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The first documented Spanish exploration of the mainland west of the Antilles was led by three Cuban colonists, Francisco Fernandez de Córdoba, Lopez Ochoa Cayzedo, and Cristobal Morantes. Some sources, including Landa (1973) and Prescott (1843), characterized the Córdoba trip as a slaving voyage. Bernal Díaz , however, reports that, although ordered by Cuban governor Velásquez to raid the Guanaxes Islands for slaves, they set out instead to explore lands for colonization.
Three small ships (naos or caravels) set out under captain Fernando Iñiguez and the pilot Anton de Alaminos, who later also served as pilot for both Grijalva and Cortés. Departing from Santiago de Cuba on February 8, 1517, and passing Cabo San Antonio at the westernmost tip of Cuba 12 days later, they crossed the 66 leagues (about 200 miles) of the Yucatán channel in nine days. After a two day storm they made landfall probably at Isla Mujeres near Cabo Catoche (fig.1). There Bernal Díaz and Martyr describe idols of goddesses named Aixchel and Ixhunié ("ix" being Yucatec for "woman"). Landa reports they saw a "building of stone, such as to astonish them; and they found certain objects of gold which they took."
Cape Catoche: From the ships they saw on the mainland a large town about two leagues or six miles inland. Díaz reports "as we had never seen one as large in Cuba or Hispaniola, we called it the Great Cairo," a town now identified with the archaeological site at Ecab. According to Martyr's informants, the town held magnificent temples; houses of stone, mortar, and thatched roofs; and regular streets, squares, and marketplaces. The natives wore garments "made of a thousand different kinds of cotton dyed in divers colors," recalling the cloth trade goods seen in Honduras by Columbus in 1502.
[Fig.1: Route of Córdoba in 1517 (Athena Review).]
After a brief visit from natives in canoes on March 4, 1517, as Bernal Diaz reports, a cacique appeared next morning with 12 large canoes and "every appearance of friendliness." He repeatedly said "cones catoche," meaning "come to our houses," source of the name Cape Catoche. Landa reports, in another variant of this story from the sailor Blas Hernández, that Mayan fisherman, when asked how they called their country, said "Catoch," for "our houses, our homeland." When Spaniards tried to ask the same fishermen by signs "how was this country theirs," they replied "Ci uthan," meaning "how nicely he speaks," which Landa says is the source of the name Yucatán.
Accepting these apparent invitations, a party of Spaniards armed with 15 crossbows and 10 muskets went ashore and were ambushed en route to the town. In the skirmish, fifteen Spanish soldiers were injured, and two died. Two Mayans, meanwhile, were captured and (renamed Julian and Melchior) eventually learned Spanish and became interpreters.
Campeche: The Spaniards sailed west along coastal provinces of northern Yucatán which Martyr calls Corus and Matam, with "temples resembling fortresses" on shore. They eventually landed at Campeche (fig.2), capital of a province of the same name where about 3000 inhabitants were ruled by the cacique Lázarus. According to Bernal Díaz, when a small party landed for water, a group of fifty natives asked by signs if they were from the east, and repeated the word "Castilan" (a clue which eventually helped lead Cortés to the rescue of Jeronimo de Aguilar, one of the last two survivors of the Valdivia shipwreck of 1511). Invited to the nearest town, they went to a square which had recently held a sacrifice. There, priests lit reeds and told the Spaniards they would be killed if they did not leave before the flames went out. The Spaniards accordingly left.
[Fig.2: Landings of Córdoba in Yucatán and Campeche.]
Champotón: Ten days later, after riding out a storm, the Spaniards landed for water further south in Campeche near Champotón. Martyr names the province Aguanil and its capital Moscobo, similar to Landa's name of the cacique Moch-covoh, "a warlike man who called his people together against the Spaniards." As at the town of Campeche, natives under their cacique greeted the Spaniards in an apparently friendly way and departed, only to attack the next morning in vastly greater numbers, outnumbering the Spaniards by as much as 200 to 1 (according to Díaz). While putting up a good defense and managing to return to the ships, all but one of the Spaniards were injured, with Córdoba himself receiving multiple wounds. This battle effectively cut the Spanish force in half, with fifty men killed, five more dying later, and two captured, leaving little alternative but to return to Cuba. Forced to abandon the smallest ship due to severely limited manpower, Córdoba's party suffered from a dire shortage of water, as their empty casks had been left on the Champotón beach.
Return voyage via Florida: After unsuccessful attempts to find fresh water near Campeche, they turned north toward Florida, which Alaminos had visited with Ponce de León in 1513. Eventually Córdoba's ailing expedition landed in southwest Florida somewhere between Key Marco and Tampa Bay. Bernal Díaz reports a brief fight with native forces (probably from the Calusa chiefdom), when, somewhat ironically, the only soldier who had been left unhurt after the battle at Champotón was now captured. Their water tanks at last replenished, the ships finally sailed back to Havana, where Córdoba, unfortunately, died from his wounds ten days after their return. His voyage, however, set the stage for the larger expeditions in the next two years of Grijalva and Cortés.
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