free trial issue                                       subscribe                                             back issues

Athena Review Vol.2, no.1

The Cortés Expedition (1519-1521)

Encouraged by Grijalva’s findings  along the Gulf Coast in 1518, a much larger expedition led by Hernan Cortés sailed from Cuba early in February 1519. Gómara describes 11 vessels with 550 Spaniards and 200 servants. Officers included Diego de Ordás, Alfonso d’Avila, Francisco de Montejo, Andrés de Tapia, and the pilot Alaminos.

Cozumel and the rescue of Aguilar: Passing Cabo San Antonio on Feb.18, 1519, after a storm the ships regrouped around Isla de las Mujeres and continued south to Isla Cozumel (fig.1). The people of Cozumel, at first fleeing the ships, returned with honey, wax, bread, fish, and fruits for the newcomers. While repairing their ships at Cozumel, the Spaniards heard reports of bearded men living on the mainland. These were in fact Aguilar and Guerrero, the only survivors from the ill-fated Valdivia expedition. Aguilar, soon rescued, was fluent in Yucatec Mayan. He worked as a translator for Cortés with Marina, an Aztec woman who knew Mayan (see below).

[Fig.1: Route of  Cortés expedition, 1519-1521 (Athena Review).]

The Spaniards remained in Cozumel for several weeks. With Aguilar’s help, some Mayans were converted to Christianity. At one temple, possibly the popular oracle of Ix Chel, the Maya Goddess of healing and childbearing, idols were smashed and cast down the front stairs, and replaced by a cross (Díaz 1963; Gómara 1964; Sabloff and Rathje 1975). Sailing up to Cabo Catoche, the fleet anchored briefly in Punta de los Mujeres (Bay of the Women, opposite Isla Mujeres), named for four temples or cues (the Nahuatl term, used by Bernal Díaz) which contained figurines of tall women.

Sailing westward past Yucatán to Campeche, the fleet paused at the bay of Champotón, where Cortés planned to avenge the defeats of Córdoba and Grijalva. At the last minute Cortés abandoned the attack, heeding Alaminos’ warning that Champotón’s tides were extreme, stranding ships over a league out to sea. Continuing west to the mouth of the Río Grijalva, on March 19 they met Chontal Maya from the town of Potonchán where, as Bernal Díaz reports, “the river, its banks, and the mangrove swamps were crowded with Indian warriors..." Over 12,000 Mayans assembled in the town, preparing to attack.

The Battles of Potonchán and Cintla: After meeting with the Mayans and receiving gifts of food in an uneasy truce, Cortés brought his men ashore and prepared for the all but inevitable battle. As Gómara relates, Cortés aggravated the situation by insisting on more supplies and on searching Potonchán. After the Mayans refused, Cortés attacked that night, taking the first city of his conquest. The next day (March 24, 1519), Cortés released prisoners with a message of truce for their Mayan cacique. Meanwhile, in a typically crafty move, he sent Alvarado and 100 men to search the countryside. Francisco de Lugo, also sent out with 100 soldiers, suffered heavy losses from Mayan warriors with shields, fire-hardened darts, slings, and flint-edged wooden swords. Alvarado and Cortés rushed in, and jointly drove back the Mayans. Next day, Ordás and Cortés attacked Cintla, a subject town of Potonchán with 500 men including 13 cavalry, which allowed the Spaniards to prevail in spite of heavy casualties. The Maya had never encountered horses before, thinking them a single animal joined with the rider.

On March 27, 1519 a truce was arranged when Mayan caciques brought food and gold as well as 20 female slaves. Among these was a young woman from Jalisco named Marina, who had been stolen from a noble family when small and sold into slavery, where she learned the language of Yucatán. As a bilingual translator from Aztec to Mayan, Marina played a major role in the eventual conquest of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) by Cortés.

The Spaniards continued west to the Río Alvarado (Papaloapan), and the Bay of San Juan de Ulúa, known by Alaminos from the Grijalva voyage. Here they met Teudilli of Quintaluor, representing the great lord of the Méxica named Montezuma (first mentioned here). From now on, Cortés’ expedition is concerned with the conquest of the Aztec empire, an amazing series of events told through the eyes of Bernal Díaz, Gómara, and Cortés himself in a series of letters to the Spanish monarchy.

Athena Review Image Archive™   | Guide to Archaeology on the Internet   |   free trial issue |  subscribe  |  back issues

Main index of Athena Review   |   Subject Index   |   Travel Pages   |  Galleries and Museums  |  Ad rates |  Current issue index

Copyright  ©  1996-2003    Athena Publications, Inc.  (All Rights Reserved).