Pedro de Alvarado and the Conquest of UtatlanCategory: Maya
Like many of the conquistadors, Pedro de Alvarado came from one of the poorest regions of Spain called Extremadura. Little is known about him prior to his departure at age 25. Pedro’s peers considered him fearless, ambitious, as well as cruel. His braveiy and his brutality are well documented. Alvarado was fair-haired and very handsome. He loved to wear gold necklaces and jewels. The Indians called him Tonatiuh, the golden sun god. He landed in the New World in 1510, just in time to participate in the conquest of Cuba.
Pedro and his brothers had long heard rumors of the riches of the Aztec Empire when they decided to join Cortes and his expedition in 1519. Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his eyewitness account describes Alvarado as a good leader and frank hearted. He was a great horseman and a natural born leader of men. Pedro became Cortes’s most trusted captain. However, even Cortes complained of his brutality. Especially, after he slaughtered hundreds of innocent unarmed Aztecs who were celebrating in front of Aztecs main temple in Tenochtitlan. The slaughter touched off a war between the Spaniards and the Aztecs forcing Cortes to flee the city.
After conquering the Aztecs, Cortes and Alvarado still hungered for even more riches. They decided to invade what is now known as Guatemala. Cortes and Alvarado assembled 400 Spanish soldiers and over 5,000 Indian auxiliaries. The cost of the 160 horses, 120 horsemen, artillery, crossbows, muskets, and ammunition put Cortes into heavy debt. He expected to make many times what he invested. The expedition left Mexico City on December 6, 1523. When they arrived in Guatemala they found a country that had been devastated by war and disease. Smallpox had been introduced to the Mayans by the Spanish conquistadors years earlier and by the time Alvarado and his men had arrived one-third of the Mayan population had been decimated by it. There were so many dead people that the corpses lined the sides of the roads.
The Quiche Mayans had ruled the Guatemalan highlands since the 14th century. It was the largest confederacy in Central America. Their capital was called Utatlan and it had a population of about 50,000. At the time it was believed that the population of Guatemala was about 2 million. By the time the Spanish arrived there had been constant warfare between the different Quiche Mayan factions. The warfare forced the Quiches to abandon the cultivated valley floors that they had inhabited for 1,000 years and live in fortress mountain cities. Utatlan was positioned like a medieval European castle on mountain ridges, protected by moat-like ravines. Utatlan had 140 civic structures, a population of 50,000, and it was extremely well constructed.
When Pedro de Alvarado and his men arrived at Utatlan they asked the Mayans to surrender peacefully. However, the Quiches refused to cooperate. Hastily, their great leader Tecum organized 10,000 troops from the surrounding towns. Unfortunately, for Tecum, Alvarado had already convinced the Cakchiquel Mayans to fight for the Spaniards in exchange for favorable treatment. Before long, word reached the Quiche camp that Alvarado and his troops were approaching Quetzaltenango. By now the Quiche forces numbered 30,000. They marched into battle behind 39 flag bearers, conch-shell trumpet players, and rows of drummers. Then, on a plain outside of Quetzaltenango both sides met in a fierce battle. The Quiches suffered a horrific defeat. There forces were no match for the more sophisticated Spanish weaponry. They would meet at least one more lime before the Quiches would totally surrender. Alvarado burned Utatlan to the ground. It had taken him just a few months to conquer the Quiches.
Defeating the Quiches did not mean that Guatemala had been conquered. There were numerous independent Mayan kingdoms that Alvarado would have to conquer independently. I le intimidated the Mayans by torturing and burning individual rulers alive. Frustrated by the lack of gold, silver, or jewels Alvarado began enslaving the Indians. Then when he threatened to burn the Cakchiquel chiefs alive if they did not produce gold, they vanished from the city of Iximche in the middle of the night.