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












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