In 1511, the Americas were an unknown quantity in Europe. It was less than twenty years since Columbus 'sailed the ocean blue' and brought news of the new lands back to Spain. Even so, Spain had not squandered those few years, and was actively building colonies in the New World. This was an expensive and dangerous undertaking, and many of the colonists fell victim to disease, famine, hostile natives - or shipwreck.
Santo Domingo, on the island now called Hispaniola, was the staging post for the Spanish conquistadores1, who would destroy the Inca, Aztec and Mayan empires over the next decades. Travel between Spain's New World colonies was routine, but not without dangers.
Some time in 1511, a caravel2 with a contingent of 163 set sail from Panama, heading northeast to Santo Domingo. It was transporting a supply of gold and the local procurator, Juan de Valdivia. It never arrived.
Most of the details - even the name of the ship - are either disputed or have been lost to us altogether, but what remains outlines a fascinating story of loyalty, horror and betrayal.
This section of the Caribbean is notorious for its hurricanes, and it was not uncommon for ships to be lost. The exact circumstances surrounding the loss of Valdivia's ship are not now known. What is known is that the entire crew survived the foundering of the ship and escaped in a lifeboat.
The ship they left, although capable of oceanic travel (it was similar to the Pinta and Niña used by Columbus), was small by modern standards, at 20-30m long with a 6m beam - a little over the size of four buses. The lifeboat would have been smaller still, probably barely enough to seat the survivors. It was designed for keeping sailors (many of whom could not swim) alive for a few hours. It certainly was not designed to withstand a Caribbean storm of the type that must have been raging.
The Spanish sailors, however, were far away from any hope of rescue. Without sails or oars, they had no control of their vessel and were taken by the current. They cannot have had much food or water, and it would be 14 long days before they were washed ashore. They would have been suffering from sunstroke, dehydration and malnutrition - and the worst was still ahead of them.
Nine4 mariners seem to have survived their oceanic ordeal. They were washed ashore far to the west of their destination, making landfall in what is now Quintana Roo, on the then-unexplored coast of Mexico.
Unexplored, that is, to the European settlers. These lands were far from uninhabited, and the reluctant expedition was immediately captured by the local Mayan tribe. It is likely that these were the first westerners that these Maya had seen, and they decided that they were to be sacrificed to the gods. The entire crew was put into cages, and the executions began.
The Maya believed that blood was filled with sacred power, and their execution techniques tended to maximise the amount of gore. It is most likely that the surviving captives watched as their compatriots (including Valdivia) suffered ritual beheading, although other (more bloody) techniques were known to the Maya.
Somehow, a few of the crew managed to escape. We do not know how, or even how many, but they would have been utterly alone in a hostile jungle. Fleeing into the jungle, they were captured by another Mayan tribe. Xamanzana, the ruler of this second tribe, had a more secular use for his new prisoners - slavery. Although this was hardly a desirable fate, it was the first time since they left port that the Spaniards were not under immediate threat of death, and for a while their story goes quiet.
The next certain record comes in 1519. Cortés had landed in nearby Cozumel, and was preparing for the conquest of Mexico. Rumour of westerners living among the Maya had reached him, and he sent messengers inviting them to return home. What he found must have surprised him. Only two were left alive, and fate had taken them along very different courses.
Gerónimo de Aguilar (whose surname means 'of the Eagle' in Spanish) had been a Franciscan friar. Having endured eight years of slavery, it is not surprising that he eagerly accepted Cortés' invitation, and became one of his translators.
Cortés' message was delayed, and de Aguilar missed the boat by a few hours - only to see Cortés turn back due to bad weather. De Aguilar paddled out in a canoe, and was nearly killed by his saviours, who could not at first distinguish him from a native, so long had he been living among the Maya. He managed to explain himself, and the knowledge of the local language he had obtained persuaded Cortés to take him on as a translator, along with a native woman known as La Malinche.
De Aguilar died in 1531 at the age of 42, in unknown circumstances.
The other survivor, Gonzalo Guerrero, gave a perhaps more surprising reply when Cortéz's messenger reached him. Unlike the priest, Guerrero had lived up to his name (which means soldier or warrior in Spanish) and become a leader among the Mayan people. He had married, and when de Aguilar asked Guerrero to join him and Cortes, he replied 'Brother Aguilar; I am married and have three children, and they look on me as a cacique (lord) here, and captain in time of war. My face is tattooed and my ears are pierced. What would the Spaniards say if they saw me like this? Go, and God's blessing be with you.'
He later gave a more apologetic reply to another invitation to return, claiming that although he was a lord, he was also still a slave and unable to leave, finishing 'I remember God, and you, Sir, and the Spaniards have a good friend in me.’
Despite these words, Guerrero became a leader against the Spanish invaders, leading his adopted people to be among the most successful resisters of the imperialists. He died in Yucatan, although accounts of his death variously place it prior to 1532 or in battle in 1536.
To the Spanish, Guerrero was a traitor and apostate, who turned his back on his people and his God despite his words to the contrary. Over the centuries, as Mexicans have come to associate the Spanish with oppression, and by extension themselves with the indigenous peoples, his reputation has been reversed, and he is now honoured by statues. De Aguilar, caught in the public imagination between the treacherous La Malinche and the heroic Guerrero, has faded into greater obscurity.
So well do the characters now fit into their chosen stereotypes that it has been suggested that they may not have been real people at all. In particular, it has been alleged that de Aguilar may have invented Guerrero to place his own actions in a better light. Whatever the reality, the story of Guerrero and de Aguilar combines high adventure with symbolism of the conflict in 16th Century America, and the different viewpoint 21st Century observers bring to those events.