Published On: Sat, Feb 8th, 2014

The Shipwrecked Sailor who Fathered a Race

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The Shipwrecked Sailor who Fathered a Race

By Robert D. Temple

 “Surprising History in Yucatán” —Introduction to the Series 

In the spring of 1528, Francisco de Montejo and his force of some seventy-five Spanish invaders — sick, weary, and ill-fed — landed on the shore of Chetumal Bay and faced a large, well-armed force of Maya warriors.  Montejo was astounded to find the opposing force led by a light-skinned, bearded man, with many tattoos and piercings, and wearing full warrior regalia, but speaking perfect Castilian.  The two leaders negotiated the situation diplomatically.  The Maya made it clear that the newcomers were unwelcome, and sizing up his chances, Montejo accepted the bearded man’s invitation to leave.

The man was Gonzalo Guerrero, a sailor from the town of Niebla, near Palos, Andalucía.  Guerrero’s saga had begun in August 1511.  He sailed with Capitan Juan de Valdivia from the new settlement of Santa María la Antigua del Darién, in Panama, heading for Santo Domingo, the early political capital of the Indies.  Disputes between rival leaders in Darién were destroying the colony, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa had dispatched Valdívia in hope of convincing royal authorities to impose peace.  They carried a shipment of gold and slaves to illustrate the economic importance of the settlement.

On the third day at sea, a hurricane struck the ship.  The ship may have hit a reef near Jamaica, part of the group now called the Pedro Cays, then Las Víboras.  It foundered, but most of those on board escaped in a small boat, without sails, food, or water.  (The slaves and gold presumably sank.)  The strong Caribbean Current carried the craft west for fourteen terrible days, during which time several died.  At last the survivors reached the coast of Yucatán, probably on today’s luxurious Riviera Maya, somewhere south of CozumelIsland.  Accounts vary, but the shipwrecked Spaniards numbered between thirteen and twenty-one individuals and may have included two women.  They were the first Europeans to touch Yucatán.

All were quickly captured by the local Maya.  Diego de Landa tells us most of the captives perished in a cannibal feast, while a few were caged to fatten up for future banquets, but this is almost certainly untrue.  No credible evidence of cannibalism among the Maya exists, and Landa had a consuming obsession with demonstrating Maya depravity.  Instead, the captives were likely put to heavy labor as slaves, the women grinding corn without respite, the men perhaps cutting wood, carrying water, and mining limestone.  Most rapidly died of overwork, tropical diseases, inadequate food, and other unknowable mistreatment.  Some were doubtless sacrificed to the Maya gods, a typical fate of captives in war.

In any event, some survived.  Six years later, the explorer Francisco Hernández de Córdoba picked up rumors from Maya people farther north that bearded men, maybe as many as six, were known to be living in neighboring chiefdoms.  Two survivors of the shipwreck did live long enough to enter history, in very circumstantial and different roles:  Gonzalo Guerrero and Jerónimo de Aguilar.

Aguilar was a Franciscan friar born in Écija, Andalucía.  He and Guerrero apparently escaped their original captors and traveled toward the south, though their paths diverged dramatically.  Aguilar continued to survive as a slave laborer, somewhere on the Yucatán mainland not far from Cozumel, struggling to hold onto his Spanish and Catholic identity and keep his priestly vows.  Cortés miraculously made contact with Aguilar and ransomed him in 1519, and the priest’s knowledge of the Mayan language, acquired during captivity, made him an invaluable translator for the conquistador.

In contrast, Guerrero migrated farther south, eventually to the chiefdom of Chactemal, where he fully assimilated into Maya society.  Chactemal was the area that is now southern Quintana Roo and northern Belize, and its main town was probably a few miles from the present city of Chetumal.  As its original location, archeologists have proposed Santa Rita, just over the border in Belize, and Ichpaatún, an unexcavated site to the north, where evidence of Maya wharves exists.

Guerrero found favor with the cacique of Chactemal, Nachán Can, who must have recognized this slave as a valuable source of information about the strange new threat beginning to appear on the horizon.  Guerrero married the cacique’s daughter, Zazil Há.  Their children are known as the first mestizos, the people of combined European and American heritage who now predominate in Mexico, and modern Chetumal celebrates itself as the Cradle of Mestizaje.

Guerrero’s information about the Spaniards’ methods of fighting proved to be of considerable value.  Nachán Can’s warriors learned that the invaders were humans and subject to death like other men, that the sound of their guns was not supernatural thunder, and that their horses were not incarnations of mythical dragons.  In battle, the Maya had always fought to disable and capture the enemy.  Blood was sacred, and spilling it on the battle field instead of offering it as a sacrifice to the gods was a waste.  In contrast, the Spanish killed.  Some Native American armies fell easily before the new Spanish technology and tactics or even fled in terror, and the early acquisition of this information provided a huge advantage.  Guerrero rose to be a military captain.

Given opportunities for repatriation by the Spanish, Guerrero refused, preferring to remain with his family and new life.  According to the colonial chronicles, his first chance came from Hernán Cortés by way of Jerónimo de Aguilar.  When Aguilar received the message from Cortés offering rescue, he allegedly walked to Guerrero and begged him to return to the Holy Catholic life.  We are even given a long account of their conversation, with Guerrero proclaiming his love for his wife and beautiful children and embarrassment for his tattoos, Aguilar pleading for him to save his immortal soul.  None of this is credible, since the two men must have been at least 120 miles apart at the time.  Some word of the Spanish presence may have reached Guerrero, and he clearly did not want to be rescued.

Gonzalo Guerrero, Zazil Há, and their children Cradle of Mestizaje Monument, Chetumal, Quintana Roo

Gonzalo Guerrero, Zazil Há, and their children
Cradle of Mestizaje Monument, Chetumal, Quintana Roo

Nine years after the contact from Cortés, Francisco de Montejo sailed into ChetumalBay and gave Guerrero another chance.  Montejo had set out to conquer Yucatán with an expedition of some 275 men in four ships, first establishing a settlement as base camp.  The location he selected, on the coast between Xel-Ha and Tulum, proved to be a terrible one, swampy and without a decent harbor or good water, and many of his company sickened and died.  Six months of exploring, plundering, and fighting in the northeastern part of the peninsula further reduced his forces and supplies.  When he finally discovered the excellent harbor to the south, only about seventy-five of his men remained.

On coming to understand who Guerrero was, Montejo tried to win him over by reminding him of his Christian faith, offering him friendship and pardon, and asking him to come away in his ship.  Guerrero refused.  By this time, he had been living among the Maya people for seventeen years.  Again he mentioned his wife and children and added that he was formally a slave, so not free to leave.

At Guerrero’s insistence, Montejo abandoned any idea of remaining at Chactemal, but he noted the location as by far the best he had found for settlement and resolved to return with reinforcements.  The new-found wealth of central Mexico and campaigns in Tabasco, both military and political, diverted Montejo’s attention for some years.  Another expedition to Chetumal, in 1531, found the site depopulated, probably by a great smallpox epidemic that swept the peninsula.  That settlement attempt also failed, however, and subjugation of Yucatán, advancing instead from the peninsula’s west coast, required more than another decade of hard fighting for the Montejos — father, son, and nephew —to complete.

Of Gonzalo Guerrero’s fate, we have several accounts.  Although Montejo’s lieutenants reported him dead in 1532, a credible letter written by the acting Governor of the Province of Honduras, Andrés de Cereceda, in 1536 tells a different story.  Pedro de Alvarado, the especially brutal and cruel conqueror of Guatemala, launched a campaign to put down resistance led by a Honduran cacique called Çiçumba (or Çoçumba, Çocamba, Socremba, Joamba, or many other variants) in the valley of the UlúaRiver.  In August 1536, the body of a Spaniard was found on the field of battle, killed by an arquebus shot, attired and tattooed like an Indian but “bearded like a Christian.”  According to Cereceda, this man had come down the coast from Chactemal with fifty war canoes to help resist the Spanish colonization efforts.  Although Cereceda says the Spaniard was named Gonzalo Aroca, recent historians make a convincing case that this was Gonzalo Guerrero.  He was fifty years old when he died.

Guerrero was a reviled symbol of treachery from the time of the Spanish invaders to the foundation of modern Mexico.  Today he has been transformed into a national myth, a treasured political and literary icon connecting European colonizers and indigenous Americans.  Although the reality behind the myth may remain questionable, the Mexican government has enlisted the Father of Mestizaje toward creating a unifying national identity based on the vision of a lost past.




Travelers can find a large and impressively symbolic monument celebrating Gonzalo Guerrero in central Chetumal, in front of the market and just south of the Maya Culture Museum.  It depicts a reclining, ferociously bearded Guerrero facing and entangled with his impressively buxom Native American wife.  A child seated in front of their intertwined loins presents an ear of corn and a book.  The entire allegory is festooned with symbols of the Maya and Spanish cultures.

The southwestern entrance to Chetumal has a monument called Cradle of Mestizaje (Cuna del Mestizaje).  It is in the form of a Maya pyramid on which stand statues of Gonzalo Guerrero, his wife Zazil Há, and their children.

A statue of Guerrero as a Maya warrior also stands, with particularly powerful symbolism, at the north extension of Mérida’s most important boulevard, the Paseo de Montejo, opposing at a great distance a statue of his adversary, the Adelantado Francisco de Montejo himself, at the southern terminus of the Paseo.


Author photo jpg

Robert D. Temple, PhD, is the author of the award-winning book Edge Effects and numerous  magazine articles, mostly dealing with matters of local history.  He lives in Yucatán, Ohio, and  Virginia.  Some of these articles appeared in slightly different form, under the title “Tales of the  Mayab,” in an anthology published by the Mérida English Language Library in 2013.

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  1. Maxei DeVraie says:

    I must correct one huge mistake in this article: this article’ author dares to doubt the historical facts: that CANNIBALISM was a COMMON costume, spread widely across the Americas. Geronimo De Aguilar, survivor, testified of the fact that his companions were killed and eaten by the Mayas. The author makes a disservice and spreads a lie, confusion, and doubt; but the Truth is stronger than the wishful thinking and personal views.

  2. Maxei DeVraie says:

    The official old accounts and testimonies established that Gonzalo Guerrero died in ca. 1532. Therefore, contrary to this author, who attempts to reinterpret the history, says that the dead bearded man of 1536, and dressed like a Mayan cacique was Gonzalo Guerrero, just because of his own guts and some “romantic” feeling. This is pure speculation and spreads doubt and is misleading. Why the author does not rather consider that the killed man in battle could rather have been one of Gonzalo Guerrero’s Mestizo children, which, on account of the time at which he shipwrecked and escaped from being eaten, would be of about 22 years of age or so in 1536? The fact that it was dressed as described, matches better the possibility it was a noble, being the son of a Mayan princess. It is very disrespectful to doubt the old accounts, including Geronimo de Aguilar’s.

  3. Jorge Sanchez Ladron de Guevara says:

    El Gobierno Mexicano debería ya de honrar como se merece a este gran héroe nacional que dio su vida por una patria en la que no nacio pero que defendio incluso con su vida… un verdadero patriota y en este momento que en México el nacionalismo esta por los suelos permitiria a los Mexicanos darnos cuenta que nunca es tarde para recuperar los valores por nuestra gran nacion capacitandonos y sobre todo reaprendiendo a luchar en equipo como un Mexico verdaderamente unido asi como lo hizo Gonzalo Guerrero …. educando y uniendo a sus mayas.

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