Spanish men behaving badly in the land of the Itzá Maya

The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom - Maya Conquistador
September 15, 2000

The art and architecture of the ancient Maya have received much attention in both the academic and popular literature over the past ten years as a result of the ongoing decipherment of the Classic-period (AD 250-900) hieroglyphic texts. Likewise the plight of the modern Maya, especially since the Zapatista revolt in 1994, has been publicised widely by the news media and on the worldwide web. What most people forget is that the several million Maya living in Mesoamerica today are continuing a tradition of resistance that dates back to the arrival of the Spanish in Yucat n in the mid-16th century. Little has been written about the history of the Maya between the end of the Classic and 1700 when the last Maya kingdom fell to the Spanish. These two books deal with that interim period.

Matthew Restall's book examines Mayan documents written in the 16th and 17th centuries. This unique set of documents consists of worn and sometimes fragmentary pages of parchment with texts written by Maya scribes in their own tongue but using the Spanish alphabet of the period rather than their own hieroglyphic script, which had virtually died out by the late 16th century. The documents are often short histories of a group or village, usually written to validate land claims. These histories often relate events in the recent past, such as the arrival of Christianity, epidemics, battles and the establishment of settlements. They also allude to the treachery and idolatry of neighbours and the virtues and Christian beliefs of the writers.

Restall gives translations of important Mayan documents and elaborates the stories they tell. In the first part he contextualises some of the historical events mentioned in the documents; the second part focuses on the actual documents. This is a welcome relief after the ponderous academic treatment of these writings during the first half of the 20th century, which made the texts inaccessible to all but a handful of specialists. Maya Conquistador is not a critical analysis of the documents. For academics this will be a minor disappointment. Instead, Restall has tried with some success to find a balance between the popular and the academic.

Grant Jones's book is mainly concerned with the Spanish conquest of the Itzá Maya and more specifically the Spanish capture and occupation of the Itzá capital, Nojpeten, in 1697. It examines, in five parts, the period from 1695 to 1704, with special attention paid to the Spanish documentation. In Jones's words: "This book offers the first detailed account of these events since the publication of Juan de Villagutierre Soto-Mayor's massive Historia de la Conquista de la Provincia de el Itzá in 1701 ." As Villagutierre's work was commissioned by the Council of the Indies in Madrid, it has a bias not found in Jones.

A staggering amount of time and effort has gone into this book. The effort shows in the incredible detail and fascinating treatment, which remains readable despite the book's length.

Part one gives the ethnographic and historical background to the conquest of the Itzá. Linguistic and tribal boundaries as well as political and social organisation are described. The timing of the Spanish conquest of the Itzá was as significant as the timing of their conquest of the Aztecs, which coincided with the end of a crucial period in the Aztec calendar. As Jones explains: "The most important k'atun (20-year calendric period) in Itzá prophetic history was k'atun 8 Ajaw." This k'atun recurs every 260 years, and one such occurrence was from 1697 to 1717 - exactly the time that the Spanish chose to conquer the Itzá.

Parts two, three and four examine the contact between the Spanish and the Itzá. Jones reviews documents of the period such as the accounts of Fray Andres de Avendano's visit to the Itzá capital in 1696. He also chronicles the efforts by both sides to find a peaceful solution to the Itzá "problem". In the end the mood of the Spanish shifted from optimism that the Itzá would surrender to a "fierce determination to meet the enemy in battle". These documents give insights into the political and religious views of both the Spanish and the Maya, and how these views changed as they came into closer contact.

The final part describes (using first-hand accounts) the Spanish attack on Nojpeten, the defeat of the Maya and the aftermath.

The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom is immensely detailed and also critical and insightful. Any serious Mayanist will want to own a copy.

Bryan Wells is researching a PhD at Harvard University, Massachusetts, United States.

The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom

Author - Grant D. Jones
ISBN - 0 8047 3522 0
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £14.95
Pages - 568

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