1524: The rulers of the K’iche’ kingdom

Add comment March 7th, 2020 Headsman

This Tyrant at his first entrance here acted and commanded prodigious Slaughters to be perpetrated: Notwithstanding which, the Chief Lord in his Chair or Sedan attended by many Nobles of the City of Ultlatana, the Emporium of the whole Kingdom, together with Trumpets, Drums and great Exultation, went out to meet him, and brought with them all sorts of Food in great abundance, with such things as he stood in most need of. That Night the Spaniards spent without the City, for they did not judge themselves secure in such a well-fortified place. The next day he commanded the said Lord with many of his Peers to come before him, from whom they imperiously challenged a certain quantity of Gold; to whom the Indians return’d this modest Answer, that they could not satisfie his Demands, and indeed this Region yielded no Golden Mines; but they all, by his command, without any other Crime laid to their Charge, or any Legal Form of Proceeding were burnt alive. The rest of the Nobles belonging to other Provinces, when they found their Chief Lords, who had the Supreme Power were expos’d to the Merciless Element of Fire kindled by a more merciless Enemy; for this Reason only, because they bestow’d not what they could not upon them, viz. Gold, they fled to the Mountains, (their usual Refuge) for shelter, commanding their Subjects to obey the Spaniards, as Lords …

Bartolome de las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (under the heading “Of the Kingdom and Province of GUATIMALA”)

On this date in 1524 the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado cinched the destruction of the indigenous K’iche’ (or Quiche*) kingdom of present-day Guatemala by burning its hostage chiefs before its demoralized capital city.

Alvarado was already a seasoned hand of the ongoing Spanish usurpation of the New World — a veteran of Cortes’s conquests in Mexico. With that realm brought to heel, Alvarado was tasked with leading a Spanish invasion of (mostly Mayan) Mesoamerican kingdoms.

In the first weeks of 1524, Alvarado pressed across the Samala River into the K’iche’ kingdom to devastating effect. “The Spaniards, O wonderful! went to the Towns and Villages, and destroy’d with their Lances these poor Men, their Wives and Children, intent upon their Labour, and as they thought themselves, secure and free from danger. Another large Village they made desolate in the space of two hours, sparing neither Age, nor Sex, putting all to the Sword, without Mercy,” de las Casas laments.

In a decisive February 20 battle, Alvarado’s forces felled the half-legendary native hero Tecun Uman — a mortal blow to the empire in the memory of the Annals of the Cakchiquels, a document from later in the 16th century, which bluntly records that “the Quiches were destroyed by the Spaniards … all the Quiches who had gone out to meet the Spaniards were exterminated.”

Indians now fleeing before him, the conquistador marched onward towards the capital city of Q’umarkaj (various other transliterations are available, such as Gumarkaaj and Cumarcaaj; it’s also known from Nahuatl as Utatlan, giving us de las Casas’s reference at the head of this post). To assist blunt force, he had recourse to strategem — as Alvarado himself recorded in his account of Guatemala. Declining an invitation of hospitality from the authorities there for fear of being trapped in a hostile city, he instead convinced those guys to pay him a diplomatic visit to his camp outside the city … then seized them as hostages, who were executed speedily when their capture did not quell all resistance.

by the cunning with which I approached them, and through presents which I gave them, the better to carry out my plan, I took them captive and held them prisoners in my camp. But, nevertheless, their people did not cease fighting against me in the neighborhood and killed and wounded many Indians who had gone out to gather grass. And one Spaniard who was gathering grass, a gunshot from camp, was slain by a stone rolled down the hill …

And seeing that by fire and sword I might bring these people to the service of His Majesty, I determined to burn the chiefs who, at the time that I wanted to burn them, told me, as it will appear in their confessions, that they were the ones who had ordered the war against me … And as I knew them to have such a bad disposition towards the service of His Majesty, and to insure the good and peace of this land, I burnt them, and sent to burn the town and to destroy it, for it is a very strong and dangerous place.

The equivalent account from the Annals of the Cakchiquels is mournfully terse — paragraph 147, here quoted by Victoria Reifler Bricker in The Indian Christ, the Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Maya Myth and Ritual.

Then [the Spaniards] went forth to the city of Gumarcaah, where they were received by the kings, the Ahpop and the Ahpop Qamahay,** and the Quiches paid them tribute. Soon the kings were tortured by Tunatiuh [Alvarado].

On the day 4 Qat [March 7, 1524] the kings Ahpop and Ahpop Qamahay were burned by Tunatiuh. The heart of Tunatiuh was without compassion for the people during the war.

As Alvarado pledged to make it, this former empire’s former capital is today an utter ruin.


The Baile de la Conquista commemorates the Spanish conquest, personified in Alvarado’s confrontation with Tecun Uman.

* No etymological relationship of these “Quiche” to the egg-and-cream brunch staple. The K’iche’ people remain a major ethnic minority comprising about 11% of the present-day Guatemalan population with a widely-spoken language; Nobel laureate indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchu belongs to this group.

** From a footnote to this version of the Popol Vuh — “The Book of the People”, another important K’iche’ text — come these explanations of the ranks in question:

Ahpop is the Maya word which has passed without variation to the languages of the interior of Guatemala; its literal meaning is “the mat.” The mat, pop, was the symbol of royalty, and the chief or lord is represented as seated upon it on the most ancient monuments of the Maya Old Empire which had its origin in the Peten, Guatemala. The Ahpop was the Quiche king and chief of the House of Cavec; the Ahpop Camha, also of the House of Cavec, was the second reigning prince; the Ahau Galel was the chief or king of the House of Nihaib, and the Ahtzic Vinac Ahau the chief of the House of Ahau Quiche

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guatemala,Heads of State,History,Hostages,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Royalty,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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