A Leaky Ship Sinks An Empire

From our friend and guest blogger Greg Custer, founder of Destination Ventures and the Magic of Mexico, and someone who has truly revolutionized e-learning and the way travel agents learn about Mexico.

The next time you look seaward from your Cancun or Puerto Morelos resort, scan the Caribbean horizon and imagine a small flotilla of 16th century Spanish ships heading south to north (that’s right to left for the directionally challenged). Suddenly the ships stop, reverse course and disappear to the south.  At the helm of these ships is none other than Hernán Cortés. It is January of 1519 and the great Conquistador has usurped control of an expedition to the American mainland. Departing from Cuba with 500 men, 16 horses, an insatiable lust for gold, and conviction to save heathen souls, his first stop is Cozumel.

The Cortés expedition is scattered by a storm at sea but arrives at Cozumel, scaring the daylights out of the Maya inhabitants. He attempts a form of crude communication with the local chief, but without an interpreter the exchange is meaningless. Learning little, the Spaniards leave Cozumel and sail north towards Isla Mujeres , only to be stopped south of what is today Cancun by a leaking ship in need of repair.  The epic journey that would forever change the world then does an about face and returns to Cozumel, laying anchor along the very beaches used today for Corona beer commercials (really!).

Ship repaired and the Indians utterly terrified by a beachfront exhibition of Spanish horses, steel, cannon and armor, the Spaniards were about to depart Cozumel for a second time when a lone canoe appeared on the horizon, crossing from the mainland at what is today Playacar. Cortés sends a small band up the beach with swords drawn.  As they approach, a man rises from the canoe and asks “Are you Christian brothers?” On the canoe is a man who would become perhaps the most valued member in Cortés’ epic journey and the devastation of the America’s most powerful civilization.

His name was Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest and shipwreck survivor. He had endured eight years as a Mayan slave after his 1511 trip from Panama to Santo Domingo was blown off course and the ship scuttled off the coast of Jamaica. A desperate band of surviving Spaniards departed the Jamaican coast, only to be again marooned along Mexico’s Caribbean shore.

The battered foreigners were quickly captured by Mayan tribes, some of them immediately stripped, roasted alive and eaten. Others (including Aguilar and a companion Guillermo Guerrero) were caged for fattening, but manage to escape and spend the next eight years in and out of capture. Along the way, they learn to speak Mayan. Guerrero marries, has children, launches the Mestizo race, and goes native. Aguilar was anxious to return to his Spanish brethren. Hearing of the strange flotilla’s arrival on nearby Cozumel, he darted across the channel, surprising Cortes.

During the next two years Aguilar will never leave Cortes’ side. He becomes the indispensable translator between Cortés and Mayan chiefs. The expedition continues by circumventing the Peninsula and cruising up the Mexican Gulf coast. When weeks later a woman given to Cortes proves fluent in both Mayan and Nahuatl (the language of Central Mexico, the Aztecs and their vassal tribes) Cortés has the linguistic effervescence to understand, prod and manipulate mainland Mexico’s political realities.

Had Cortes’ ships not returned to Cozumel for repairs, and the Cortés – Aguilar-Malinche linguistic link broken, the great Conquistador’s utter destruction of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilization would have faced insurmountable communication challenges and Cortés deprived of his greatest tactical advantage.

Had Cortés failed, we can only wonder if Mexico’s indigenous people might have avoided, or at least delayed, European domination, disease, and devastation. Given the Aztec’s near absolute power and prosperity, Mexico might have avoided 300 years of Spanish enslavement, and the Aztecs might have endured, to become the America’s dominant civilization.