Canoes Vs. Conquistadors—Spanish Explorers Almost Lost Their Ship To A Fleet Of Stealthy Canoes


On April 8, 1518, Juan de Grijalva sailed from Cuba with four ships on an expedition to the Aztec shores of the Gulf of Mexico. His goals were exploration, gold, and, if possible, colonial settlement. The conquistadors fought one sizable battle at the native town of Champoton, a feisty settlement that had given Spanish adventurers trouble in the past. Yet, after that battle, the conquistadors faced virtually no violent resistance until the end of their expedition. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spaniard who was in the Grijalva expedition and later served with Hernán Cortés, wrote that the peaceful reception they received from the other local towns was due to the influence of the Aztec emperor, Montezuma II. The Aztec ruler allegedly encouraged his people to cooperate and trade with the Spaniards. The native population obeyed the emperor and the Spaniards successfully bartered for gold in several locations on their journey, usually exchanging worthless beads and cut glass for the native jewelry. Most impressively, the Spaniards spent six whole days near the Rio Jampa exchanging their baubles for gold.

As months passed by, the expedition began to run out of supplies. They sent one of the three ships, commanded by Pedro de Alvarado, back to Cuba in order to ask for supplies and reinforcements. With him also went any wounded Spaniards, as well as all the gold that had so far been accumulated. While the lone ship returned to Cuba, the remaining three vessels continued exploring the Mexican coast.

The peace and gold made the explorers complacent. Even though the sailors often anchored their ships near foreign cities, the lack of aggression made them comfortable enough to eventually begin neglecting lookout duty and inter-ship communication. While the expedition was still in regions firmly under Montezuma’s control, the Spaniards could get away with such behavior. Nevertheless, the explorers would soon be shocked out of their stupor.

Juan de Grijalva and his three remaining ships eventually reached the Pánuco River and anchored their ships where it met the gulf. As had become a regrettable habit, the sailors did not set up any effective lookouts and were generally inattentive in their security procedures. With these protective measures missing, the Spaniards were woefully unprepared for a threat that was silently rowing closer.

Unbeknownst to the Spaniards, they had entered hostile waters. The land around the mouth of the Pánuco River was on the periphery, or completely outside, of Montezuma’s sphere of influence. Consequently, the locals of the region had not received, or did not care to obey, the Aztec policy of appeasing the Spaniards. Instead, the locals living near the mouth of the Rio Pánuco gathered their canoes into a fleet and cast off to challenge the explorers.

Unbelievably, the stealthy fleet of natives successfully paddled to the smallest Spanish ship and began attaching ropes to the vessel. The absence of lookouts and a general lack of awareness among the Spaniards allowed the warriors in their canoes to work without any harassment from the oblivious sailors. Finally, one of the canoes paddled over to the ship’s anchor and chopped the line with an axe.

By now, the chop of the axe and the sounds of numerous oars slapping water had finally alerted the Spaniards. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness of the event, it was an incredibly odd sight—he estimated that he saw twenty large canoes, packed full of warriors. This imaginative native fleet was apparently trying to use their ropes and canoes to haul away the ship. While some of the warriors paddled the canoes, the remainder of the force used their bows to rain arrows down on the crew of the roped ship. Yet, unfortunately for the fleet of canoes, the sailors in the ship had by now grabbed their crossbows and muskets to return fire.

The commotion caught the attention of the other expedition ships. Eager to help their comrades, the crews from the unmolested vessels grabbed their crossbows and muskets before hopping into rowboats and set off paddling toward the fleet of canoes. With crossbow bolts and musket balls flying at the local force from both the roped ship and the oncoming rowboats, the warriors in the canoes began to take heavy losses. Now that the prospect of stealing the ship was impossible, the natives dropped their ropes and frantically paddled for safety. Unfortunately, Bernal Díaz claimed that he and his comrades were able to injure more than a third of the warriors before the canoes fell out of range. After the odd incident, the expedition gave the Rio Pánuco a nickname—the Rio de Canoas, or the River of Canoes.

The fight against the canoe fleet prompted Juan de Grijalva to began retracing his path back toward Cuba. On the return trip, the explorers faced no more attacks from the towns they encountered. Instead, the journey home was filled with trading and at least one case of theft. By the time Juan de Grijalva returned home, his expedition had obtained a treasure of gold worth an estimated 20,000 16th-century silver pesos.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Indian Canoe, painted by Albert Bierstadt  (1830–1902), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Leave a Reply