The First Spaniards in Yucatan. Although Fernando Cortes was the first Spaniard to penetrate the region occupied by the Itzas, he was not, of course, the first of his race to become acquainted with Yucatan and its inhabitants. It will be remembered that Columbus received a hint of the existence of Yucatan from some Indian traders at the Isla de Guanajo (Isla de Piños) in the year 1502. Although he failed to find it, we may say that from July, 1502, Yucatan was known to the Spaniards. The first Spaniards who actually coasted the shore of Yucatan were Juan Diaz de Solis and Vicente Yañez Pinzon, in the year 1506.
In 1511 or 1512 Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, whose expedition was in Darien, found it necessary to send to Hispaniola for supplies. He chose a certain Valdivia for the errand, intrusted him with a caravel, and sent him off. Valdivia was shipwrecked on Las Viboras, a reef near Jamaica, and only about twenty of his men escaped. They were all captured by some Indians from Yucatan, who sacrificed all except Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. The latter of these learned the language and went to Chectemal, where he married an Indian woman and became a member of the tribe.
Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, 1517. All the Spaniards mentioned thus far are connected only very remotely with our subject. In 1517, however, under the auspices of Diego Velazquez, Governor of Cuba, an expedition was fitted out under the command of Don Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. As this and one other expedition immediately preceded the entrada of Cortes, and as they both came in contact with members of the Maya race, it is well that a short account of the expeditions of Cordoba and of Grijalva should be given.
Cordoba, with three ships provided by himself. Lope Ochoa de Caicedo, and Cristoval Morante, left Cuba on February 8, 1517. The avowed purpose of the expedition was to capture slaves for the Cuban market, and although it was directly against the royal will, Velazquez himself was interested in the project. After a sail of twenty-one days the three ships sighted a large town some two leagues from shore. This spot was named Cape Catoche by the Spaniards. A brisk fight took place there between the natives and the white men, in which the latter were the victors. Many Indian towns and settlements were seen as the Spaniards went along the shore toward the west. Everywhere the Indians crowded out of their houses, temples, and idol houses to see the newcomers. At length the town of Champoton was reached. There, it will be remembered, the Itzas had lived for many years. However demoralized the Maya race may have become elsewhere, here at least it was vigorous enough, for the Indians of Champoton or Potonchan inflicted a great defeat on the Spaniards. The party went back to Cuba very shortly, and Cordoba reported to Velazquez as to what had been found.
Juan de Grijalva and Others, 1518. In the spring of 1518 Velazquez caused another expedition to be fitted out. Juan de Grijalva was to be the commodore, and Alonso de Avila, Francisco de Montejo, and Pedro de Albarado were each to have command of a ship. From our point of view the most important thing this expedition did was to visit the island of Cozumel. They also visited las Mugers which takes its name from the female idols found there by the Spaniards. This party also touched at Champoton and even went as far as San Juan de Ulloa and the Rio Panuco.
Cortes in Mexico, 1519. The next year, 1519, witnessed the setting out of Fernando or Hernando or Hernan Cortes. His achievements in Mexico in the years 1519-1524 in nowise concern us. In the latter year, however, he inaugurated the bold project of reaching Honduras by land from Mexico. As an inevitable result of this plan he entered the territory of the Itzas. Villagutierre’s account (lib. i, caps. 7, 8) of this expedition is so complete that it is best for us to quote it in full. The reader is urged to study Plate VI in order to learn the routes followed by Cortes and others.
Villagutierre’s Account of the Entrada of Cortes, 1524-1525. “The Itzalana nation, having reached its place of retirement, was now fortified in those Islands and Lakes which they occupied in the midst of many other barbarous forest nations, for none of the rest was as powerful as they…. After much fighting, Don Fernando Cortes had, by force of arms and with many brilliant deeds, captured the Great City of Mexico, Capital of the Northern American Empire. Also he had subjugated many other regions, nearly all of New Spain, by 1521.
“In 1524, being desirous of settling Hibueras or Honduras, which is a very good land, albeit far from Mexico, he [Cortes] had armed five ships and a brigantine, all well provided with every sort of equipment. In these he sent off four hundred Spaniards and thirty horses under the charge of Christoval de Olid, who had orders to take on at Havana as many more troops as were ready to go. Afterwards they were all to go and settle on the coast of Honduras, which was the purpose of the voyage. But Christoval de Olid rose in rebellion with the ships and soldiers. At length he arrived in Honduras, having taken prisoner Gil Gonzalez de Avila. When all this was learned by Don Fernando Cortes he sent Francisco de las Casas with two ships and some soldiers against the rebel. Him also did Christoval de Olid take prisoner. Afterwards occurred the great revolts, quarrels and murders which the historians relate, but which I will not repeat.”
Cortes Starts for Honduras. “Don Fernando Cortes was greatly enraged that Christoval de Olid, his old friend, should thus have risen up against him, causing so much ruin. So he determined to go in person to punish Olid. Nor did the thought of the great loss his absence would be to Mexico suffice to dissuade him….
“No arguments in the least changed his decision. He assembled all the Spaniards he could; there were more than four hundred infantry and cavalry, besides much artillery and baggage. In addition, there were between three and four thousand Indian warriors from Mexico, among whom were King Quatemoz, the successor of the great Motezuma,… and the Lords of Tacuba and Tezcuco, cities on the Lake of Mexico, and other Mexican Lords. With these, Cortes took his march by land, and through regions so rough and impenetrable that they had never been pressed by human feet. They forced their way through the forests, opening paths and building very large bridges of wood so disproportionately thick that some of them are still standing today and are called ‘Bridges of Cortes.’ Cortes and his followers suffered hunger, bruises, illnesses, hard roads, worse lodgings, and other insupportable trials, so that to tell them all entire books would be needed.”
Cortes Arrives at Izancanac. “Don Fernando Cortes and those who were with him arrived at the city of Izancanac in the Province of Acalan. There was discovered the plot which King Quatemoz, the Lord of Tacuba, and other Mexican chiefs had made between themselves to attack the Spaniards while they were crossing some river or marsh. When all the Spaniards were killed, the Mexicans planned to recover their dominions, breaking forth from their captivity. Having held a trial (although some say he did not do so) Cortes gave orders that Quatemoz should be hanged, together with the Lord of Tacuba, his cousin, and other principal Mexicans. Eight, it is said, were hung….”
Description of a Large Town. “When these events had been completed, and while the army was marching forward over bad roads, they came upon a pueblo very large and new, in which the houses had been but recently completed. The place was surrounded with very thick stockades of logs and of very sturdy planks. Before the entrance were deep trenches. This wall encircled the town in two rings, both very high. One was like a barbican, having towers and loopholes for the archers. In another place, but near the town, on some lofty rocks, were their watch-towers of stone, worked by hand and provided with adequate railings. On another side was a deep marsh, and all these things served to make the pueblo a great fortress.
“The Spaniards entered the town without hindrance and found it deserted and lonely. The Indians, its inhabitants, receiving news that the Spaniards were coming, had withdrawn to some large marshes some distance from the pueblo. On inspecting the town and entering the houses our men found in all and each one of them a great quantity of turkeys all prepared and dressed for eating by those Indians. Besides these things they also found much corn-bread and other supplies such as drinks, and a dish made of meat mixed with corn-bread called by those Indians tamales. They were all amazed at seeing such a novelty, and they were, at the same time, delighted to see so much good food, as they had suffered so much from hunger and lack of nourishment.”
The Spaniards Suspect Treachery. “All this set them to thinking, because it was such a new state of affairs, and they were puzzled to know the plans of the Indians of that town, as much because of the novelty of the situation as because they found in the middle of the village a house full of lances, bows, arrows, macanas, and other arms used by those Indians in their wars. And going out to see if any troops were to be found outside of the village, they found no one, nor was there, in the milpas or farms, a single grain of maize or any other vegetable; so that the Spaniards were all the more confounded, and they marveled, asking one another what it could mean.
“While the Spaniards were in this suspense, fifteen Indians came from outside the town who, as it was learned afterward, were very important men; and when they arrived they went into the presence of Don Fernando Cortes. Placing their hands upon the ground, and kissing the earth with great humility, and half weeping, they begged Cortes to favor them by not burning their village, for they had come there but recently to fortify themselves against some other Indians called Lacandones, who were their enemies. These had been making a cruel war upon them, killing many men and leveling and burning their villages, which they had formerly had on the plains, as the Spaniards would see for themselves….”
“Don Fernando Cortes assured them by means of the Indian, Doña Marina (whom he had had with him ever since he entered Tabasco), that no harm should be done them, nor would he permit any of his men to misuse anything which was theirs. Thereupon the Indians recovered their upright position, and then Don Fernando Cortes asked, with great curiosity, why so many turkeys and fowls and all sorts of food had been prepared for his coming.”
The Indians Explain why their Town was Deserted. “The Indians replied promptly that it was because they had been expecting their mortal enemies, the Lacandones, who were coming to attack them. If the Lacandones won in battle, they knew that all their property and fowls would be taken away. If the outcome was of that sort, they did not want their enemies to enjoy and avail themselves of their goods, so they had intended to eat them themselves. For if they should conquer the Lacandones in battle, they would go to their villages and take away all that they had, so that they would feel no lack of what they had already eaten in their own houses.”
Cortes Takes Leave of them in a Friendly Spirit. “Don Fernando Cortes said to them that he was much grieved by their wars and quarrels, and that, because he was forced to continue his journey, he could not stop, nor could he aid them and defend them against those enemies of theirs. But, he added, had the situation been otherwise, he would have done so, and they would see, what they could not well imagine, how he would leave the Lacandones well punished and these Indians in peace and security in their houses.”
“With these affectionate speeches, and seeing that no harm was done to them, those Indians were greatly contented. They gave thanks, after their fashion, to Cortes and his men, and at the same time, they gave him guides so that he might proceed with his army, which he did. Other large pueblos were encountered which, like this one from which they started out, they called the Mazotecas. This is the same as Villages of Deer, and the name was given because of the large numbers there are in that level country whence they set out.”
The Deer Hunt. “The deer ran away so little and were so free from fright at the men that our soldiers on horseback were able to come up with them and kill them as they wished. In this way the men killed many of them and ate them for some days after. The Indian guides, who were showing the Spaniards everything and all those villages of their people which had been burned and razed, on being asked why it was that having so many deer at hand, they permitted them to be so tame. The Indians replied that in their villages they held the deer to be gods, for their greatest idol had appeared to them in that form and commanded them not to kill the deer, nor frighten them. They had executed this command, and as a result the deer were not easily scared, nor did they flee from the soldiers, and they were very numerous….”
“Cortes and his men set forth from these villages of the Mazotecas and from the province of Acalan (which in after years, during the conquest of the Kingdom of Yucatan, was subjected by Captain Francisco de Tamayo Pacheco, who had come out in quest of it from the City of Merida)….”
The Army of Cortes Proceeds on its Way. “Once more the army of Cortes went forward through rough and broken country. As always, he sent camp-scouts ahead on horseback and single soldiers afoot; these encountered two Indians from another village further on, who were out hunting and were carrying a large lion [puma, jaguar?] as well as a great quantity of iguanas, which are a kind of small serpent and very good to eat. These Indians led them [the army] to their village, and from there the army took its road towards the mountains, asking all whom they met whether they had seen bearded men like them, for they were seeking them. Some of the Indians who were questioned replied, saying: That those of whom they spoke were ahead, and were journeying in the same direction….”
The Lake. “When the army left the place where it had spent the night, and while it was mounting the slope of the mountains, but a short time had elapsed when those in the vanguard began to catch glimpses of great Laguna, in the middle of which was an island with a large town, which, as was afterwards learned, was the chief place of that whole Province of Itza. [These were the people who had withdrawn one hundred years before from Yucatan, as has been said.] And it was possible to enter this town only by means of boats.”
They Capture an Indian. “The camp-scouts had by now reached the shore of the Lake itself, and they brought to Cortes an Indian whom one Pedro de Ayuda, one of the explorers, had taken from a canoe. Then Cortes asked this captured Indian (as he did to all the rest) whether or not the Spaniards or Bearded Men, like him and his men, had been through that region or were still in it, as he had been given to understand was the case.
“The Indian replied that in that town nothing was known of such men as they. He added, that if they wished to go to the town, there were some cultivated fields near the largest arm of the Lake where they could take many boats from the laborers who were tilling their fields, and he offered to lead them thither if it pleased them that he should do so.
“Don Fernando Cortes, with twelve crossbowmen, followed this Indian on foot by a very bad path which, after passing for a long distance through swamps with mud up to the knee, at length led to the water. And because the party had delayed a long time in reaching the farms, on account of the badness of the path, it was discovered by the laborers, who, judging that harm was intended, fled into their canoes and made for the island in the Lake, rowing as hard as possible.
“The army encamped in the farms on the shore of the Lake and fortified itself very well, because that Indian guide had told Cortes that the Itzas were a people well skilled in war and that they were feared by the whole region. And also this Indian told the Spaniards that if they would let him go he would cross to the city in his canoe and would speak to Canek, Lord of those Lands of the Itzas, and would tell him of their intention, and of their arrival.”
The Indian is Sent to Tayasal. “Cortes acceded to this request, and gave orders that he should be set free. At midnight the Indian returned to the army. As it was two leagues from mainland to the Island or Peten (as they called it), he could not return earlier. He brought with him two chiefs of that City who came to visit Cortes by order of Canek, who had told them to see on his behalf the Captain General of that army and learn from his lips what it was he wished.”
Some Indians Come to Cortes from Tayasal. “Don Fernando Cortes gave these personages some Spanish soldiers as hostages, so that the Canek or Lord might be able to come to the Royal camp. And after Cortes had treated them with so much courtesy, kindness, and graciousness that those Indians were delighted with him, as well as with the Spaniards’ beards, clothes, arms, and horses, he took leave of them and they went away. And on the following day Canek came to the camp with thirty-two chiefs and many Zamaguales or common people, who came in their canoes, bringing with them the Spanish hostages and without showing any signs of fear or of hostility.”
Canek himself Comes and is Courteously Received. “Don Fernando Cortes received Canek with much love and urbanity. After saluting one another, and speaking by means of interpreters, Cortes, to honor him and to show Canek how the Christians adored their God, had a mass sung with all solemnity to the sound of the reed instruments, sackbuts, or flageolets which he had with him, and he had out his best table ornaments, so as to treat Canek with great majesty.”
Canek Hears Mass and Promises to Put away his Idols. “Canek listened to the mass with great attention and took good notice of the Ceremonies, decorations, and the altar-service, and he derived much pleasure from what was shown him. He praised highly the music, saying that such a thing had never been heard before, and those who were with him were astonished and fascinated at seeing and hearing it.
“And when the religious and clerics had finished the divine office, they preached to Canek, urging him to put away his idols and see how good was the Law of God…. They told Canek that his idols were but pieces of stone or old wood harboring demons and that he was deceived in them and that all who believed in them would lose their souls and would be carried to the Infernal regions.
“Canek replied that he would willingly leave his Idols and that he wished to know the manner in which they venerated the True God of whom they told him and whom they declared unto him, and he asked for a cross in order to place it in his village. Don Fernando Cortes told him that soon it would be given to him, as it had been done in the other pueblos through which they had passed. The Padres said the same and added that as soon as possible men should be sent to him to instruct him and all his vassals in the Faith of Christ our Lord, for at present it could not be done, as many important things were pressing….
“Don Fernando Cortes made to Canek a very full and eloquent speech about the Emperor Charles V and his many dominions and his great sovereign power; Cortes begged Canek and urged him with affectionate arguments to be the vassal of the Emperor, as were already the Lords of the great Kingdom of Mexico and many others. Canek replied, saying that he thus gave himself up; for, many years before, men of Tabasco, when passing through his lands into the wilderness, had told him that certain Strangers had arrived at their villages and that they fought much and well, for they had conquered the Tabascans in three battles.
“And Cortes told Canek that he himself was the Captain of those of whom the Tabascans spoke, and that he had conquered them and subjected them to his will. Thereupon the conversation came to a close and they all sat down to eat with much ostentatious magnificence. And it was suitable that it should be so, in order that those Indians might come to esteem and fear the Spaniards, and thus know how majestic was their King.
“Canek ordered his vassals to bring from the canoes birds, fishes, cakes, honey, and gold (though only a little of the latter), and beads of red snail-shells, which the Indians value highly. They ate, and Cortes gave Canek a shirt, and a cap of black velvet, and some little things of iron, such as scissors and knives.
“Once again Don Fernando Cortes asked Canek about some Spaniards of his who should be on the coast of the sea, not far from there. To this Canek replied that he indeed had news of them and that he would give Cortes a man who should lead him to where they were without wandering from the road, although it was rough and bad on account of the great forests, rivers, and marshes that had to be traversed; once the sea was reached the going would not be so difficult.”
Cortes Goes to Tayasal with Canek. “Don Fernando Cortes thanked him very much, but told him that the horses could not go in the canoes in order to cross the Lake and continue their journey. Canek replied that after a matter of three leagues the Lake would be left behind, and he begged that while the army was marching around by land Don Fernando Cortes should come with him to his city to see him burn the idols. Don Fernando Cortes did so, against the advice of all his captains, who held that he was of great foolhardiness and overconfidence.”
The Itzas Give Cortes News of Olid. “Cortes embarked with thirty crossbowmen, Canek, and the chief Indians for the town on the Island, which town was very large, and from a long way off they saw the whiteness of its many houses and adoratoria. And on reaching the town Canek received Cortes with great rejoicing, regaling him, as well as he could, with a present of poor gold of little value (for it is not found in that country) and some mantles. And there the Indians informed Cortes of where the two villages of the Bearded Men (as they call the Spaniards) were. They said that one of them was called Pueblo de Nito (Ferns) and was on the coast to the north, while the other was called Pueblo de Naco and was inland.
“This news brought great joy to Cortes and his men on account of the great desire they all had to find the Spaniards in search of whom they had undertaken this perilous journey.
“Those of the army who were marching along the shore of the Lake went with great care, being suspicious lest the affability of Canek was but a piece of premeditated craftiness to enable him to perpetrate some treachery.”
Cortes Takes Leave of Canek, Leaving Morzillo. “But things did not take such a course as they had feared. Indeed, Don Fernando Cortes was ahead of time (at the meeting place) with all his crossbowmen, and when he joined with the main body of his army he rid the rest of all the anxiety they had suffered during his absence.
“He took leave of Canek and the Itza Indians who had accompanied him to the mainland. He left in their charge his horse Morzillo, which had been injured in the ankle, charging them to take good care of him, and to cure him. Cortes said that he would send after the horse from the place where he should meet those Spaniards for whom he was seeking. Such horses were, he said, esteemed highly, for it was a good horse.”
Idols not Burnt. “There was no burning of the idols, nor anything else of the sort, in that city of Tayasal (as they call it) or Chief City of Canek. Some say, however, that the idols were burnt in the presence of Cortes, but in truth, from the time when he left his horse among the Itza Infidels, they had a worse and more abominable idol than they had had before, as we shall see later….”
Cortes Arrives in Honduras. “With … innumerable other excessive trials, at the end of many days, they arrived at Honduras and met the Spaniards in search of whom they had come, in the villages of Naco and Nito, which Gil Gonzalez de Avila and Christoval de Olid had settled with Spaniards. The town of Nito was founded by Avila and was called San Gil de Buena Vista. All that happened is to be found and read in the Histories of the Indies and it does not concern this History.
“Only this concerns us: on account of a variety of circumstances Don Fernando Cortes neither returned himself through the land of the Itzas, nor did he send after his horse, nor did he send the Missionary Fathers to the Itzas, as he had offered to do…. So that that wretched little ruler, Lord of the Itzas or Canek, and all his subjects, remained as barbarous and idolatrous as they were before, and even daily grew more so, as well as becoming more horrible, cruel, atrocious, and formidable. And in this state we must leave them until the time comes for us once more to speak of them….”
Though this account of the entrada made by Cortes into the country of the Itzas seems full enough, it differs, nevertheless, from some of the others.
Comparison of Villagutierre with Other Authorities. In the first place Villagutierre tells us that the motive which led Cortes into sending an expedition to Honduras was that “it was a very good land,” and when, because of Olid’s treachery, it became necessary for him to go thither himself, Villagutierre says he took four hundred Spaniards and thirty horses. Bernal Diaz differs widely from this account in several respects. He says that Cortes hoped to find a passage to the Spice Islands, and that it was for that purpose that he sent out Olid, on whom he believed he could rely. Olid, though brave enough, was not a wise or faithful man. He fell a victim to the machinations of Diego Velazquez, Governor of Cuba, who was a mortal enemy of Cortes.
According to Cogolludo it was very much against the advice of his associates in Mexico that Cortes went in person to Honduras. He tells us that the vanguard of the Spaniards, after capturing ten Indian men and two Indian women, who were treated kindly, sent one of their canoes to the island of Tayasal with six Indians and two Spaniards, who were to give Canek some small Castilian presents. As a result of this, when the main body of the army, under Cortes himself, reached the shore of the lake, Canek and several of his chiefs were waiting for them. The rest of the account of Cogolludo is the same as that of Villagutierre.
In his Fifth Letter, Cortes furnishes some interesting details with which we will complete our account of the first entrada into the Itza territory. He tells us that Apospolon, Lord of Izancanac, first pretended to be dead, being in fear of Cortes, but that later he took the Spaniards to Izancanac, which was “quite large, and has many mosques.” This Apospolon was a sort of merchant prince and had widespread trading connections. At Nito, where Cortes met Gil Gonzalez de Avila, a whole quarter “was peopled with his agents under command of one of his brothers.” The articles of trade were, of course, only such things as cocoa, mantles, red shells, and dyes. As the people of Izancanac were near neighbors of the Itzas, and as the latter lay between them and Nito, it seems as if it must have been almost inevitable that the two tribes, the subjects of Apospolon and those of Canek, should have had much in common.
When Cortes left Izancanac he passed through the fortified village, the name of which no one mentions, and later came to that of Tiac, which was still larger and very well built. From the province of Mazatlan (in which was Tiac) to that of Taiza (Itza) was a matter of four nights. At length he reached the lake, which he thought to be an arm of the sea, and from the shore he saw Tayasal. He found that his scouts had captured an Indian, who gave valuable information. From this point the account of Cortes agrees absolutely with that of Villagutierre, even to the number of the crossbowmen (twelve) whom Cortes took with him.
Now that we have compared all the important accounts of this entrada we must summarize our impressions. In the first place it is clear enough that a possibility may exist of Villagutierre having copied Cogolludo minutely. In the second place it is equally clear that in those instances where Villagutierre puts aside Cogolludo he draws from someone else of even more authority. Therefore we may safely believe that in quoting the accounts of various events given by Villagutierre we shall be availing ourselves of the best possible information.
Canek’s Attitude toward Cortes. At the time when Cortes was at Tayasal (1525) a tolerant attitude toward the white men was prevalent. Far from resenting the proposed change in religion, the Canek of that day seems rather to have welcomed the new faith, and one can readily believe that had Cortes been able to do all that he promised, an early Christianization of the Itzas would have taken place. Instead, however, as we shall see, their idolatrous ways were to continue for many decades, and their attitude was to suffer a great change which, we must concede, is largely to be accounted for by Spanish brutality and bad faith.
The foregoing is all in harmony with what Gomara says. He especially emphasizes the friendly attitude of Canek. (Gomara, 1826, vol. ii, p. 136 ff.)3.7
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)
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.