Spanish conquest of Yucatán

The Spanish conquest of Yucatán was the campaign undertaken by the Spanish conquistadores against the Late Postclassic Maya states and polities in the Yucatán Peninsula, a vast limestone plain covering south-eastern Mexico, northern Guatemala, and all of Belize. The Spanish conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula was hindered by its politically fragmented state. The Spanish engaged in a strategy of concentrating native populations in newly founded colonial towns. Native resistance to the new nucleated settlements took the form of the flight into inaccessible regions such as the forest or joining neighbouring Maya groups that had not yet submitted to the Spanish. Among the Maya, ambush was a favoured tactic. Spanish weaponry included broadswords, rapiers, lances, pikes, halberds, crossbows, matchlocks and light artillery. Maya warriors fought with flint-tipped spears, bows and arrows and stones, and wore padded cotton armour to protect themselves. The Spanish introduced a number of Old World diseases previously unknown in the Americas, initiating devastating plagues that swept through the native populations.

The first encounter with the Yucatec Maya may have occurred in 1502, when the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus came across a large trading canoe off Honduras. In 1511, Spanish survivors of the shipwrecked caravel called Santa María de la Barca sought refuge among native groups along the eastern coast of the peninsula. Hernán Cortés made contact with two survivors, Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, six years later. In 1517, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba made landfall on the tip of the peninsula. His expedition continued along the coast and suffered heavy losses in a pitched battle at Champotón, forcing a retreat to Cuba. Juan de Grijalva explored the coast in 1518, and heard tales of the wealthy Aztec Empire further west. As a result of these rumours, Hernán Cortés set sail with another fleet. From Cozumel he continued around the peninsula to Tabasco where he fought a battle at Potonchán; from there Cortés continued onward to conquer the Aztec Empire. In 1524, Cortés led a sizeable expedition to Honduras, cutting across southern Campeche, and through Petén in what is now northern Guatemala. In 1527 Francisco de Montejo set sail from Spain with a small fleet. He left garrisons on the east coast, and subjugated the northeast of the peninsula. Montejo then returned to the east to find his garrisons had almost been eliminated; he used a supply ship to explore southwards before looping back around the entire peninsula to central Mexico. Montejo pacified Tabasco with the aid of his son, also named Francisco de Montejo.

In 1531 the Spanish moved their base of operations to Campeche, where they repulsed a significant Maya attack. After this battle, the Spanish founded a town at Chichen Itza in the north. Montejo carved up the province amongst his soldiers. In mid-1533 the local Maya rebelled and laid siege to the small Spanish garrison, which was forced to flee. Towards the end of 1534, or the beginning of 1535, the Spanish retreated from Campeche to Veracruz. In 1535, peaceful attempts by the Franciscan Order to incorporate Yucatán into the Spanish Empire failed after a renewed Spanish military presence at Champotón forced the friars out. Champotón was by now the last Spanish outpost in Yucatán, isolated among a hostile population. In 1541–42 the first permanent Spanish town councils in the entire peninsula were founded at Campeche and Mérida. When the powerful lord of Mani converted to the Roman Catholic religion, his submission to Spain and conversion to Christianity encouraged the lords of the western provinces to accept Spanish rule. In late 1546 an alliance of eastern provinces launched an unsuccessful uprising against the Spanish. The eastern Maya were defeated in a single battle, which marked the final conquest of the northern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula.

The polities of Petén in the south remained independent and received many refugees fleeing from Spanish jurisdiction. In 1618 and in 1619 two unsuccessful Franciscan missions attempted the peaceful conversion of the still pagan Itza. In 1622 the Itza slaughtered two Spanish parties trying to reach their capital Nojpetén. These events ended all Spanish attempts to contact the Itza until 1695. Over the course of 1695 and 1696 a number of Spanish expeditions attempted to reach Nojpetén from the mutually independent Spanish colonies in Yucatán and Guatemala. In early 1695 the Spanish began to build a road from Campeche south towards Petén and activity intensified, sometimes with significant losses on the part of the Spanish. Martín de Urzúa y Arizmendi, governor of Yucatán, launched an assault upon Nojpetén in March 1697; the city fell after a brief battle. With the defeat of the Itza, the last independent and unconquered native kingdom in the Americas fell to the Spanish.


Satellite view of the Yucatán Peninsula

The Yucatán Peninsula is bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the east and by the Gulf of Mexico to the north and west. It can be delimited by a line running from the Laguna de Términos on the Gulf coast through to the Gulf of Honduras on the Caribbean coast. It incorporates the modern Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche, the eastern portion of the state of Tabasco, most of the Guatemalan department of Petén, and all of Belize.[1] Most of the peninsula is formed by a vast plain with few hills or mountains and a generally low coastline. A 15-kilometre (9.3 mi) stretch of high, rocky coast runs south from the city of Campeche on the Gulf Coast. A number of bays are situated along the east coast of the peninsula, from north to south they are Ascensión Bay, Espíritu Santo Bay, Chetumal Bay and Amatique Bay.[2] The north coast features a wide, sandy littoral zone.[2] The extreme north of the peninsula, roughly corresponding to Yucatán State, has underlying bedrock consisting of flat Cenozoic limestone. To the south of this the limestone rises to form the low chain of Puuc Hills, with a steep initial scarp running 160 kilometres (99 mi) east from the Gulf coast near Champotón, terminating some 50 kilometres (31 mi) from the Caribbean coast near the border of Quintana Roo.[3] The hills reach a maximum altitude of 170 metres (560 ft).[2]

The northwestern and northern portions of the Yucatán Peninsula experience lower rainfall than the rest of the peninsula; these regions feature highly porous limestone bedrock resulting in less surface water.[4] This limestone geology results in most rainwater filtering directly through the bedrock to the phreatic zone, from whence it slowly flows to the coasts to form large submarine springs. Various freshwater springs rise along the coast to form watering holes. The filtering of rainwater through the limestone has caused the formation of extensive cave systems. These cave rooves are subject to collapse forming deep sinkholes; if the bottom of the cave is deeper than the groundwater level then a cenote is formed.[5]

In contrast, the northeastern portion of the peninsula is characterised by forested swamplands.[4] The northern portion of the peninsula lacks rivers, except for the Champotón River – all other rivers are located in the south.[2] The Sibun River flows from west to east from south central Quintana Roo to Lake Bacalar on the Caribbean Coast; the Río Hondo flows northwards from Belize to empty into the same lake.[6] Bacalar Lake empties into Chetumal Bay. The Río Nuevo flows from Lamanai Lake in Belize northwards to Chetumal Bay. The Mopan River and the Macal River flow through Belize and join to form the Belize River, which empties into the Caribbean Sea. In the southwest of the peninsula, the San Pedro River, the Candelaría River and the Mamantel River, which all form a part of the Gulf of Mexico drainage.[5]

The Petén region consists of densely forested low-lying limestone plain featuring karstic topography.[7] The area is crossed by low east–west oriented ridges of Cenozoic limestone and is characterised by a variety of forest and soil types; water sources include generally small rivers and low-lying seasonal swamps known as bajos.[8] A chain of fourteen lakes runs across the central drainage basin of Petén; during the rainy season some of these lakes become interconnected. This drainage area measures approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) east–west by 30 kilometres (19 mi) north–south.[9] The largest lake is Lake Petén Itza, near the centre of the drainage basin; it measures 32 by 5 kilometres (19.9 by 3.1 mi). A broad savannah extends south of the central lakes. To the north of the lakes region bajos become more frequent, interspersed with forest. In the far north of Petén the Mirador Basin forms another interior drainage region.[10] To the south the plain gradually rises towards the Guatemalan Highlands.[11] The canopy height of the forest gradually decreases from Petén northwards, averaging from 25 to 35 metres (82 to 115 ft).[12] This dense forest covers northern Petén and Belize, most of Quinatana Roo, southern Campeche and a portion of the south of Yucatán State. Further north, the vegetation turns to lower forest consisting of dense scrub.[13]


The climate becomes progressively drier towards the north of the peninsula.[13] In the north, the annual mean temperature is 27 °C (81 °F) in Mérida. Average temperature in the peninsula varies from 24 °C (75 °F) in January to 29 °C (84 °F) in July. The lowest temperature on record is 6 °C (43 °F). For the peninsula as a whole, the mean annual precipitation is 1,100 millimetres (43 in). The rainy season lasts from June to September, while the dry season runs from October to May. During the dry season, rainfall averages 300 millimetres (12 in); in the wet season this increases to an average 800 to 900 millimetres (31 to 35 in). The prevailing winds are easterly and have created an east-west precipitation gradient with average rainfall in the east exceeding 1,400 millimetres (55 in) and the north and northwestern portions of the peninsula receiving a maximum of 800 millimetres (31 in). The southeastern portion of the peninsula has a tropical rainy climate with a short dry season in winter.[14]

Petén has a hot climate and receives the highest rainfall in all Mesoamerica.[12] The climate is divided into wet and dry seasons, with the rainy season lasting from June to December,[15] although these seasons are not clearly defined in the south;[16] with rain occurring through most of the year.[12] The climate of Petén varies from tropical in the south to semitropical in the north; temperature varies between 12 and 40 °C (54 and 104 °F), although it does not usually drop beneath 18 °C (64 °F).[15] Mean temperature varies from 24.3 °C (75.7 °F) in the southeast to 26.9 °C (80.4 °F) in the northeast. Highest temperatures are reached from April to June, while January is the coldest month; all Petén experiences a hot dry period in late August. Annual precipitation is high, varying from a mean of 1,198 millimetres (47.2 in) in the northeast to 2,007 millimetres (79.0 in) in central Petén.[16]