A multitude of buildings
A difficult task: evangelization
The failure of the Franciscans in Sacalum, the Yucatán
The end of the adventure
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- general information upon Maya countries,
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Tabscoob, a Maya ruler known for leading the Chontal Maya against Spanish forces (monument on the airport motorway, Villahermosa)
A bloody failure
The conversion of the Mayas in the region of Sacalum was undoubtedly the most prolonged and difficult campaign attempted by the Franciscans. It took twenty years, from 1603 to 1624, and failed. The friars hoped for a peaceful conversion of the Mayas under Franciscan control. But, unfortunately, the Governor of the Yucatán granted a commission for a military expedition to be launched against the Indians, drawing the destruction of Franciscan missionary efforts in the region
Third Franciscans succeeded in this task of evangelization: Juan de Santa María, Diego Delgado and Juan Henriquez. The last two were captured and sacrificed by the Mayas Itza. The soldiers and the converted Indians Yucatec who protected them were also killed. The churches that had been built in these communities by the Spanish were all burnt and destroyed.
This village, named Sacalum, "Sacaltum" or "Zaclum" in that time, is not the actual village of Sacalum in the Yucatan. It was a frontier town, a short distance west of Bacalar.
The Indians of Sacalum fear a bloody Spanish military expedition
“The Indians of the savannah called Sacalum savannah, who live west of the Ascencion Bay and half way between the cities of Mérida and Campeche, between our province and the province of Vera-Paz and Guatemala, feared that the Spaniards, after submitting the other Indians, would get ready to come down to the region to submit them by the force of arms, since once the other Indians were pacified, they would have no shelter where to go and hide. Among these unfaithful, there were a great number of christened runaways who had come to stay with the other Indians in order to live with the freedom allowed to them; and since many of them knew how to read and write, and even how to speak Spanish since they had worked as sextons and singers in their villages in the Yucatan, they were even more fearful because their sin was greater. They convinced the unfaithful and agreed with them that the best way to avoid the threat of arms and the misfortunes that war threatened to bring about on them, their children and their wives, was to go and submit themselves, swear obedience to the Governor and ask the religious missionaries to teach them how to live according to our Saintly Catholic Faith; this way they would be left alone and in peace”.
Friar Juan de Santa Maria agrees to negotiate peace with the Governor
“They were quite determined, but afraid to show their determination in public, such was the fear of the fugitives, and to protect themselves they decided to discuss the matter with one of the priests they knew, so that he could take a decision. Father fr. Juan de Santa Maria happened to be in our Campeche convent and was the priest of these indigenous people and mastered their language; he was at the time guardian in the convent of Oxkutzcab, where I find myself at present working on the final draft of my story.. Nine Indians who were among the fugitives went to this priest and asked him, on their behalf and on behalf of the other fugitives to negotiate with the Governor, the bishop and the provincial in order to obtain that religious priests come and teach them catechism and baptize the infidels in the region where they lived, to minister the sacraments and to reconcile them with the Church. .Father fr. Juan seized with great pleasure the opportunity that was given to him to exercise this gift of God and to reap the fruit of his labour: he appeased the Indians and offered to personally take them to the Governor and explain the situation in the best way possible. The Indians were happy with this offer and were no longer afraid. Father fr. Juan remained true to his word, took them to Merida and introduced them to the Governor D. Diego de Velasco, presenting their request and explaining to him that he had entire confidence in them. The noble Governor treated them with warmth and affection. Everyone was satisfied that a region which they were ready to submit by force , prior to the catastrophy mentioned before, was ready to freely submit to His Majesty our King and to receive evangelical preaching”.
He has the responsibility to convert the Indians of Sacalum
“The Governor, the bishop and the provincial discussed the matter and agreed to appoint religious priests, as requested by the Indians, since they would be of service to God and to the King, but the year 1603 went by and nothing happened, and no priest was appointed. At the beginning of the year 1604, Father fr. Juan de Santa Maria was appointed commissary of the conversion, as the Indians had made the request to him and since they liked him very much since he had negotiated their request, and as he was a reliable religious priest and knew quite well the Maya language. As he was quite interested in participating in the expedition, and willing to obey the orders of the provincial, he resigned his post as guardian and got quickly ready for the trip, while being even more confident than before, since he was not leaving on his own free will but obeyed the orders of his superiors, as is expected from the evangelical ministers to reap the fruit of their preaching, such as Saint-Paul declared”.
He regrouped the Indians in three villages
“He left in the company of his new spiritual sons and, guided by them, entered in these forests unknown to any other evangelical minister, and he travelled to visit them during the whole year 1604, approaching the Indians and reassuring them, while surmounting the difficulties usually encountered during such new conversions. He was so zealous that he pacified during that year three provinces which were transformed into three jurisdictions with guardians the following year. After informing the provincial of the progress of the conversion, and once it was agreed that more priests should be sent, the Franciscan province appointed Father fr. José del Bosque as guardian of the region of the province of Sacalum and its convent dedicated to N.P.S. Francis, and under his authority, Father fr. Buenaventura de Valdes for the province of Ichbalché and his convent of the Magi, as well as Father fr. Juan de S. Buenaventura for the province of Chunhaas dedicated to Saint John and that of Tzuctok dedicated to Saint Jerome. They elected guardians to these convents until the year 1614 […]”.
Ten years later, these villages were abandoned
“D. Carlós de Luna y Arellano was then appointed Governor of our provinces […]. It may be that the Governor got irritated by the priests, knowing that they were of a different opinion (regarding pacific evangelization of the Indians). God knows all hearts. Because of this opposition, what had been won was lost and as of the year 1614, no guardian was appointed in these convents. On 17 April 1611, the Father commissary fr. Juan de Santa Maria, who was at the time guardian in the convent of Homun, […] wrote these words: “(The conversion) did not progress, on the contrary some villages have been deserted and their inhabitants ran away because of prohibitions and obstacles put forward by the Governor that led to multiple and strong incentives to a return to idolatry. And if with the help of God, the patience and zeal of the priests and their proper administration had not vanquished all the obstacles encountered until the day of testimony… Signed by me, etc.”. But as I just said, three years later, everything had already been lost”. (Diego López de Cogolludo, Historía de Yucatan, book 8, chapter 9, translated by Chantal Burns)
(Cogolludo’s depiction is partial, because the responsibility for this failure is shared. It is true that Governor Carlós de Luna y Arellano wanted to start the military reconquest and put his son as Commander, but the Franciscans, usually pacific, also employed authoritarian methods that consisted in ordering the Indians to regroup in the three reduction villages.)
The former village of Sacalum
Its exact location is unknown. Probably a distance west of Bacalar, north of Rio Azul (Belize border), not so far from the Maya ruins of Rio Bec. (From: Latin American Studies / France V. Scholes and Eleanor Adams, Documents Relating to the Mirones Expedition, Labyrinthos, Culver City, 1991)
Fray Diego Delgado wants to convert again the Indians of Sacalum
"[…] At the beginning of 1621 (right after the end of the provincial council of the Order of Saint Francis of Mérida), Father Diego Delgado, a religious of the Order and native of the villa of Pedroso, expressed to the new provincial of Yucatán a desire animated by his spiritual love. He wanted to go to the mountains where innumerable Indians –fugitives from their villages- were separated from the communion of the faithful and presumably living in idolatry with the pagans. The Father Provincial, very pleased to see the expression of such a holy desire, granted it immediately and unconditionally. Father Diego then went to Arias Conde, the interim governor of the provinces of Yucatán, who was also very pleased with Father Diego’s desire and gave him all the letters and orders he might need or want, so that both Spanish magistrates and Indians would help him and assist the carrying out of something undoubtedly most agreeable in the eyes of God."
The village of Sacalum probably get the same look (diorama in the National Museum, Guatemala City)
He rebuilts the village of Sacalum
"When the priest was ready he set out on his journey and arrived at the convent which the Order had in the village of Jecelchacán. When his purpose became known several Indians of the village offered to go with him, since they were well trained for mountain travel, as did other Indian singers and sacristans at the convent. Father Diego now had not only guide, but also people to help celebrate the divine office and the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Some Indians from towns in the mountains also came with a strong desire to accompany him on his trip. With all of these he entered the mountains in the southern part of the land of Yucatán.
After penetrating the mountain area he found many Indians who were fugitives from the villages, living without benefits of civilization, or the sacraments, in little huts scattered throughout the wilderness. He took them with him to the Pimienta Mountains. He established a large village in the same place where there had been another called Sacalum, which had become deserted when the province of San Francisco lost the little mission station Father Juan de Santa Maria had maintained in former times. He named the village San Felipe y Santiago Sacalum. […]"
Captain Francisco de Mirones and his soldiers take possession of Sacalum
"By that time the governor of the provinces of Yucatán was Don Diego de Cárdenas, who learned these good news with great happiness. Captain Francisco de Mirones, who was Crop Controller in the territory of the Yucatán coast and a great soldier, was delighted when he heard this news, and decided it would be a good opportunity to set out from the town of Sacalum to conquer the Itzás by force of arms. He was persuaded that the conquest would be easy from Sacalum because of its proximity to any of the territories he might want to reach. […]
Francisco de Mirones took up the King’s banner, and having gathered about fifty Spanish soldiers, set out with them and some Indian warriors from the city of Mérida to wait for the rest who were being recruited in Oxcutzcab, a village in the mountains. He went that way because a pilot told him the village of Oxcutzcab was the boundary between the Itzá and Yucatán, and that by a straight line –as the crow flies- it was only eighty leagues, which would eliminate more than half of the usual journey.
Thinking this was true, Captain Mirones departed with his men and many Indian carriers from the town of Oxcutzcab, cutting many routes through the thick undergrowth and forests, going across lakes, swamps, and dry lands where was no water –all of which was extremely difficult not only for the Indians, but also for the Spanish soldiers. They arrived at last nevertheless at the village of Sacalum, where Father Diego Delgado was administering to the Indians newly gathered together. The Captain stopped here, setting up his camp to await the rest of the men being assembled in Mérida so that all of them could set out together for the Itzá conquest."
Fray Diego Delgado opposes to the extortions made by the Spaniards
"Recruiting men in Mérida was not as fast as captain Mirones thought it would be, and it became impossible to leave as soon as he had planned, so that the rest of that year, 1622, passed while he and his men waited in Sacalum. During that time, forgetting that the Sacalum Indians were newly subjugated and that it would be inappropriate to deal with them in an oppressive way, the Captain began to trade with them for profit in ways they did not like. They began to get exasperated and showed some resentment. Father Diego noticed it, and thinking this was not the best way to handle natives or deal with them, or keep them from rebelling again, he asked the Captain to discontinue his business with the Indians, since a time of conquest was not one of trade. He noted he had seen the Indians very disgusted and that serious consequences could result if this continued.
In spite of his remonstrations the priest could not get the Captain to desist, and the profiteering went on, with the Indians becoming more and more restless. The quarrel between the Captain and the missionary became public news much talked about, and both men became more and more estranged –and the Indians more and more perturbed-. They were even more distressed on hearing that Captain Juan Bernardo de Casanova was in the town of Maní, ready to march with fifty more soldiers he had recruited in Mérida, to incorporate them into Captain Mirones’ force in the village of Sacalum."
Discouraged, he leaves Sacalum
"When the difficulties and disputes between Father Diego and Captain Mirones were at their worst, it was nearing 1623. The religious could not come to any agreement with the Captain about the vexations and oppression of the Indians –something which troubled him very much. […] Father Diego determined (though very secretly) to leave Captain Mirones and go to the Itzás –and he did so, taking for this journey the Indians who had left Jecelchacan with him." (Diego López de Cogolludo, Historia de Yucatán, book 10, chapter 2)
(Father Diego Delgado continued on alone with 80 converted Yucatec Indians and 13 soldiers. They arrived on the island of Nohpeten (today Flores, on the lake Petén Itza) to an initially peaceful reception, but the Itza suddenly ambushed them, killed the entire group, cut off the soldiers’ heads, and set them on stakes around the island. Then they cut Father Delgado into pieces and sacrificed the 80 Yucatec Indians to the gods.)
The Maya archeological site of Rio Bec, close to the former village of Sacalum
Fray Juan Henriquez takes the place of Fray Diego Delgado in Sacalum
"When Father Diego had left, Captain Mirones advised the royal accountant, Juan de Eguiluz, his agent in Mérida, complaining of what Father Diego had done and asking him to petition the provincial to send another religious who would say Mass and administer the sacraments. […].
Fray Juan Enríquez, a native of Cádiz, lawful son of D. Juan Henriquez de Várgas and Da. Ines de Várgas, and friar of the convent of Mérida where he took regular habits in 1615, […] decided to withdraw from all the regular activities of the Order and offered voluntarily to go to Sacalum. He did so, even though he knew that he was going with the very real danger of not coming back alive, because of what Father Berrio had said about the exasperation of the Sacalum Indians over Captain Mirones and his troops. He reached Sacalum and was well received by everyone. [...]."
The Indians of Sacalum rebel against the Spaniards
"On the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, in that year of 1624, Captain Mirones and all his soldiers were at Mass without any weapons, having left a soldier to guard them. The Indians saw the opportunity they were waiting for. They went to the arsenal and seize the weapons, and then, with their faces painted, they headed for the church, shouting loudly. Since the Spaniards were without either offensive or defensive weapons, the Indians overcame them.
Mass was not ended, only the consecration of the elements, when, guessing the cause of the uproar, Father Enriquez immediately consumed them, not however omitting any of the proper forms in doing so, and leaning against the altar, turned his face towards the Indians, while they were binding the Spaniards before they killed them. In a loud voice he called to Ah Kin Ppol, the leader and priest of the Indians, to keep back his men, and consider the crime they were committing, or at least to let the innocent prisoners die like Christians, after confessing themselves. This all the poor Spaniards did, loudly declaring their sins. Ah Kin Ppol then went up to Captain Mirones, who was tied to one of the props of the church (the pillars that supported its straw roof), on the Epistle side (Epistle and Gospel side; the left and right, looking from the altar) and, taking a dagger or knife from the Captain's belt, struck him so fierce a blow on the breast that he laid it entirely open, on which he thrust in his hand and tore away his prisoner's heart. The rest of the Indians followed the example of their leader, and similarly sacrificed all the Spanish soldiers."
They killed Fray Juan Henriquez and all the Spanish soldiers
"While these ministers of Satan thus glutted their infernal rage, other Indians tied Father Enriquez, in his robes as he was, to another wooden prop opposite to the Captain, on the Gospel side. The Indians wished afterwards to loose him and leave him alive, but the sacrilegious Ah Kin Ppol, without saying a word, came up to him and gave him a blow with his dagger, as he had done to Captain Mirones, and instantly tore his heart out of his body. To the moment of his death the holy friar, with great spirit, boldly preached to them without ceasing on the horrible and abominable impiety they were committing by their inhuman murders, and on the errors of their idolatry. All this was known by the subsequent confessions of many of the aggressors, who were taken and punished, for they left none of the prisoners alive to bear witness to what had passed. They dragged the crosses from the church, and cast the bodies of Father Enriquez and Captain Mirones into a grave made in the white earth, and, leaving them there, they took the rest to the cross in the road, by which the Spanish soldiers would pass who were coming to Sacalum. There they left them, each stuck upon a stake. They afterwards burnt the town and the church, and again fled to the mountains, to commit idolatry and lead a barbarous life." (Diego López de Cogolludo, Historia de Yucatán, book 10, chapter 3)
A franciscan friar killed by the Indians, in "Cabeza de Vaca", a Mexican movie by Nicolas Echevarría (1991)
Declaration of Captain Juan Bernardo de Casanova:
"Tuesday, the twenty-ninth of January of 1624, obeying the order given him by His Excellency the Captain and Commander of the Spanish Infantry, he arrived at the village of Sacalum where, near the second cross at the entrance, he saw about eight persons who seemed to be Spaniards, and two women.
The declarer knew María de Molina, a mulatto, and Juan de Valdés, a twelve-year-old boy, and Juan de Sevilla, a drummer. The others were headless, and there were more bodies than heads. The dead were impaled through the rear end and the two women through their vaginas.
Going farther on, he saw a burned mule which the declarer believes belonged to the Captain and Commander, Francisco de Mirones, and still farther on he saw the church and rectory totally burned.
The Captain, Sergeant Major, and the other soldiers saw near the cross at the entrance three bruised and burned bodies, impaled through the rear end. Some soldiers knew two of them, one a Spanish boy named Juan Valdés, and the other a mulatto named Juan de Sevilla. Their heads were near the previously mentioned cross. There are eight others, two women and a Spaniard who some of the soldiers said was Juan de Lizardo. The rest were Indians – ten in all.
Going farther on, they found the whole village burned and the church and other houses scorched. They looked everywhere and said a prayer at the church. Behind it they found a pit with four dead Spaniards, their bodies burned and headless. Nearby in another pit there were other headless Spaniards, and farther on, other bodies of women.
There were many others in different parts of the settlement, some in places from which it was impossible to extricate them. They were burned and buried in the ashes. Those [bodies] which were intact were Indians, and in front of the house where the Captain and Commander lived there was a shrine made of mud, and in it an idol and a lot of burned copal. Below there were branches and leaves full of blood which seemed fresh, and the warriors weapons were with it so that it looked like some sacrifice had taken place.
There were gallows around the plaza in several places, and in it two burned mules and a horse. Other animals, burned and wounded by arrows, were roaming around the pueblo. The men also found the burned barrels of guns and arquebuses, and a lot of little pieces of burned iron which looked as though they belonged to wooden boxes and chests, and some stirrups. An attempt will be made to take an inventory of them and send it.
Since there was no one among the soldiers present who knew if the Captain and Commander Francisco de Mirones y Lezcano was among the dead, because they were headless, the Captain ordered the bodies kept together until the next day, when Corporal Don Rodrigo would come with more men, to see if someone might recognize him.
Dictated and signed by Juan Bernardo Casanova. On his orders, Juan Xiraldo de Biruez."
"Squad Corporal Bonifacio de Mora swore by God and the sign of the cross and declare that he had been in the service of the said Captain, and that one of the headless bodies with an opening in the left side, where it seems they extracted the hearth, and with hands and feet bound by a tunic burned on one side and in back, is the Captain and Commander Francisco de Mirones y Lezcano (may God have him in heaven!). He recognized him because he had served him for two years and had seen him nude many times. He could be sure it was he from all of the marks on the feet and hands which he had seen, and none of the heads there was his.
He said he was about fifty years old and he signed with His Excellency. Juan Bernardo Casanova, Bonifacio de Mora.»
(Spanish documents translated by Robert D. Wood, in France V. Scholes and Eleanor Adams, Documents Relating to the Mirones Expedition, Labyrinthos, Culver City, 1991)
Caste War, 1847-1855, the Maya rebels attack the Fort of Bacalar (Mural by Manuel Villamor, Town Hall, Corozal, Belize)
The Oxkutzcab convent: Fray Juan de Santa María was guardián of this monastery
Oxtankáh, near Chetumal, Quintana Roo, open chapel built by the Franciscans, in the XVIth century, above a Maya site
The Hecelchakán convent, starting point for Fray Diego Delgado
Fray Diego Delgado, 17th century painting, Church San Salvador, Pedroche, Córdoba, Spain
The Hondo river, in Santa Cruz, border between Belize and Mexico Quintana Roo
Marcelo Jiménez Santos: the rebellion of the Mayas, Castes War Museum, Tihosuco