Early Spanish expeditions to Mexico


The Expedition of Cordoba 1517    

The Spaniard who went native, Gonzalo Guerrero

The Expedition of Juan de Grijalva  1518


 Spanish Exploration and Settlement in the Caribbean

before the Conquest of Mexico


The Expedition of Cordoba 1517  



Columbus set out for his last voyage in 1502 to find a passage to China . While on the shore Central America he heard stories of dazzling empire in the interior . He did not have the resources to explore further and lamented ' I have but opened the gates for others to enter.' He died in poverty and disappointment in 1506 .


After Columbus' discoveries, the Indies attracted relatively few settlers. There were two royal organizations responsible for the exploration and colonization of the New World. These were the Council of the Indies, and the Casa de Contratacion or India House at Seville. But the licences granted to private adventurers did more for the cause of discovery than the patronage of the crown or its officers. The long peace, enjoyed with slight interruption by Spain in the early part of the sixteenth century after the conquest of Spain from the Moors,, was responsible for this . Restless soldiers, who could no longer win laurels on the fields of Africa and Europe, turned with eagerness to the brilliant career opened to him beyond the ocean.




 The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire

 A concise history of the rise, organization

and fall of the Spanish Empire


The execution of Hatuey in Cuba


It began to dawn on the Spanish that they were not in Asia at all, but still felt they must be close to it . The largest island in the Caribbean was conquered in 1511 by Diego Velasquez. who became Governor of Cuba The conquest of Cuba was fairly easy, one group of Indians did resist,the Taíno led by their chief Hatuey. condemned by Velasquez to be burned alive after capture. . When urged at the stake to embrace Christianity, that his soul might find admission into heaven, he inquired if the white men would go there. On being answered in the affirmative, he exclaimed, " Then I will not be a Christian ; for I would not go again to a place where I must find men so cruel ! The Indians of the Caribbean islands were decimated by newly introduced diseases such as smallpox and measles and since Indian labor was depended upon to work the gold mines and farms .



 Christopher Columbus untold and the story of Hatuey

 Velasquez invited settlers by liberal grants of land and slaves. Columbus organized a system of Indian slavery called repartimientos, where each settler would get an allotment of slaves . Velasquez encouraged them to cultivate the soil, and gave particular attention to the sugar-cane, so profitable an article of commerce in later times. He was, above all, intent on working the gold mines, which promised better returns than those in Hispaniola. The combination of forced slavery and disease decimated the Indian population of Cuba. New slaves were needed to fill the ranks .


Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba  petitioned the of Cuba, Governor Diego Velazquez , to lead an expedition to look for new lands and slaves . The petition was accepted and in 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba sailed west in three ships with 110 men on Feb 8. On March 4, after surviving a fierce storm, they sighted the coast of the Yucatan and saw the Mayan stone buildings .The Spaniards called all non Christian cultures  Moslem and named the city El gran Cairo . Cordoba and his men were astonished at the size and solid material of the buildings constructed of stone and lime, so different from the frail tenements of reeds and rushes which formed the habitations of the islanders. He was struck, also, with the higher cultivation of the soil, and with the delicate texture of the cotton garments and sold ornaments of the natives. Everything indicated a civilisation far superior to anything he had before witnessed in the New World. Rumours of the Spanish cruelty, perhaps,  had preceded them in the Yucatan from the Caribbean islands and meet they were met with hostility . The  Mayans did carry on trade there with large seagoing canoes .

 The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain

and the New World

A sweeping, vividly written, and profusely illustrated work, Fuentes surveys the vast, complex 500-year history of the Spanish in the Americas and sees both the richness of the culture that has evolved and the troubling vestiges of colonialism.


Cabo Catoche or Cape Catoche, site of Cordoba's landing


The Spaniard who went native, Gonzalo Guerrero 


This was Cabo Catoche or Cape Catoche and was the site of a Spanish shipwreck in 1511 . A ship, on the way to Santo Domingo from an early colony started by Columbus in present day Panama, sank in a storm. 15 men managed to escape in a lifeboat . 2 of the 15 who washed ashore, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, managed to survive being sacrificed or worked to death in slavery by the Mayans. Gonzalo Guerrero became as slave, but earned his freedom after proving himself in battle. He learned Mayan and married a Mayan princess,  Zazil Há and had three children. He tattooed his face and pierced his ears in the fashion of the Mayans .He became a Mayan chief  ( Cacique ) mayor of the Mayan town of Chetumal. He refused to rejoin the Spanish when Cortés arrived and fought against them .He was belied to have been killed fighting the Spanish in 1536 .Aguilar lived as a slave during his eight years with the Mayans .Cortés, learning of the existence of shipwrecked Spaniards in the Yucatan, searched for them when he reached the Yucatan .When invaded Mexico in 1519 , Aguilar joined the expedition. Speaking both Maya and Spanish, he, and La Malinche, who could speak Maya and Nahuatl, translated for Cortés during the Conquest of Mexico.


 The Tale of Gonzalo Guerrero

 Daniele Bolelli tells the story of the legendary Gonzalo Guerrero.

Mayan ruins near sea at Tulum in the Yucatan


On March 4, Indians sailed up in canoes gestures of peace and accepted glass beads and other gifts from the Spanish and offered to take the Spanish inland the next day in their canoes .  However, these gestures were feigned in order to try to ambush and kill the Spanish . According to legend, the name Yucatan comes from this meeting, where the Spanish question of 'What is this place?' was answered with ' Ci-u-than', which meant, ' we don't understand you ' and brought us the name Yucatan . However, some say this story was an attempt by Cortés to discredit his enemy Cordoba .


A conquistador


The next day the Indians returned, but the Spanish were alarmed that the shore was full of natives . The Spanish decided not to take the Indians' canoes and to their own boats and armed themselves with crossbows and arquebuses. The Indians had indeed prepared an ambush after they had landed and walked toward the town . They were attacked by a multitude of Indians with, bows, slings, pokes and shields. However, the Indians amazement at the Spanish weapons caused them to flee . Two Spaniards died in the battle and two Indians were seized to serve as translators . In the village, the Spaniards found gold objects in a temple .


Fifteen days after the battle , the expedition landed to fill their water vessels near a Maya village they called Lázaro . Once again they were approached by Indians appearing to be peaceable, and the now-suspicious Spaniards maintained a heavy guard on their disembarked forces. During an uneasy meeting, the local Indians repeated a word that ought to have been enigmatic to the Spaniards: "Castilian". This curious incident of the Indians apparently knowing the Spaniards' own word for themselves they later attributed the presence of the shipwrecked voyagers of de Nicuesa's unfortunate 1511 fleet. Unbeknownst to de Córdoba's men, the two remaining survivors, Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, were living only several days' walk from the present site. The Spaniards would not learn of these two men until the expedition of Hernán Cortés, two years later.


Six days later, running low on water, they were forced to land again and were attacked by a large force of Indians, with 50, nearly half of the expedition, being killed. The Indians had overcome their fear of the Spaniards weapons .Córdoba himself was hit with ten arrows . Cordoba and his men returned to Cuba, with Cordoba dying of his wounds a few days afterwards .

Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma,

and the Last Stand of the Aztecs

Buddy Levy

The worlds of Cortes and Montezuma collide and come to life.


The Expedition of Juan de Grijalva 1518 




Juan de Grijalva


Despite the tales of ferocity of the Yucatan Indians, the tales of gold fired the Spaniards imaginations and Governor Velazquez  sent another expedition with his nephew, Juan de Grijalva with four ships and 200 men in 1518.It took the course pursued by Cordova, but was driven somewhat to the south, the first land that it made being the island of Cozumel.


Cozumel, called Ah Cuzamil Petén, meaning "island of the swallows," by the Mayans, was a sacred site and home to Ix-Chel, the goddess of fertility and wife of Itzámna, the god of the sun. Young women across the Mayan empire,journeyed to Cozumel on a sacred pilgrimage to pay homage to Ix-Chel and pray for fertility and healthy childbirth.


Mayan cross


He was astonished, also, at the sight of large stone crosses, evidently objects of worship, which he met with in various places. These were Mayan symbols for Kulkulcan ( Quetzacoatl)


Reminded by these circumstances of his own country, he gave the peninsula the name " New Spain," a name since appropriated to a much wider extent of territory. Wherever Grijalva landed, he experienced the same unfriendly reception as Cordova, though he suffered less, being better prepared to meet it.


At Champoten and engaged the Mayans in a furious battle.

In the Rio de Tabasco or Grijalva, as it is often called, after him, he held an amicable conference with a chief, who gave him a number of gold plates fashioned into a sort of armor. As he wound round the Mexican coast, one of his captains, Pedro de Alvarado, afterwards famous in the Conquest, entered a river, to which he also left his own name. In a neighbouring stream, called the Rio de Vanderas, or " River of Banners," from the ensigns displayed by the natives on its borders, Grijalva had the first communication with the Aztecs themselves.


The cacique (chief) who ruled over this province had received notice of the approach of the Europeans, and of their extraordinary appearance. He was anxious to collect all the information he could respecting them, and the motives of their visit, that he might transmit them to his master, the Aztec emperor. A friendly conference took place between the parties on shore, where Grijalva landed with all his force, so as to make a suitable impression on the mind of the barbaric chief. The interview lasted some hours, though, as there was no one on either side to interpret the language of the other, they could communicate only by signs. They, however, interchanged presents, and the Spaniards had the satisfaction of receiving, for a few worthless toys and trinkets, a rich treasure of jewels, gold ornaments and vessels, of the most fantastic forms and workmanship.


Cordova dispatched Alvarado in one of the caravels back to Cuba, with the treasure and such intelligence as he had gleaned of the great empire in the interior, and then pursued his voyage along the coast.


 Letters from Mexico

 by Hernan Cortes

 Written over a seven-year period to Charles V of Spain, provide an extraordinary narrative account of the conquest of Mexico from the founding of the coastal town of Veracruz until Cortés's journey to Honduras in 1525 .


He sailed northward and reached St. Juan de Ulua, and at the Isla de los Sacrificios, so called by him from the bloody remains of human victims found in one of the temples. He continued as far as the river Panuco and then set sail to return to Cuba after an absence of nearly six months, and reached Cuba in safety. Grijalva has the glory of being the first navigator who set foot on the Mexican soil, and opened an intercourse with the Aztecs .


On reaching the island, he was surprised to learn that another and more formidable armament had been fitted out to follow up his own discoveries, and to find orders at the same time from the governor, couched in no very courteous language, to repair at once to St. Jago ( Santiago de Cuba ), Cuba. He was received by the Governor, not merely with coldness, but with unjust reproaches for having neglected so fair an opportunity of establishing a colony in the country he had visited.

The Governor of Cuba was disgusted with Grijalva's failure to bring more booty to pay for the expedition and refused to see him.  The Governor sought a bolder captain and commissioned 34 year old Herman Cortés ( he called himself Fernando ) .







Early life of Cortes