The Mayan rebellion of the Yucatan in 1546

In the middle of the 16th century, just twenty-five years after the Spanish overthrew the Aztec Empire and began other expeditions to subdue the territories of what is now Mexico and part of the United States, which were progressively controlled in the following decades, the Yucatan peninsula he rose up in arms putting on the edge of the knife everything that had been achieved up to then in the region by the Montejos, the family that had led his conquest.

The Mayan tribes revolted virulently in 1546, forcing the restart of a campaign that lasted for an entire year, but which would not put a definitive end to hostilities until almost a century and a half later.

It is still paradoxical, since that part of America was one of the first to be sighted. And before the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, appointed Hernán Cortés captain of the expedition that would ultimately bring him fame, he had already sent two others to the continental coast to test the terrain, trade with the Indians and get slaves to work on Cuban plantations and mines, in need of labor due to the local demographic collapse.

The first was that of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who arrived in the Yucatán peninsula in 1517. News of that land was known from a previous trip by Diego de Nicuesa six years earlier, during which one of the ships that made up his squadron was wrecked. ; Two of the survivors were Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, who lived with the indigenous people all that time as slaves until the first was rescued by Cortés, while the second chose to stay after having founded a family there, becoming the paradigm of the miscegenation that characterized American history from then on.

Hernández de Córdoba’s visit was not very productive and some battles had to be fought, but enough gold and information were obtained to instill interest in Velázquez. The following year, he organized a new expedition under the command of his nephew, Juan de Grijalva: four ships and two hundred men sailed along the Yucatecan coast, now fighting with hostile Indians, now trading with friendly ones. It was on this journey that they heard for the first time about the powerful and wealthy Mexica, who lived in the interior. But, upon his return, Grijalva was reprimanded by Velázquez for not having had more initiative and contacting them, hence, for what he hoped would be the third and final attempt, he chose someone more daring. And he appointed Cortés.

Tenochtitlán fell into their hands and controlled – not without difficulties – the surrounding kingdoms (purépechas, zacatecas, chinantecas, mazatecas, mixtecs, huastecas…), in 1527 the conquest of Yucatán was undertaken, which had remained on the sidelines due to the scarcity of precious metals and the difficulty of facing its physical characteristics: a peninsula of 145,000 square kilometers with a tropical climate (very high temperatures and humidity, frequent rains and seasonal hurricanes), the absence of rivers and covered by a dense jungle where Mayan tribes who had left behind the times of splendor of that civilization, but maintained the bellicosity acquired in its last stage.

A first campaign was made in 1523 against the Chontal Mayas, but the actual conquest came three years later. In 1526 Francisco de Montejo, one of the participants in the first two expeditions and ex-companion of Cortés, received from Carlos V the appointment of Adelantado, Captain General and Major Constable of Yucatán, and organized an expedition under his charge -as was normal then- with four hundred soldiers; he had no priests, which is significant, embarking on the adventure of taking over such an inhospitable region.

That small army required three hard campaigns developed over almost two decades, although there was a break between 1535 and 1540 to expand operations to the governorates of Guatemala, Chiapas and Tabasco. It was his son and his namesake nephew who finished off the task at the end of 1545.

But it was one thing to win the war and another to win the peace. The native population accepted their defeat, but resentment against the extreme violence used by some enemy soldiers, in the case of Gaspar Pacheco, Melchor Pacheco and Alonso López Zarco, who resorted to killings, mutilations and beatings, remained latent. Likewise, the new life imposed on them was unbearable. The encomienda system (assignment of groups of Indians to an encomendero for whom they had to work in exchange for maintenance and evangelization) had already revealed itself as a semi-slavery, despite the efforts of the Crown to regulate it: the indigenous people were permanently in debt with the encomenderos for the miserable wages they received and the extraordinary tax revenues exhausted the resources.

In addition, the Mayan peoples, whose existence was so closely linked to their religion, accepted the Christian faith worse than others and did not understand why the Spanish priests prohibited their ritual dances and felled the sacred ceibas in their plazas (the Tree of Life, metaphor of world axis that linked heaven with the underworld in Mayan cosmology and cosmogony). The straw that broke the camel’s back was the transfer of the new city of Valladolid, abandoning its original location in Chauac-há to Sací, an ancient Mayan ceremonial capital, due to the unsanitary conditions of the previous location. The Indians saw it as the ultimate desecration and exploded.

The chilam Ansal, the most important priest, a man imbued with exalted messianism, summoned the entire religious caste (completely adverse to the imposed faith), the bataob (native leaders, outraged at having to pay out of pocket if they could not collect the required taxes among their own) and warriors to plan a general rebellion. The date chosen was the night of November 8, of course for symbolic reasons: in the double calendar round it corresponded to the days 5 Cimí (death) and 19 Xul (end), which were interpreted as the death of the Spaniards and the end of his domain. When the time came, in effect, almost the entire Yucatan rose up: the provinces of Sotuta, Ah Kin Chel, Cochuah and Calotmul.

The movement began in Valladolid, where they killed seventeen Spaniards (including the mayor and other officials) and four hundred naboríos (Christianized auxiliary Indians) whom they considered traitors, in addition to uprooting the trees planted by the invader and also killing the animals ( dogs, cats, poultry…) that sullied the Mayab in general and the sanctuaries in particular with their presence; all traces of Hispanic culture were eradicated, in short. The actions were so bloodthirsty that the captured Spaniards were crucified in a mocking tone or shot with arrows, when not burned alive in copal or, directly, sacrificed by extracting their hearts. Then they were dismembered to send their limbs to other places and thus incite them to join the insurrection. Twenty thousand Mayans went to war.

Map of the territories conquered in the Yucatan between 1527 and 1549/Image: Wikimedia Commons

The uprising surprised Francisco de Montejo reunited with his family in Campeche. Since that zone was not lifted, perhaps due to lack of coordination with the rest, it was possible to begin to organize the defense and the counterattack in aid of those who still resisted besieged in Valladolid. The bataob They were arrested preventively and Montejo’s son assured Mérida (who had also remained calm), at the same time that the Bracamontes (Francisco and his brother Hernando) began an offensive in Sututa against the seasoned cucumes and Francisco de Cieza was in charge of the Itzaes of Tazes. Two weeks later Rodrigo Álvarez and Francisco Tamayo Pacheco broke the siege of Valladolid and began to tip the scales on the Spanish side.

Over the course of the following four months, Cochuah, Cupal, Uaymil and Chactemal were recovered and pacified, pushing the rebels towards the northwest of the peninsula and Chikinchel becoming the last place of desperate resistance, finally subdued by Tamayo Pacheco in the spring of 1547.

And the hour of revenge arrived: caciques and priests, leaders of the revolt, were prosecuted and executed; Anbal died at the stake; In addition, thousands of Maya Cupules around Valladolid were subjected to slavery, although they had to be released later under the New Laws and, for disobeying them, Montejo was punished with the loss of his parcels.

Many other Maya dispersed and fled south, settling in the Dzuluinicoob region (in present-day Belize) or joining the Itza of Petén (in Guatemala, which was not fully dominated until 1697), leaving the eastern half of Yucatán practically depopulated.

The arrival that same year of five Franciscans led by Diego de Landa constituted the first stone of evangelization, although the native resistance to converting would manifest itself again in 1557 in a new rebellion, also quite bloody but less far-reaching.


The feet of the Republic. The Peninsular Maya, 1550-1750 (Sergio Quezada) /The tears of the Indians, the justice of God. Mayan armed resistance (Mario Humberto Ruz in Mexican Archeology)/Mayan paganism as resistance to evangelization and Spanish colonization, 1546-1761 (Melchor Campos Garcia)/Looking for the center Formation of a colonial ethnic order and Mayan resistance in the Yucatan (Miguel Baraona Cockerell)/Indian utopias. Socio-religious movements in Mexico (Alice M. Barabas)