Spanish Arrival and Conquest
After Columbus’s arrival in the New World, other adventurers traveling the same seas soon found the Yucatán Peninsula. In 1519, 34-year-old Hernán Cortés set out from Cuba—against the wishes of the Spanish governor—with 11 ships, 120 sailors, and 550 soldiers to search for slaves, a lucrative business.
His search began on the Yucatán coast but eventually encompassed most of present-day Mexico. However, it took many decades and many lives for Spanish conquistadors to quell the Maya’s resistance and cunning, despite a major advantage in military technology, including horses, gunpowder, and metal swords and armor.
Francisco de Montejo, who took part in Cortés’s earlier expedition into central Mexico, spent 1528–1535 trying to conquer the Yucatán, first from the east at Tulum and later from the west near Campeche and Tabasco, but was driven out each time. Montejo’s son, also named Francisco de Montejo “El Mozo” (The Younger), took up the effort and eventually founded the cities of Mérida in 1542 and Campeche in 1546. From those stringholds, the Spanish conquest slowly spread across the peninsula.
Economic and religious oppression were central to the conquest, too. The Xiu indigenous group proved an important ally to the Spanish after its leader converted to Christianity. And in 1562, a friar named Diego de Landa, upon learning his converts still practiced certain Maya ceremonies, became enraged and ordered the torture and imprisonment of numerous Maya spiritual leaders. He also gathered all the religious artifacts and Maya texts—which he said contained “superstitions and the devil’s lies”—and had them burned. It was a staggering loss—at least 27 codices—and one that Landa later seemed to regret and attempted to reconcile by writing a detailed record of Maya customs, mathematics, and writing.
The Caste War
By the 1840s, the brutalized and subjugated Maya organized a revolt against Euro-Mexican colonizers. Called the Caste War, this savage war saw Maya taking revenge on every white man, woman, and child by means of murder and rape. European survivors made their way to the last Spanish strongholds of Mérida and Campeche. The governments of the two cities appealed for help to Spain, France, and the United States. No one answered the call.
It was soon apparent that the remaining two cities would be wiped out. But just as Mérida’s leaders were preparing to evacuate the city, the Maya abruptly picked up their weapons and left. The reason was an unusually early appearance of flying ants, a sign of coming rain and to the Maya an all-important signal to begin planting corn.
Despite the suffering visited upon them over three centuries of Spanish conquest, the Maya warriors, who were also farmers, simply could not risk missing the planting season. They turned their backs on certain victory and returned to their villages to tend their fields.
The unexpected reprieve allowed time for thousands of troops to arrive from Cuba, Mexico City, and the United States, and vengence was merciless. Maya were killed indiscriminately. Some were taken prisoner and sold to Cuba as slaves; others left their villages and hid in the jungles—in some cases, for decades. Between 1846 and 1850, the population of the Yucatán Peninsula was reduced from 500,000 to 300,000. Quintana Roo along the Caribbean coast was considered a dangerous no-man’s-land for almost another 100 years.
Growing Maya Power
Many Maya Indians escaped slaughter during the Caste War by fleeing to the isolated coastal forests of present-day Quintana Roo. A large number regrouped under the cult of the “Talking Cross”—an actual wooden cross that, with the help of a priest and a ventriloquist, spoke to the beleaguered indigenous fighters, urging them to continue fighting. Followers called themselves Cruzob (People of the Cross) and made a stronghold in the town of Chan Santa Cruz, today Carrillo Puerto. Research (and common sense) suggests the Maya knew full well that a human voice was responsible for the “talking,” but that many believed it was inspired by God.
Close to the border with British Honduras (now Belize), the leaders of Chan Santa Cruz began selling timber to the British and were given weapons in return. Simultaneously (roughly 1855–1857), internal strife weakened the relations between Campeche and Mérida, and their mutual defense as well. Maya leaders took advantage of the conflict and attacked Fort Bacalar, eventually gaining control of the entire southern Caribbean coast.
Up until that time, indigenous soldiers simply killed the people they captured, but starting in 1858 they took lessons from the colonials and began to keep whites for slave labor. Women were put to work doing household chores and some became concubines; men were forced to work the fields and even build churches. (The main church in Carrillo Puerto was built largely by white slaves.)
For the next 40 years, the Maya people and soldiers based in and around Chan Santa Cruz kept the east coast of the Yucatán for themselves, and a shaky truce with the Mexican government endured. The native people were economically independent, self-governing, and, with no roads in or out of the region, almost totally isolated. They were not at war as long as everyone left them alone.
The Last Stand
Only when president Porfirio Díaz took power in 1877 did the Mexican federal government begin to think seriously about the Yucatán Peninsula. Through the years, Quintana Roo’s isolation and the strength of the Maya in their treacherous jungle had foiled repeated efforts by Mexican soldiers to capture the Indians. The army’s expeditions were infrequent, but it rankled Díaz that a relatively small and modestly armed Maya force had been able to keep the Mexican army at bay for so long.
An assault in 1901, under the command of Gen. Ignacio Bravo, broke the government’s losing streak. The general captured a village, laid railroad tracks, and built a walled fort. Supplies arriving by rail kept the fort stocked, but the indigenous defenders responded by holding the fort under siege for an entire year. Reinforcements finally came from the capital, and the Maya were forced to retreat, first from the fort and then from many of their villages and strongholds.
A period of brutal Mexican occupation followed, lasting until 1915, yet Maya partisans still didn’t give up. They conducted guerrilla raids from the tangled coastal forest until the Mexican army, frustrated and demoralized, pulled out and returned Quintana Roo to the Maya.
But what guns and soldiers could not accomplish, disease and commerce did. From 1917 to 1920, hundreds of thousands of Maya died as influenza and smallpox swept across the Yucatán Peninsula. Just as the diseases were subsiding, worldwide demand for chicle (natural gum) spiked, and multinational companies shipped in thousands of workers, mostly from Mexico’s interior, to tap the region’s towering chicle trees. Those early rough-edged chicleros, themselves severely exploited, clashed with local Maya and left a wake of ecological destruction behind them. (Chicle tapping has since become far more sustainable.)
Maya leaders, with their army depleted and their territories overrun, had little choice but to pursue a negotiated settlement with the Mexican government. The final treaties were signed in 1936, erasing the last vestiges of Maya national sovereignty.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition