After the fall of their capital at Chichén Itzá, the Itzá people migrated toward the south. In the mid 1400s, they settled at a large lake in what is now northern Guatemala. A well organized, warlike people, they soon dominated the region, and the lake became known as Petén Itzá. The outside world eventually intruded on their isolated realm.
Far to the north, in the great City of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztec Empire, discovered in 1524 that he had a serious problem down in Honduras. He had dispatched an associate, Cristóbal de Olid, to bring the region into Spanish control, but Olid had rebelled and set himself up as an independent ruler. Cortés, protective of his authority as Governor, Captain General, and Chief Justice of New Spain, assembled an army and marched south to put down the rebellion and teach Olid a permanent lesson.
Rather than take the easier sea route around the Yucatán peninsula, Cortés undertook an extraordinary cross-country trek to discover “unknown lands.” With him were 230 Spanish troops, 3,000 Mexica allies, and Doña Marina — Malinalli, La Malinche — as interpreter. Cortés also dragged along the deposed Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc to prevent his attempting to retake control in the capital. Cortés quickly put an end to that problem by murdering Cuauhtémoc.
Cortés and his legion arrived at the north shore of Lake Petén Itzá on March 13, 1525. The Itzá ruler came across the lake with a large party, and the two leaders met peacefully. The ruler was Ahau Canek, the title and name that all the Itzá leaders inherited, also spelled Ajaw Kan Ek’, and meaning “lord serpent star.” The Spanish staged an elaborate celebration of mass, after which Canek declared himself much impressed and interested in conversion to the new religion. This was the first of many stalling messages that succeeded in maintaining a distant peace with the Spanish for generations.
Cortés accepted an invitation from Canek to visit his capital and did so with a small contingent of soldiers, at apparent considerable personal risk. The city was on an island in a lake, and its name and location have been the subjects of controversy. The name Tayasal has long been used for the capital (as well as for a different site nearby), but the residents themselves called it Noh Petén (Nojpeten) or “Great Island.”
It was almost certainly the island now occupied by the town of Flores, near the southwestern shore of Lake Petén Itzá. The archeological site called Topoxté in nearby Lake Yaxhá has been proposed as an alternative, along with several others.
The visit was peaceful, and in what proved to be a highly symbolic act, Cortés left a lame horse in the care of Canek, promising to return for it some day. The Itzá treated the horse with great respect, providing meat for it to eat and floral decorations, as they would for a visiting dignitary. The unfortunate animal soon died. Concerned that the loss might anger the Spanish, the Itzá built a statue of the horse out of stone and stucco. The horse’s bones were also displayed and revered. They named the effigy Tizimin Chac, or Thunder Horse, based perhaps on the mistaken perception that the cavalrymen’s horses produced the noise of their firearms. (Tizimin is actually the Mayan word for tapir, their closest approximation for the previously unknown animal.)
Cortés and the ragged remnants of his army eventually reached the Gulf of Honduras at the mouth of the Dulce River, where they found that Cristóbal de Olid’s own officers had already put down his rebellion and dispatched its leader. Cortés then returned to Mexico by ship. Of the large army that set out six months earlier, only eighty Spanish soldiers and two hundred Mexica survived.
After the brief visit by Cortés, the Itzá had no contact with the Spanish for almost a century. The population grew as refugees fled northern Yucatán, with its forced labor, epidemic diseases, burdensome tribute payments, and export of thousands of Maya to Cuba as slaves. The Itzá earned a reputation for ferocity. Isolated by forests and swamps, they maintained their independence as the Spanish solidified their control in Mexico, Yucatán, and Guatemala. The region continued to trouble the Spanish as a refuge for Maya people fleeing their control.
In 1617 a Franciscan named Juan de Orbita reached Tayasal and, remarkably, convinced the ruler to send a delegation back with him to Mérida. The Itzá diplomats reportedly offered to submit to Spanish rule — another teasing, stalling tactic — and returned home. The next year, Orbita, another friar called Bartolomé de Fuensalida, and a colonial official from Bacalar followed up with an arduous six-month journey to Tayasal. The current Ahau Canek cordially tolerated them, and showed polite interest in the Catholics’ ceremonies, but refused all efforts at proselytization.
On a tour of the island town, Orbita came upon the statue of the horse, displayed along with one of the leg bones as objects of veneration. The friar became enraged, climbed onto the “idol,” and smashed it with a stone. This understandably irritated the hosts considerably, and Fuensalida managed to save the visitors’ lives with what must have been an amazingly eloquent sermon.
After some days of guarded diplomacy, Orbita, Fuensalida, and company left amid warnings not to come back. Nevertheless, the indefatigable friars did return in 1619 and again were received politely. Canek even seemed to agree to a kind of treaty of submission to Spanish authority, but another Itzá faction prevailed. Armed warriors ordered the missionaries to leave, attacked them when they resisted, and forcibly expelled them without food or water. Miraculously, they made it back to Mérida alive.
Three years later, the members of another religious delegation arrived, and this time they were quickly sacrificed to the Maya gods. In 1624, Spanish soldiers and their Maya allies, preparing a military assault on Tayasal, were taken by surprise and slaughtered to a man. These events ended all Spanish attempts to contact the Itzá for another seventy years.
Further diplomatic wrangling took place in 1695 but ended when an overwhelming number of warriors immediately attacked a friar and accompanying soldiers when they arrived at Lake Petén Itzá. This finally convinced the Spanish authorities that the Itzá would never surrender peacefully. Their continuing support for rebellions, harboring runaways, and attacks on outlying missions had become a major embarrassment, and they stood in the way of an ambitious, controversial, and expensive project to build a royal road to connect Yucatán and Guatemala. Organization for an all-out assault on Tayasal began.
Such an expedition of conquest was by this time an anachronism. Subjugation of the rest of Yucatán and of the Guatemalan highlands had been completed more than a century earlier, and colonial administrators had replaced military adventurers. The Itzá, unlike the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas in the previous century, had developed a good understanding of the Spaniards’ fighting methods. Despite the continent-wide Spanish dominance, the contest must have appeared uncertain to both parties.
A large army under the governor of Yucatán, Martín de Ursúa y Arizmendi, marched south from Campeche and arrived at the lakeshore on March 1, 1697. They brought heavy artillery with them, thanks to the new royal road. A few days of more diplomatic trickery ensued. Convinced at last that further attempts at a peaceful solution were pointless, Ursúa had boats built, including a large and heavily armed oar-powered attack boat, and launched a waterborne assault on Wednesday, March 13. Bombardment caused heavy loss of life on the island, and the city fell after a brief but bloody battle. Many fleeing civilians were shot as they tried to swim to the mainland. The Spanish suffered only minor casualties. The Itzá survivors abandoned their capital and melted into the forests. The last independent and unconquered Maya kingdom was no more.
Martín de Ursúa raised his flags over the abandoned island and renamed it Nuestra Señora de los Remedios y San Pablo, Laguna del Itzá. Reinforcements arrived from Guatemala, captured the Itzá rulers, and took them to Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (modern Antigua Guatemala). The last Ahau Canek spent the rest of his life there under house arrest.
When Tayasal fell, there were approximately 60,000 Maya living around Lake Petén Itzá. About 90% of the inhabitants died during the first decade of colonial rule due to disease and continuing warfare. The depopulated area had little economic value and never became a viable colony. The conquest was an unmitigated tragedy, perhaps foreshadowed by the small tragedy of the Thunder Horse.
By Robert D. Temple
A causeway now links the island town of Flores to the mainland (and airport). Only a few stones allegedly from ancient Tayasal (Noh Petén) remain in the town’s central plaza, but modern Flores is a wonderful place to visit. Red-roofed buildings and steep, narrow cobblestone streets fill the peaceful island from edge to edge.
The impressive archeological sites of Tikal and Yaxhá are nearby, as well as at least half a dozen other accessible sites of interest to Maya aficionados.
Few traces of the very expensive royal road connecting northern Yucatán with Guatemala are evident today. North of Flores, the tropical forest stretches unbroken across the border and into Mexico.
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