In March 1517, the expedition of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba reached the native Yucatan town of Campeche. What happened there was a surreal experience for the Spaniards—only days earlier the conquistadors had suffered thirteen casualties from an ambush, yet at Campeche, the natives peacefully invited the Spaniards to take a tour of the town. Bernal Díaz del Castillo was one of approximately one hundred explorers who walked into the town that day, and he would later write about his experiences in his text, The Conquest of New Spain. According to his account, the priestly leaders of Campeche set up large pyres and then explained through gestures that the Spaniards had safe passage in town until the fires burned out. With the pyres lit, the Conquistadors spent some time admiring the local fashion, architecture and culture before hurrying out of the town as soon as the fires began to die down. After they left, the conquistadors reflected on their experiences in the town and many of them thought they heard the natives use several Spanish words and labels. Bernal Díaz, himself, remembered the locals of Campeche asking if he was “Castilan,” which he thought was a reference to the Spanish region of Castile or the former Castilian kingdom in Spain (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 3). The possible use of the Spanish language by the locals in Campeche was odd, as the expedition of 1517 was the first official Spanish incursion into the Yucatan Peninsula.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés became the leader of a new expedition with eleven ships and over 500 conquistadors. By then, the Spaniards had formulated some theories as to how fragments of the Spanish language had disseminated through the Yucatan. Bernal Díaz del Castillo was once again present on the voyage and he later recorded the thoughts of the Conquistadors. Hernán Cortés was apparently convinced that there were Spaniard captives in the Yucatan Peninsula from whom the natives were learning some Spanish words. It was not a far-fetched assumption—Bernal Díaz had personally seen two of his comrades be captured alive by natives during the earlier expedition of 1517.
The theory of Spanish captives was still on Cortés’ mind when he reached the island of Cozumel, located near the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. By that time, the Conquistadors had hired translators, and Cortés specifically tasked his translator to ask the natives of Cozumel about the existence of any Spaniards living in the Yucatan. The population of Cozumel, reportedly an important religious and commercial hub, indeed did know of some captives on the mainland. When he learned of this, Cortés hired some locals and sent them on a mission to the peninsula with beads and other trinkets with which to ransom the captive Spaniards.
After around twelve days had passed, a large canoe appeared at Cozumel. Seven people disembarked from the canoe, and the Conquistadors, after some double-takes and closer inspections, realized that one of the seven new arrivals was Spanish. Bernal Díaz described the man’s state: “He wore a very ragged old cloak, and a tattered loincloth to cover his private parts; and in his cloak was tied an object which proved to be a very old prayer-book” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 29). Upon reaching the Conquistadors, the man loudly exclaimed in Spanish a prayer to God and “the blessed Mary of Seville,” which convinced Cortés and the explorers that the man was truly a Spaniard.
After giving the man new clothes, Hernán Cortés debriefed him for information. The man claimed that he was a priest named Jeronimo de Aguilar and that, in 1511, his ship had run aground on a sandbar or shallow water somewhere between the colony of Darién, Panama, and Hispaniola. Aguilar stated that he and seventeen other people on the shipwrecked vessel loaded themselves into a rowboat and attempted to paddle to Cuba or Jamaica. Yet, storms and strong currents forced the small boat to a Yucatan beach, where a local Mayan chieftain captured the stranded Spaniards. Most of the captives reportedly suffered horrible fates. Some were said to have been killed in ritual sacrifice, and others were worked to death as laborers. Yet, Aguilar and other survivors eventually escaped and found shelter in more lenient Mayan communities.
By 1519, only two of the original eighteen captives were still alive—Jeronimo de Aguilar and another man by the name of Gonzalo Guerrero. The two apparently kept in close contact, for when Hernán Cortés’ ransom payment was brought to the Mayan town where Aguilar was staying, the now-free priest decided to personally bring the rest of the ransom to where Gonzalo Guerrero was living. Interestingly, Guerrero reportedly refused to accept the ransom and decided to stay behind in the Yucatan Peninsula with his adopted community. Therefore, when Jeronimo de Aguilar arrived in Cozumel to meet Hernán Cortes, he arrived alone.
Unfortunately, no written autobiography of Gonzalo Guerrero was ever found, and even Jeronimo de Aguilar never took the time to write down his own life story. Therefore, the account of Aguilar’s debriefing as recorded by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who would have met the newly freed Aguilar in person on the island of Cozumel, may be the closest thing to a first-hand account of Guerrero’s supposed life among the Maya.
Bernal Díaz recorded what Aguilar reported about the other surviving captive: “When questioned about Gonzalo Guerrero, he said that he was married and had three children, that he was tattooed, and that his ears and lower lip were pierced, that he was a seaman and a native of Palos, and that the Indians considered him very brave” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 29). Aguilar elaborated that Guerrero’s wife was the daughter of a prominent native and that Guerrero’s tattoos and piercings were done as an act of assimilation. In addition, Gonzalo Guerrero reportedly had started teaching his adopted town new tactics and strategies for warfare, eventually going as far as acting as a general for his community in military campaigns. Aguilar claimed that Guerrero had personally told him, “they look on me as a Cacique [military chief] here, and a captain in time of war” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 27). Whether or not the debriefing was accurate, the Spanish perception of Gonzalo Guerrero was formulated solely from Jeronimo de Aguilar’s testimony—no other Spaniards spoke to Guerrero while he was alive.
The legend of Gonzalo Guerrero skyrocketed in 1526 or 1527, when two Spanish leaders, both named Francisco de Montejo (senior and junior), began a campaign of conquest against the Yucatan Peninsula. The Spaniards were shocked to find that the Mayans were mounting a stout and powerful resistance. Instead of a quick conquest, the campaign against the Yucatan Peninsula would last for around two frustrating decades.
Many Spaniards could not reconcile the stark difference between the speedy collapse of the Aztecs in Mexico versus the dogged resistance of the Mayan communities in the Yucatan. Unable to bring themselves to attribute the strength of the native Yucatan war effort to anything homegrown, a great deal of Spaniards became convinced that all of their problems in the Yucatan theatre of war stemmed from none other than Gonzalo Guerrero. This belief that Guerrero was a leading figure in the Yucatan resistance became even more solidified in the 1530s, when Conquistadors began making reports of enemy corpses that seemed to have Spanish physiological features. By the time the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan was completed around 1546, Gonzalo Guerrero had become a legend regardless of his role in the native resistance.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Gonzalo Guerrero statue in front of a relief of captives presented to a Maya Ruler; c. A.D. 785; Mexico, Usumacinta River Valley, Maya culture; both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.