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Athena Review Vol.2, no.1

The Spanish Conquest of Yucatán (1526-46)

When the Spaniards first arrived in 1517-1519, much of Yucatán was under the control of ruling castes of central Mexican origin, claiming descent from Cuculcán, the mythical god-king who after AD 1000 had rebuilt Chichén Itzá into a powerful Early Postclassic center. During the Late Postclassic period (AD 1250-1520) the center of  Maya leadership inYucatán moved to Mayapán, whose dynasty briefly reunified the region.

After the fall of Mayapán in AD 1441, northern Yucatán split up into sixteen provinces ruled by prominent city-states (fig.1). The main ruling families in this period of fragmentation (1441-1542) included the Cocoms in Sotuta, the Xius at Maní in the province of Tutul Xiu, the Chels in Ahkin-Chel with their capital at Izamal, the Ah Canules on the northwest coast, and the Cupules at Chichén Itzá. These dynasties had contested and divided up northern Yucatán, as recounted in early colonial documents including Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán and the Maya Books of Chilam Balam.

In December, 1526, one of Cortés' party, the wealthy nobleman Francisco de Montejo, after persistently lobbying the Spanish crown for several years, was granted a royal contract (capitulación) to raise an army and conquer Yucatán. This involved three separate campaigns from 1527 to 1546.

In his first attempt (1527-1528), Montejo brought three ships with several hundred men to Santo Domingo from Spain, landing at Cozumel in September 1527 with two ships and about 200 men. Crossing to the mainland at Xelha and Xcaret (called Pole in colonial times), Montejo left 65 men at these two coastal towns under his lieutenant Alonso d'Avila, then marched inland with 125 men. They toured a series of towns in the northeast part of the peninsula, some (including Xamanha and Mochis) unknown today, another (Belma) possibly El Meco. Early in 1528 , after two months spent wintering in Ecab, they fought a large battle at Aké, 10 miles north of Tizimin. There, while Montejo lost half his men, over 1200 Maya were killed, with all neighboring chiefs surrendering.

[Fig.1: Independent states of Yucatan, ca. AD 1500 (after Coe 1993)]

Returning to Xelha and Xcaret with only 60 of 125 men (some having perished from disease), Montejo learned that most of the 65 Spaniards left there had been massacred. Boarding his third vessel from Santo Domingo, Montejo headed south along the coast to Chetumal to determine the size of the Yucatán region, using information from Cortés' 1524 march to Honduras. Failing to meet up as planned at Chetumal with d'Avila whose overland march fell short, Montejo learned that Guerrero, the other Valdivia survivor, now an effective Maya war leader, was nearby. Doubtless wishing to eliminate Guerrero as a potential foe, Montejo attempted but failed to make contact. He then sailed as far south as the Río Ulúa, which he determined to be the southern portion of his administrative domain. Finally rejoining d'Avila at Xamanha near Xelha, Montejo returned to Veracruz.

Montejo's second attempt to conquer Yucatán (1531-1535) commenced with a two-year campaign by d'Avila at Maní, Chauaca, and Chetumal,  where the short-lived Villa Real was founded. Soon abandoning the latter post, d'Avila went by canoe along the coast to the Ulúa River where he stayed for six months, returning to Campeche in Spring, 1533. In the meantime the Montejos had successfully defended Campeche from an attack by the Ah Canules, who were forced to surrender. The younger Montejo then subdued northern Yucatán and in Chichén Itzá (now ruled by the Cupules) founded "Ciudad Real," dividing local towns and their populations among his soldiers, each allotted some 2000-3000 Indians.

Resistance by the Cupul lords in league with the Sotuta, Cochuah, and Ecab, however, caused Montejo the younger to abandon the Chichén Itzá settlement. In 1534, he regrouped with his father at the port of Dzilám in the province of the Chels. The elder Monejo established friendly relations with the powerful Xiu rulers at Maní (whose assistance would be a major factor in the eventual success of the Spanish conquest), then returned to Campeche. Dzilám was soon abandoned by the younger Montejo, as his forces became depleted, and he too went back to Campeche. News of the fabulous riches found by Pizarro and his soldiers in Peru (1528-1532) had disheartened many of the Montejos' followers who deserted both in Dzilám and later in Campeche.

Both Montejos returned to Veracruz. During the next five years, the elder Montejo secured the Captain-generalcy of Honduras in 1535, then moved to that province in 1537 and succeeded in pacifying Higureras. Conflicting claims with Alvarado, the governor of Guatemala, caused Montejo to lose his claim to Honduras by 1539, and he returned to Tabasco where his son was governing in his name. The following year, now aged about 67, he turned the Yucatán venture over to his son, but returned to Honduras in 1542 after Alvarado's death to serve as governor for two years.

The younger Montejo began the third attempt to secure Yucatán (1540-1546), by setting up a headquarters in Campeche with 300-400 soldiers. Montejo summoned Maya lords to his base and many Xiu chieftains submitted to the Spanish crown by the end of 1541. The Ah Canules once again resisted, but were defeated by Montejo's cousin at Chakan. In 1542, Montejo established the city of Mérida at Tiho where he received the peaceful submission of the supreme ruler of Maní, Lord Tutul Xiu. Since Maní was the most powerful province of northern Yucatán, other western groups submitted as well.

Montejo next sent his cousin to Chauaca to finish the conquest in the east. Most submitted peacefully, but Montejo defeated the Cocua chieftains only after a bitter battle. Even then they continued to resist Spanish rule. The eastern provinces of Cupul, Cochua, Sotuta, and Chetumal retained varying degrees of independence, and continued to harass the Spaniards. These eastern Maya chiefdoms were not decisively defeated until a failed uprising in November of 1546. With their defeat, the ultimate conquest of Yucatán was assured. Only the Itzá remained independent in the region of Lake Petén Itzá until 1696-7, when they were defeated at Tayasal by the Spanish General Martin de Ursua.

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