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Athena Review  Vol. 2, no. 1

The Grijalva Expedition (1518)

Impressed with accounts of the lands of Yucatán and Campeche discovered by Córdoba, another expedition was outfitted in the following year by Diego Velásquez, governor of Cuba. Early in 1518, four ships and 300 men were placed under the command of Velasquez's nephew Juan de Grijalva, with Pedro de Alvarado, Alfonso d'Avila, and Francisco Montejo serving as captains. Veterans from the Córdoba voyage of the preceding year included Anton de Alaminos as the chief pilot, with the Mayans Melchior and Julian brought as translators.

Bernal Díaz, who gives an account of Grijalva's voyage, claims he went along as an ensign, although this is doubted by Wagner (1945) based on careful examination of the documents. Another, often better source is the Itinerario de l'Armata by Grijalva's chaplain, Juan Díaz, from which much of the following summary is taken (Fuentes 1963.) Landa gives only a brief account of the Grijalva expedition, and Gómara, besides listing trade goods from Potanchán and San Juan de Ulúa, devotes only a few sentences to the events of the voyage itself.

[Fig.1: Route of the voyage of Grijalva  in 1518 (Athena Review).]

Cozumel: Grijalva's fleet of four vessels sailed from Havana on April 8, 1518 and ten days later passed the western tip of Cuba at San Antonio. Taking a more southerly course than Córdoba, in eight days they reached Cozumel Island (taken from the Maya term Ah-Cuzamil for "the swallows"), 225 km west of San Antonio and 20 km from Yucatán. Juan Díaz reports seeing houses with thatched roofs on Cozumel, and white buildings he called towers; Martyr also says the pilot Alaminos reported seing a tower from sea. Such "towers" were probably stone buildings or temples from over 30 Maya sites known on the island (Sabloff and Rathje 1975). Several of these Late Postclassic settlements were elevated on large platforms, including San Gervasio in the north with a major shrine to the Maya moon goddess Ix Chel ("she of the rainbow"), patroness of healing, childbirth, divination, and weaving, and a very popular diety at the time of Contact.

Grijalva's ships then crossed to the Yucatán mainland (at first thought to be an island), and saw three large towns with stone houses and large towers (probably around Xcaret). Sailing south, in two days they passed two more large villages, one a "town or village so large, that Seville could not be better or larger; and in it could be seen a very large tower..." Resisting urgings by Indian inhabitants to land, they came to a beach near the highest tower yet seen. The town was perhaps the large Late Postclassic center Tulúm, and the "highest tower" may have been the Castillo at Tulúm.

Grijalva's fleet then sailed up past Isla Mujeres, where Juan Díaz mentions "a very beautiful tower on a point said to be inhabited by women who live without men." Rounding Cabo Catoche, they saw "other towers apparently with towns, but the captain would not permit us to land."

Campeche: Continuing southwest toward Campeche, Juan Díaz says they skirted the coast "looking for the cacique Lázaro, a chieftan who showed much respect to Francisco Fernandez" [Córdoba]. They landed near Campeche at the river Lagartos, but failing (like Córdoba before them) to find water there, they continued on to the town of Lázarus, and anchored two miles from a tower on the shore. Two hundred men were sent ashore with arquebuses (early matchlock rifles), and there a tense parley ensued between Grijalva and a squadron of armed Mayans. After Grijalva's party persisted another day, the Maya attacked, shooting many arrows at the Spaniards. Despite confusion in the Spanish ranks, the Maya were driven back to their town, with forty Spaniards wounded and one killed. Landa says the battle site was named Puerto de Mala Pelea (Harbor of the bad fight).

Laguna de Terminos: Grijalva's fleet then continued southwest, bypassing Champotón after Córdoba's misfortunes the previous year, and seeing "many mountains and many Indian barks, called canoes, with which they thought to make war on us." Keeping attackers off with cannon shots, Grijalva continued and on the last day of May, 1518, discovered Laguna de Terminos, which they named Puerto Deseada. As the surroundings were pleasing, with many edible fish called jurel, they remained several days to repair their ships. Initially thought to be a great river separating Yucatán from the rest of Mexico, the Laguna de Terminos is actually a large bay or lagoon with three entrance channels. At its west end was the large port Xicalango where Putún, or Chontal, Maya, merchants had established themselves since the Terminal Classic (ca. AD 850-1000). During Postclassic times Xicalango was a politically neutral port of trade, visited by Aztec pochteca or professional merchants. Postclassic Putún traders went as far south as Central America in sea-going canoes 15 m long and 2 m wide, similar to that described at Bonacca by Columbus in 1502.

Río Grijalva and Cintla: Eighty km west of Laguna de Teminos the ships came to the mouth of a large river which "cast fresh water 6 miles into the sea," and was renamed the Grijalva. In this province of Potonchán, near a town named Cintla, Mayans were seen chopping wood and preparing defenses and, in thousands, following the Spanish boats. Next day, some 3000 Indians in 100 canoes approached the ships and communicated a desire to trade and to ransom a hostage. Saying through interpreters they were looking for gold, the Spaniards presented "certain cups and other utensils from the ship to make them happy," including green glass beads the Maya saw as jadeite (Aztec chalchihuite).

[Fig.2: Route of Grijalva along the Gulf Coast inYucatán and Mexico (Athena Review).]

The next day, the cacique came up in a canoe and asked Grijalva to come aboard, where they dressed him in a golden crown, breastplate and bracelets. In turn, as Juan Diaz reports, the Spaniards dressed the chieftan in "a green velvet doublet, pink hose, a frock, espadrilles, and a velvet cap." Bernal Diaz adds the Maya cacique sent gifts of food (maize, zapotes, and roast fish and fowls) spread on mats called petates, and gold diadems, necklaces, and jewels shaped like ducks and lizards. Here, according to Bernal, Mayans said there was more gold to the west in "Colua" and "México," names now first heard by the Spaniards.

Veracruz and Isla de Sacrificios: The fleet continued west along the coast of lands called Coluacan or Oloa (Ulúa) by local Totonac peoples. Just north of San Juan de Ulúa, the Spaniards explored a large gulf with three islands, one named Isla de los Sacrificios from evidence of Aztec-like human sacrifice. Here Juan Díaz reports finding several large buildings of lime and sand, one described as a tower (or pyramid) with the statue of a jaguar on the top. A hole was cut in this statue's head for perfumes or incense, and nearby was a stone basin full of blood they estimated to be a week old. Two posts nearby were draped in textiles which concealed a plume-headed idol facing the statue. One of the Spaniards also found two alabaster jars filled with offerings of stones including jadeite. Like Martyr, Bernal Díaz describes a grisly scene of " two masonry houses very well built, each house with steps leading up to some altars, and on these altars were idols with evil looking bodies, and that very night five Indians had been sacrificed before them; their chests had been cut open, and their arms and thighs had been cut off, and the walls were covered with blood... At all this we stood greatly amazed, and gave the island the name of the Isla de Sacrificios, and it is so marked on the charts."

Meanwhile, Francisco de Montejo was sent to greet Indians seen on the mainland at the Río Banderas, the first Aztecs encountered by the Spaniards. They gave Montejo fine colored mantles, but he communicated that he desired gold. They returned the next day and gave Grijalva many cotton mantles "finely painted in diverse colors," pipes filled with perfumes such as liquidambar and benjamin, and gifts of food. When Grijalva said that they were only interested in gold, "they brought gold cast in bars, and the captain told them to bring more of this. On the following day they came with a beautiful gold mask, a figurine of a man with a half mask of gold, and a crown of gold beads with jewels and stones of various colors." The Spaniards remained in their company for ten days before departing to continue north along the coast.

Rio Panuco: Grijalva's ships reached as far northwest as the mouth of the Río Pánuco (today, near Tampico) before turning back towards Cuba. Fine artifacts obained here included Aztec turquoise mosaic work. An inventory in Gómara of items received by Grijalva in trade includes 20 gold fishhooks, many gold earrings and necklaces, two suits of armor (one of thin gold, the other of gilded wood), a golden "dog's head" (probably a jaguar) covered with little stones, plus a cloak and shields made of feathers.

On their return down the coast, the Spaniards stopped to repair their ships at a harbor called San Antonio, at the mouth of the Río Tonalá. Several of the ships were further damaged at a sandbar here, including the flagship which sprung a leak when it grounded on shoals. After two weeks, they resumed their course. Reaching Champotón, they landed to avenge the defeat of Córdoba, but departed before attacking. After another stop in Campeche to take on supplies, the ships returned to Cuba.

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