Published On: Tue, Jul 7th, 2015

The True History of Cozumel

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The true story of Cozumel’s past is now almost completely obscured by the misstatements, mistakes, and misunderstandings put forth in hundreds of poorly-researched websites, misleading tourist brochures, and articles by well-intentioned authors who relied on badly translated English versions of original Spanish manuscripts as their primary sources.  It is a crying shame.

For a few years now, I have been crusading against this dreadful process because I hate to see the true record of the past slip away and be replaced by this new “Disneyfied” version of events.  After writing articles on this subject in Spanish for various Quintana Roo newspapers and magazines as well as giving talks at Cozumel’s Museo de la Isla and the Universidad de Quintana Roo, I decided to write a book about it in English, The True History of Cozumel.  In the book, I tackle many of the most diehard myths and legends that have been touted for years as the truth regarding Cozumel’s past.  Some of them have been repeated so often that they now are enshrined in popular culture as ironclad fact.

Cover of The True History of Cozumel. (Ric Hajovsky)

Cover of The True History of Cozumel. (Ric Hajovsky)

A few of these assertions have a seed of truth in them, while others are made up from whole cloth.  For example, there are hundreds of authors who boldly state Jacques Yves Cousteau was single-handedly responsible for bringing Cozumel to the world’s attention by filming a documentary on Palancar Reef at the end of the 1950s or beginning of the 1960s, but this is a complete fabrication.  It is hogwash, as my grandmother used to say.  There was no such documentary.  The rumor began as a misguided attempt at promoting tourism by associating Cozumel with the famous celebrity and then it was repeated and re-repeated.  After years of reading about it, a kind of herd mentality has overtaken the public and most people will swear it is true.  However, if you do any kind of serious search for copies or written records of this purported documentary, you will soon realize it never existed.  There are no newspaper articles of the period reporting on what would have been quite a show, had it taken place.  Imagine the Calypso anchored off of San Miguel, handsome French divers coming ashore and posing for photographs in their spiffy striped t-shirts, and the big man himself, standing in his red tuque next to a proud Presidente Municipal for a hero shot.  But no such photos exist and there are no contemporary newspaper or magazine articles that mention anything of such an event.  Even the Cousteau Society says it never happened.  This tale is nothing more than one writer copying another without checking the facts and then being copied himself by another writer, and so on ad nauseam.


Poster announcing René Cardona’s 1957 movie, Un Mundo Nuevo, filmed underwater in Cozumel. (Ric Hajovsky)

Poster announcing René Cardona’s 1957 movie, Un Mundo Nuevo, filmed underwater in Cozumel. (Ric Hajovsky)

The film director who really did promote the island by making an underwater film in Cozumel was René Cardona.  That film, Un Mundo Nuevo, was shown in Mexican cinemas in 1957 before being translated into English and broadcast on American TV as A New World in 1958.  And that, folks, is why we have a Cardona Reef in Cozumel and no reef named after Cousteau!

Another oft-told tale I address in my book is how Maya women supposedly traveled from all over the peninsula to make offerings at the temple of Ix Chel on Cozumel at least once in their lifetime.  Another myth.  If you examine the original early documents in their original Spanish, Latin, or Mayan (and not the popular books and articles on the subject) you will find that there is only one, single, solitary instance where the names Ix Chel and Cozumel appear in the same document prior to the mid-20th century.  That one was written in 1579 by a man living in Valladolid and it says not a word about Maya women.  All the rest of the pre-twentieth-century documents speak of the temples of the other gods on Cozumel, like Teel Cuzam, Kinich Kakmó, Ah Yax Ac, Chinab, and Ah Hulneb, but not a peep about a temple to Ix Chel on Cozumel or a women’s pilgrimage to the island.  Claims of a women’s pilgrimage to Cozumel do not appear anywhere in the literature until the 1970s and have grown exponentially ever since.


Kinich Kakmó, a parrot-headed god worshiped by the Maya on Cozumel (Ric Hajovsky)

Kinich Kakmó, a parrot-headed god worshiped by the Maya on Cozumel (Ric Hajovsky)

Another story regarding Ix Chel that is patently false is the account of a life-sized statue of the goddess in which a Maya priest would hide inside and offer up prophesies while mimicking the goddess’s voice.  This tale has its origin in an incorrectly transcribed word.  Andrés de Tapia, who was with Cortés in Cozumel in 1519, wrote in his 1539 report that in Cozumel there was an idol of baked clay and that the priests would, in his words, “empower the said idol, and that is as it was, because the Indians said, according to what I could understand, that the idol talked.”  The Spanish word the eyewitness Tapia used for “empower” was “envestirse,” meaning “to invest him with a power” or “to confer a power on him.”  However, 33 years later, in 1552, Francisco López de Gomara rewrote that report in his Historia General de las Indias and changed Tapia’s word “envestirse” to “embutiase,” which means “he squeezed into” something.  The legend grew from there.


One of the most egregious misrepresentations of history is the fairy-tale that is purported to be the story of Gonzalo Guerrero.  First, it is important to know that the very name “Gonzalo Guerrero” never appeared in any written document until Gomara’s Historia General de las Indias in 1552.  Prior to that, the shipwrecked sailor was called “Morales” by Hernán Cortés in his (and other’s) sworn court testimony.  Cortés also refutes the part of the story that says “Gonzalo” declined the offer of rescue because he did not want to leave his wife and children.  The conquistador wrote, again in sworn testimony, “By this Jerónimo de Aguilar we were informed that there were other Spaniards in that caravel that sank and that they were spread out far and wide across the land, which, he informed us, was very large and it was impossible for us to be able to gather them up without wasting a lot of time.”  The story of the sailor refusing to rejoin the Spaniards was invented by chroniclers several decades after the fact.  Indeed, the entire legend of the shipwrecked marrying a Maya princess first appeared when a Mexico City newspaper reporter wrote the fictitious story in 1974.


Original report of the raising of the Texas flag over Cozumel in 1837. (Ric Hajovsky)

Original report of the raising of the Texas flag over Cozumel in 1837. (Ric Hajovsky)

One often hears that Cozumel was a base of operations for several buccaneers and corsairs, including Jean Laffite, Henry Morgan, Francis Drake, and many others.  Not so.  There were a few minor raids on the island in the late-1500s by minor-league French freebooters (of which I go into great detail in my book), but no one ever made the island their headquarters.  It is true that Jean Laffite’s brother, Pierre, spent a few months on Isla Mujeres, but there is no record of Jean ever setting foot on that island, let alone on Cozumel.  Other claims, such as the one made in the 1994 Baedeker’s Mexico guide are outright ludicrous.  That particular book says Long John Silver, a fictitious character in Treasure Island, lived on Cozumel!  The root of this myth lies in the Spanish term pirata.  This unfortunate nomenclature was made formal on June 22, 1672, when the Spanish Crown issued an edict declaring all foreigners who were trading without a license in Spanish overseas ports to be piratas.  This word  conjures up a vision of a swash-buckling buccaneer, cutlass in hand, a patch over one eye, and a parrot on his shoulder, but in reality it merely meant a contrabandista; a person who earned his living dealing in contraband, or merchandise upon which he had paid no tax.  That misinterpretation of the word “pirata” is what led non-historians to write that in the 1600s and 1700s Cozumel was a “pirates’ lair.”  This legend is far from the truth.  There were English logwood (palo de tinte) cutters on Cozumel at that time, but they were called piratas because they did not pay tax to the Spanish Crown, not because they were “buccaneers.”


The history of Cozumel is an amazing chronology of extremely interesting characters and events that has no need of embellishment.  The old, original eyewitness accounts were vividly written and often would make great movie scripts; like when the Republic of Texas planted its flag on Cozumel and claimed it in 1837, or the time Abraham Lincoln tried to buy Cozumel to use as a colony where he could send the freed slaves, or when Earnest Hemingway’s brother went searching for Nazi spies on the island.  Read the book and see for yourself!


The True History of Cozumel

Copyright 2015, Ric Hajovsky



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  1. Ric Hajovsky says:

    Hi Donna,
    I get the impression from your post that you have not read my book yet. If you did, you would have a new insight into how the information regarding Cozumel’s history that you read online and in popular books and magazines is based on misconceptions, mistakes and misstatements. For instance, I’m not sure where you found the statement that the name “Ixchel Peten” was once used as a name for Cozumel, but I have never seen it used in any early document or even a later research paper or historical account. If you could give me a source, I would like to read it. That is a new one for me!

    Wikipedia and a plethora of guide books and websites, each one copying the other, have reported that the name “Cozumel” is derived from an older name “Ah Cuzamil Peten.” That particular term is from a footnote in Samuel Kirkland Lothrop’s 1924 book Tulum, in which he states “According to the Motul dictionary, the aboriginal name was Ah-cuzamil-peten, ‘The swallow island,’ of which the present name is a corruption.” However, the “Calepino de Motul,” (otherwise known as the “Motul Maya-Spanish Dictionary”) written in the years between 1580 and 1610 by Fray Antonio de Ciudad Real actually does not say that. What happened was that Lothrop took two different entries from the Motul dictionary and stuck them together to invent his Maya equivalent of “Cozumel Island.” In the Calepinio, Ciudad Real defines “peten” as “ysla o prouincia o region o comarca” (island, or province or region or district) and “ah cuzam” as “golondrina” (swallow). Even so, since the good Padre Ciudad Real was a “white man,” you would have me believe that rules him out as a trustworthy source.

    The 19th century Mayista, Juan Pío Pérez Bermón, had also tried to paste together Mayan words from the Calepino de Motul to come up with an equivalent of “Cozumel Island.” His manuscript (which he wrote in the first half of the 1800s) was later finished by others and published as the Diccionario de la Lengua Maya in 1877. The finished work says “golondrina, en la acepción de cuzam ó cuzmin. así la isla de cozumel, tiene este nombre que significa lo mismo que ‘isla de golondrinas’: u peten cuzam, y que desde la conquista degeneró por un vicio de pronunciación en cozumel; debe ser cuzamil como decían los indios, derivándolo de cuzam.” But, once more, this definition was recorded by a “white man,” so must be unreliable as well.

    Oftentimes, websites say that Francisco López de Gomara called the island the “Ah Cuzamil Peten” in his 1552 book, “Primera y segunda parte de la Historia General de las Indias con todo el descubrimiento, y cosas notables que han acaecido donde que se ganaron hasta el año de 1551, con la conquista de México, y de la Nueva España” (also known as Historia General de las Indias y conquista de México). However, the truth is the name he uses in his book for Cozumel is simply “Acuçamil,” which he mentions two times. But, again, he was a “white man,” so you probably won’t count his version as reliable either.

    Another source often misquoted by websites is the Chumayel version of the Chilam Balam miscellany. This is one of 13 known versions of the Chilam Balam, which were 18th and 19th century miscellanies that are copies of copies of copies of earlier manuscripts, each full of stories, prophecies, calendars, myths, and recipes that various Maya copyists not-too-faithfully reproduced from the previous copies. Each succeeding version was muddled by the addition of new texts and the alteration of old texts each time the scribe copied a new version. Each one of these copied manuscripts has parts of texts that appear in other versions and other parts of texts that are unique to that particular version. It is impossible to reconstruct the original root text (or texts) because of these many revisions and additions. These thirteen extant manuscripts were all produced in the 1700s and 1800s, in a mix of Spanish and Yucatec Mayan with letters from the Latin alphabet. These manuscripts are collectively known as the “Books of Chilam Balam.” The most famous of these manuscripts was written in 1782 by curate Juan Josef Hoil and is now known as the “Chilam Balam de Chumayel.” Again, the attribution of this as the source of the name “Ah Cuzamil Peten” is not true. The name of Cozumel in Hoil’s particular version (the “Chilam Balam de Chumayel”) is spelled simply “Cu Camil.” The document says nothing about Ix Chel at all.

    Another source that touches on the topic of the name of Cozumel is a manuscript by Francisco Ximénez, a Spanish priest (another white man). He wrote this work in 1701, in a Mayan-language text alongside a Spanish text. Today we call this manuscript the “Popul Vuh.” You call it the “Mayan Bible.” (Woops! A “white man” wrote the “Mayan Bible?”) This manuscript is a copy of a collection of mythical and heroic tales of the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala, and the Mayan language used by Ximenez is not Yucatec Maya, it is K’iche’ Maya. The root language from which K’iche’ Maya is derived (Eastern Mayan) separated from Yucatec Mayan over 4,000 years ago. That is a long time for two cultures to develop separately and surely the tales, fables, religion, etc., must have mutated just like the language over this long period of time. On the first page of the Popul Vuh manuscript, Ximenez wrote: “Empezan las historias del origen de los indios de esta provencia de Guatemala traduzido de la lengua Quiche en la castellana para mas comodidad de los ministros de el sto evangelio.” (“Here starts the history of the origin of the Indians of this province of Guatemala, translated from the K’iche’ language into Castilian for the convenience of the ministers of the holy Gospel”). On the second page, Ximenez wrote: “Aquí escribimos y empezarémos las antiguas historias, su principio, y comienzo, de todo lo que fue hecho en el pueblo del quiche, su pueblo de los indios quiche.” (“Here we write and start with the old histories; their beginnings and commencements of all that happened in the K’iche’ culture, the community of the K’iche’ Indians”). So, the myths and beliefs portrayed in the Popul Vuh myths are not exactly the beliefs and myths of the Yucatec Maya from Cozumel, but are the beliefs of their Guatemalan K’iche’ neighbors in the Postclassic period, written down by a Spanish priest later in the Colonial period.

    Regardless, what I find interesting is that the original manuscript of the Popul Vuh does not contain the name, word, or title “Ix Chel” anywhere in it. It does mention Xmuqane, whom we now call Xmucane, a K’iche’ goddess of the creation myths and who we assume is a homologue of Ix Chel, similar to the way Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman) is the Toltec homologue of Ix Chel. But the Popul Vuh does not mention Ix Chel. Nor does the Popul Vuh mention Cozumel (except, perhaps, a line that says “Cocamel” is the name of a K’iche’ Lord). Again, I’d like to see the source you are quoting. It is probably an English version heavily rewritten and abridged. And that is the problem; few people actually go back to the primary sources for their information.

    I’ll wait for another time to address your assertion that “Ixchel Peten” is the old name of San Gervasio, but I will say that I disagree and again ask for your source

  2. Omar Mitchell says:

    Ric Hajovsky book on Cozumel is a scholarly document. Read it twice and currently using it a reference material.

    The research put into it is comparable to another recently read, ” The archaeologist was a spy”. Here again the Isle of Cozumel is featured prominently.

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