The Spanish Conquest
After the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire and captured its capital at Tenochtitlán in 1521, the K’iche’ sent ambassadors north to Mexico informing Hernán Cortés of their desire to be vassals of the newly established power structure.
In 1523 Cortés dispatched Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala on a fact-finding mission meant to verify the veracity of the tribe’s claim. If indeed Cortés’s intentions were limited to fact-finding, he could have done better than to choose Alvarado for the job. Alvarado is described as handsome, athletic, distinguished, eloquent, and graceful, among other things, from Spanish accounts of the conquest. He was also extremely cruel.
Alvarado arrived in Guatemala along the Pacific Coast flatlands accompanied by 120 horsemen, 173 horses, 300 soldiers, and 200 Mexican warriors from the allied Tlaxcalan armies. He made his way up to the highlands, where he met the K’iche’ in battle near present-day Quetzaltenango, also known as Xelajú. An estimated 30,000 K’iche’ were unable to forge alliances with neighboring tribes to repel the Spanish invasion and faced the Spanish alone. Legend has it Alvarado met Tecún Umán, grandson of the K’iche’ ruler, in hand-to-hand combat, cutting him down.
Following these events, the K’iche’ invited the Spanish to their capital at Utatlán for the signing of a formal surrender but secretly planned to ambush them from the safety of their mountain fortress. Alvarado knew an ambush when he saw one and so he withdrew to the city’s outskirts, followed by the K’iche’ rulers, whom he seized and later had burned at the stake.
Eight days of fighting followed, with the Spanish enlisting the help of the rival Kaqchikels to finally gain the upper hand against the K’iche’. Utatlán was then burnt to the ground.
The Kaqchikel alliance with the Spanish stuck for a time, with the Spanish establishing the first capital of Guatemala alongside the Kaqchikel capital of Iximché, from which they launched raids to conquer Guatemala’s remaining highland tribal groups. The campaign would last several years and was made increasingly difficult when the Kaqchikel severed their alliance with the Spanish in 1526 in response to demands for tribute.
They abandoned their capital at Iximché and took refuge in the mountains, launching a guerrilla war. The Spanish then moved the Guatemalan capital, establishing the city of Santiago de Los Caballeros on November 22, 1527. Now known as Ciudad Vieja, it lies near present-day Antigua.
Indigenous uprisings and resistance would continue throughout Guatemala’s history into the present-day as the various groups respond to repressive policies imposed by those in power. The recently ended civil war has been likened by scholars, human rights activists, and journalists to a kind of “second conquest” aimed at eliminating the indigenous population through genocidal extermination attempts.
A final aspect of the conquest that bears mentioning is the work of European diseases and their hand in greatly reducing the population of the indigenous peoples who had no resistance to smallpox, plague, typhus, and measles. These diseases were responsible for the loss of more than three-quarters of Guatemala’s two million inhabitants in the first 30 years following contact with the Spanish. It is thought that a third of the population died before Alvarado’s invading army even set foot in the indigenous peoples’ Guatemalan homeland.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com