Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Costly Battle of Champoton

In early 1517, over one hundred Spaniards on three ships set out from Cuba to explore the Yucatan Peninsula. The expedition, led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, was met with mixed receptions whenever it made landfall. In some regions, the natives attempted to ambush the explorers when they came ashore. Yet, in other locations, locals received the conquistadors in peace, allowing the foreigners to tour their communities for a limited amount of time while under supervision. All in all, the expedition must have seemed lackluster—they had suffered casualties in the ambush and had found very little gold. Nevertheless, they were still making progress, if only in mapping the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula and learning about the local population.

Around early April, 1517, the Spaniards had traveled a fair distance down the western shore of the Yucatan Peninsula. In a fateful decision, the explorers decided to anchor their ships and paddle their rowboats to shore in order to gather water from some freshwater pools that they could see further inland. There were approximately one hundred conquistadors that were healthy in the expedition at the time, and all of them went ashore with their weapons. When they reached the freshwater pools, they saw signs of life—there were some small buildings nearby, and enough corn was planted there to make the Spaniards believe it was a local plantation.

Before the Spaniards could gather their water and leave, an army of natives arrived from a nearby city that the Spaniards later identified as Champoton. The approaching masses were armed for war, carrying bows, spears, slings and shields. Many of the native warriors also were described as wearing cloth armor and had their faces painted in red, white and black. Even though the two groups were armed and mistrustful, peace was maintained. Neither side had a translator, so they communicated as best they could through hand signals. The awkward attempt at sign language continued until night began to fall. As the sky darkened, the natives started heading back to Champoton. In an unwise move, the Spaniards decided not to return to their ships, but to instead camp by the beach.

When the dark of night arrived, it did not take long for the conquistadors to realize something was wrong. Rustling and voices reverberated from every direction around the Spanish camp. Although no native archers or slingers launched any projectiles into the camp during the night, the Spaniards soon came to believe that hostile and armed forces were amassing outside.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador and historian, was present in that camp and later wrote about his experiences. The Spaniards in the camp were in disagreement about what to do. Some wanted to launch an attack that very night against the forces they could hear rustling in the dark. Others wanted to flee to the boats immediately. In the end, however, the conquistadors just held their ground and waited until morning. When light returned, the Spaniards discovered that what they had been imagining in the dark of night was all true. During the night, several nearby towns and cities had sent warbands to besiege the conquistadors. Thinking back on the situation, Bernal Díaz felt that he and his companions were “outnumbered by two hundred to one” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV).  The Spaniards were surrounded and it did not take long for the battle to commence.

According to the account by Bernal Díaz, it was the besieging native army that made the first move. After arranging themselves around the outside of the camp, the besiegers loosed a vicious barrage of projectiles with their bowmen and slingers. Bernal Díaz vividly wrote, “they assailed us with such a shower of arrows and darts and stones from their slings that more than eighty of our soldiers were wounded” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). After the opening volley, native infantry charged forward against the camp while the archers provided support. By now, the conquistadors still standing were returning fire with their muskets and crossbows, yet they could not stop the momentum of the oncoming wave.  When the charging native warriors reached the threshold of the camp, the Spaniards fought back with their swords. After a brief melee, however, the native infantry apparently became frustrated by the Spanish armor and weaponry and they decided to withdraw back to their original position with their archers.

Although they had won the melee, the Spaniards were far from winning the battle. In fact, they were on the verge of destruction. In assessing the state of the conquistadors after facing the opening barrage and the infantry charge, Bernal Díaz wrote, “All our soldiers had received two or three arrow wounds, three of them had their throats pierced by lance-thrusts, and our captain was bleeding from many wounds” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). With many Spaniards dead and all other survivors wounded, the conquistadors decided their only option left was to flee for the rowboats. After packing tightly together, the ragged force pressed their way through the besieging natives and did not stop running until they reached their boats. With the enemy on their trail, the Spaniards did not take time to consider weight distribution and consequentially their rowboats began to take on water. Luckily, the vessels did not completely sink and the damp conquistadors eventually reached their ships.

The battle was reportedly only about an hour in length after the opening volley. Yet, although short in duration, it was incredibly costly in lives. According to Bernal Díaz, over fifty-five of the approximately one hundred men at the camp died of wounds sustained in the battle. Upon returning to the ships, the injured conquistadores immediately decided to return to Cuba. The captain of the expedition, Francisco Hernandez, was said to have suffered ten arrow wounds, but he lived long enough to lead his ships home. Tragically, he died of his wounds soon after successfully anchoring in Cuba.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (17th-century depiction of the entrance of Hernan Cortés into the city of Tabasco, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Guest Article: 5 Lesser-Known Greek Gods And Goddesses

In a previous article (read it HERE), I mentioned six ancient Greek gods that you might not have known. This article continues that list with five more gods and goddesses that may be uncommon to some.

Monday, January 14, 2019

A Small Dog Reportedly Led To The Death Of Jarl Rognvald Brusason Of Orkney

In the year 1030, Rognvald Brusason, son of Jarl Brusi of Orkney, fought on the side of King Olaf II of Norway (Saint Olaf) at the Battle of Stiklestad. Rognvald had first joined Olaf’s retinue as a political hostage, meant to keep his father in line, but he grew to become a well-respected and trusted member of the king’s court. Unfortunately, Saint Olaf was killed during the battle, but Rognvald was credited with saving the slain king’s half-brother, a fifteen-year-old future king who would come to be known as Harald the Ruthless. Rognvald, Harald and other supporters of the late Saint Olaf fled to the lands of the Kievan Rus. Harald went on to join the Varangian Guard in service to the emperors of Constantinople, while Rognvald became a respected mercenary working under the kings of Kiev. Magnus, a son of Saint Olaf, was also present with the Rus. When Magnus “the Good” was invited back to Norway to become king in 1035, Rognvald Brusason followed him back to the kingdom and became a close acquaintance of the king.

While staying in Kiev or upon his return to Norway, Rognvald discovered that his father, Brusi, had died and that Rognvald’s uncle, Jarl Thorfinn, had claimed Brusi’s land for himself. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the Jarls of Orkney not only ruled their title’s namesake, but also administered Shetland and Caithness. Jarl Thorfinn was also reportedly expanding his influence into the Hebrides at that time. Once King Magnus was firmly back in control of Norway, Rognvald brought up the topic of Orkney and asked the king to help him claim his inheritance from Jarl Thorfinn. King Magnus agreed to help, naming Rognvald as a jarl of Orkney, as well giving him a small fleet of three ships.

Inheritance and division of rule had long been a tense issue in the jarldom of Orkney. During the reign of Saint Olaf, the jarldom had been divided into thirds. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Jarl Brusi (Rognvald’s father) ruled one-third of the jarldom, Jarl Thorfinn ruled another third, and the last third belonged to the Norwegian crown. The kings of Norway, however, gave their own third to the jarl of their choice, making that chosen jarl of Orkney dominant in the region. Saint Olaf reportedly chose Jarl Brusi as his governor of the royal third in Orkney, yet Jarl Thorfinn was given control of the royal third when King Canute sent Saint Olaf into exile in 1028. In keeping with the tradition of Norwegian kings giving control of their third of Orkney to their favorite jarl, King Magnus sent Rognvald not only with the authority to claim his father’s land, but appointed him as administrator of the royal third, as well.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Chaotic Drama Between Charles The Bald And His Half-Siblings In The Frankish Empire Extended Even To His Half-Sister

Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) had a complicated family life. Louis’ first wife was Irmengardis, with whom he was married from 794 until her death in 818. She bore Louis a daughter and three sons, the former being Hildegard (b. 802) and the latter being Lothair (b. 795), Pippin (b. 797) and Louis “the German” (b. 804). The emperor started planning the succession for these sons as early as 817, when he made Lothair his co-emperor, and appointed Pippin as king of Aquitaine and Louis “the German” as king of Bavaria. The sons of the emperor were apparently satisfied, at least at that time, with the arrangement. Yet, one year after the death of Irmengardis, Louis the Pious remarried. His second wife was Judith and she bore him two children, Gisela (b. 821) and Charles “the Bald” (b. 823). Emperor Louis’ sons by Irmengardis never warmed up to Judith and they thought that she held too much influence over their father. Most of all, they were irritated at the birth of Charles, as any land granted to him would come at the expense of the other brothers’ kingdoms.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

King Alfred The Great And His Chaotic First Year Of Rule

Nothing in the life of King Alfred the great was simple or easy, so it is fitting that he had an inaugural year that was fraught with trials and peril. In early 871, Alfred was the heir of his brother, King Æthelred, who had been in power since 866. Alfred was about eighteen years old when his brother became king, and by early 871 he was twenty-two or twenty-three years of age. King Æthelred seemed to cherish his brother’s advice and company—whenever Æthelred martialed his forces, Alfred was always by his side. Luckily for Wessex, this hands-on battlefield and leadership experience likely gave Alfred some confidence when the crown was unexpectedly thrust upon his head.