In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conquest of Guatemala and Yucatan

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Military History
  • Early Spanish and African Settlement

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Latin American Studies Conquest of Guatemala and Yucatan
Laura E. Matthew
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0050


Excellent work has been done on the conquest wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Guatemala and Yucatan and their long-term impacts on indigenous society. “Conquest” in the Guatemalan and Yucatecan contexts was not a single event, but a two-hundred-year period of violent takeovers of territory beginning in 1524 by Spanish and Mesoamerican (mostly central Mexican Nahua) allies, leading to these areas’ early incorporation into the Spanish empire. The idea of conquest also encompasses the demographic, cultural, and political changes instigated by Mesoamerican contact with Europeans. Contemporary movements for indigenous political rights in Mexico and Guatemala utilize much of the scholarship listed here to remind the world of the losses suffered as a result of conquest. However, indigenous activists often reject the term “conquest” itself, preferring the term “invasion” as a way of asserting their territorial and cultural rights and their survival to the present day.

General Overviews

The Maya cultural region of Mesoamerica extends from the Yucatan Peninsula into Honduras and El Salvador, with connections to other indigenous cultures farther southeast and also including Chiapas (see Hall and Pérez Brignoli 2003). Administratively, however, Guatemala and Yucatan went separate ways in the Colonial period. The first successful Spanish settlement in Central America, Santiago de Guatemala (now Antigua Guatemala), beginning in 1570 served as the seat of the Audiencia de Guatemala, a judicial and political regional authority within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The Audiencia of Guatemala included most of modern-day Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, and Costa Rica), excepting only Panama, which had its own Audiencia within the Viceroyalty of Peru. Guatemala therefore was both an administrative center vis-à-vis surrounding provinces and a peripheral area within New Spain. Unsurprisingly, the most authoritative overviews of this early period—such as Luján Muñoz and Chinchilla Aguilar 1994 and Pinto Soria 1994—have been published in Guatemala. The continued centrality of Guatemala’s national archive for the entire region also contributes to this tendency. Yucatan, meanwhile, belonged to the Audiencia of México seated in Mexico City and to the merchant economies of Mexico’s eastern seaboard. Nevertheless, Yucatan can be linked to Guatemala not only as part of the cultural diaspora that resulted from the abandonment of Maya cities in the Classic period, but also by its peripheral location to New Spain and by the itineraries of prominent Spanish conquistadors who traveled there following the initial invasions of Guatemala in 1524 to 1527. These early connections between Central America and Yucatan are detailed in both Recinos 1952 and Chamberlain 1948, which remain important references despite their somewhat outdated emphasis on the biographies of famous Spaniards.

  • Chamberlain, Robert. The Conquest and Colonization of Yucatan, 1517–1550. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1948.

    A narrative approach to the conquest of Yucatan, following the individual paths of Spanish conquistadors in impressive detail across the Peninsula and through many years of frustrated campaigns. Focuses primarily on politics and military history. Includes a discussion of the Maya attack against the Spanish city of Valladolid in 1546 to 1547, from the Spanish perspective. Contains copious references to archives in Spain, Guatemala, and Mexico.

  • Hall, Carolyn, and Héctor Pérez Brignoli, with John V. Cotter, cartographer. Historical Atlas of Central America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

    Copious maps and discussion of pre-Columbian polities, conquest expeditions and the carving up of land, Catholic missions, economics, and the settlement of new towns, among many other topics. The volume goes well beyond the early modern period to the 21st century and includes British and US conquest, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Excellent coverage of Panama. Yucatan is less-comprehensively covered than other countries more traditionally considered Central American.

  • Luján Muñoz, Jorge, and Ernesto Chinchilla Aguilar, eds. Historia general de Guatemala. Vol. 2, Dominación española, desde la conquista hasta 1700. Guatemala: Asociación de Amigos del País: Fundación para la Cultura y el Desarrollo, 1994.

    Part of a six-volume series on Guatemalan history. In the first section of Vol. 2, “El Descubrimiento y la Conquista,” Luján Muñoz and Horacio Cabezas Carache thoroughly cover exploratory expeditions as far south as Panama in the first decade of the 16th century, the conquest expeditions of the period from 1524 to 1536 throughout Central America and Chiapas, the careers of Pedro de Alvarado and Francisco Montejo, and implications for Guatemalan history. Excellent maps.

  • Pinto Soria, Julio, ed. Historia general de Centroamérica. Vol. 2, El Régimen Colonial. Madrid: Siruela, 1994.

    Wendy Kramer, W. George Lovell, and Christopher Lutz follow the chronology of the conquest, and include data on epidemic death and the division of encomiendas. Chapter 2 by Elizabeth Fonseca Corrales and chapter 3 by Stephen Webre cover the economic, social, and political aspects of conquest and colonization in the 150 years after the initial invasion.

  • Recinos, Adrián. Pedro de Alvarado, Conquistador de México y Guatemala. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1952.

    Recinos, one of the most important Guatemalan historians of the 20th century, provides a comprehensive account of the conquest of Guatemala from a Spanish perspective via this traditional biography of the infamous Spanish conquistador. The footnotes are as valuable as the text.

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