The Spanish Conquest of Guatemala – Centuries of fighting, enforced religion and legalized slavery
The Spanish conquest of Guatemala was a prolonged affair, the Maya kingdoms resisted integration to the Spanish Empire with such tenacity that their defeat took almost two hundred years. The Conquistadors arrived in Guatemala in the early 16th century led by Pedro de Alvarado, one of Hernán Cortés’ top lieutenants. He arrived with less than 500 Spanish soldiers and just some Mexicans, but by making an ally of the Kaqchikel he was able to declare war on the K’iche’, who he defeated in 1524. However, the region of Guatemala remained independent and hostile to Spain until an assault led by Martín de Ursúa y Arizmendi finally defeated the last independent Mayan kingdom in 1697.

In the 1530s, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas tried to pacify the Indigenous peoples using Christianity rather than violence. He was successful in bringing Christianity to the region, unfortunately, once the region was under Spanish control, colonists raided it for land and slaves, undoing everything de las Casas had achieved. The Spanish became responsible for educating the native peoples, who in turn would work the land for them. In reality this was a form a legalized slavery, known as the Encomienda system, which remained in place until the 17th century. The Spanish also concentrated native people into “reducciones”, those who managed, fled into the mountains and forests.

After Guatemala had been conquered, the native inhabitants were expected to give up their culture and embrace Spanish rule and Christianity. Although burning native heretics at the stake was forbidden, punishments could be very severe and so the only way native religion survived was by going underground.

Although there is said to have been ten native auxiliaries for every Spanish soldier in the field, the natives never really stood a chance. The Indigenous people lacked the fundamental elements of Old World technology, such as the wheel, horses, iron, steel and gunpowder. And those not wiped out by war couldn’t fight against the Old World diseases the Spaniards introduced to the region of Guatemala, such as smallpox, measles, influenza and yellow fever. Armies were crippled before fighting even began. It is said that over 90% of the Indigenous population of Guatemala had been eliminated from disease within the first century of contact with the Europeans.
Nov 22, 2016
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