In March 1517, three ships carrying approximately a hundred Spanish fighting men sailed westward along the Yucatan Peninsula. Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba was the leader of the expedition and the chief navigator was Anton de Alaminos. In the middle of the month (around March 20), the Spaniards spotted a sizable native town called Campeche, which was located on a small bay. The explorers decided to anchor two of their trio of ships three miles out to sea, then they packed their full force of fighters into the smallest ship and loaded any stragglers onto accompanying rowboats. The Spaniards sailed this way into the bay and made landfall near a freshwater pool that was not far from the native town. They were equipped with all of their weapons and armor—the explorers had suffered an ambush by natives earlier that month and did not want to be caught off guard again.
When the Spaniards touched ground, the first thing they did was fill up their water casks in the nearby pool. While they were accomplishing the task, a delegation of about 50 well-dressed natives from the town of Campeche came out to meet with the foreigners. On this particular expedition, the Spaniards had no interpreters, so the two cultures did their best to communicate with signals and hand gestures. The natives pointed toward their town in a welcoming way, which the Spaniards took as an invitation to tour Campeche. The native delegates led the explorers (who were still well-armed) into town, and, to the credit of both peoples, peace was maintained.
Even though the occasion was peaceful, the atmosphere could not have been more tense. Bernal Díaz del Castillo was one of the Spaniards who entered the town. He was in his mid-twenties and this was his first expedition on land that was unconquered by the Spanish. Bernal Díaz would later write a history about his experiences in the so-called New Spain, including what happened when the Spaniards entered Campeche.
According to Bernal Díaz, the natives of the town were unafraid and confident. Despite the presence of the Spanish adventurers, local men and women wandered the streets as if it were any other day. Even so, the warriors of Campeche were mustered and armed with spears, bows and slings and kept an eye on the newcomers. The band of approximately one hundred Spaniards, with their swords, crossbows and muskets, could likely have defeated the town’s garrison, or at least have fought their way to safety, but the inevitable high casualties from such a battle was something this particular band of explorers wanted to avoid—the crew had already suffered at least thirteen casualties from the ambush that occurred earlier that month.
The Spaniards were ushered by their native guides and the local warriors to a temple in Campeche. From the temple came ten natives who wore long cloth garments that reached down to their feet. They had long hair that was covered in a red substance that reminded Bernal Díaz of blood. Although the Spaniards could not understand the local language, they judged from the aura of authority commanded by the ten figures that these men were leaders of the native community.
The ten leaders called for their people to bring dried reeds and other flammable materials to a position near the temple. From these supplies, pyres were formed. Using signals and gestures, the leaders of Campeche warned the Spaniards that their presence in the city would only be welcome as long as the pyres were alight—once they burned out, the warriors of Campeche would attack. After the warning was given, the pyres were lit and the ten native leaders withdrew to their temple without any further conversation.
Under the time restraint, the Spaniards did not have long to tour the town. Bernal Díaz spent his time people-watching and also took a peek into the temple. It was built from masonry, which he judged to be of fine quality. Inside, the walls were decorated with depictions of local gods and mythological creatures. There was also a symbol-covered altar that was recently stained with a disquieting substance, which Bernal Díaz believed again to be blood.
Unfortunately, even though there was still so much to see in Campeche, the pyres were beginning to burn low and the native warriors started to shout war cries. Not wanting to overstay their welcome, the Spaniards quickly withdrew from the town and marched for the coast. The explorers did not want to embark on their ships too close to Campeche, so they marched along the coast toward a large rock landmark and signaled for their ships to follow. Once safely away from the native town, the Spaniards embarked on their ships and continued their journey, without any blood being spilled.
Unfortunately for the Spaniards, the rest of their journey would not be so peaceful. Bernal Díaz estimated that by the end of the 1517 expedition, virtually all of the adventurers were injured and more than half were dead. Of course, Bernal Díaz was not among the deceased. Instead, he would survive to participate in other famous expeditions, including that of the famous conquistador, Hernán Cortés.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Conquistadors in Tenochtitlan, by Margaret Duncan Coxhead (c. 1909), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.