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Mexicolore contributor George Fery

The 1562 Tragedy at Mani (Part Two)

This is the concluding part of the article by George Fery, a freelance writer-photographer of pre-Columbian history and archaeological sites of Mexico and the Americas, on the notorious ‘burning of Maya books’ in 1562 by the Spanish Inquisition led by Diego de Landa. Just what DID happen on that day...?

Pic 1: 16th century canvas
Pic 1: 16th century canvas (Click on image to enlarge)

In the final analysis, ancestors provide a bridge between generations for the benefit of the descendants’ standing in their community, because ancestors are invoked to legitimize and bring order to daily family and communal existence. De Landa and his friars dismissed the significance of these icons on grounds of idolatry, which in their view was merely a means of escape from the new religion. But was it the only motive, or were the friars in partnership with local unscrupulous encomenderos and mestizo colonists who were then able, through burning the only indigenous “property record,” to seize “undocumented” land?

Pic 2: The Lienzo de Coachimalco
Pic 2: The Lienzo de Coachimalco (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mexico, ancient canvases found in traditional communities are recorded with museums and regional land survey offices. Under Article 27 of the Agrarian Law the canvases are recognized as legal property records. Copies of these ancient documents are still used in land claim resolution and are legally binding between parties. The case of the Lienzo de Coachimalco in the late 1970s illustrates the importance of such a record. The rare lienzo or canvas, is dated to the first part of the 17th century. It is made of jolote fibers sewn together then covered with a thin coat of plaster, on which are drawn a crude map and figures of the village. The lienzo is legal proof of ancestral property and residence by landowners and documents the descendants’ claim to property.

Pic 3: Levies in kind... (detail of mural by Diego Rivera)
Pic 3: Levies in kind... (detail of mural by Diego Rivera) (Click on image to enlarge)

In the appendices of the 1959 edition of the Relación are testimonies of the collusion between secular and religious members of the Yucatan administration in Merida, albeit not for the same reasons. This collusion cannot be understood without bringing forward the Tax List of 1549. This list fixed the levies to be paid by each of the 175 towns in Yucatan and 10 in Tabasco, as well as in other towns of the crown to its encomenderos to defray the cost of government control over an extensive administrative, military, and religious infrastructure.

Pic 4: Showing mantas as tribute (Codex Huexotzinco)
Pic 4: Showing mantas as tribute (Codex Huexotzinco) (Click on image to enlarge)

The taxation in kind was subject to the availability of local resources. It included, among others, manufactured material such as wool mantas or mantles each measuring nine-plus square feet at the rate of four hundred per year for an average town, beeswax (per 100-weights), drums of honey and other items and products, such as corn, beans and other foodstuffs, as well as salt and dried fish from coastal communities. The record indicates that, for the year 1549, the levy of 53,285 mantles were collected upon the 175 towns, recorded in the Tax List in Yucatan.

Pic 5: Yucatan, 16th century house
Pic 5: Yucatan, 16th century house (Click on image to enlarge)

The tributes had to be delivered to encomenderos in the city of Merida at the rate of one-third every four months, with pack animals or carts for transportation supplied by the colonists. Indigenous communities had to help the colonist in the task with four Indian workmen for this service, to be fed and housed by him, and taught the doctrine of Christianity. Material and products were also assigned to the crown and religious orders. For the following years, the levies varied with the size of towns, which steadily grew by reason of the forced resettlement, or repartimiento de indios of indigenous villages, when houses were burned to the ground, to prohibit return and further the policy of exerting better socio-economic and religious control.

Pic 6: Detail from a mural on indigenous life by Diego Rivera
Pic 6: Detail from a mural on indigenous life by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)

Among numerous testimonies, is a report issued on March 15, 1563, by Hernando Dorado, Royal Notary in Merida, on the ancient Ti’ho, witnessed by upstanding citizens who were deeply distressed by the abuses sustained by indigenous people at the hands of certain members of the church and the colonists. The report was sent to the Vice Royalty of New Spain in Mexico City, concerned with persistent rumors of civil unrest in the province. Dorado’s report is significant in describing the use and abuse of power at the time, notably the appearance on the scene of a colorful figure, the alcalde (mayor) of Merida, Don Diego Quijada in 1561, that sheds a disturbing light on the events.

Pic 7: Indentured labor...
Pic 7: Indentured labor... (Click on image to enlarge)

The 1563 report describes the events that took place at Mani, Sotuta and other towns and villages. In Mani, flogging, and burnings at the stake by the friars were directed by de Landa, assisted by friars Miguel de la Puebla, Pedro de Ciudad Rodrigo, and Juan de Picaro, referred to as “ordinary inquisitors” of the Inquisition. Mayor Diego Quijada also attended the dramatic events together with colonists. When convicted of lesser charges, Indians had their heads shaved and were sent into forced labor for ten years or less, as indentured servants in the haciendas of encomenderos and the mestizo colonists’ friends of the mayor.

Pic 8: Enduring forebears...
Pic 8: Enduring forebears... (Click on image to enlarge)

Penalties with payment in kind by native people were collected; the report mentions 4,340 gold pesos, 125,000 cacao beans (the traditional currency), as well as other charges for lesser penalties. The friars went further in desecrating the graves of indigenous ancestors by removing the buried bones which were then scattered in the fields or thrown into bonfires. This was not an act of lunacy, it was grounded in a religious rationale that, by showing publicly the ancestors’ impotence in the face of extreme adversity, was aimed at the brutal eradication of ancestor worship.

Pic 9: Collusion... (Diego Rivera mural)
Pic 9: Collusion... (Diego Rivera mural) (Click on image to enlarge)

The secular-temporal collusion in the region, if not always as extreme as at Mani, was the result of the tri-partite failure between the local governments, the encomenderos, other colonists and the religious order, each with their own agenda. This relationship went astray as such relationships often do and was highly damaging to the Yucatan socio-economic stability under the mayor and his accomplices. The friars, sanctioned by their custodian, ignored the mandate of the Holy Inquisition to cease forced conversion and maltreatment of the local people, while the mayor and his associates were driven by greed.

Pic 10: Page 3 of the letter to the Viceroy
Pic 10: Page 3 of the letter to the Viceroy  (Click on image to enlarge)

A four-page manuscript letter in Yucatec was sent to the viceroy in Mexico City, signed by three governors, describing the brutality of the Franciscans, and asking for help and redress that often came too late. In many instances, local rage against the invaders ravaged the land. Near Valladolid, a revolt took the lives of seventeen Spaniards and several hundred mestizos. The villagers cut the hands and feet of their oppressors and sent them to towns and villages on the peninsula to sow a resistance movement that never had a chance to take hold.

Pic 11: Distrust and anger...
Pic 11: Distrust and anger... (Click on image to enlarge)

The damning 1563 report was supported two years later by another on March 25, 1565, from Merida again, addressed to the Viceroyalty of New Spain in Mexico City, and to the Council of the Indies in Spain by the Royal Notary, Sebastian Bazques. This second report confirmed the first regarding long lasting abuses of power, that resulted in serious economic damage to the province while inciting dangerous restlessness within the indigenous communities. Supplications for relief notwithstanding, the destruction of many idols collected during idolatry trials by the Inquisition in the Yucatan, was widespread and is found to have occurred in every entrada (entry) of every chronicle, well into the seventeenth century.

Pic 12: Bishop Francisco de Toral
Pic 12: Bishop Francisco de Toral (Click on image to enlarge)

That is the deplorable situation the Franciscan Francisco de Toral (1502-1571), first bishop of the Diocese of Yucatan, found on his arrival in 1562. It was obvious to de Toral that de Landa ignored the orders of the Crown and those of the Inquisition and exceeded his ecumenical mandate. He was appalled at the subjection and abuse of native people and skeptical on the use of physical punishment to exert confessions. The antagonism between the two priests led de Toral to force de Landa to return to Spain in 1563, to face charges of abuse of his religious obligations at the Council of the Indies’ court in Seville. De Toral freed hundreds of Mayas that de Landa had imprisoned without cause, except for those guilty of instigating the egregious crimes of idolatry and human sacrifice.

Pic 13: Friars seeking souls...
Pic 13: Friars seeking souls... (Click on image to enlarge)

When he first set foot on the peninsula in 1549, de Landa’s initial zeal to convert was driven not only by faith but also by an inquisitive mind genuinely interested in the land and its people. He crisscrossed most of the Yucatan barefoot and made valuable notes that went beyond the indigenous people’s beliefs and religious practices, and into all aspects of their lives. His first-hand observations embraced community and family organization, children’s education, burial practices, architecture, planting techniques and cycles, the calendar and numbering system, harvested products storage and distribution, the symbology of their writing, justice, hospitality and other relevant facts on communal and family life.

Pic 14: The ‘Relación’ of de Landa
Pic 14: The ‘Relación’ of de Landa (Click on image to enlarge)

After his removal as “Provincial” in Merida by Bishop de Toral, and his return to Spain in 1563, he took advantage of his suspension to write his seminal Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, the most comprehensive ethnographic document of his time. There is little doubt, however, that the Relación was written in support of his claims to his duties and as exculpatory evidence to counter the accusations leveled against him. His field work and observations, however, have been indispensable to anthropologists and scholars for the last hundred years.

Pic 15: Maya-Spanish rendition
Pic 15: Maya-Spanish rendition (Click on image to enlarge)

Among his invaluable notes, one stands out: his record of the Maya writing system based on information collected in towns and villages from spiritual and secular elders that phonetically and graphically helped him match glyphic symbols with the Spanish alphabet. Glyphs and letters did not always match, however, resulting in inconsistencies and duplicates that could not be resolved. Not until 1952 did the Soviet linguist and epigrapher Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov (1922-1999) realize that the transcription was not that of an alphabet but the ideograms of a syllabary (such as Egyptian hieroglyphs). It was a momentous breakthrough in Maya glyphs decipherment.

Pic 16: Convent of San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo
Pic 16: Convent of San Juan de los Reyes, Toledo (Click on image to enlarge)

De Landa stood trial in Seville where his actions were strongly condemned, but the investigation by scholars of the Council of the Indies absolved him in 1569, on the grounds that he acted within the bounds of his ecumenical mission, and under the provisions of the Holy Inquisition. Many religious and lay people in Yucatan were clamoring for his return with both the viceroy in Mexico and the court in Spain.
While retired in the San Juan de los Reyes convent in Toledo, he was not forgotten by King Philip II.

Pic 17: The Great Maya Museum, Merida
Pic 17: The Great Maya Museum, Merida (Click on image to enlarge)

After consultation with the Council of the Indies and Franciscan elders, the king approved the appointment of Diego de Landa in 1572 as the second bishop of Yucatan, succeeding Bishop de Toral, who died in Mexico City in 1571. The second bishop landed in Campeche, Yucatan, in early 1573, together with a retinue of thirty Franciscan friars granted to the Merida bishopric by Phillip II to further ecumenical work. After serving the Franciscan order for thirty-eight years, most of this time in Yucatan, Diego de Landa died at fifty-five of natural causes on April 29, 1579; he is buried in Merida’s cathedral.

Diego de Landa C. – Relacion de la Cosas de Yucatán, Ediciones Porrua, 1959
William Gates – Yucatán Before and After the Conquest – Forgotten Books, 1937
Diego Lopez de Cogolludo – Historia de Yucatán – Linkgua, 2006
Mircea Eliade – Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy – Princeton-U, 1964
Fash, Agurcia Fasquelle – Visión del Pasado Maya – Centro Editorial, 2003
Joan Halifax – Shamanic Voices – Arkana Book, New York, NY,1979
Stephen Houston – The Life Within – Leslie Fitch, 2014
Barbara Tedlock – Time and the Highland Maya – University of NM Press, 1982
J. Eric S. Thompson – Maya History and Religion – University of OK Press, 1970
R.P. Ximenez – Popol Vuh – Editorial José P. de Ibarra, Guatemala, 1701 (1973)
Diego Duran – Historia de las Indias de Nueva España – Imp. Escalante, 1880
David Freidel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker – Maya Cosmos, William Morrow, 1993
L. Mendez Martinez – Historia Mayab’ – Asociación Maya Uk’Ux’B’e, 2008
Patricia A. McAnany – Living with the Ancestors – University of Texas Press, 1995
Nelson A. Reed – The Caste War of Yucatán – Stanford University Press, 2001
Bartolomé de las Casas – Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias – 1965
J. Eric Thompson – The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization – University of OK Press, 1954
Éric Taladoire – Les Trois Codex Mayas – Balland, Paris, 2012
Ruth Bunzel – Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village – Washinton Press.U, 1952
Thomas W. F. Gann – The Maya Indians our Southern Yucatan – Smithsonian, 1918
Herbert J. Spinden – Ancient Civilizations of Mexico – A.M. of Natural History, 1922

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 2, 3, 5, & 7: images from Wikipedia
• Pix 4, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 16 & 19: photos ©
• Pic 6: image from
• Pix 11 & 20: images of Diego Rivera murals - public domain
• Pic 12: image ©Sheffler/Folan-MARI
• Pic 17: photo from - public domain
• Pic 18: image from ArqueoMex.38 91/25.

• Pic 1: image from ArqueoMex.38-8
• Pic 2: image from ArqueoMex.38-60
• Pic 3: image from ArqueoMex.38-7
• Pic 4: image from ArqueoMex.38-46
• Pix 5 & 13: images from Gann, BAE, 1916 - public domain
• Pic 6: image ©
• Pix 7, 8, 11 & 17: photos ©
• Pic 9: image of Diego Rivera mural - public domain
• Pix 10, 12, 14 & 16: images from Wikipedia
• pic 15: public domain.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 10th 2020

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