In early 1517, over one hundred Spaniards on three ships set out from Cuba to explore the Yucatan Peninsula. The expedition, led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, was met with mixed receptions whenever it made landfall. In some regions, the natives attempted to ambush the explorers when they came ashore. Yet, in other locations, locals received the conquistadors in peace, allowing the foreigners to tour their communities for a limited amount of time while under supervision. All in all, the expedition must have seemed lackluster—they had suffered casualties in the ambush and had found very little gold. Nevertheless, they were still making progress, if only in mapping the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula and learning about the local population.
Around early April, 1517, the Spaniards had traveled a fair distance down the western shore of the Yucatan Peninsula. In a fateful decision, the explorers decided to anchor their ships and paddle their rowboats to shore in order to gather water from some freshwater pools that they could see further inland. There were approximately one hundred conquistadors that were healthy in the expedition at the time, and all of them went ashore with their weapons. When they reached the freshwater pools, they saw signs of life—there were some small buildings nearby, and enough corn was planted there to make the Spaniards believe it was a local plantation.
Before the Spaniards could gather their water and leave, an army of natives arrived from a nearby city that the Spaniards later identified as Champoton. The approaching masses were armed for war, carrying bows, spears, slings and shields. Many of the native warriors also were described as wearing cloth armor and had their faces painted in red, white and black. Even though the two groups were armed and mistrustful, peace was maintained. Neither side had a translator, so they communicated as best they could through hand signals. The awkward attempt at sign language continued until night began to fall. As the sky darkened, the natives started heading back to Champoton. In an unwise move, the Spaniards decided not to return to their ships, but to instead camp by the beach.
When the dark of night arrived, it did not take long for the conquistadors to realize something was wrong. Rustling and voices reverberated from every direction around the Spanish camp. Although no native archers or slingers launched any projectiles into the camp during the night, the Spaniards soon came to believe that hostile and armed forces were amassing outside.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador and historian, was present in that camp and later wrote about his experiences. The Spaniards in the camp were in disagreement about what to do. Some wanted to launch an attack that very night against the forces they could hear rustling in the dark. Others wanted to flee to the boats immediately. In the end, however, the conquistadors just held their ground and waited until morning. When light returned, the Spaniards discovered that what they had been imagining in the dark of night was all true. During the night, several nearby towns and cities had sent warbands to besiege the conquistadors. Thinking back on the situation, Bernal Díaz felt that he and his companions were “outnumbered by two hundred to one” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). The Spaniards were surrounded and it did not take long for the battle to commence.
According to the account by Bernal Díaz, it was the besieging native army that made the first move. After arranging themselves around the outside of the camp, the besiegers loosed a vicious barrage of projectiles with their bowmen and slingers. Bernal Díaz vividly wrote, “they assailed us with such a shower of arrows and darts and stones from their slings that more than eighty of our soldiers were wounded” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). After the opening volley, native infantry charged forward against the camp while the archers provided support. By now, the conquistadors still standing were returning fire with their muskets and crossbows, yet they could not stop the momentum of the oncoming wave. When the charging native warriors reached the threshold of the camp, the Spaniards fought back with their swords. After a brief melee, however, the native infantry apparently became frustrated by the Spanish armor and weaponry and they decided to withdraw back to their original position with their archers.
Although they had won the melee, the Spaniards were far from winning the battle. In fact, they were on the verge of destruction. In assessing the state of the conquistadors after facing the opening barrage and the infantry charge, Bernal Díaz wrote, “All our soldiers had received two or three arrow wounds, three of them had their throats pierced by lance-thrusts, and our captain was bleeding from many wounds” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). With many Spaniards dead and all other survivors wounded, the conquistadors decided their only option left was to flee for the rowboats. After packing tightly together, the ragged force pressed their way through the besieging natives and did not stop running until they reached their boats. With the enemy on their trail, the Spaniards did not take time to consider weight distribution and consequentially their rowboats began to take on water. Luckily, the vessels did not completely sink and the damp conquistadors eventually reached their ships.
The battle was reportedly only about an hour in length after the opening volley. Yet, although short in duration, it was incredibly costly in lives. According to Bernal Díaz, over fifty-five of the approximately one hundred men at the camp died of wounds sustained in the battle. Upon returning to the ships, the injured conquistadores immediately decided to return to Cuba. The captain of the expedition, Francisco Hernandez, was said to have suffered ten arrow wounds, but he lived long enough to lead his ships home. Tragically, he died of his wounds soon after successfully anchoring in Cuba.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (17th-century depiction of the entrance of Hernan Cortés into the city of Tabasco, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.