The Spanish Conquest.

European contact with the indigenous population of Honduras began during the final voyage of Christopher Columbus In the year 1502 Columbus sailed past the Islas de la Bahía (Bay Islands) and shortly thereafter reached the mainland of Central America. Whilst upon one of the islands, Columbus seized a large canoe loaded with a wide variety of trade goods. Evidence seems to indicate that the canoe’s occupants were Mayan traders and that their encounter with Columbus marked his first direct contact with the civilizations of Mexico and northern Central America. Despite the fact that the canoe had been observed coming from the west, Columbus turned east and then south, sailing away from the civilizations and doing little exploration of the Honduran coast. His only direct legacy was the awarding of a few place names along the Caribbean coast, notably Guanaja for one of the Islas de la Bahía, Cabo Gracias a Dios for the eastern extremity of Honduras, and Honduras itself (‘depths’ in Spanish) for the overall region. The latter name suggests the deep waters off the northern coast.

Little exploration took place for the next two decades. Spanish navigators Juan Díaz de Solís and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón probably touched on part of the Honduran coast in 1508 yet devoted most of their efforts to exploring farther north. Some expeditions from the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti) may have reached the mainland and certainly began to decimate the population of the Islas de la Bahía in the second decade of the century, but otherwise the Honduran Caribbean coast was a neglected area.

Interest in the mainland was dramatically revived as a result of the expedition of Hernán Cortés to Mexico. While Cortés was completing his conquest of the Aztec kingdom, expeditions from Mexico, Panama, and the Caribbean began to move into Central America. In 1523 part of an expedition headed by Gil González Dávila discovered the Golfo de Fonseca on the Pacific coast, naming it in the honor of Bishop Rodríguez de Fonseca. The following year, four separate Spanish land expeditions began the conquest of Honduras.

Hernan Cortes.

The nearly simultaneous invasions of Honduras in 1524 by rival Spanish expeditions began an era of conflict amongst rival Spanish claimants as well as with the indigenous population. The major initial expeditions were led by González Dávila, who hoped to carve out a territory for his own rule, and by Cristóbal de Olid, who was dispatched from Cuba by Cortés himself. Once in Honduras, however, Olid succumbed to personal ambition and attempted to establish his own independent authority. Word of this reached Cortés in Mexico, and to restore his own authority, he ordered yet another expedition, this one under the command of Francisco de Las Casas. Then, doubting the trustworthiness of any subordinate, Cortés set out for Honduras himself. The situation was further complicated by the entry into Honduras of expeditions from Guatemala under Pedro de Alvarado and from Nicaragua under Hernando de Soto.

In the initial struggle for power, Olid seemed to gain the upper hand, capturing both González Dávila and Las Casas. His captives, however, having managed to subvert the loyalty of some of Olid’s men, took Olid prisoner, and then promptly beheaded him. Although later condemned for this action by a Mexican court, none of the conspirators ever suffered any real punishment.

Above gallery: (left to right) Cristobal De Olid, Hernando De Soto and Gonzalez Davila.

The arrival of Cortés in Honduras in 1525 temporarily restored some order to the Spanish conquest. He established his own authority over the rival claimants, obtained the submission of numerous indigenous chiefs, and tried to promote the creation of Spanish towns. His own headquarters were located in Trujillo on the Caribbean coast. In April 1526, Cortés returned to Mexico, and the remaining Spaniards resumed their strife.

Some order was again restored in October of that year when the first royal governor, Diego López de Salcedo, arrived. López de Salcedo’s policies, however, drove many indigenous people, once pacified by Cortés, into open revolt. His attempt to extend his jurisdiction into Nicaragua resulted in his imprisonment by the authorities there. After agreeing to a Nicaraguan-imposed definition of the boundary between the two provinces, López de Salcedo was released but did not return to Honduras until 1529.

The early 1530s were not prosperous for Honduras. Renewed fighting among the Spaniards, revolts, and decimation of the settled indigenous population through disease, mistreatment, and exportation of large numbers to the Caribbean islands as slaves left the colony on the edge of collapse by 1534. The Spanish crown renamed the depressed province as Honduras-Higueras, subdividing it into two districts. Higueras encompassed the western part while the rest remained known as Honduras. The decline in population of the province continued, and only the direct intervention of Pedro de Alvarado from Guatemala in 1536 kept Higueras from being abandoned. Alvarado was attracted by the prospect of gold in the region, and, with the help of native Guatemalans who accompanied him, he soon developed a profitable gold-mining industry centered in the newly established town of Gracias

The discovery of gold and silver deposits attracted new settlers and increased the demand for indigenous labor. The enforced labor, however, led to renewed resistance by the native people that culminated in a major uprising in 1537. The leader of the uprising was a capable young Lenca chieftain known as Lempira Lempira established his base on a fortified hill known as the Peñol de Cerquín and until 1538 successfully defeated all efforts to subdue him. Inspired by his examples, other native inhabitants began revolting, and the entire district of Higueras seemed imperiled. Lempira was ultimately murdered whilst negotiating with the Spaniards. After his death, resistance rapidly disintegrated, although some fighting continued throughout 1539.

The defeat of Lempira’s revolt accelerated the decimation of the indigenous population. In 1539 an estimated 15,000 native Americans remained under Spanish control; two years later, there were only 8,000. Most of these were divided into encomiendas, a system that left the native people in their villages but placed them under the control of individual Spanish settlers. Under terms of the encomienda system, the Spaniards were supposed to provide the indigenous people with religious instruction and collect tribute from them for the crown. In return, the Spaniards were entitled to a supposedly limited use of indigenous labor. As the native population declined, the settlers exploited those remaining even more ruthlessly. This exploitation led to a clash between the Spanish settlers and authorities on one side and on the other side the Roman Catholic Church led by Father Cristóbal de Pedraza, who, in 1542 became the first bishop of Honduras. Bishop Pedraza, like others after him, had little success in his efforts to protect the native people.

Honduras was a relatively poor province and did not attract the most distinguished conquistadors. Most conquistadors and colonists who ventured to Honduras desired to return quickly to Spain with newly acquired wealth and improved social status, and were therefore looking for immediate enrichment. The progress of conquest was based on the distribution of encomienda rights and land concessions. Encomienda gave the encomendero (holder of the encomienda) the right to receive tribute and labour from the indigenous inhabitants of a defined area. Up until the middle of the 16th century, the encomendero could assign his own level of tribute and labour to be provided by the natives within his encomienda, which gave rise to much abuse. The encomiendas established in Honduras were small, and did not generate rapid income. Social advancement was gained by overlordship of natives within the encomienda system. In Honduras, the conquistadors gained immediate income by selling natives into slavery on the Caribbean islands and in Panama, and by mining activities. This in turn resulted in a reduction of indigenous population levels in Honduras, with a rapid drop in economic production during the first half of the 16th century. On the whole, the Spanish colonists were unwilling to invest time and resources into the long-term development of the agricultural production of their encomiendas in Honduras.

The Spanish established colonial settlements to extend their power over the surrounding territory, and to serve as administrative centres. They preferred to locate these towns in areas with dense native populations, or close to easily exploitable mineral wealth. Many Spanish towns were founded close to pre-Columbian centres of population. Trujillo was founded near the native settlement of Guaimura, and Comayagua was founded upon a pre-existing town of the same name. In the first half of the 16th century, towns were abandoned or moved for a variety of reasons, including native attacks, harsh conditions, and the spread of Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhoid, yellow fever and malaria. In many cases, towns were moved for purely political reasons owing to infighting between Spanish factions, with those currently in power seeking to undermine the work of those who had come before them. The frequent relocation of colonial towns and the reallocation of encomiendas served to prolong political instability, and delay the progress of the conquest.

Taking a look at the two sides.

Conquistador against native American warriors.

The Conquistadors were all volunteers, the majority of whom did not receive a fixed salary but instead a portion of the spoils of victory, in the form of precious metals, land grants and provision of native labour. Many of the Spanish were already experienced soldiers who had previously campaigned in Europe. The 16th-century Spanish conquistadors were armed with broadswordsrapierscrossbowsmatchlocks and light artillery. Mounted conquistadors were armed with a 3.7-metre (12 ft) lance, that also served as a pike for infantrymen. A variety of halberds and bills were also employed. As well as the one-handed broadsword, a 1.7-metre (5.5 ft) long two-handed version was also used. Crossbows had 0.61-metre (2ft) arms stiffened with hardwoods, horn, bone and cane, and supplied with a stirrup to facilitate drawing the string with a crank and pulley. Crossbows were easier to maintain than matchlocks, especially in the humid tropical climate of the Caribbean region. Metal armour was of limited use in the hot, wet tropical climate. It was heavy and had to be constantly cleaned to prevent rusting; in direct sunlight, metal armour became unbearably hot. Conquistadores often went without metal armour, or only donned it immediately prior to battle. They were quick to adopt quilted cotton armour based upon that used by their native opponents, and commonly combined this with the use of a simple metal war hat. Shields were considered essential by both infantry and cavalry; generally this was a circular target shield, convex in form and fashioned from iron or wood. Rings secured it to the arm and hand.

Native warriors primarily used arrows or darts with obsidian points. They also used spears and wooden swords edged with inset flakes of sharp stone (similar to the Aztec macuahuitl), stone-bladed knives, and slings. In response to Spanish incursions, native communities resorted to the fortification of their settlements with palisades and ditches. Palisades were built from rough courses of heavy wood, with openings for shooting arrows. They strengthened their fortifications with towers, and laid out camouflaged pits around the walls as a further defence. The construction of fortified settlements was not common in Honduras until after Spanish contact, although fortifications were known from contact with Maya groups to the west. In Honduras their construction was a specific response to Spanish incursions, and they were often built hastily. Fortifications at the Maya town of Ticamaya in the Ulúa valley were strong enough to frustrate several Spanish assaults. The Spanish considered the Lenca fortress at the Peñol de Cerquín as formidable as any they had seen in Europe. When attacked in their fortified mountaintop strongholds, they would roll large boulders down the mountainside onto the attacking forces. When the natives became aware of the hostile intentions of the Spanish, they often abandoned their settlements and fled to inaccessible regions.

The Spanish conquest of Honduras was an era of violence, rape, pillage and murder, which would forever change the future of this nation as well as its fellow Latin American cousins. There is absolutely nothing romantic about the Conquistador, a man filled with hate, greed, avarice and capable of any sin from rape to cold-blooded tortures and murder.


Information obtained from reports submitted to the US library of congress.

Published by Ben Anson

Young writer with a passion for Latin American and Caribbean affairs.

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