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Location and Description

The State of Quintana Roo lies on the eastern end of the Yucatán Peninsula in Southeastern Mexico. Quintana Roo also neighbors the Mexican States of Yucatán (on the northeast) and Campeche (on the southeast) and the nations of Belize and Guatemala (on the south). The state consists of only 44,825 square kilometers, which is equal to 2.0% of the national land mass. While the western and northern coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula are on the Gulf of Mexico coast, the eastern coast of the peninsula — including Quintana Roo — touches the Caribbean Sea.

Quintana Roo had a 2010 population of 1,325,578 which lived in its eleven municipios and represented only 1.2% of the population of the entire Mexican Republic. The state’s population is distributed into 88% urban and 12% rural areas. The capital city of Quintana Roo is Chetumal. The city is almost entirely modern, as it was destroyed by hurricane in 1955.

The name of the state is in honor of the Yucatan lawyer Andrés Quintana Roo (1787 – 1851), born in Mérida, Yucatán. He was Deputy for Puebla in the Congress of Chilpancingo (September–November 1813) that declared the independence of Mexico from Spain and drafted a constitution.

The Geography of Quintana Roo

The relief of Quintana Roo is predominantly flat and does not present elevations of importance. Plains interspersed with lomeríos (rolling hills) cover 53.84% of the surface of the state, while lomeríos take up 24.21% of the state and flat plains make up another 19.64%. The Yucatán Peninsula is one of the most forested areas of the world with four generalized ecosystems: tropical forests, or jungle, savanna, mangrove forests, and coral reefs.

The Mayan World

It is believed that human beings have probably inhabited the area of present-day Yucatán for 7,000 years or more.  For the last few thousand years, the Mayan Indians have inhabited the entire Yucatán Peninsula, as well surrounding regions.  The physical “boundaries” of the ancient Mayan empire spanned across a region that now includes parts of five nations.

The Mayan culture flourished for many centuries with the people making a living through agriculture, hunting and fishing. The Mayan archaeological sites left behind testify to a people who were skilled at weaving and the creation of pottery and other artifacts. Hundreds of pyramids, temples and other structures scattered throughout the Yucatán stand as testimony to the Mayan’s skill in construction of complex buildings.

A map of Mayan Cultural area from Maggie Rost’s “Mayan Civilization” website (https://www.pinterest.com/margaretrost/mayan-civilization/?lp=true) has been reproduced below:

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In the South, the Mayan world consisted of modern day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. The northern reaches of Mayan territory included large portions of five Mexican states, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. In all, the territory occupied by the Maya was probably 500,000 square kilometers in area, and is sometimes referred to collectively as El Mundo Maya (The Mayan World). 

The Early Mayans
The Mayans studied the stars and, in their study of astronomy, were able to develop their own calendar. They were gifted architects who built temples and pyramids, but they were also farmers who provided sustenance for their communities. The “Classic Period” took place from 300 to 900 A.D. and covered most of the area presently recognized as El Mundo Maya. It was followed by the “Post-Classic Period” which lasted from about 1000 AD to 1500 AD. 

Beginning about 500 B.C., the Maya settlements underwent a population expansion that continued for more than a millennium. During this time, Maya settlements of a wide area, including all of the present-day Yucatán Peninsula as well as Chiapas, Tabasco and norther Central America.

League of Mayapan (1263-1461)

In 1263, The Mayapan League was formed by an alliance of the three principal Yucatán states: Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan, three cities in the northern Yucatán Peninsula. Thanks to this confederation, there was a long period of peace, during which many cities were established and developed. Over the next twenty years, the league grew quickly, incorporating the states of Cocom and Izamal as the fourth and fifth members of the confederation.

The following map shows Mayan settlements in the Yucatán, including the three key Mayapan League cities (with red circles). The map also shows the direction of the Spanish expedition of 1517 with a blue arrow [Antonio Torres Rodríguez, Centzuntli, “Cocomes.” Online:  http://centzuntli.blogspot.com/2011/05/cocomes_18.html].

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According to anthropologist and historian Dr. Ralph L. Roys, the League of Mayapan was the central power within the entire Yucatán until 1441, when a civil war broke out between the Tutul-Xiu and the Cocom. The rest of the league took advantage of the war and rebelled against the central authority.

Civil War Destroys the League (1441-1461)

From 1441 to 1461, the Maya political league “dissolved into generalized tribal warfare”  as the peninsula was divided into sixteen Cacicazgos (Kuchkabals or Cuchcabals), the autonomous political units that were ruled by a cacique (Indian chief). Civil strife was followed by epidemics, hurricanes and droughts. When the Spaniards arrived in the Sixteenth Century, they would find a land of many independent states. 

The Mayan Languages

The Mayan language group has been divided into several groups: the Huastec, Yucatec, Western Maya, and Eastern Maya linguistic groups. The Huastecos represent a northern extension of the Mayan people who settled in present-day Veracruz. The Western Maya language group consists of several significant language groups (Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Tojolabal, Chuj, Kanjobal, Jacalteco, Chontal and Motozintlec), most of which are spoken in Chiapas and Guatemala.

The Yucatec language was and is spoken throughout much of the Yucatán Peninsula, which presently includes three Mexican states (Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo) and the northern parts of both Belize and Guatemala.

The map below shows the Mayan linguistic differentiation starting with the Proto-Maya language in Guatemala, as it branched off into the Huasteco (1300 B.C.), Yucateco (1400 B.C.) and Tzeltalano branches (200 A.D.) [Wikipedia, “Mapa de la Migración de las Lenguas Mayenses.” Online: https://es.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Mapa_Migracion_Lenguas_Mayenses.svg.]

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The Yucatec Maya Language

For many centuries, the Yucatec Maya has been the dominant Mayan language throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, including Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. The language was documented in the ancient hieroglyphs of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilizations at several archaeological sites and may be as much as 5,000 years old. Even at the time of the 2000 census, 799,696 individuals in the entire Mexican Republic still spoke this language. (This number does not include the other major Maya linguistic groups, such as the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Huasteca, and the Chol, all of which thrive in several other Mexican states).

The map below shows that the Yucatec Maya language dominates the Yucatán Peninsula, while other Mayan languages thrive in neighboring Chiapas, Tabasco and Guatemala [Wikiwand, “Lenguas Mayenses.” Online: https://www.wikiwand.com/es/Lenguas_mayenses].

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Sixteen Mayan States

According to the Maya ethnohistorian, Dr. Ralph L. Roys, in his important work, The Political Geography of the Yucatan Maya, at the time of the Spanish arrival in Yucatán, the Peninsula consisted of “sixteen autonomous native provinces,” with varying levels of internal unity. While some were large unified states, others were “loose confederations of autonomous communities.”

However, Roys also noted that these Mayan states “seem to have considered themselves a single people and each of these territorial divisions was called a cuchcabal,” which means jurisdiction. In fact, Roys noted that “the population of the Yucatán peninsula was, for so large an area, remarkably uniform in language, customs, and fundamental political ideas. Almost everywhere horticulture and agriculture followed the same pattern.” With the exception of Acalán in present-day Tabasco, all sixteen provinces spoke the Mayan language (In Acalán, they spoke the Chontal language of Tabasco).

Historian Nancy M. Farriss, in Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival, writes that “the Maya had no overarching imperial structure that could be toppled with one swift blow to the center… Each of the provinces, and sometimes the subunits within them, had to be negotiated with, and failing that, conquered separately.”

Because of this “political fragmentation,” historian Robert W. Patch, in Maya Revolt and Revolution, noted that there was “no single site to capture or one single government that could be forced to surrender. As a result, Spanish enthusiasm for conquest weakened over time, accentuated by the area’s lack of gold and silver to loot. In addition, discovery of Peru’s riches encouraged many Spaniards to leave the Maya area to seek their fortunes elsewhere.

Mayan Provinces

The following map shows the Mayan states of the Yucatán in the 16th Century, as described by Dr. Ralph Roys [Jaontiveros and Ecelan, “Cacicazgos Mayas en el Siglo XVI según Ralph Roys” (August 12, 2009) in Wikipedia, “Tutul-Xiu.” Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tutul-Xiu].

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The Quintana Roo States

Of the sixteen cacicazgos of the Yucatán Peninsula, four were located in the territory of present-day Quintana Roo: Ekab, Cochuah, Uaymil and Chetumal.

Ekab

The chiefdom of Ekab (or Ecab) was the name of a Mayan chiefdom of the northeastern Yucatán Peninsula before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Ekab extended from Cape Canoche to Ascension Bay. There were several port towns along the coast of Ekab, most notably Tulum, Xcaret, and Xel-Ha. The capital city Ekab was in the far north along the Caribbean Sea.

Cochuah

Cochuah was a Mayan state that was located in the interior of the Peninsula and is now in the present municipio of José María Morelos in the state of Quintana Roo. Cochua also included what is now the southern part of Yucatan. The Indians of Cochuah wove cotton cloth, raised turkeys and other fowl, and tended beehives; they also cultivated maize, beans, pumpkins and cotton. It was considered a fertile province, but the southern part was taken up by swamp and was not suitable to human habitation.

Uaymil

This Maya chiefdom was along the southeast coast of present day State of Quintana Roo. Bacalar was its largest city, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Chetumal,

Chetumal (Chactemal)

The chiefdom of Chetumal (“Place of the Red Wood”) occupied the entire southeastern part of the present state of Quintana Roo and northeastern Belize. To the north lay the chiefdoms of Ekab and Cochuah; to the east was the sea; to the south, the lands of Petén; and to the west were uninhabited mountains. The capital, Chetumal, on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, was a town of considerable size and is the capital of Quintana Roo today.

According to Alfonso Villa Rojas in The Maya of East Central Quintana Roo, the natives in Chetumal “excelled in commerce and exported maize, honey, wax and cotton garments.” Even today, Chetumal is an important port for the region and operates as Mexico’s main trading gateway with the neighboring country of Belize.

Christopher Columbus and the Mayans

Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) never reached Yucatan, but on one of his early voyages he heard of the culture of a people called the Mayas, who wore clothes and dwelt on a mainland ten days’ journey in a canoe from Española. On his fifth voyage (1503-04), Columbus encountered, south-west of Cuba, a canoe-load of Indians with cotton clothing for barter, who said that they came from the country of Maya.

First Contacts with the Spaniards

Vicente Yáñez Pinzón was the first navigator to visit the coast of Yucatán Peninsula in 1508. In 1511, an expedition led by Juan de Valdivia, ran aground on a reef and was shipwrecked while travelling from Panama to Santo Domingo. Twenty men escaped the wreck in an open boat and, after thirteen days, drifted ashore on the Yucatán coast. The local Mayan lord sacrificed Valdivia and four others to the Gods.

Eventually two of the men, Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, survived in the Mayan community. Guerrero married the daughter of a Mayan chieftain and became a tribal member in the province of Chetumal with his princess wife. In later years, when more Spaniards arrived, Guerrero refused to return to the Spaniards when the opportunity arose. On the other hand, Aguilar would end up serving as interpreter for Hernán Cortés after the Spaniards rescued him in 1519.

The Cordova Expedition (1517)

In 1517 an expedition under Francisco de Cordova sailed from Cuba to look for slaves for the mines in Cuba and discovered Yucatan in the process. Landing on the north coast, Cordoba sailed past Campeche and then arrived at the town of Champotón, the main city of the Conohes, who were among the most warlike of the Maya. Francisco de Cordoba’s expedition had several bloody engagements with the local inhabitants and was followed a year later by an expedition under the command of Juan de Grijalva who landed near Cozumel and took formal possession of the land for Spain.

The Fall of the Aztec Empire

In April 1519 Hernán Cortés sailed up the eastern coast of Mexico, passing along the coast of the Mayan territory and eventually establishing Vera Cruz with a force of 508 soldiers, 100 sailors and 14 small cannons. Eventually, in August 1521, the Aztec Empire and its magnificent capital of Tenochtitlán had fallen to Cortés and his men (in large part thanks to the assistance of indigenous groups that hated the Aztecs).

With the intention of expanding the Spanish Empire, in 1522, Cortés dispatched his chief lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado with 180 cavalry, 300 infantry, crossbows, muskets, four cannons, superior firepower and thousands of allied Mexican warriors (primarily from Tlaxcala and Cholula) to subdue the area now known as Guatemala, south of the Yucatán.

Population of the Yucatan Peninsula (1528)

Cook and Borah estimated that some 800,000 people lived in the northern half of the Yucatan Peninsula in 1528, just before the Montejo campaigns began. Another 50,000 lived in Acalán (the area southwest of the Laguna de Términos in Western Campeche), 150,000 on the west coast of present-day northern Campeche, 150,000 in what is now northern Campeche, 300,000 on the east coast from Cabo Caroche (in the extreme northeast) to Chetumal, and 300,000 in the interior.

The First Montejo Campaign (1527-1528)

The Yucatán was left alone by the Spaniards for a few years, but in December, 1526, a wealthy nobleman Francisco de Montejo (also known as “El Adelantado”) was granted a royal contract (capitulación) to raise an army and conquer the Yucatán Peninsula.  In 1527, Montejo, along with his son (by the same name) and his nephew, left Santa Domingo with a force of three ships and several hundred soldiers to begin the conquest of Yucatán. The force landed at Cozumel and in September 1527 and then moved inland with 125 men, after leaving 65 men to man two coastal towns.

In early 1528, the Spanish force fought a great battle at Aké (10 miles north of Tizimin), where Montejo lost half his men. However, over 1,200 Maya were also killed and all the local chiefs surrendered to superior firepower. However, the Mayans through most of the Yucatán continued to resist the Spaniards, and after a two-year campaign, Montejo left the Yucatán, having failed in his attempts at subduing the Mayans of the area.

The Second Montejo Campaign (1531-1534)

After this, the Montejo’s — while planning to launch a second invasion of the Yucatán — were mired in political disputes to claims for the land. In 1531, Montejo and his son, Francisco de Montejo (as known as “El Mozo” — The Younger) made a second attempt to subdue the Mayans, establishing a base of operations at Campeche. While the Elder maintained his base in Campeche, his son and another lieutenant Alonso Davila secured the east and north parts of the peninsula, respectively. Although all three were under constant attack from the surrounding Maya, they were not forced into total retreat as other groups had been years before.

By the summer of 1534, however, Montejo the Younger’s position in the Yucatán became precarious. With a depleted force, he departed his headquarters at Dzilam and retreated to join his father at Campeche. At the end of 1534, the older Montejo and his forces evacuated Campeche altogether, withdrawing to Tabasco. Campeche would not return to Spanish rule until 1541. A contributing factor to the failure of the Montejos to hold their positions was the loss of men who decided to go to Peru to find greater spoils in the conquest of the Inca Empire.

The Final Conquest (1540-1546)

By 1540, Montejo the Elder was now in his late 60s and had been made Captain-General of Honduras, which included all of Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Campeche, Tabasco and the Yucatan Peninsula. He returned to Tabasco where his son governed and turned the royal permission to conquer the Yucatán over to his son.

Next, in 1540, Francisco de Montejo “El Mozo” or “The Younger” returned to the Yucatán to begin the third attempt to conquer the area, a task that would take six years. By this time, the Mayans had been reduced and weakened by smallpox and other diseases. At the end of 1540, El Mozo started by setting up a headquarters at Champotón in Campeche, with a force of almost 400 soldiers. This would ultimately become the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Once Montejo had established his position, he summoned many of the Mayan rulers to his base. Forming alliances with some of the local chieftains during 1541, the Montejos were able to subdue native forces in several parts of the Yucatán, and by the end of the year, many Mayan chieftains had submitted to the Spanish crown. El Mozo founded the city of Mérida on January 6, 1542, and sent his cousin, Francisco de Montejo “the Nephew” to Chauaca to finish the conquest in the east.

The 1546-1547 Uprising and Final Conquest

The last holdouts were several Mayan chiefdoms in the eastern part of the peninsula. They were finally subdued after a failed four-month uprising that began in November 1546, and the conquest of the Yucatán was finally considered complete by 1547. Only the Itzá people – living in the region of Lake Petén in present-day northern Guatemala – remained independent. The Itzá kingdom did not submit to Spanish rule until March 13, 1697 when the island capital in Lake Petén was stormed by Spanish troops. The conquered Spanish provinces in Yucatán in 1549 are illustrated below [Jaontiveros, “Provincias de Yucatán en 1549, Después de la Conquista de los Montejo” (December 1, 2016) in Wikipedia, “Conquista de Yucatán”].

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Converting the Native People

In 1542, the first frontier mission was established at Nachi Cocom (now in Quintana Roo) among the Mayas of the Yucatán Peninsula. Within 40 years, 22 Maya missions were established as well as 186 visitas (Indian villages regularly visited by missionaries who said mass, baptized Indians and taught catechism). By 1593, over 150 Franciscan monks were engaged in missionary work throughout the entire Yucatán Peninsula. In some areas, the conversion was successful. However, in other areas, the loyalty to Christianity was so weak that during rebellions, the indigenous religions would be embraced once again. Here, as elsewhere, some missionaries became champions of the rights of the Indians.

The Encomienda System

By the end of 1545, Montejo had parceled out the native towns and villages of the Yucatan peninsula in encomienda grants among 150 of his followers. Through encomiendas, the Crown or its delegate (in this case, Montejo), granted to an individual worthy of reward the right to exact tribute and labor from a specified number of royal tributaries. In return the grantee, or encomendero, undertook to care for the material and spiritual well-being of his charges. According to the author Inga Clendinnen, this system provided “instant rewards to the conquerors with instant control and exploitation of the conquered.”

In consequence of the repeated protests of missionaries, a royal edict was issued in 1549, prohibiting Indian slavery in the province, while promising compensation to the slave owners. However, local opposition to this law led to a second royal edict in 1551 which liberated 150,000 male Indian slaves and their families throughout Mexico. But, even after these royal edits, many elements of the Mayan population were forced to work under horrible conditions and the encomienda system ran from 1542 to 1650 in the Yucatan Region.

Unfortunately, the encomiendas broke the social, political and economic structure of the ancient Indian provinces. In addition to congregating into compact towns, indigenous people had to give up all rites, idols and ceremonies relating to their old religion. Alfonso Villa Rojas has noted that “the resulting violent social disorganization, along with mistreatment and disease brought by the conquerors, soon decimated the population.”  

Continuing Resistance

Although the Spaniards had subdued the eastern Yucatan provinces of Ekab, Uaymil and Chetumal, they did not permanently occupy them, except for a fortified settlement at Bacalar at the base of the peninsula in what is now in the State of Quintana Roo close to the Belize border. According to historian Nancy M. Farriss, the Spaniards “actually lost ground, pulling back from territory that they still nominally claimed but lacked the means and the incentive to control.”

The Revolt of 1761

Sporadic revolts continued into the Eighteenth Century. In early November 1761, Jacinto Canek became the leader of a new rebellion. Jacinto had adopted the name Canek to suggest that he had a relation to the previous kingdom of the Itzás. After organizing a force of 1,500 Mayans, Canek’s force was confronted by a well-armed Spanish force of 500 soldiers on November 26, 1761 in the plaza of Cisteil (near present-day Sotuta).

In the hand-to-hand fighting, the Spanish forces gained the upper hand. Ultimately, the village was burned and it is believed that as many as 500 Indians perished in the blaze. Canek himself escaped with a small guard, fleeing to Huntulchac. There he assembled a force of about 300 men who had also escaped from Cisteil. But Canek and about 125 followers were then apprehended at Sibac. Canek and eight other organizers of the rebellion were executed in December 1761 –a month after the uprising had begun.

Political Developments (1787-1824)

In 1787, the area of the present-day state of Yucatán was made part of the Intendencia of Valladolid, a part of the colony of Nueva España. But with Mexican independence, Yucatán became a part of the new nation as of September 28, 1821. Yucatán proclaimed its own sovereignty in August 1822 but was re-incorporated into Mexico in February 1824, becoming a state within the Mexican Republic on October 3, 1824. 

Bibliography

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Chapa, Jorge. “The Creation of Wage Labor in a Colonial Society: Silver Mining in Mexico, 1520-1771,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, XXIII, 1978-79, 99-122.

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Farriss, Nancy. Maya Society under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton, 1984.

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Rugeley, Terry. Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War. University of Texas Press, 1996.

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