, he who had gone to Merida as ambassador for his uncle Canek and who was godson of Ursua, hearing of the latter’s arrival, came to him joyfully. As a result of this the murmurs to the effect that he was a myth entirely vanished.

Some squads of Indians approached the camp by land with arms. The general soon saw it was but a pugnacious attempt to force the Spaniards into a skirmish. At the same moment a large canoe beached on the shore where the camp was. Can said that those in it were Chamaxculu and other important Indians from Alain. They were received with all possible cordiality, and some of the Indians were found to be those who had been in Merida with Can. Chamaxculu was an old man of seventy years.

Quincanek Feigns Friendliness. Very soon after that Quincanek visited the camp. He was cordially welcomed and in conversation he promised to aid the opening of the road. Ursua discreetly decided it would be superfluous to make any allusion at that time to the idolatry, treachery, and other foibles of the Itzas. Everything seemed serene and amicable. The chiefs promised to return for dinner later.

They remained where they were from March 10 to 12, 1697. During those three days many Indian women came in canoes and unattended from Peten to the camp. Whether their purpose was to get themselves violated and thereby furnish an excuse to the lurking squads of Indians to attack the Spaniards, or whether they were led by mere curiosity, is not absolutely certain; but it is probable that the former was the case, for when, through good discipline, Ursua managed to restrain his men, the women made all sorts of obscene gestures to attract the soldiers, but to no purpose.

The Hostilities Begin. Finally the day arrived on which, according to his promise, Quincanek, was to bring Canek to dinner with Ursua. But instead of a peaceful Canek and Quincanek coming to have dinner with them, the Spaniards saw a huge fleet of canoes all decked out in warlike array approaching them. This, however, did not greatly dismay the Spaniards, as they knew that their own galley and pyraguas, which were all in readiness, would give them an immense advantage.

The Captains Urge Ursua to Fight; the Battle. Ursua called a council of war in which Paredes, Estenoz, Zuviaur, and all the other captains urged him to use force and thereby to conquer the Itzas finally. Ursua was still determined, however, to maintain peace as long as possible, being mindful of the King’s wish.

On the following day, March 13, 1697, Ursua determined to go to the Peten Grande, which lay two leagues from his camp. Leaving a good garrison in the camp, he took two hundred men and Don Martin Can in the boats and sailed for Peten. Before long the Spaniards, who were under the strictest orders not to fire, were surrounded by a large fleet of canoes filled with Itzas, who shot arrows at the invaders. As one would naturally expect, all attempts to reason with the outraged Itzas proved futile. Finally one Bartolomé Duran, maddened by an arrow wound, fired off his gun. This precipitated a hot skirmish in which everyone took part. At the end of it the Spaniards got upon the shore, and by means of the artillery at length put the Itzas to flight. The latter fled away as fast as they could by swimming, and when in due time Ursua and his men got to Peten Grande, they found nothing but old women and little children there. All who could had fled into and across the lake rather than face the vengeance of the Spaniards.

Tayasal Becomes a Spanish Possession. The battle was over by eight in the morning. The standard of Jesus Christ was set up; the royal arms were engraved over the door of what had been the principal temple; and thanks were given to God for the victory. A church was founded and the houses of the idols were cleaned out. Oddly enough the temple where Canek and his idolatrous priests had once torn out human hearts was chosen as the Christians’ place of worship.

Thus ends the history of the long, brave but fruitless struggle of the Itzas against the Spanish conquerors. After so many romantic interests it is but natural that any account of subsequent events should be an anti-climax. The later history of the Itza country can be dismissed in a word.

Later History of Tayasal. Since the conquest, Tayasal has been a mere Spanish provincial village with nothing to distinguish it from scores of others. In the first half of the nineteenth century serious insurrections took place in the region. At about the same period the name Tayasal was taken away and Flores was substituted, in honor of one Cyrilo Flores, a local patriot. It is a pity that the old, unusual, and euphonious name was not kept. At present Flores (Pl. III) is the capital of the Department of Peten, Guatemala.


Source: Indian Notes and Monographs, edited by F. W. Hodge, Vol. IX No. 3, A Series of Publications Relating to the American Aborigines.  Reports on the Maya Indians of Yucatan.  New York, Museum of American Indian Heye Foundation (1921).


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The Orly

As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.