Gonzalo Guerrero, the Spanish castaway who became a Mayan and fought against the conquistadors

The Conquest of the Yucatan (Fernando Castro Pacheco) / Image: Cuilomerto on Wikimedia Commons

When we talk about miscegenation in reference to the ethnic and cultural fusion that the conquest of America by the Spanish meant, there is a character that embodies it almost emblematically. He is Gonzalo Guerrero, a shipwrecked man who, after years of living with a Mayan tribe, became naturalized, formed a family and even fought against his former compatriots. An experience worthy of the best gloss.

It is difficult to provide data on his childhood and youth, since there are hardly any as he is of no pedigree. It seems that he was born in Niebla, a port located a few kilometres from Palos (Huelva), around the last quarter of the 15th century. Although some people consider him a simple sailor, others place him in the War of Granada, where he fought in a company of espingarderos in the army of the Catholic Monarchs. It is a curious fact that Christopher Columbus met with the latter for the first time precisely in this context, so we can let our imagination run wild and speculate that perhaps they crossed paths somewhere; who would have told Guerrero that this stranger was going to change his life one day.

The Surrender of Granada (Francisco Pradilla) / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The fact is that he would be a specialist soldier, like all those who handled those first firearms, and when the capital of Granada fell and the conflict ended, he had to join the troop with which Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba tried to ensure the Hispanic dominance in the Kingdom of Naples, disputed by France. With his revolutionary military reform, the one who has gone down in history with the nickname of The Great Captain laid the foundations of the future Tercios, which is why it is interesting that Guerrero was part of that early period and the how of his later actions, which we will see later, is better understood.

The two Italian campaigns were such a military success that the Spanish presence was secured for centuries and partial demobilization became necessary. Guerrero would return to the Iberian Peninsula and, like so many other veterans, would decide to try his luck in the New World found by the now deceased Columbus he saw in Granada years earlier, where a colonization process had already begun that demanded military experience in the face of resistance from the natives. So he embarked in 1510 on the trip led by Diego de Nicuesa to take charge of the governorship of Veragua.

The Darien Isthmus and the Veraguas / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Two years earlier, Ferdinand the Catholic was forced to withdraw the powers granted to the Columbus family in the Santa Fe Capitulations, given the problems that his government had generated, creating two new governorates or provinces in the so-called Kingdom of Tierra Firme (the continental part): Nueva Andalucía (part of present-day Colombia), headed by Alonso de Ojeda, and the aforementioned Veragua (the Caribbean coast of what is now Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua).

The Gulf of Urabá was supposed to separate the two jurisdictions but, in practice, Nicuesa and Ojeda tried to expand theirs at the expense of the other and ended up being legally entangled, involving the Crown in their lawsuits while its men feverishly devoted themselves to exploring more land to claim and to founding haciendas for the planting of sugar cane where the Indians were forced to work, plunging them into a kind of slavery in practice (this and similar situations led to the enactment of the Burgos Laws in 1512).

This growing demand for labor was fundamental because it determined Guerrero’s destiny when he embarked on a ship that was to transport slaves between Darien and Fernandina Island (Santo Domingo). Santa María de la Antigua del Darién was a town founded in 1510 by another prominent figure of the time, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the man who would soon find the South Sea (the Pacific Ocean). Balboa named his second alderman, Juan de Valdivia, whom he sent with the mission of having the Spanish authorities give official legitimacy to the foundation.

Thus, on August 15, 1511, the ship Santa María de Barca set sail from Darien, and three days later it was hit by a hurricane that caused it to run aground in some shallows that Bartolomé de Las Casas called Las Víboras, located in front of Jamaica. The Yucatan peninsula was still an unknown place for the Spaniards; it was the country of the Mayans, who called it Mayab, which means “few”, in reference to the select number of its inhabitants. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, their civilization had already disappeared as such, and although there were still settlements and villages, the great architectural constructions of their cities had long since become mere testimonies of past splendor.

About twenty people were saved from the shipwreck, including two women, who were able to evacuate the ship in a boat but, dragged northwards by the currents, remained at sea for two weeks, so that the lack of food and, above all, water, ended up with most of them. When they finally sighted land, in what is now Quintana Roo, the survivors had been reduced to eight. Unfortunately for them, as soon as they disembarked they were taken prisoner by the Cocomes, a Mayan people that had once been part of the powerful League of Mayapán (an alliance whose main heads were Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán that would have been agreed upon in the post-Classic period, in the 11th century, although some authors doubt its real existence) but that by 1511 was in a stage of more than obvious decadence.

The cocomes had a well-earned reputation for ferocity, having fought against itzaes and tutul xiúes when the aforementioned league was dissolved. Later, as we shall see, they also tenaciously resisted the attempts at Spanish conquest. The fact is that when the shipwrecked men set foot on the shore, the cocomes fell on them and killed half of them -one of them being Captain Valdivia-, sacrificing them to their gods and eating their bodies in a ritual. The other four were locked up in cages – surely reserving them the same fate for later – but they managed to escape, separating themselves in the escape.

Mayan chiefdoms in the time of Guerrero / Image: Wikimedia Commons

They found refuge among the Tutul Xiu but were enslaved. The hard forced labor they were subjected to in the city of Maní, mainly of a domestic and agrarian nature, ended up killing two of them; only two remained: Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. The first one was a religious -we do not know exactly if he was a friar or a deacon- born in Ecija and to whom a firm faith allowed him to resist the carnal temptations offered by his masters, thus keeping himself attached to his culture. He had even been able to keep a book of hours and kept a fairly accurate account of the time spent in that village whose identity and exact location is unknown, south of Catoche.

Guerrero, on the other hand, who went further in his escape, gradually integrated with them, moving away from his roots in an adaptation that even led him to participate in some skirmishes against rival tribes. This did not go unnoticed by the chieftain, who decided to free them from their condition to advise him on war matters. In fact, Guerrero used his knowledge and experience to teach those who were already his own to fight in different formations, depending on the circumstances, and to take over the lines. The victorious implementation of this training in front of the cocomes changed his status for good.

So much so that the chief gave him to Na Chan Can, chieftain of the cheles (a group of Itzá descendants) of Chactemal (what is now Chetumal). The latter, in turn, passed him on to Balam, his nacom (a kind of captain), who treated him kindly. An incident suffered in front of an alligator, from which Guerrero saved him, served to give the Spaniard total freedom. In practice, this meant full integration with the Mayans, whom he openly led during the war, being named nacom and increasing his process of acculturation by adopting his appearance (hairstyle, scarifications, tattoos, piercing of nose and ears, mutilations to prove his worth…).

But the decisive step was, without a doubt, his marriage to Zazil Há, the daughter of Na Chan Can, who liked the foreigner extraordinarily because of his intelligence and ability, so that Guerrero was no longer just another Mayan, but was linked to the ruling class. With Zazil Há, who is also known as Ix Chel Ka’an, he had three children, and the legend -unconfirmed- says that the firstborn, Ixmo, was given by her parents to be sacrificed at Chichén Itzá in order to put an end to a plague of locusts that was devastating the crops. With the others, he followed local traditions, deforming their skulls with splints, as was the custom in much of America.

This full identification with a strange culture is as striking as it is surprising and has unleashed all sorts of lucubrations, in the sense that perhaps he had broken with his origins because of some bad memory of his home town. Perhaps the acute poverty that from time to time led to famine, some as tremendous as that which would scourge Andalusia in 1521 – ironically the year of the fall of Tenochtitlán – led to cases of cannibalism precisely in Niebla, as the poet Juan del Encina recounted: “And in Niebla, with pure hunger, another mother took out the offal of a dead son and buried him in this way“. The irony is twofold if one considers that Aguilar’s mother, informed that Geronimo was probably in the hands of cannibals, went mad refusing to eat meat and shouting, when she saw it being cooked: “See here the most wretched mother of all women; see pieces of my son!” Or, at least, that is what Peter Martyr of Angleria tells in his work Decades of the New World.

This was the situation when a crucial year arrived, 1519, in which Hernán Cortés disembarked on the island of Cozumel and sent messengers through the towns of the Yucatan offering a ransom for the two castillans that lived between them; according to Bernal Díaz, the information had been collected by the previous expedition led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. Cortés granted a period of eight days to do so. Aguilar received the news and obtained permission from his chieftain to leave. He did so and visited his companion so that he could join him, but he preferred to stay because he already had a family and was made for that life; if he had any doubts left, his wife took care of dispelling them by embracing Aguilar, says Bernal.

Therefore, the priest left alone and arrived in Cozumel just in time, since the naos were already leaving and he had to catch up with them in a canoe. The Spaniards found it hard to recognize one of their own in that man who not only dressed and moved like the natives but also had lost the habit of speaking Spanish and could not make himself understood at first sight. Later, when he joined Cortés’ army, he would be of great value for his mastery of the Chontal Maya language, acting as an interpreter until the Malinche -who spoke Maya and Nahuatl – learned Spanish. He would not get along with his captain, although after the conquest he was rewarded with three towns in encomienda and – this time – he gave in to the sin of the flesh by having a daughter with a Tlaxcalan who he recognized by giving her his surname: Luisa de Aguilar. He died in 1531.

In the meantime, it’s almost certain that Guerrero didn’t miss that difficult times were coming. Cortes’ was the third expedition that appeared in those latitudes after the one mentioned by Hernandez de Cordoba and a previous one by Juan de Grijalva, and all of them had been fought by the Mayans, allegedly with his advice, as well as the subsequent attempts to conquer by Pedro de Alvarado y Pedrarias. He was therefore aware that his decision to stay there was not to be reversed and continued to train his adopted people in modern tactics. When Francisco de Montejo received the permit for the conquest of the Yucatan and began the campaign in 1527, he encountered unexpected and reliable resistance, and it did not take long for information to reach him about the role played in it by a naturalized Spaniard who had become nacom.

Montejo Monument in Merida / Image: Yodigo on Wikimedia Commons

It is said that Montejo sent him a letter in which he reminded him of his Christian faith and offered him a pardon if he gave himself up, but Guerrero knew that these promises were often broken – in fact, he used to warn his own people about this – and he replied kindly but firmly that he could not leave his wife and children, apart from the fact that he depended on the authority of a chief, although he claimed to remember God and was open to a good relationship. After the failure of the diplomacy, the moment of the weapons arrived and a column in command of the captain Alonso Dávila went into the Yucatan territory.

Dávila was a veteran of Cortés, who rewarded him with the Cuautitlán commission; the man whom the pirate Jean Fleury had deprived of the first great shipment of gold to Spain and who later befriended Francisco de Montejo, joining him in his conquest of the Yucatán and taking part in various actions for all the Montejo – it was a family business. In the middle of the summer he managed to make his way to Chactumal with the double objective of taking over some gold mines -which turned out to be a miter- and capturing Guerrero. But Guerrero had died, according to the natives, and Davila notified his superiors.

He was actually still alive, just somewhere else. The data is, however, confusing. A letter written by Andrés de Cereceda, royal treasurer and acting governor of the Hibueras region (Honduras, at present), bears witness to the discovery of a very special corpse after a battle between the troops of Captain Lorenzo de Godoy and the indigenous people of Cacique Çiçumba:

“Chief Cicimba said how, before they were hit, a Spanish Christian named Gonzalo Aroza, who was among the Indians in the province of Yucatan for twenty years and more, had died with a shot from an arquebus. And since the area was depopulated with Christians, he came to help those here with a fleet of 50 canoes to kill those of us who were here before the arrival of the Advanced One.”.

A crossbow blast had pierced his abdomen and a arquebus was shot at him. According to the description, he was dressed in the Mayan style and had the typical appearance, except that he was a man with a beard, which revealed his origin. However, the body could not be preserved because his companions stole it at night and, according to tradition, threw it into the river so that the current would carry it to the ocean from which he came. He died in 1536, which means he would have been about fifty years old. And, of course, he never imagined that he would go down in history or that his name would be sung in the hymn of Quintana Roo:

This land that looks to the east
cradle was of the first crossbreeding
that was born of the love without outrage
by Gonzalo Guerrero and Za’asil

Sources: Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España (Bernal Díaz del Castillo) / Crónica de la Nueva España (Francisco Cervantes de Salazar) / Historia de Yucatán (Diego López de Cogolludo) / Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (Diego de Landa) / Historia de las Indias (Bartolomé de Las Casas) / Décadas del Nuevo Mundo (Pedro Mártir de Anglería) /Gonzalo Guerrero: figura histórica y literaria de la Conquista de México (Lancelot Cowie) / Gonzalo Guerrero (Eugenio Aguirre) / La conquista de México (Hugh Thomas).