Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

After Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs, Spaniards turned their attention to the Maya of Yucatán, hoping to extend the conquest and to amass further wealth. Unlike the Aztecs, however, who succumbed to the Spaniards and their indigenous allies within two years, the Maya successfully resisted the conquistadores for twenty years.

Summary of Event

Following the conquest of Mexico (1519-1521), Spanish adventurers sought to replicate in Yucatán the exploits of Hernán Cortés. Although the first royally sanctioned Spanish landings on the coast of Yucatán had occurred in 1517 and 1518, interest in the region diminished when Spaniards, led by Cortés, reached the fabulous Aztec Empire Aztec Empire of Montezuma II in 1519. Maya Exploration and colonization;Spain of Yucatán Montego the Elder, Francisco de Montego the Younger, Francisco de Nachi Cocom Guerrero, Gonzalo Charles V (1500-1558) Cortés, Hernán Cortés, Hernán Guerrero, Gonzalo Montego, Francisco de, the Elder Pizarro, Francisco Montego, Francisco de, the Younger Las Casas, Bartolomé de Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Nachi Cocom

A Mayan palace, in ruins, in the Yucatán.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

After the spoils from the Mexican campaign had been divided, however, Spanish soldiers again turned their attention to the south. By the sixteenth century, however, the Maya no longer boasted the large ceremonial centers that had characterized classic Maya culture. They lived in small, dispersed villages and showed little evidence of possessing gold or other treasures of interest to Spaniards. Their persistent resistance to Spanish encroachments in the 1520’, coupled with the difficulties of performing military maneuvers in the harsh Yucatán terrain, encouraged Europeans to seek fortune elsewhere.

In the early 1530’, the wealth of Peru lured Spanish adventurers from Yucatán to South America. Only after the treasures of Peru had also been divided did they return to Yucatán, this time to stay. Maya resistance was fierce, culminating in the rebellion of 1546-1547. After quashing the uprising, the Spaniards established themselves in Yucatán permanently.

The Yucatán peninsula, jutting out into the Caribbean Sea not far from the island of Cuba, provided a logical stopping point for Spaniards sailing from Cuba to the mainland in the early years of the sixteenth century. In 1511, a Spanish vessel shipwrecked off the coast of Yucatán. Although most of the Europeans on board perished, two survived and lived among the Maya. One joined the Spanish expedition to Mexico, serving as interpreter, after he was found by Hernán Cortés in 1519. The other, Gonzalo Guerrero, allied with the Maya and instructed them on how best to resist Spanish incursions. Thus the people of Yucatán had an important resource the Aztecs did not have: someone to instruct them in European military strategy to be used against the Spanish conquistadores.

Spanish interest in Yucatán waned as Cortés and his men marched into Mexico. When the fabulous Aztec treasure reached Spain, however, European adventurers flocked to the New World seeking their fortune. Cortés, knowing that the Mexican spoils had been divided by 1524, encouraged these newcomers to explore farther to the south. Some who had participated in the conquest of Mexico also embarked on the new campaigns. Francisco de Montego the Elder, who had fought with Cortés in Mexico, was given the royal grant to conquer Yucatán. Unlike Mexico, however, Yucatán was not overseen by a single powerful leader.

Montejo found it difficult to exploit indigenous rivalries as the Maya fiercely resisted the Europeans. The Maya shot at them with deadly arrows, and they dug holes in forest trails and covered them with branches so that they could capture both horses and their riders at the same time. Disgruntled by the paucity of wealth, Montejo and his followers were eager to head farther south once they learned of Francisco Pizarro’s success against the Inca in South America. They questioned why they should waste their time in desolate and dangerous Yucatán when fame and fortune awaited them in Peru. To the relief of the Maya, the Spaniards abandoned Yucatán in 1535. That year also, the Spaniards found the body of a heavily tattooed European man among the casualties of a scrimmage between Maya soldiers and Europeans in Honduras; Gonzalo Guerrero was dead.

As had happened in Mexico, many European adventurers were sorely disappointed when they did not share in the rewards from the conquest of Peru. In 1540, Francisco de Montejo the Elder’s son (Francisco de Montejo the Younger) returned to Yucatán with a group determined to settle the region. For the next six years, they struggled again with the Maya. This time, knowing that there was no gold to be had as reward, they expected only to receive encomiendas, allotments of indigenous peoples as slave laborers who would pay them the equivalent of feudal rents in either labor or tribute.

By 1540, voices had already been raised against the Spanish practice of encomienda Encomienda . Bartolomé de Las Casas, who had participated in the early conquest of the Caribbean and for that was himself rewarded with an encomienda, had turned against the practice, claiming that the virtual enslavement of the indigenous encouraged disregard for their lives and resulted in horrible abuses against them. He became a Dominican friar who spent years between America and Spain, persuading Charles V that the practice of encomienda must stop. This set the stage for a division within Spanish ranks in the Yucatán. While conquistadores and settlers coveted the rewards of indigenous service, priests who sought to bring Maya souls to Christ saw themselves as protectors of exploited indigenous peoples.

By the time the Spaniards returned to Yucatán in 1540, Maya communities had become much weaker than they had been in the 1520’. Earlier Spanish raids had taken their toll; and even with the foreigners gone, Maya communities continued to suffer disruptions. Although battles with Europeans had stopped, the diseases brought by the foreign soldiers raged on. As droughts and ensuing famine also punished the region, more and more of the Maya died. In these new and troubled times, old rivalries between Maya groups resurfaced. Nachi Cocom, an Itza leader from Sotuta, availed himself of the opportunity to punish the Xiu of Mani for past treacheries. Civil wars broke out. Thus, the Europeans dominated not because a stronger group of Spaniards could finally conquer the peninsula but because they were determined to stay at a time when the Maya were no longer able to marshal enough force to push them out.

In the 1540’, Franciscan friars came with the conquistadores to Yucatán. Franciscans;Yucatán They assured the Maya that they would protect them from abuses by encomenderos. Yet when the practice of encomienda did not stop, the Maya turned against the priests. In 1546, they organized a large-scale rebellion to expel all Spaniards from their land. Although many of the Spanish died, the revolt was finally suppressed in 1547. The Europeans settled permanently in the Yucatán, bringing with them a new style of government and a new religion, yet they could not be fully certain that the Maya had accepted their control. The dire consequences of indigenous unrest haunted Spanish settlers in the centuries to come, as periodic deadly revolts confirmed their worst fears.


Spanish attempts to control Yucatán revealed the fierce determination of Maya Indians to maintain their own authority. Despite the superiority of Spanish weapons and the devastation of disease, the Maya were extraordinarily effective in their struggle against the Spaniards.

Even though Spanish government came to Yucatán after almost two decades of warfare, the Maya did not give up. They adopted Spanish ways, but in ways that suited them, guarding their own religion and culture carefully. Throughout the colonial period, Maya uprisings shocked those Spaniards who had tried to convince themselves that, at last, the Maya had been subdued. As late as the nineteenth century, a major Maya rebellion occurred in Yucatán. In what came to be known as the Caste War, the Maya killed thousands of Spanish-speakers and established their own government, which lasted from the 1850’s to the first decade of the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chamberlain, Robert S. The Conquest and Colonization of Yucatán, 1517-1550. Washington, D.C.: Washington Carnegie Institute, 1948. A still-useful, classic study of the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán Maya.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clendinnen, Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. An excellent reconstruction of the cultural misunderstandings between the Maya and Spaniards in the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farriss, Nancy M. Maya Society Under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A thorough discussion of the many ways in which the Maya resisted Spanish control in Yucatán.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farriss, Nancy M. “Persistent Maya Resistance and Cultural Retention in Yucatán.” In The Indian in Latin American History: Resistance, Resilience, and Acculturation, edited by John E. Kicza. Rev. ed. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2000. Focuses on the significance of Maya religion in resisting Spanish dominance.

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

1495-1510: West Indian Uprisings

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

1532-1537: Pizarro Conquers the Incas in Peru

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

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