Merida’s defenses against pirates

When talking about pirates in the Yucatan Peninsula, history always refers to the port of Campeche, which was sacked several times. However, the capital of the province, Merida, despite not having suffered any intrusion from these enemies, also had a defensive strategy in case the pirates intended to take it. The prevention covered a wide area around the capital, and can be divided into three phases.

The first was along the coast. Since 1561, Spanish king Felipe II ordered his viceroys and governors to establish sentries and watchtowers for the protection of the main ports of the Indies. From 1565 to 1571, during the government of Luis de Cespedes, watchtowers were erected in Yucatan to watch over the coast near Merida.

This security measure was taken out of fear that French ships were loitering in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and that at some point in time, they might arrive in the Yucatan. Since those early years of the colony, the capital’s city officials showed their concern that those pirates could also take Merida, as well as other towns in the province and become stronger in this region. This type of construction of perishable material remained throughout colonial life in the region.

On the intermediate part between the coast and the city, since 1663, due to the capture of Jamaica by the English, the authorities thought of building a system of protection on the roads, materializing that idea in a series of trenches. This measure had to be improved and expanded over time, since by the mid-18th century at least 17 groups of trenches were reported on the roads leading to Merida on the northeast, north and northwest sides, according to a 1722 map.

The third phase of this strategy was built in Merida. As a result of fears of the enemy’s presence in the waters around the Iberian Peninsula, in the second half of the 17th century Governor Rodrigo Flores de Aldana revived the project to build a defensive wall in the capital by royal order.

The concern of the metropolitan and provincial authorities was based on the fact that during the previous years they had experienced fears of the probable invasion of pirates, and the eventual rebellion of the indigenous people. The result was the erection of the Citadel of San Benito, with six bastions and wall paintings, which began to be built in 1667 and was completed in 1669.

Overall, the watchtowers on the coast, the trenches at the entrances to the capital, and the Citadel of San Benito can be considered the architectural defense with which Merida was protected against a probable landing of enemies who intended to take it. All the works coexisted for more than a century.

In addition, in 1685 the authorities of Merida asked the king to build a wall to protect the city, a matter that was not resolved, and in 1690 the governor reported that they were digging underground to shelter the population in case of invasion by pirates. No doubt the fear of those warthogs was not exclusive to the coastal cities.

From Merida of the Yucatan of the Indies – Piracy and defensive strategy.

For The Yucatan Times
Jorge Victoria Ojeda Ph.D
Anthropologist, historian, investigator, author.

Read Doctor Victoria’s first column – The origin of the word “Yucatan”.

With a doctorate in anthropology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a Ph.D. in History from Universitat Jaume I, Castellón, in Spain, Jorge Victoria has been the technical subdirector of the General Archive of the State of Yucatan, the head of the Historical Archive of Merida and the director of the Museum of Popular Art of Yucatan. He is currently a professor and works in the Social Sciences Unit of the Regional Research Center of the Autonomous University of Yucatan.

Dr. Victoria has published fifteen books and numerous articles in Mexico and abroad.

His research on “piracy and pirates in the Yucatan Peninsula” and “Africans and Afro-descendants” has earned him international awards and recognition.



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