Thursday, November 22, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Conquest, Colonization, & Piracy

The Spanish land in the New World. There is a lot going on in this early painting. Three heavily-armed Spaniards stand arrogantly before natives who bring gifts to these strange new people. In the background, other Spaniards raise a cross, symbolic of the Spiritual Conquest that moved in lockstep with the brutal Military Conquest. In the upper right, other natives flee, perhaps exercising more good sense than the ones who brought gifts which only inflamed Spanish greed.

From the 9th to the 12th centuries AD, Yucatan had been dominated by Chichen Itza. In the 12th century, the city of Mayapan surpassed Chichen Itza and become the leader of a great confederation of Maya states. However, in the 15th century a revolt split the confederation into individual city-states. By the time of the Spanish arrival, the Maya world of the Yucatan Peninsula had become politically fragmented into sixteen chieftaincies, constantly warring among themselves. Two of these, Chactemal and Uaymil, occupied most of the present Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The trading center of B'ak Halal (modern Bacalar) belonged to Uaymil, while the chieftaincy of Chactemal included the modern location of Quintana Roo's capital, Chetumal.


Shipwrecked Spanish sailor Gonzalo Guerrero, with his Maya family. The very first Spaniards who arrived in Yucatan were not the arrogant conquerors shown in the previous painting. They were the crew of a ship sailing from Darien (Panama) to Hispanola (Santo Domingo). Their vessel sank near Jamaica and the survivors drifted in a lifeboat to the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. There, they were captured by Maya warriors. Some of the crew were sacrificed and others died of disease. However, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero survived and were kept as slaves.

After two years, the two were separated when Guerrero was given as a gift to the chief of Chactemal. He assimilated into the Maya culture and took a Maya wife. His three children were the very first Mexican mestizos (mixed Spanish and indigenous). Using his Spanish military skills, he proved himself as a leader of warriors and rose to a high level in Maya society. In 1519, Hernán Cortéz arrived on the island of Cozumel, off the Yucatan coast. There, he found and rescued Jerónimo Aguilar, but could not persuade Guerrero to join his expedition. Guerrero clearly recognized that Cortéz represented the coming of the Conquest and decided that his loyalty was now to his Maya community. For several years he led their forces in fierce resistance to the Spanish invaders. Ultimately,  Guerrero was killed battling them in Honduras.


War dogs attack native prisoners while Spanish gentlemen enjoy the spectacle. The Spanish professed horror at the human sacrifice they encountered in the New World, but they practiced a good deal of it themselves. They brought the Inquisition with them from Spain, which resulted in the burning of quite a number of people at the stake. The Inquisition also utilized numerous other forms of Old World torture, refined over the millennia. The victims were often native priests and shamans who refused Christianity and continued to practice the ancient religions. War captives were also brutally treated for the offense of resisting Spanish domination. Sometimes, however, they were just people rounded up to provide amusing spectacles like the one shown above.

The Spanish found the Maya a much more difficult population to conquer than the Aztecs of central Mexico. The hierarchical political structure of the Aztec Empire enabled the Spanish to quickly seize control. It took Hernán Cortéz only two years, from 1519 to 1521 to defeat the Aztecs and capture Tenochtitlán, their capital. On the other hand, Francisco de Montejo received permission in 1526 to conquer and colonize Yucatan. In contrast to the Spanish experience with the Aztecs, this task took 20 years, and was not completed until 1546. B'ak Halal was one of the last cities captured. According to a sign at Fuerte San Felipe, at Bacalar, "In 1544, on top of the corpses and rubble of B'ak Halal, the Spanish founded the Villa de Salamanca de Bacalar."

The primary difference between the Maya and the Aztec conquests was the decentralized Maya political structure. Each chieftaincy had to be conquered, one at a time. Often, they didn't stay conquered and rebellions had to be suppressed. Tayasal, located in northern Guatemala, was the last Maya kingdom to be captured. However, its conquest took until 1697. That was 171 years after Francisco Montejo began his assault on the Maya of Yucatan and 178 years after Hernán Cortéz marched on the Aztecs.


New World wealth flows to Spain


Spanish galleon of the type used from the 16th to the 18th centuries. These ships were armed with numerous cannon and carried rich cargos. As such, they were both the battleships and supertankers of their day. The first galleon was designed in the 1550s by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral and advisor to the king. The raised structures on the bow and stern, called the forecastle and aftercastle, were good for defense but also made the galleon much less nimble than smaller, lighter ships. In the 17th century, the flagship of Spain's Flota de Indias (West Indies fleet) was called the San Martin.

Just as soon as a colony was established, commerce would begin to flow. Silver, gold, and other luxury products were shipped exclusively to either Seville or Cadiz in Spain, so that the king could be sure to receive his Quinta (Royal Fifth) of the treasure. All the products needed by the colonists were carried from Spain to Bacalar and the many other settlements on or near the New World's coasts. The Spanish Crown established strict rules for this commerce. Until the reforms of the 1780s, colonists were forbidden from trading with any other nation, or even with other Spanish colonies. All goods they imported had to be produced in Spain and transported by Spanish ships. As time went on, these rules were difficult to enforce and the result was considerable smuggling.


This octante was one of numerous navigational instruments used on Spanish ships. An octante measured the height of the stars in order to find the longitude of the ship at a given point in time. The arc at the base represents an octavo (1/8) of the circumference of a complete circle, hence the name of the instrument. The octante was the predecessor of the sextant, a navigational instrument still used today. Other navigational aids included a brújula marina (marine compass), reloj de arena (hourglass), astrolabio planisférico (measures the altitude of the sun over the horizon), and nocturlabio (determines the hour at night).


Two other types of Spanish ships used in the Caribbean. The ship of the line (top) was a style of warship developed by Spain in the 17th century. The "line" refers to the battle line formed during naval warfare. Such ships continued in use into the second half of the 19th century. A ship of the line had three decks armed with cannon, making it a formidable instrument of battle. It had a lower aftercastle than a galleon, and no forcastle, so was quicker and more maneuverable.

The brig (bottom) was a fast and very maneuverable ship developed in the second half of the 17th century. It had two masts with large square sails as well as a jib sail on the mainmast. Because it was smaller and quicker than a ship of the line or a galleon, it was better suited to chase the pirates that began to plague the Caribbean as early as the 16th century.


African slavery follows native population crash


A Spaniard whips a hapless native with a cat 'o nine tails. Whipping recalcitrant natives was a popular method of keeping them in line. Even the evangelizing friars utilized this form of punishment, sometimes because an indigenous person failed to show up for mass or some other religious occasion. Spanish abuse and massacres killed off substantial number of natives, but imported European diseases were the main cause of the drastic decline of the indigenous population. These diseases arrived with Cortéz's expedition, as well as with later Spanish immigrants. Wave after wave of epidemics afflicted the natives with diseases for which they had no resistance. Between 1650 and 1750,  in many areas as much as 90% of the indigenous population died.

It was one thing for the Spanish to kill off some natives through massacres or abuse. It was disastrous to lose 90% of the workforce, since the Spanish depended on the native population for nearly all forms of manual labor. Every Spaniard, after all, wanted to consider him/herself part of the gentry and above all that. Burgeoning industries such as mining, textiles, and sugar production were very labor intensive and required a workforce that could survive long hours of work and periodic epidemics. The solution chosen by the Spanish (and later by the English and French) was African slavery.


Slave ships were typically packed tight and many people died during the journey. Even a substantial loss of life during transit would not inhibit great profits at the end. In 1501, the first African slaves in the Americas were brought to the Spanish Caribbean colony of Hispanola. This was 118 years before they were imported to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. Interestingly, the first African slaves to arrive in mainland North America came in 1519 with the Cortéz expedition. One of them was infected with smallpox, leading to the first great epidemic among the native people. Smallpox caused the death of Cuitláhuac, Emperor Moctezuma's immediate successor, which weakened the Aztec defense against the Spanish invaders.

In 2006, the remains of four African slaves were unearthed at a colonial-era graveyard in Campeche, an early Spanish seaport on the Gulf Coast of Yucatan. The bones are those of young-to-middle aged men and date from about 1550 to the late 1600s. This period matches the time of the indigenous population crash. The Spanish bought their slaves through the Portuguese, who controlled the African slave trade from West African posts they had established in the late 1400s. In addition to working in mining, textiles, and sugar production, African slaves were employed as household servants by wealthy Spaniards living the colonial cities.


Spanish soldiers brand the face of a newly arrived African slave, while others wait their turn. One grinning soldier wields the brand while another stands on the slave's ankle restraints and grips his neck so that he can't avoid the hot iron. Faces were branded so that someone who was a slave could be immediately identified as such.

Since these horrific events occurred many centuries ago, there is sometimes a tendency to view them as just the way things were done in those days. We should not forget that the Nazis, Japanese, and Soviets all employed large-scale slave labor as recently as the mid-20th century. In fact, slavery continues to be a problem in many parts of the world. It is estimated that there are between 21 million and 70 million enslaved people worldwide, depending upon the the definition of slavery and the method of counting them.


The rise of piracy


A small boat packed with pirates maneuvers around a lumbering galleon. Piracy in the New World started early. One of the first documented attacks occurred in 1523, when a French corsario (privateer) named Jean Fleury captured two Spanish galleons packed with Aztec treasure. Hernán Cortéz had overthrown the Aztec Empire only the year before and was sending the booty back to Spain.

Jean Fleury was a privateer, or state-sponsored pirate, who operated out of Dieppe on the coast of Normandy. The treasure he captured was intended for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose domain included Spain. Instead, it ended up in the hands of the French King Francis I, a rival of Charles V. Fleury's haul included gold bullion, enameled gold and jade, emeralds, pearls, works of art such as mosaic masks covered with fine stones, as well as exotic animals. On the same voyage, he also captured a Spanish ship out of Hispanola carrying gold, pearls, sugar and cowhides valued at 20,000 pesos.

Before these spectacular seizures, the other nations of Europe were unaware of the wealth to be had on the mainland of the Americas. Soon, however, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico swarmed with ships sent by the other European powers. Some were privateers, while others were outright pirates. A couple of years after his seizure of Cortéz' treasure ships, Fleury was captured by the Spanish while on another privateering voyage. Despite his legal status as a privateer, Charles V declared him a pirate and hanged him to set an example.


Sloops like this were among the favorite vessels of pirates, particularly in the 18th century. Although much smaller than a galleon, ship of the line, or a brig, the sloop was fast and agile. It could easily catch a slow-moving galleon or other merchant ship. If a more powerful ship suddenly appeared, the pirate sloop could slip away into the maze of reefs and islands along the New World coasts. The bigger pursuer would think twice about following for fear of running aground.

In the 16th century, the main sources of wealth flowing from the New World to the Old were precious minerals such as gold and silver, cotton, and wood from Campeche on the coast of Yucatan. As previously discussed, the lucrative African slave trade flowed in the opposite direction.

A Papal Bull, promulgated in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI, had divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. This document excluded the other European powers, who were eager to gain markets and new sources of wealth. For almost a century, their attempts to set up their own colonies were blocked by the Papal Bull, backed up by Spanish military power. In response, the French, English, and Dutch governments licensed privateers to seize what they could of the Spanish largesse.


Pirate weapons of the 17th and 18th centuries. At the top is an 18th century flintlock "blunderbuss". This was a smoothbore weapon that could be loaded with a large lead ball or used as a shotgun for fighting at close quarters. The two 17th century boarding swords (also known as cutlasses) were used when pirates clambered aboard a merchant ship to assault its crew. The long, heavy blades of the cutlasses made them fearsome weapons, while the metal guards surrounding the hilts protected the hands of the men wielding them. The two 17th century pistols are smoothbore flintlocks. The top pistol is of German manufacture while the bottom is English.


Pirates sack and burn Havana. Galleons were not the only targets of pirates and privateers. They also attacked ports like Havana and inland towns like Bacalar, where treasure was gathered for shipment to Spain. Bacalar, although set back a few miles from the Caribbean coast, was repeatedly captured and plundered in a manner similar to what you see above. Sometimes the attacks occurred with the connivance of the local colonists. The Spanish Crown set a policy that towns like Bacalar could not trade with foreigners, or even with other Spanish colonies. In addition, all goods arriving in New World ports had to originate in Spain and be transported by Spanish ships. To get around these onerous rules, colonists engaged in smuggling and some connived with pirates if the price was right.


Plano, or map, of Bacalar in 1746, showing Fuerte San Felipe. Because of incessant pirate attacks, the Spanish Crown began to fortify its colonial ports and towns. Fuerte (Fort) San Felipe was constructed in 1729, after a particularly brutal pirate attack on Bacalar in the late 17th century. The plano shows the fort situated on a bluff overlooking Lago de Balacar. The fort is square, with diamond-shaped bastions on each corner. All approaches to the fort could be covered by the cannons mounted within the bastions. The rectangular structure inside the fort housed troops, store supplies, and served as an administrative center. Fuerte San Felipe is an excellent example of colonial-era Spanish military architecture. In my next posting, I'll give you a detailed look at the fort, as well as outlining some of its interesting history.

This completes my posting on the Conquest, Colonization, and Piracy that marked the colonial era in the Southern Yucatan Peninsula. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, that you will please leave any thoughts or comments in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim












Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Southern Yucatan Peninsula: Bacalar's pre-hispanic heritage


Maya village as it might have appeared when the Spanish arrived in 1543. The individual homes stood on raised platforms, with walls made of upright sticks and roofs of thatched palm fronds. Household work was largely an outside activity, performed on the small terraces surrounding the houses or in other public areas. This included some of the tasks seen above, such as grinding corn or using a back-strap loom to weave cotton or other fibers. 

The original name of Bacalar was B'ak Halal, meaning "Surrounded by Reeds". It was founded in 435 AD by the Itzaes, one of several Maya groups within the Putun culture. The Putun tribes migrated from the Gulf Coast of the modern state of Tabasco into the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. They brought the cultural influences of Central Mexican civilizations like Teotihuacán and passed these influences on to the people they encountered along the way. Around 900 AD, when the Classic-Era Maya civilization collapsed, some of the Itzaes moved further north and founded a great city called Chichén Itzá ("Well of the Itzaes"). The Putunes were seafarers who established trading posts all along the Gulf and Caribbean coasts of the Peninsula. B'ak Halal prospered as a center of trade within this network until the Spanish arrival.


The "daily grind" of pre-hispanic Maya life. A woman grinds maiz (corn) on a flat, stone tray called a metate, using a stone roller called a mano. She kneels on a woven reed mat called a petate. Surrounding her metate are various clay pots and woven baskets used for storing and preparing food. 

Behind the woman, a hammock can be seen through the doorway of her house. The first known hammocks were made by the people of Central and South America more than 1000 years ago. However, they didn't arrive in the Yucatan Peninsula until about 1300 AD. The earliest of these sleeping nets were woven from the bark of the Hammack tree, hence the name. When slung between poles or trees, hammocks were ideal for hot weather and enabled the sleeper to avoid dangerous snakes and insects on the ground. Hammocks were first encountered by Europeans when Columbus visited the Caribbean islands in 1492. In 1590, European navies began to use them as sailors' beds because they could easily be stored when not in use, clearing the sleeping area for other purposes.

Village economy

Canoe typical of those used in Lago de Bacalar for trading. Notice the turtle shells arranged in the stern of the trader's boat. These were used as drums or were sometimes carved into jewelry. Other items of trade included jade, shells, feathers, gold, cotton, wax, honey, and salt. Such goods were favored over agricultural products because small, relatively light luxury products were easier to transport and yielded higher profits. 

B'ak Halal's lakeshore site was ideal for trade. Moving goods north or south by canoe was much easier and cheaper than hauling them through the jungle on the backs of porters. Since the southern tip of the lake was only a few kilometers from the Rio Hondo, goods could easily be portaged and then paddled up the river into the interior or downstream into Bahia de Chetumal and the Caribbean. To guide themselves, the traders used maps painted on cotton cloth. The most important medium of exchange was the cacao bean, although other items were sometimes used. In addition to its importance as a trading center, B'ak Halal also produced many of the canoes used by traders and fishermen. 



Everyday life required a variety of tools. On the top row are (from the left) three axes, two manos and a metate. Among those on the bottom are a variety of cutting tools of various sizes. Also present are two round stones. One of these may be for pounding and the other (on the far right with a hole through its center) may be for straightening the shafts of arrows. All the tools show excellent craftsmanship and the stones for several seem to have been chosen for their intrinsic beauty. 



Maya woman using a back-strap loom. Weaving materials included cotton and other local fibers. Wool, however, did not arrive until the Spanish brought European sheep. The weavers produced their cloth for trade as well as for local use. The backstrap loom is a very ancient technology and the Maya were not the only ones who developed it. I recently saw a statue from an ancient Egyptian tomb showing a woman using an almost identical rig. However, there is no evidence of cultural interaction between the New and Old Worlds after the hunter-gatherers passed across the Bering Strait to populate the Americas. Many millennia after those early migrations, looms like this came into use. Like metates and various other ancient technologies, back-strap looms are still used in Mexico. Just last week, in the Mexican village where I live, I photographed an indigenous woman using a back-strap loom to create beautiful textiles for the tourist trade.

Maya homes

A Maya nah. I have seen relief sculptures on temples at the ancient Maya city of Uxmal that look just like this. Similar to back-strap looms, the ancient nah design has persisted into modern times. A visitor to any pueblo in the Yucatan Peninsula will almost certainly encounter currently occupied homes of the same type. The typical nah is built by the owner him/herself from locally obtained materials. While it looks rustic, even primitive, the structure is a model of rationality, economy, and functional design. If the walls are constructed from upright sticks, the style is called chuychée. If the sticks are woven horizontally, it is called kolkolchée. The thatched roof is made from palm fronds and both the sticks and the fronds are readily available in the local forest. The space between the sticks in the walls allows for a free flow of air in the warm, humid climate. The high ceiling allows warm air to rise and escape through the thatched roof.


Detail of a thatched roof. The thatch, called guanoo or xaann, allows warm air and smoke from hearth fires to escape. Rain runs off rapidly, due to the waterproofing properties of the smoke from the wood cooking fires. If properly constructed and maintained, a roof like this will last for up to 30 years. One problem is insect infestations. A group of archeologists who stayed in a traditional village were consternated by the periodic appearance of army ant swarms and sought some way to deter them. However, they soon noticed that the local people welcomed the ants. Swarming over everything as it passed, the ant invasion caused the insects in the houses to flee to avoid being consumed. Once the army ants had marched on, the villagers could move back into their now insect-free homes. And, unlike exterminators in the First World, the ants charged nothing for their services.


Two doors face each other, on the front and back of the house. There are no windows. The typical nah is oval-shaped and measures 8m (26 ft) long and 4m (13 ft) wide. In ancient times, the house was built on a raised, limestone platform so as to avoid flooding during the rainy season. The platform was surfaced with a layer of lime plaster, creating a relatively smooth floor. 


Ceiling of the nah, at one end of the oval. A nah ceiling typically rises 5m (16 ft) from the floor to its peak. This height allows the warm air to rise so that the thatch can pass it through, helping to keep the lower part of the nah cooler during the hot season. The oval shape of the nah is ideal for resisting the hurricane winds that lash the coasts of Yucatan every year.


The structure is secured by four main posts, two on each side of the nah. Notice how the fork of a tree has been used to make the joint when the vertical post meets a horizontal cross-support and a rafter. All parts of the nah are held together by jungle vines and twine made of sisal.


Food and its preparation

Foods consumed by both the ancient and modern Maya. Calabasa (squash) and maiz (corn) are in two of the baskets. I have not been able to identify what appears to be fruit in the third basket. Many Maya still practice traditional slash-and-burn agriculture. This method rids the area of insects while fertilizing the soil with the ash. Next, using a pole with a pointed end, the farmer makes a row of holes in the ground. Into these, he drops kernels of maiz and frijol (bean) seeds. As they grow, the beans gather nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, nourishing the roots of the maiz plant. The maiz stalk, in turn, provides a stable surface on which the frijol plant can climb. Calabasa is planted in between the rows. Growing low to the ground and having broad leaves, the squash inhibits weeds. Thus, three crops can be harvested from one field every season. Each supports the growth of the others and the overall process requires much less effort than if they were grown separately. This method of farming has been used since ancient times and continues in use today. 


Wood bench displaying a variety of gourd containers. Gourds are possibly the oldest form of containers used by humans, pre-dating pottery and even baskets. Unlike the latter two, they grow in the wild and don't have to be woven or shaped from clay. Gourds, once dried and cleaned out, are light and sturdy. Their shapes naturally suggest a variety of uses, such as canteens, dippers, bowls, cooking pots, and storage containers for both liquid and dry foods. 


Slinging a basket from a tripod is a simple way to store things up off the ground. This helps keep insects and other critters out of the contents. The use of tripods was widespread in Mesoamerica. Pottery or furniture supported by tripods is much more stable and balanced than similar objects which have four legs. Anyone who has tried to even-up the legs on a four-legged table will know what I mean.


A comal, or cooking griddle, is supported by three chunks of limestone. When in use, the three stones form the boundary of the fire and a good tripod for the comal. This Mesoamerican cooking device dates back to 700 BC. Although the traditional clay comal has largely been supplanted by the metal version seen above, the function is identical. Maiz was central to the diet of the pre-hispanic Maya, as well as the rest of the settled peoples of Mesoamerica. It was first domesticated in southern Mexico around 6700 BC. The ancient method of preparation is still in use in many Mexican households. The kernels are first dried and then soaked in a limewater solution called nixtamal to break down the cellulose. The softened kernels are then ground into a powder on the metate and mixed with water to make a dough called masa. The dough is shaped into thin, circular cakes by slapping it between the palms of the hands. When cooked on a comal, these become tortillas, central to the diet of Mexicans since early pre-hispanic times. 

This completes my posting on Maya life in ancient times. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, please leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, please leave your email address so that I can respond. 

Hasta luego, Jim