The lands of present-day Guatemala were a special case for the Spanish who conquered and colonized them. Although there was no powerful central culture to contend with, such as the Incas in Peru or the Aztecs in Mexico, Guatemala was still home to the remnants of the Maya, a mighty civilization that had risen and fallen centuries before. These remnants fought hard to preserve their culture, forcing the Spanish to come up with new techniques of pacification and control.
Before the Conquest:
The Maya Civilization peaked around 800 A.D. and fell into decline shortly thereafter. It was a collection of powerful city-states who warred and traded with one another, and it stretched from Southern Mexico to Belize and Honduras. The Maya were builders, astronomers and philosophers and theirs was a rich culture. By the time the Spanish arrived, the Maya had degenerated into a number of small fortified kingdoms, the strongest of which were the K’iche and Kaqchiquel in Central Guatemala.
The conquest of the Maya was led by Pedro de Alvarado, one of Hernán Cortés’ top lieutenants and a veteran of the conquest of Mexico. Alvarado led less than 500 Spanish and a number of Mexican native allies into the region. He made an ally of the Kaqchiquel and warred upon the K’iche, who he defeated in 1524. His abuses of the Kaqchiquel caused them to turn on him, and he spent until 1527 stamping out various rebellions. With the two strongest kingdoms out of the way, the other, smaller ones were isolated and destroyed as well.
The Verapaz Experiment:
One region still held out: the cloudy, misty north-central highlands of modern-day Guatemala. In the early 1530s, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar, proposed an experiment: he would pacify the natives with Christianity, not violence. Along with two other friars, Las Casas set off and did, in fact, manage to bring Christianity to the region. The place became known as Verapaz, or “true peace,” a name it carries to this day. Unfortunately, once the region was brought under Spanish control, unscrupulous colonists raided it for slaves and land, undoing just about everything Las Casas had accomplished.
The Viceroyalty Period:
Guatemala had bad luck with provincial capitals. The first, founded on the ruined city of Iximche, had to be abandoned due to persistent native uprisings, and the second, Santiago de los Caballeros, was destroyed by a mudslide. The present-day city of Antigua was then founded, but even it suffered major earthquakes late in the colonial period. The region of Guatemala was a large and important state under the control of the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) until the time of independence.
Conquistadores and governmental officials and bureaucrats were often awarded encomiendas, large tracts of land complete with native towns and villages. The Spaniards theoretically were responsible for the religious education of the natives, who in return would work the land. In reality, the encomienda system became little more than an excuse for legalized slavery, as the natives were expected to work with little reward for their efforts. By the seventeenth century, the encomienda system was gone, but much damage had already been done.
After the conquest, the natives were expected to give up on their culture and embrace Spanish rule and Christianity. Although the Inquisition was forbidden to burn native heretics at the stake, punishments could still be very severe. In Guatemala, however, many aspects of native religion survived by going underground, and today some natives practice an odd mish-mash of Catholic and traditional faith. A good example is Maximón, a native spirit that was sort-of Christianized.
The Colonial World Today:
If you’re interested in the colonization of Guatemala, there are several places you might want to visit. The Mayan ruins of Iximché and Zaculeu are also sites of major sieges and battles during the conquest. The city of Antigua is seeped in history, and there are many cathedrals, convents and other buildings that have survived since the colonial times. The towns of Todos Santos Cuchumatán and Chichicastenango are known for their blending of Christian and native religions in their churches. You can even visit Maximón in various towns, mostly in the Lake Atitlán region. It is said that he looks with favor on offerings of cigars and alcohol!