The historical events of the victory of Chakán Putum in Campeche

This is how on March 25, 1517, the Mayas defeated the Spaniards, who were made to return to the island of Cuba, fiercely defended their territory and that is why it is called "The victory of Chakán Putum".

The historical events of the victory of Chakán Putum in Campeche
The victory of Chakán Putum. Image: National Institute of Indigenous Peoples

More than 500 years have passed since the historical events in which the lands of Campeche were seen and recognized by Europeans for the first time. Mochcouoh was the religious and political leader of this settlement of Mayan roots that defeated the Spanish invaders led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1517, an expedition before that of Hernan Cortes.

The great feat of the Maya over the Spanish army, a consequence of an efficient organization despite the disparity in the technology employed, surprised the invaders, so accustomed to the peace of the coasts, and to populations with less training in the art and cunning of war. The first obstacle the Spaniards faced was an ambush, a technique in which the Maya seem very experienced, attacking the main leader to dismantle the group, was how they fought against the invaders in previous times of the conquest. The weapons with which the Maya fought in the war were: stick bows and arrows made of thin reeds with flint tips; bucklers and spears the size of darts with toasted and stone tips. It was thus that on March 25, 1517, the Mayas defeated the Spaniards, whom they made a return to the island of Cuba, fiercely defended their territory and that is why it is called "The Victory of Chakán Putum".

Few historical sources relate to these events, most are accounts of Spanish conquerors who left traces of this event and recognized the defeat, as was the case of Bernal Diaz del Castillo in his work True History of the Conquest of New Spain; so it is important to keep these memories of the Mayan resistance that has always characterized it and that until periods after the conquest these rebellions against the Spanish yoke were visible.

The Victory of Chakán Putum

The Spaniards began to circle the coasts of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula for the first time. In an expedition led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, they reached what is now Campeche. The captain, with ships (accompanied by the pilot Anton de Alaminos, the clergyman Alonso Gonzalez and a crew) arrived at the town on March 22, 1517. According to the chronicle of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, this was the reason for the approach of the Spaniards:

We believed that there would be a river or stream where we could take water, because we had a great lack of it, due to the pipes and vessels that we brought, which were not watertight, because as our army was made up of poor men and we did not have enough gold to buy good vessels and cables, there was a lack of water, and we had to jump ashore next to the town. And it was a Sunday of Lazarus, and for this reason, we named that town Lazarus, [...] and the proper name of the indigenous people is Campeche [...] and since they were full and we wanted to embark.

The Mayans received them well, about fifty indigenous people came from the town, with good cotton blankets and also peace, it seemed that they must be caciques. And they asked us by signs that what we were looking for, we gave them to understand that to take water to go then to the ships, then they pointed us with their hands asking if we were coming from where the sun comes out and then they said: "Castilán, castilán"; and we did not look at the talk of the "castilán". This shows that the inhabitants were already aware of explorers approaching their lands.

There they obtained food and brought water to drink. But due to an inconvenience, the Spaniards forgot to close the pipes properly and the water spilled. Since they had been treated well, they decided to go to the coast again, only now, a little further south. They arrived at a place called Chakanputún, which they renamed Champotón. "Chakán Putum" is a Maya word that comes from the roots: Chakán meaning savannah and Putum (variant of Petén) region or comarca; that is, the "region of the savannah".

It has also been called "ChakanPetén", "Chankan Putún", "Champutún" and the current name of "Champotón" (because Bernal Díaz del Castillo used in his stories the names of Potonchán, Chakan Putum and Champotón) It was one of the main cities of Acalán-Tixchel, near the mouth of the Grijalva River, where Villa Santa María de la Victoria was founded in present-day Tabasco. The town was one of the most important in the province and where Chontal was spoken or understood; other towns such as Centla, Taxaual, and some other settlements were under their control. The territory of Chakán Putún was dominated in the 16th century by the Couohes, that is, the Cohuó family.

The Spaniards were filling their water pipes in a well, when suddenly and without warning they were attacked by the Couohes led by Moch Couoh, who was ahalach uinik (the name given to the highest ruler of the territory). The battle was in favor of the Mayas, as about 50 Spaniards died, 2 were captured and many more were wounded; in addition, Captain Hernandez de Cordoba was seriously wounded and died in Cuba as a result of his wounds.

On March 25, 1517, the Maya defeated the Spaniards.
On March 25, 1517, the Maya defeated the Spaniards. Image: INPI

According to the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España by Bernal Díaz del Castillo ("True History of the Conquest of New Spain"), the strategy of the Mayas was precisely to attack the Spanish captain under the shouts of "calchuni, calchuni", which means "to the chief, to the chief". Due to these events, the expedition was a failure and the port of Champotón was baptized "Puerto de Mala Pelea" (Port of the Bad Fight), according to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the local Mayans defended their lands and attacked the Spanish expedition.

Many squads of indigenous people from the town of Potonchán (that is how it is called) came along the coast with their weapons of cotton, which was knee-high, and with bows, arrows, spears, spears, bucklers, and swords made in the manner of uprights, slingshots, stones and with their plumes like the ones they usually use. They killed more than 50 and wounded their captain, Francisco Hernandez (who died a few days later). Because of that battle, which was strong and fierce, the Spaniards called Champotón "Bahía de Mala Pelea" (Bay of Bad Fight).

The Spaniards were ambushed (a technique in which the Mayas seem to be very the Maya seem to be very experienced in the way they fought against the invaders at the time of the Conquest), and Bernal and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, survivors of that expedition, relate that:

[…] in their language: al calachuni, al calachuni, which means: "let them kill the captain. They gave him twelve arrows, and they gave me three; and one of those that they gave me, very dangerous, in the left side that passed me to the hollow, and others of our soldiers gave great throws, and two of them took alive, the one was called Alonso Bote, and the other was an old Portuguese.

While from López de Gómara's account we can learn about Moch Cohuó's role in the Victory Day of Chakán Putum:

Mochocoboc, to divert them from the sea, so that they would not have the lair nearby, signaled them to go behind a hill, where the fountain was. Our people were afraid to go there because they saw the painted natives, loaded with arrows and looking like they were about to fight, and they ordered the artillery of the ships to be released to scare them away. The indigenous marveled at the fire and smoke and were somewhat stunned by the thunder, but they did not flee; rather they attacked with gentle courage and concert, firing their crossbows at them, pulling out their swords and killing many with thrusts, and as they found no iron but flesh, they gave them the knife that cut them in half, the more they cut off their legs and arms. The indigenous, although they had never seen such fierce wounds, lasted in the fight with the presence and spirit of their captain and lord, until they won the battle.

Diego de Landa was a Spanish missionary of the Franciscan Order in the province of Yucatan and the second bishop of the Archdiocese of Yucatan between 1572 and 1579. In his writings called Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán ("Account of the Things of Yucatán") he describes this battle as follows:

That is the year 1517, during Lent, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba left Santiago de Cuba with three ships to rescue slaves for the mines, since in Cuba the people were becoming scarce. Others say that he went out to discover the land and that he took Alaminos as a pilot and that he arrived at the Island of Women, which he named after the idols he found there of the goddesses of that land such as Aixchel, Ixchebeliax, Ixbunic, Ixbunieta, and that they were dressed from the waist down and covered their breasts as the indigenous women use; and that the building was made of stone, which frightened them, and that they found some things of gold and took them. And that they arrived at the point of Cotoch and that from there they went around to the Bay of Campeche where they disembarked on the Sunday of Lazaro, and that for this reason, they called it Lazaro. And that they were well received by the lord, and that the natives were frightened at the sight of the Spaniards and touched their beards and people.
That in Campeche they found a building within the sea, near the land, square and graded all, and that at the top was an idol with two fierce animals that ate its teeth and a long and fat serpent of stone that swallowed a lion; and that the animals were full of blood from the sacrifices.
That from Campeche they understood that there was near a large town called Champotón, where when they arrived they found that the lord was called Mochcouoh, a bellicose man who launched his people against the Spaniards, which upset Francisco Hernández, seeing what had happened; And so as not to show little courage, he also put his people in order and had the artillery released from the ships; and although the sound, smoke, and fire of the shots were new to the indigenous people, they did not cease to attack with a great noise; and the Spaniards resisted, giving very fierce wounds and killing many. But that the lord encouraged so much (the natives) that they made the Spaniards withdraw and that they killed twenty, wounded fifty, and captured two alive that they later sacrificed. And that Francisco Hernandez left with thirty-three wounds and that he returned sadly to Cuba, where he heard that the land was very good and rich because of the gold he found on the Isla Mujeres.

The weapons with which the Mayas fought in the war were bows made of sticks and arrows of thin reeds with flint tips; bucklers and spears the size of darts, with the tips made of stones.

The clothing they wore to defend their bodies consisted of a long, narrow strip of cotton canvas, also with many turns that were tightly wound; others wore sleeveless sayetes or coverlets (made of quilted cloth that served to defend themselves from blows and wounds in confrontations). Also, to show ferocity and bravery, the eyes, nose, face, body, and arms were covered in black and with almagre ("black ochre"). Their ears were pierced, and they wore a metal skirts made of metal (like a sheet of tin with a golden sheen). In addition, their hair was long as the women's. To fight, some of them were tied up and others tied them in different ways, each one in the way that seemed to him to be the toughest and bravest.

It was thus that on March 25, 1517, the Mayas defeated the Spaniards, whom they made a return to the island of Cuba, fiercely defended their territory and that is why it is called "The Victory of Chakán Putum". From the first letter of the justice and regiment of the fortunate Villa de Vera Cruz to Queen Juana and Emperor Charles V, her son, dated July 10, 1519, the painful defeat that the Spaniards suffered in Champotón is clear.

Investigation: María Guadalupe Flores Rodríguez,  Illustrations: Brenda Araceli Romero Amaya, Source: National Institute of Indigenous Peoples