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Athena Review Vol.2, no.1

The Valdivia Shipwreck (1511)

The first definite (although accidental) landing of Spaniards in Yucatán followed a 1511 shipwreck, whose only rescued survivor later served as a translator for Cortés, aiding his1519-21 conquest of Mexico. In Spring, 1511 Enciso y Valdivia sailed from the Darién colony in Panama toward Santo Domingo carrying 20,000 ducats of gold, to report to the governor on disputes between Diego de Nicuesa and Nuñez de Balboa. En route, Valdivia's ship ran aground on shoals near Jamaica called Las Viboras (the vipers). Valdivia and at least eighteen other survivors, including two women, drifted west in a small boat for 13-14 days on the Yucatán current. At least seven died of starvation before reaching the Yucatán coast, probably near Cozumel. Here they were captured and divided up among the local chiefs or caciques (calachiones in Díaz). Valdivia and four others were massacred by one cacique and eaten in a feast "in honor of his zemes," Martyr here using the Taino or Antillean word for household ancestral gods.

The others were put in cages to be fattened. Soon thereafter, however, Jeronimo de Aguilar, Gonzalo Guerrero, and a handful of other Spaniards managed to escape to the protection of a rival cacique, Aquincuz of Xamanzana, who took them in as slaves. Only two were able to survive after this: Aguilar, who stayed in Xamanzana within two days journey from Cozumel, and Guerrero, who became Mayanized and served Nachan Can, a lord of Chetumal, as vassal and son-in-law. Both lived separately among the Yucatec Maya for eight more years before being found in 1519 by the Cortés expedition.

[Fig.1: Map of Valdivia landing in Yucatán.]

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. Cortés sent letters to the caciques requesting their release along with ransoms of green glass beads resembling jade. Messengers carrying the letters in their long hair were landed at Cabo Catoche by Ordás.

Within two days, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who lived not far from Cozumel (perhaps at Xamanha near Xelha), had received the message and ransom. As Martyr and Gómara relate, he begged his master, Taxmar (successor of Aquincuz) for his freedom, and was granted it. Having studied as a priest, Aguilar had endured eight years of slavery in celibacy (unlike Guerrero who had married). He had kept his Book of Hours (a medieval religious schedule still popular in the 16th century) with a running count of the days since his 1511 capture, and was only three days off at the time of his 1519 release.

Aguilar travelled five leagues to see his former countryman Gonzalo Guerrero, who, much more than Aguilar, had adopted Mayan ways. As Díaz reports, Guerrero had married the daughter of the cacique Nachan Can from Chetumal and had risen to the rank of warrior and military advisor to his Mayan father-in-law. Having advised and joined in the 1517 attack on Córdoba's men at Cape Catoche, Guerrero had little intention of returning to the Spaniards. When asked if he would depart with Aguilar, Guerrero refused, saying (according to Bernal Díaz):

"Brother Aguilar, I am married and have three children, and the Indians look on me as a cacique and captain in wartime - you go, and God be with you, but I have my face tattooed, and my ears pierced, what would the Spaniards say, should they see me in this guise. And look how handsome these boys of mine are, for God's sake give me those green beads you have brought, and I will give the beads to them, and say that my brothers have sent them from my own country."

Guerrero's Mayan wife then added, "Why is this slave coming here, talking to my husband - go off with you, and don't trouble us with any more words."

[Fig.2: Map of Quintana Roo and northeast Yucatán, where Aguilar and Guerrero lived in 1511-1519. Dashed lines show provincial boundaries]

By the time Aguilar reached Catoche to meet the Spaniards, Ordás had already returned to Cozumel and the whole fleet had left. Fortunately, however, they returned for repairs, and Aguilar used the rest of the ransom beads to hire a large seagoing canoe with six rowers to speed him to Cozumel. Hearing of his arrival, Andres de Tapia at first did not recognize Aguilar as a Spaniard, but when he cried "Dios y Santamaria de Sevilla," the two embraced. Tapia took him to Cortés who also at first mistook the ragged, sunburnt Aguilar carrying a paddle on his shoulder for an Indian, and asked "where is the Spaniard?"

On hearing this, Aguilar squatted down on his haunches and said "I am he." Tied up in a bundle in his cloak was his old and worn Book of Hours. After being fed and clothed, he related the whole sequence of events from the shipwreck through eight years of captivity. Significantly, Aguilar was fluent in Yucatec Mayan, and was able from then on to serve Cortés as an invaluable bilingual interpreter, eventually teaming up with Marina, an Aztec woman who also knew Mayan.

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