I recall summiting one particular gargantuan hilltop within the Mount Celaque region of Lempira department, western Honduras. A waterfall erupted majestically from across the deep gorge lying between the opposite mountain and I. Filled with admiration, it was like gazing at a never-ending oil painting – I myself, could simply not believe the number of trees. It appeared, quite simply, as if someone ‘almighty’ had created the mountains, one could imagine that he or she had possessed an abundance of miniature-model conifer trees and just wedged each of them into an endless onslaught of greenery. A floating haze gathers at each mountain-top as the tallest pines poke out through the mist. The beauty of these stunning sierras is untouched, meaning that they would have appeared the very same to Lempira and his Lenca warriors.
The ‘Lenca’ are one of the oldest indigenous peoples of the Americas – even predating the Maya. It was during the early 16th century that the Spanish ‘Conquistadors’ periled their way into the vast, mountainous interior of what is present day western Honduras. They could not have expected to encounter a man like Lempira – or ‘Lord of the hills’ in the Lenca tongue. Proving to be an expert guerrilla warfare strategist, Lempira’s tribe found themselves engaged in domestic warfare at the arrival of the ‘pale men’. The Spanish conquest of Central America, or rather their onslaught against the native peoples, has been documented as being quite violent beyond belief – accounts of mass rape and torture existing in plentiful amount. Therefore, a respected chieftain like Lempira would have very effectively rallied his people against the foreign invaders. Gifted with foresight, he is recognised for having united the entire Lenca tribe of all the various groups against a common enemy, eliminating the in-fighting amongst his peoples.
Hopelessly outmatched, fighting with bows, arrows, spears and clubs against swords, early firearms, lances, body armour, hunting dogs and horses – Lempira’s force held out remarkably against the Spaniards. ‘Cerquin hill’ was from where he organised resistance against the Spanish troops in 1537, having gathered an army of around 30,000 soldiers – from 200 villages. Spurred along, other armed bands rose in the distant valleys of Comayagua and Olancho. Spanish commanders Francisco de Montejo and Alonso de Cáceres unsuccessfully pursued the ‘Indios’ until 1537.
Like many great warriors, Lempira himself met with a violent end. Historians argue that he died by one of the two following versions. The first, taught to Honduran schoolchildren still, is that the Spaniards lured him out to ‘talk peace’. A concealed soldier then blew the Lenca’s head off with an ‘harquebus’. In the 1980’s a Honduran historian discovered an unknown letter written by a soldier named ‘Rodrigo Ruiz’ to the Spanish Crown. He claimed to have decapitated Lempira in battle and was demanding payment for his service. Either way, Lempira met with a terrible death…
In 1931, Honduras renamed its currency ‘Lempira’ in his honour. In 1943, the Gracias Department became Lempira Department. Ramón Amaya Amador (Honduran writer) then wrote a fictional account of Lempira in 1957 – entitled ‘El señor de la sierra’. Through these and his many statues – Lempira’s tale lives on to this day – as the most beloved of all Hondurans.