In 1524, a band of ruthless Spanish conquistadores under the command of Pedro de Alvarado moved into present-day Guatemala. The Maya Empire had deteriorated some centuries before, but survived as a number of small kingdoms, the strongest of which was the K’iche, whose home was in what is now central Guatemala. The K’iche rallied around leader Tecún Umán and met Alvarado in battle, but were defeated, ending forever any hope of large-scale native resistance in the area.
Background: the Maya:
The Maya were a proud culture of warriors, scholars, priests and farmers whose empire peaked around 300 A.D. to 900 A.D. At the height of the Empire, it stretched from southern Mexico into El Salvador and Honduras and the ruins of mighty cities like Tikal, Palenque and Copán are remindesr of the heights they reached. Wars, disease and famine decimated the Empire, but the region still was home to several independent kingdoms of varying strength and advancement. The greatest of the Kingdoms was the K’iche, at home in their capital of Utatlán.
Background: The Spanish:
In 1521, Hernán Cortés and barely 500 conquistadores had pulled off the stunning defeat of the mighty Aztec Empire by making good use of modern weapons and native Indian allies. During the campaign, young Pedro de Alvarado and his brothers rose in the ranks of Cortes’ army by showing themselves to be ruthless, courageous and ambitious. When Aztec records were deciphered, lists of vassal states paying tribute were discovered, and the K’iche were prominently mentioned. Alvarado was given the privilege of conquering them. In 1523, he set out with about 400 Spanish conquistadores and some 10,000 Indian allies.
Prelude to War:
The Spanish had already sent their most fearsome ally ahead of them: disease. New World bodies had no immunity to European diseases like smallpox, plague, chicken pox, mumps and more. These diseases tore through native communities, decimating the population. Some historians believe that more than a third of the Mayan population was killed by disease in the years between 1521 and 1523. Alvarado also had other advantages: horses, guns, fighting dogs, metal armor, steel swords and crossbows were all devastating unknowns to the hapless Maya.
The Kaqchikels :
Cortés had been successful in Mexico because of his ability to turn long-simmering hatreds between ethnic groups to his benefit, and Alvarado had been a very good student. Knowing that the K’iche was the mightiest kingdom, he first made a treaty with their traditional enemies, the Kaqchikel, another powerful highland kingdom. Foolishly, the Kaqchikels agreed to an alliance and sent thousands of warriors to reinforce Alvarado before his assault on Utatlán.
Tecún Umán and the K’iche:
The K’iche had been warned against the Spanish by Aztec Emperor Moctezuma in the waning days of his rule and flatly rejected Spanish offers to surrender and pay tribute, although they were proud and independent and would most likely have fought in any event. They selected young Tecún Umán as their war chief, and he sent out feelers to neighboring kingdoms, who refused to unite against the Spanish. All in all, he was able to round up about 10,000 warriors to fight the invaders.
The two armies that took the field at El Pinal outside of present-day Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, must have been imposing. The K’iche were dressed for war, wearing bright feathers, blowing on conch shell horns and brandishing wooden clubs and swords studded with bits of razor-sharp obsidian. The Spanish, for their part, wore shining armor, carried muskets whose reports echoed off of the nearby mountains like thunder, commanded horses and dogs and stood at the head of an army of indigenous warriors not much smaller than the one that faced them.
The Battle of El Pinal:
The K’iche fought bravely, but the Battle of El Pinal was a rout almost from the start. The Spanish armor defended them from most native weapons, the horses, muskets and crossbows devastated the ranks of native warriors, and Alvarado’s tactics of chasing down native chieftains resulted in several leaders falling early. One was Tecún Umán himself: according to tradition, he attacked Alvarado and decapitated his horse, not knowing that horse and man were two different creatures. As his horse fell, Alvarado impaled Tecún Umán on his spear. According to the K’iche, Tecún Umán’s spirit then grew eagle wings and flew away.
The K’iche surrendered but tried to trap the Spanish inside the walls of Utatlán: the trick did not work on the clever and wary Alvarado. He laid siege to the city and before too long it surrendered. The Spanish sacked Utatlán but were somewhat disappointed by the spoils, which did not rival the loot taken from the Aztecs in Mexico. Alvarado conscripted many K’iche warriors to help him battle the remaining kingdoms in the area.
Once the mighty K’iche had fallen, there was really no hope for any of the remaining smaller kingdoms in Guatemala. Alvarado was able to defeat them all, either coercing them to surrender or by forcing his native allies to fight them. He eventually turned on his Kaqchikel allies, enslaving them even though the defeat of the K’iche would have been impossible without them. By 1532, most of the major kingdoms had fallen. The colonization of Guatemala could begin. Alvarado rewarded his conquistadores with land and villages to work for them. Alvarado himself set out on other adventures, but frequently returned as Governor of the area until his death in 1541.
Some Mayan ethnic groups survived for a while by taking to the hills and fiercely attacking anyone who came near: one such group was located in the region that currently corresponds to north-central Guatemala. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was able to convince the crown to allow him to pacify these natives peacefully with missionaries in 1537. The experiment was a success, but unfortunately once the region had been pacified, conquistadores moved in and enslaved all of the natives.
Over the years, the Maya have retained much of their traditional identity, especially in contrast to the areas that once belonged to the Aztecs and the Inca. Over the years, the heroism of the K’iche has become the lasting memory of a bloody time: in modern Guatemala, Tecún Umán is a national hero, Alvarado a villain.
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.
McKillop, Heather: The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.