Four Brothers in a Conquest: The Alvarados and Guatemala II

Alvarado found the city closed. Rightly afraid of being trapped with his horses and all his followers if he went inside, he camped outside the walls. There he received a visit from two lords who emerged from inside Utatlán. The discussions went badly, and Alvarado imprisoned them. This infuriated the other Quiché leaders, who ordered an attack. Alvarado responded by putting the city to the torch and, in the fire, amid sporadic fighting, the leaders whom he had captured were burned.

Alvarado was later accused of inhumanity in this instance: A number of Spanish witnesses were asked in interminable later lawsuits in Spain if they knew that when “the said Pedro de Alvarado was the captain … at Utlatan [sic] and at Guatimala [sic] … certain lords came in peace and said Pedro de Alvarado seized them and burned them for no good reason other than that he wanted to know if they had any gold.” The accusations never ended, but Alvarado was never charged.

In April 1524, Alvarado turned on the Cakchiquel who, from their capital at Quahtematlan, had observed with pleasure the defeat of their Quiché enemies. All the same, they were fearful of the Spaniards with their guns, their horses, and not least, their terrifying war dogs. They urged Alvarado to take his army against the people of Atitlán, another town of the Cakchiquels, who had already shown their hostility to Spaniards by killing four messengers who had come to propose a pact. So on April 17, 1524, Alvarado led a detachment of sixty horse, 150 foot, and a large unit of Cakchiquels toward Atitlán. After a skirmish with Tzutu Indians by a lakeside, they reached their destination with ease. But the city was deserted, for the people were justifiably terrified. Alvarado did, however, find some Indians and sent them to tell their lords that he would make peace with them if they returned and declared themselves vassals of the King of Spain. The lords soon accepted these conditions, but whether they understood what they had undertaken is doubtful. The word vassal is not easily comprehended.

In May, Alvarado embarked on a new journey to the south of Guatemala to Panatcat (Escuintla), where some of Alvarado’s indigenous allies, especially some who had come with him from Texcoco, were caught off their guard and slaughtered. Alvarado punished the town by burning it. He continued onward, passing through Atepac, Tacuilulá, Taxisco, Moquisalco, and Nancintla, and across the river now known as the Río Paz, into what is now El Salvador. Everywhere the meeting between the Spaniards and the naturales was similar: The former were received in peace; the naturales then abandoned the town and fled to the hills, where they planned a resistance. The only serious battle was at Achiutla, the gateway to El Salvador, where about six thousand fighters launched a serious attack and killed many of Alvarado’s indigenous allies. No Spaniards died, but some were wounded, including Alvarado himself. An arrow went through his leg and left him for a time crippled, one leg seeming for a long while shorter than the other. Alvarado’s life was for several months at risk because of infection.

Alvarado eventually continued into El Salvador, putting up with further attacks at Tlacusqualco and halting at Cuzcatlán, the most important of these towns, where the Spaniards would shortly found a settlement that they named San Salvador. One of Alvarado’s soldiers, Román Lópes, would testify later that, on the way to this city, the population of all the towns en route “came out in peace and Alvarado then burned them and made slaves of the people and branded them.” Pedro González de Nájera, who had come to New Spain with Narváez, said the same: “This witness was with Pedro de Alvarado and was present when those concerned were burned because they desired to burn them.” The lords in this last place offered food, fruit, cloaks—and obedience. But they then fled to the hillside as usual. After two and a half weeks, the Spaniards moved on to Ixmide, which they reached on July 21, and where soon, because of the date, they decided to found Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (the day of Saint James, Santiago, is July 25). It would become the main city of the colony, though it suffered several changes of site (one can still see the narrow causeway that Alvarado and his men used to storm the old city). Alvarado gave this new city several municipal councillors or alcaldes ordinarios (Diego de Rojas from Seville and a son of Leonora de Alvarado, Baltasar de Mendoza) while his brother Gonzalo became the alguacil mayor (chief constable). Thus, the ways of Spain were once again transferred to a new site in an unknown country.

Here, eight months after leaving Mexico, Alvarado and his men rested. All his surviving indigenous troops except the loyal people of Tlaxcala made their way homeward. But “Tonatiuh” himself imposed on his Cakchiquel allies a tribute in gold, which he said that they had to pay even though they were helping him so substantially. The lords of the Cakchiquels refused and recommended all their people to abandon the cities and take refuge in the hills. The friendship between Alvarado and these people was thus broken.

But once again old hatreds were the best allies of the invaders. The Quichés and the people of Atitlán were happy to fight against their Cakchiquel enemies, even under new circumstances. The Cakchiquels had, however, learned new tactics from their months of alliance with the Spaniards, whom they forced to return to Quetzaltenango. Diego de Alvarado, nephew of Pedro, took two years reducing Cuzcatlán, while Gonzalo, his uncle, conquered the territory of the Mam between Chiapas and the Quiché. Gonzalo de Alvarado was named by his brother to conduct this campaign after it became evident that an abortive plan to burn the Spaniards at Atitlán in 1524 had been suggested to the Quiché leader, Chugna Huincelet, by the Mam, Caibil Balam. Chugna was killed, but his son Sequechul wanted to avenge him. Sequechul offered to guide Gonzalo to “the great and rich territory” of the Mam, which boasted what he explained was an abundant treasure.

For a year or so the initiative for further conquests lay with Gonzalo de Alvarado, not Pedro, who took many months to recover from the wound in his leg. Gonzalo had been in the Indies since 1510 and had been with Cortés throughout the great campaigns of conquest. He was devoted to his famous family and had even married into it since his wife, Bernardina, was his niece, being the daughter of Jorge de Alvarado (who himself had married Luisa de Estrada).

In July 1525, Gonzalo de Alvarado left Tecpán-Guatemala for the country of the Mam with forty horse, about eighty infantry, and two thousand or so Mexica and Quiché Indians, who acted either as porters or warriors in the early stages of the battles. He was delayed by the onset of rains. They went first to Totonicapán, on the edge of the Mam land, then to what they named the Río Hondo, “the deep river,” and seized the town of Mazatenango, which they re-christened San Lorenzo. Marching beyond that pueblo toward Huehuetenango, they met a Mam army from Malacatán. But Gonzalo de Alvarado charged it with his horsemen, and the Mam leader Cani Acab was killed by the Spanish commander himself with his lance. As so often after the death of a leader, the native resistance collapsed, and Gonzalo occupied Malacatán, whose inhabitants swiftly accepted to become vassals of the King of Spain.

The next Mam town to be occupied was Huehuetenango, where fine birds such as the quetzal, parrot, and cotinga could be found, with feathers for headdresses and cloaks, and whose inhabitants fled first to the fortress town of Zaculeu with ravines on three sides. This had been an important center of Mam culture for one thousand years. It had been captured by the Quichés in the early fifteenth century. But recently it had asserted what seemed to have been independence.

Gonzalo de Alvarado demanded its peaceful surrender: “Let it be known [to Caibil Balam] that our coming is beneficial to his people because we bring news of the true God and of the Christian religion sent by the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus, as of the Emperor King of Spain so that you may become Christians peacefully of your own free will. But if you should refuse our offer of peace, the death and destruction which will follow will be your own responsibility.” Gonzalo gave his opponents three days in which to consider his offer. No answer came. Instead, a Mam army came from the north to relieve Zaculeu. Gonzalo left his deputy, Antonio de Salazar, to continue the siege (Salazar had been with Narváez in New Spain and had subsequently been in most of Cortés’s battles round the lake of Tenochtitlan). He turned on the relief force, though by now his men were hungry, without much hope of food until Zaculeu was taken. The Spanish mercenaries were as usual held by the Indians, who were forced into defeat by the horsemen. Gonzalo returned to Zaculeu with starvation threatening. His surviving Indian auxiliaries were forced to the Indians, who were forced into defeat by the horsemen. Gonzalo returned to Zaculeu with starvation threatening. His surviving Indian auxiliaries were forced to eat dead horses. But then Juan de León Cardona, whom Pedro de Alvarado had made captain of the conquered Quiché territory, sent a substantial shipment of food. Zaculeu surrendered in September 1525, and Gonzalo assumed the command of all the western Cuchumatans.

By then, Pedro de Alvarado had recovered adequately from his wound to be able to contemplate a new expedition of his own, this time into Chiapas, seeking to meet his old commander and comrade Cortés, who was then en route for Higueras to punish the willful Cristóbal de Olid. Chiapas, it will be recalled, had some years before been conquered by Sandoval. Alvarado wanted Cortés’s support for his claim formally to become governor of Guatemala. But the dense jungles, the colossal rivers, and the wonderful mountains made any thought of meeting Cortés impracticable.

Alvarado returned to Guatemala, where he found that several of his settlements, such as San Salvador, had been destroyed. All the same, he had become attached to Guatemala and its people, even though he had treated them so harshly. Perhaps the landscape counted for him, improbable though it may seem. Relentless men have soft sides. The range of altitude, climate, and vegetation along the Pacific coast is astonishing. Perhaps he liked the cypresses, the high fertile valleys, the temperate climate, the volcanic stone for grinding maize and sharp knives, the availability of lime for mortar. The narrow coastal plain is very well watered. There was obsidian for weapons and iron pyrites with which to make looking glasses. There was a little gold in the streams, as well as copper, and also abundant fresh fish, and shellfish at the coast. There was bark for making paper, silk and cotton for quilted armor, tobacco, pumpkins for music, bees for honey. Some Spaniards were impressed by the diversity of gods in Guatemala, as by the ritual invoked on all occasions of celebration and by the speed with which Catholic saints were identified with local gods. Certainly this was a territory much richer than Alvarado’s hometown of Badajoz in Extremadura.

Hearing that Francisco de Montejo, a comrade of his in the early days of the campaign in New Spain, had been granted the governorship of Yucatán, Alvarado determined to return to Mexico-Tenochtitlan and then to Spain to obtain a similar nomination for himself in Guatemala. He had by then taken “such a fancy to this land of Guatemala and its people that he decided to stay there and colonise. So he laid the foundation for Santiago de Guatemala and prepared a cathedral.” He also established encomiendas and a town council for his new city, from whose members he went through the motions of requesting permission, as acting governor, to leave for Spain. His brother Jorge then became acting governor from August 1526.

Though the conquest of Guatemala was far from complete, Alvarado had made his mark there, and as Tonatiuh, Son of the Sun, he would be remembered in his absence. The Quiché lords would perhaps echo the prayer of the lords in Popol Vuh: “Heart of Sky, heart of earth, give me strength, give me the courage, in my heart, in my head, for you are my mountain and my plain.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.