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Biography of Pedro de Alvarado

Conqueror of the Maya

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Biography of Pedro de Alvarado

Pedro de Alvarado

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Further Adventures

Alvarado was not content to sit idly in Guatemala counting his newfound wealth. He would abandon his duties as governor from time to time in search of more conquest and adventure. Hearing of the great wealth in the Andes, he set out with ships and men to conquer Quito: when he arrived, the Pizarro brothers and Sebastián de Benalcázar already held it. Alvarado considered fighting the other Spaniards for it, but in the end allowed them to buy him off. He was named the Governor of Honduras and occasionally went there to enforce his claim. He also returned to Mexico to campaign in the Mexican northwest. This would prove the end of him: in 1541 he died in present-day Michoacán when a horse rolled over on him during a battle with natives.

Alvarado's Cruelty and Las Casas

All of the conquistadores were ruthless, cruel and bloodthirsty, but Pedro de Alvarado was in a class by himself. He ordered massacres of women and children, razed entire villages, enslaved thousands and threw natives to his dogs when they displeased him. When he decided to go to the Andes, he took with him thousands of Central American natives to work and fight for him: most of them died en route or once they got there. Alvarado's singular inhumanity drew the attention of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the enlightened Dominican who was the Great Defender of the Indians. In 1542, Las Casas wrote "A Short History of the Destruction of the Indies" in which he rails against the abuses committed by the conquistadores. Although he did not mention Alvarado by name, he clearly referred to him:

"This man in the space of fifteen years, which was from the year 1525 to 1540, together with his associates, massacred no less then five millions of men, and do daily destroy those that are yet remaining. It was the custom of this Tyrant, when he made war upon any Town or Country, to carry along with him as many as he could of the subdued Indians, compelling them to make war upon their Countrymen, and when he had ten or twenty thousand men in his service, because he could not give them provision, he permitted them to eat the flesh of those Indians that they had taken in war: for which cause he had a kind of shambles in his Army for the ordering and dressing of mans' flesh, suffering Children to be killed and boiled in his presence. The men they killed only for their hands and feet, for those they accounted dainties."

Legacy of Pedro de Alvarado

Alvarado is best remembered in Guatemala, where he is even more reviled than is Hernán Cortés in Mexico (if such a thing is possible). His K'iche opponent, Tecún Umán, is a national hero whose likeness appears on the ½ Quetzal note. Even today, Alvarado's cruelty is legendary: Guatemalans who do not know much about their history will recoil at his name. Mostly he is remembered as the most vicious of the conquistadores if he is remembered at all.

Still, there is no denying that Alvarado had a profound effect on the history of Guatemala and Central America in general, even if most of it was negative. The villages and towns he gave away to his conquistadores formed the basis for current municipal division in some cases, and his experiments with moving conquered people around resulted in some cultural exchange among the Maya.

Sources:

Las Casas Quote: http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/slatta/hi216/documents/dlascasas.htm#5link

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. New York: Penguin, 1963 (original written circa 1575).

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Central America. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.

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