After the conquest of Mexico in 1521, Francisco de Montejo, under commission as Governor of Yucatan, landed (1527) to effect the conquest of the country, but met with such desperate resistance that after eight years of incessant fighting every Spaniard had been driven out. In 1540, after two more years of the same desperate warfare, his son Francisco established the first Spanish settlement at Campeche.
In the next year, in a bloody battle at Tihoo, he completely broke the power of Maya resistance, and a few months later (Jan., 1542) founded on the site of the ruined city the new capital, M rida. In 1546, however, there was a general revolt, and it was not until a year later that the conquest was assured.
In the original commission to Montejo it had been expressly stipulated that missionaries should accompany all his expeditions. This, however, he had neglected to attend to, and in 1531 (or 1534), by special order, Father Jacobo de Testera and four others were sent to join the Spanish camp near Campeche.
They met a kindly welcome from the Indians, who came with their children to be instructed, and thus the conquest of the country might have been effected through spiritual agencies but for the outrages committed by a band of Spanish outlaws, in consequence of which the priests were forced to withdraw.
In 1537 five more missionaries arrived and met the same willing reception, remaining about two years in spite of the war still in progress. About 1545 a large number of missionaries were sent over from Spain. Several of these – apparently nine, all Franciscans – under the direction of Father Luis de Villalpando, were assigned to Yucatan.
Landing at Campeche, the governor explained their purpose to the chiefs, the convent of St. Francis was dedicated on its present site, and translations were begun into the native language. The first baptized convert was the chief of Campeche, who learned Spanish and thereafter acted as interpreter for the priests.
Here, as elsewhere, the missionaries were the champions of the rights of the Indians. In consequence of their repeated protests a royal edict was issued, in 1549, prohibiting Indian slavery in the province, while promising compensation to the slave owners.
As in other cases, local opposition defeated the purpose of this law; but the agitation went on, and in 1551 another royal edict liberated 150,000 male Indian slaves, with their families, throughout Mexico.
In 1557 and 1558 the Crown intervened to restrain the tyranny of the native chiefs. Within a very short time Father Villalpando had at his mission station at M rida over a thousand converts, including several chiefs.
He himself, with Father Malchior de Benavente, then set out, barefoot, for the city of Mani in the mountains farther south, where their success was so great that two thousand converts were soon engaged in building them a church and dwelling. All went well until they began to plead with the chiefs to release their vassals from certain hard conditions, when the chiefs resolved to burn them at the altar.
On the appointed night the chiefs and their retainers approached the church with this design, but were awed from their purpose on finding the two priests, who had been warned by an Indian boy, calmly praying before the crucifix. After remaining all night in prayer, the fathers were fortunately rescued by a Spanish detachment which, almost miraculously, chanced to pass that way.
Twenty-seven of the conspirators were afterwards seized and condemned to death, but were all saved by the interposition of Villalpando.
In 1548-49 other missionaries arrived from Spain, Villalpando was made custodian of the province, and a convent was erected near the site of his chapel at Mani. The Yucatan field having been assigned to the Franciscans, all the missionary work among the Maya was done by priests of that order.
In 1561 Yucatan was made a diocese with its see at M rida. In the next year the famous Diego de Landa, Franciscan provincial, and afterwards bishop (1573-79), becoming aware that the natives throughout the peninsula still secretly cherished their ancient rites, instituted an investigation, which he conducted with such cruelties of torture and death that the proceedings were stopped by order of Bishop Toral Franciscan provincial of Mexico, immediately upon his arrival, during the same summer, to occupy the See of M rida.
Before this could be done, however, there had been destroyed, as is asserted, two million sacred images and hundreds of hieroglyphic manuscripts – practically the whole of the voluminous native Maya literature. As late as 1586 a royal edict was issued for the suppression of idolatry.
In 1575-77 a terrible visitation of a mysterious disease, called matlalzahuatl, which attacked only the Indians, swept over Southern Mexico and Yucatan, destroying, as was estimated, over two million lives. This was its fourth appearance since the conquest.
At its close it was estimated that the whole Indian population of Mexico had been reduced to about 1,700,000 souls. In 1583 and 1597 there were local revolts under chiefs of the ancient Cocom royal family. By this latter date it was estimated that the native population of Mexico had declined by three-fourths since the discovery, through massacre, famine, disease, and oppression.
Up to 1593 over 150 Franciscan monks had been engaged in missionary work in Yucatan.
The Maya history of the seventeenth century is chiefly one of revolts, viz., 1610-33, 1636-44, 1653, 1669, 1670, and about 1675.
Of all these, that of 1636-44 was the most extensive and serious, resulting in a temporary revival of the old heathen rites.