Three thousand years ago, a people, known as the Lenca, traveled from the great continent known as South America northward, along the narrow isthmus between the two great oceans, through the rainforests of Central America, and settled finally in the highlands of the region we now call Honduras. When the Spaniards sought conquest in the 1500s, a leader rose up among them, to defend them, and to preserve their culture. His presence, 500 years ago, resonates to this day. He is remembered in Honduras on this banknote, in the stories told among the Lenca, and in this post.
Spaniards first landed on the Yucatan in 1517. So novel was their appearance, their ships and their horses, the news of their arrival would travel swiftly the 300 miles to the Honduran homeland of the Lenca. Lempira was a young man when this news arrived, perhaps 18 or 20 years old. No longer associating with the children of the community, he would travel with the men, but listen as a young man, to the wisdom of his elders. The first reports were that the visitors were very few in number and they were respectful, bringing strange gifts. The elders were curious, but unconcerned. Four years later, in the Summer of 1521, like an arrow shot, the news would travel that the capital city of the mighty Aztecs, had fallen to the newcomers. The elders, perhaps, looked at one another in silence, with deepening lines of concern on their faces, while the young men watched and listened in silence. Lempira would be in his early to middle 20s, and restless.
With creeping slowness, due in part to a confused administration, the conquistadors presence grew in central America. Like an advance messenger of doom, European diseases would reach through the jungle to a tribe, weakening them; and then sometime later, horsed and armored conquistadors would arrive, and defeat would inevitably follow. In 1533, a Spanish conquistador received royal decree to enter the region of Honduras. Lempira would be about 33 years old. He’d be sitting with the elders.
It is likely that, around this time, the great meeting was held with the leaders of 200 villages. Some say it was called by Lempira; perhaps, but it was certainly concluded by Lempira. He stood up before the 200 with a question, a promise and an offer. He first asked how it was possible that so many bold men could be subdued by so few foreigners in their own land. During the murmuring of obvious dangers, he spoke a second time. He promised them that he, Lempira, would face the greatest dangers. With this, the unspoken question before the 200 shifted. It was no longer what should they do, but whether or not they would join Lempira, because it was obvious that he was going to fight. Lempira spoke one more time. He offered to lead as many of them as were willing to fight, because he, Lempira, certainly intended to fight. If he was not a leader going into this meeting, he was the leader coming out of it. The 200 villages united behind him and an army of 30,000 joined him.
For a decade, Lempira had been watching and listening, learning the ways of the Spaniards. Though their numbers were few, with their muskets, their armor and their horses, they were undefeatable in open battle. Lempira would change the terms of the battle. He would let the strength of the land fight for the Lenca. He would have the knowledge of his people fight for them. He designated five rocky hill tops, surrounded by forests, as key defensive positions for the nation; Cerquin Rock, Congolon Peak, Coyocutena hill, El Broquel, and Gualasapa hill. He extended these high places with terraces and retaining walls, and built storerooms with defensible accesses. When he had filled the strongholds with ample supplies and gathered his warriors, he would be ready. In the mid 1530s, the Spaniards began to pass back and forth through Lencan territory, but Lempira left them alone, and they began to think Honduras was conquered.
It is said, that Lempira had said, that the killing of three Spaniards would be the sign. In 1537, three Spaniards passing near the Peñol de Cerquín were attacked and killed. This attack greatly disturbed the Spanish Governor at the time, Montejo, for he had begun to consider the area pacified. He therefore sent an attack force to the region. And Lempira declared war.
The following is selected from Wikipedia:
Lempira sent messages to the native auxiliaries of the Spanish, exhorting them to abandon their foreign overlords and join his forces, but they refused. It was only with the declaration of war that the Spanish became aware of the threat presented by Lempira and his alliance. Although the immediate threat was limited to the region close to the Peñol de Cerquín, the Spanish realised that the rebellion at such a strong fortress was a powerful symbol of native independence throughout Higueras. Montejo immediately dispatched Cáceres against Lempira with 80 well-armed Spanish soldiers, accompanied by Mexican and Guatemalan Indian auxiliaries. Montejo sent messengers requesting assistance from Santiago de Guatemala and San Salvador.
Siege at the Peñol de Cerquín
On 1 November 1537, Cáceres arrived at the Peñol de Cerquín. He immediately sent envoys to Lempira, requesting his submission; Lempira executed the envoys and declared his defiance. In response, Cáceres launched a direct assault against the fortress but found it impregnable. No roads climbed the mountain, and sheer wall prevented attempts to climb it. Well-engineered defences manned by large numbers of gathered warriors prevented the Spanish from storming the approaches, and horses were useless on the steep terrain. Cáceres had no choice except to lay close siege to the Peñol. He divided his men equally amongst the eight approaches to the fortress, and fierce fighting ensued, in which five Spaniards were killed and many were injured, including Cáceres. The siege held firm, but was unable to gain any ground.
While Cáceres was engaged in what would evidently be a lengthy siege, Montejo sent a column of Spanish soldiers into the area around Gracias a Dios; he sent a second column, with 20 Spaniards accompanied by native auxiliaries, south to the Valley of Xocorro. Montejo led a third column in person, taking 23 Spanish soldiers to Comayagua. He also sent a message ahead, for Santa María de Comayagua to send support to Cáceres at the Peñol, and fourteen soldiers marched from there to join the siege. The Xocorro column was forced to return to Santa María de Comayagua after falling afoul of the Spanish authorities in San Miguel, who claimed they were infringing upon their jurisdiction.
About two months into the siege of the Peñol de Cerquín, the majority of Spanish soldiers in Honduras were concentrated around the fortress. Small groups were scattered elsewhere, and both Gracias a Dios and Santa María de Comayagua were dangerously vulnerable, with almost no soldiers left there. Seeing the vulnerability of the Spanish positions across the greater province, Lempira declared a general uprising. The whole region south of the Peñol rose up, as well as neighbouring parts of El Salvador around San Salvador and San Miguel, where they caused serious damage to the Spanish. The Comayagaua Valley joined the revolt, as did the mountain regions around San Pedro, and outlying areas around Trujillo.
The column of sixteen Spaniards retreating from Xocorro were ambushed at Guaxeregui and killed to a man. The only survivor of the expedition was a seriously wounded African slave. The reinforcements sent from Comayagua to the Peñol were also attacked in Cares, and had to fight their way through to join the Spanish at the Peñol, suffering considerable hardship. The citizens of Santa María de Comayagua appealed to Montejo for help, and he sent a dozen mixed cavalry and infantry, who managed to break through the hostile natives encircling the settlement, and reinforce the town, where they were cut off from further Spanish assistance. Montejo was left with only eleven soldiers, and returned to Gracias a Dios to protect the colonists there, who included women and children. The Indians killed isolated Spaniards wherever they could find them. The natives, seeing the success of their fortress at Cerquín, started construction of a similar fortress near Gracias a Dios, and gathered a great quantity of supplies in storehouses there. Montejo urgently needed to halt their progress, but was unable to attack directly. Instead, he sent an African servant who managed to set the storehouses ablaze. The dismayed Indians of that district then sued for peace. A local Indian ruler called Mota plotted to attack Gracias a Dios, but the plan was betrayed to Monetejo. In a lighning raid, Mota was seized and taken back to Gracias as a prisoner, only to escape and resume his plans for an assault. Montejo eventually discovered his hiding place and launched another rapid raid, and kept him hostage in Gracias under close guard as guarantor of his people, thus defusing the immediate threat against Gracias a Dios.
The natives launched a furious mass assault against Santa María de Comayagua. The depleted garrison fought its way out under cover of night and set out on a desperate march to Gracias a Dios, leaving the town to be sacked – not even the livestock were spared. All across the province the Spanish were short of soldiers, arms and supplies, except at the Peñol de Cerquín, which remained the focus of Spanish attention. In a very short period of time, Spanish control had collapsed across Honduras; only two small Spanish pockets remained – at Gracias and San Pedro. Montejo sent Gonzalo de Alvarado to San Salvador to seek assistance, which was readily supplied in the form of 100 Indian auxiliaries, 1000 Indian carriers, livestock, arquebuses, crossbows, gunpowder, ammunition, shields, spears, armour and iron. Further supplies were forthcoming from San Miguel, but similar requests sent to Guatemala were largely rebuffed, as a response to Montejo’s policies which were perceived as undermining the rights of Guatemalan colonists.
Death of Lempira and the fall of the Peñol de Cerquín, 1538
The siege at the Peñol de Cerquín dragged on for months, with constant fighting. The Spanish there numbered about a hundred, plus auxiliaries, but were unable to maintain supply lines through the surrounding hostile territory, and were often short of food. The seasonal rains that arrived in spring 1538 only added to their hardship. The supplies from El Salvador finally arrived, and Cáceres slowly gained territory around the Peñol. After six months, Cáceres invited Lempira to a parley. Lempira arrived, dressed in full regalia, cotton armour, and plumed headdress, accompanied by a retinue of nobles. Cáceres sent a mounted soldier to request his surrender, and when Lempira refused, a carefully hidden arquebusier shot him through the head. This was a signal for an all-out surprise attack by the Spanish. The Indians responded with complete panic at the death of their leader, and the Spanish onslaught swiftly took the fortress without any Spanish loss of life, although some were wounded. A portion of the indigenous garrison retreated to nearby mountains, but most of the Indians surrendered without further resistance, including a great many women, children and elderly. Cáceres followed Montejo’s instructions in dealing with the defeated natives with moderation. He followed native custom and sent gifts of textiles and fowls to the native leaders, as a symbol of peace, accompanied by a spear as a promise of war should they refuse to submit. After a council, the Indian leaders accepted peace, and the region passed immediately under Spanish control. Cáceres released all his prisoners to return to their villages, a move that surprised the natives, who had expected harsh punitive measures. The fall of Lempira’s stronghold was followed by the speedy capitulation of a wide area of Honduras, and came at a critical juncture for the Spanish, when they had been at the point of losing the province.
Today, the Spanish are not remembered well, but the Lenca culture continues. The people live as the largest indigenous community in Honduras, maintaining, in many details, their pre-Columbus way of life; and Lempira is revered among them. Every hour of every day, Hondurans exchange value for value in commerece, labor for products, products for labor, and the medium of exchange is the Lempira. His name means, in the Lenca tongue, the lord of the high places.
As said by Honduran historian Mario Felipe Martinez Castillo, Virtually in the main square of every town or city Honduran we find a statue in his honor. In this case, in the main square of the town of Gracias, Lempira Department. This photo and further information about Lempira by Mr. Castillo is from this website.
And, we might add, on every banknote we find this might man honored. All of these banknotes, with all of these famous people, events and scenes from Honduras, have this in common; Everyone’s value is based upon Lempira.
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Franciso Morazon’s fortune changed in a single day, and with that, the future of Honduras and the Republic of Central America. Perhaps the greatest and most far-sighted leader of the short-lived Republic, Morazán rose to prominence on November 11, 1827. It was Thursday morning, and the sun rose upon Trinity Valley, near Ojojona, in the heart of the south-central region of Honduras which would soon bear his name.
The year was 1827, and it began in national consternation. Dictatorial decrees announced by Federal President Manuel José Arce were felt throughout Central America and were leading to the overthrow of the government of Honduras. To that end, General Justin Milla was given command of the 2nd battalion of Federal troops and crossed the border into Honduras.
On January 19, 1827 lieutenant general Milla invaded the village of “Los Llanos” of Santa Rosa, which he took with little resistance. On April 4, 1827 General Milla attacked the capital city of Comayagua, where Francisco Morazán was leading some of the defenders. Milla relentlessly assaulted the Honduran troops with heavy fire, was soon victorious, and set fire to the capital. On May 9, the President of Honduras was taken prisoner. On May 10, the government capitulated.
In the summer of that same year, Morazán was captured and imprisoned in Ojojona for 23 days until he escaped. He was a young man and only recently experienced as a captain, under orders, in battle. Having been in battles won and battles loss, he learned how men moved and how men fought. His active mind utilized those 23 days to survey the valley, creekbeds, commanding hilltops and routes of approach in that region. Having escaped prison, he knew his enemy’s desire would bring him to Morazán; and he would be ready.
He traveled to nearby leaders of the resistance, and, in evidence of their faith in this young man, they he entrusted an additional 135 fighters and arms to Morazán.
General Justo Milla by this time was hunting the rebels throughout the territory. Having heard that Morazán was in southern Honduras, Milla rapidly closed in, moving his troops to Tegucigalpa where he established his headquarters, and sought for battle. Morazán, knowing Milla’s movements, moved northward to Sabanagrande, 25 miles south of Milla’s army in Tegucigalpa, with his old haunt, Ojono and the valley of the Trinity, between them, just 3 miles north.
On the eve of the inevitable battle, Morazan drew up a battle strategy and presented it to his commander, General Diaz. So impressed was the General with the plan that, he not only adopted it, but he entrusted command of the battle to Francisco Morazan. Francisco was determined that he would not fail.
The plan divided their troops into three assault teams of 150 men each, with three smaller teams held in reserve. The first team would be led by colonel Diaz, would face Milla’s full army in the streets. The second, under General Morazán, would circle unseen northeastward around the hill caraengo to meet the flank of the enemy. The third, under colonel Pacheco, would crawl up the creekbed in concealment until they reached a path, known to Morazán, that led across to the Valley of the Trinity. There they would descend upon the enemy’s rear. The plan was well received by all. Command in hand, Morazán issued the final orders. Wednesday night, under cover of darkness, they moved into position, and waited for the day.
Thursday morning at dawn the enemy, marching southward, began its descent into the fateful valley, precisely along Morazán’s anticipated route. At 9am Milla’s army of 1000 was confronted by Diaz’s army of 150 in the streets below them.
We might imagine the confidence of Milla and his men, as they descended into the valley of the trinity to the town below to confront their enemy once again. By this time, they had many victories behind them. And we might imagine the disdain Milla felt as he looked upon the small force arrayed in the streets below him.
As he approached he would discern his opposition was only about an eighth of his size. He might have let out a laugh and joked a little with his officers. But too, he may have wondered for a moment why they didn’t flee. But pehaps by this time he had given up wondering anymore why these people would continue to resist him. But Diaz didn’t flee, nor did he fire, but waited, for so were his orders, and his confidence was elsewhere. He relied not upon size of his army, but the passion of his cause, and the plan and strategy of their leader.
At last, General Milla gave the orders to fire, and the battle began. He would be confident, and perhaps relocate to a position to give him a good view of the battle as it unfolded as he expected. With the first gunshots ringing in the air, he might have been surprised, or at least, impressed, by the valiance of the defense. Why didn’t they disperse? Why didn’t they run? But the first sound of gunshot, terrifying to any man in battle, was nevertheless a welcomed sound to Diaz’s men; for it was the strategic signal, a signal given by none other then the enemy, for Morazán’s troops to commence their final maneuvers to address their enemy’s right flank.
With those first shots singing in the morning air, we might imagine Morazan’s words to his 150 crouched beyond the hill, just within sight of their enemy’s unguarded flank. “Gentlemen. This is Your moment. This is Our battle. We have a Plan. Our brothers are relying upon us. Our wives and children our relying upon us. Our country and our commonwealth is relying upon us. The future is Yours! To the Battle!” Following Morazán’s valiant lead, and driven by his determination, the 150 devoured the final yards along their appointed path and assaulted the flank of the enemy.
The flank was unguarded, and Morazán’s 150 were upon their enemy before they knew it. Gunshots rang out at that deadly range; and the enemy fell. Milla would be startled hearing unexpected battle on his left flank. Who were these defenders? What was inspiring their defense? Could they not see they were outnumbered? Don’t they know who we are? Wheeling to his left, it’s possible that his arrogance would support his initial confidence; but he’d curse the necessity of redistributing his troops in the midst of the battle to meet this surprise on his flank, and his army would question his leadership.
Diaz in the streets below would first see the smoke ascending from new gunfire on the right flank of his enemy; and he’d know his brothers had engaged the battle. Next he’d hear the new gunshots from afar, and notice the enemy before him, looking round about in fear. Then he’d observe the rippling disarray in their formations as Milla barked out new orders and Milla’s troops realigned to face the new threat. Diaz moved his 150 confidently up the street, pressing the battle into the valley of the trinity.
The fighting was furious. Milla was rushing to and fro, redirecting his troops, and barking orders to his surprised host. Morazán’s 150 violently pressed their advantage upon the collapsing flank; and Diaz relentlessly pressed the front line of battle up into the valley.
And just as Milla’s army was finding its hasty defensive positions in this unexpected two front war, suddenly, gunshots erupted to their rear. Pacheco’s 150 arrived on the scene.
We can imagine the scene before Pacheco as his men completed their path to the valley. The enemy was below them, his brethren beyond them and to the left of them, and his enemy was fully engaged in that two front battle and completely unprotected in their rear. With a mighty shout and 150 guns blazing they descended into that valley, the Valley of the Trinity.
For five hours that battle raged. For five hours Milla’s army defended their precarious positions with dwindling numbers. For five hours, Morazan, Pacheo and Diaz pressed their victorious strategy, until the enemy broke, and died, in that valley of death.
By 3:00 that afternoon, it was over. Milla and few of his officers survived and fled the scene of battle, leaving behind troves of munitions, supplies and official documents. Justin Milla was completely defeated. Morazán’s plan succeeded beyond conception, achieving the destruction of the enemy, and the restoration of respect for the State of Honduras and the victory of the Patriots against tyranny.
General Morazán went on to Tegucigalpa and took it on November 12th. On the 26th of the same month, he reached the capital Comayagua, made a triumphal entrance, and was proclaimed the head of State of Honduras.
The images on the front and back of this Guatemalan banknote constitute “bookends” for the short-lived, two decade, Republic of Central America, 1821 to 1840. The images also symbolize the elements of its early demise. Numerous attempts to reconstitute the union have been attempted ever since, but none have succeeded since that first, promising, optimistic moment….
The signing of “The Act of Independence of Central America” is memorialized in the painting to the left. With this document, independence was proclaimed for the Captaincy General of Guatemala, as it was called under the Spanish Empire for three centuries. The date was September 15, 1821. The constituting States were Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
For two years they aligned with newly independent Mexico, and then on July 1, 1823 the Congress of Central America declared absolute independence from Spain, Mexico, and any other foreign nation, and established a republican system of government.
The next fifteen years were marked by strife between competing conservative and liberal elements within the union, including civil war. The union dissolved when Nicaragua first seceded in 1838, followed by Honduras and Costa Rica, and finally El Salvador in 1841.
Mariano de Aycinena y Piñol, seated in the image on the left, was a conservative politician. He served as Governor of Guatemala during the first decade of Central American unity. As an influential Guatemalan merchant, Mariano was a leader of the Guatemalan independence movement from Spain, and one of the signers of The Act. The meeting was chaired by Gabino Gaínza. The text of the Act itself was written by Honduran intellectual and politician José Cecilio del Valle and signed by representatives of the various Central American provinces. The meeting was held at the National Palace in Guatemala City, the site of which is now Centennial Park.
Mariano’s family held a commercial monopoly in Central American during the Spanish colonial era; and Mariano had lobbied heavily for the annexation of Central America to the Mexican Empire, an arrangement which would preserve the family’s economic position and privileges following independence. Allied with the conservative movement, he served as governor of the State of Guatemala within the Central American Federation from 1 March 1827 to 12 April 1829. He was expelled in 1829 after being defeated by Francisco Morazán, a liberal politician and a long-time champion of the Federating movement. Following exile in the United States, and then Mexico, he returned to Guatemala after the conservatives had returned to power under general Rafael Carrera, but then he retired from public life.
Mariano Galvez, picture to the left, was a liberal politician. He served as the chief of state of Guatemala, during the final decade of the Republic of Central America, having been appointed by Francisco Morazán when Morazán became president of the Republic.
Born in the 1790s, Gálvez was left as an infant in a basket on a doorstep, and subsequently adopted by the wealthy Galvez family. He was well educated, and received a doctor of law at the Royal and Pontifical University of San Carlos Borromeo on December 16, 1819.
In the civil war of 1826, Gálvez joined the Federalists and led a revolutionary movement against the Unitarian government, which hastened the invasion of Guatemala by federalist Francisco Morazán. Gálvez joined Morazán’s forces in Ahuachapán.
After independence from Spain, he sought further liberation of Guatemala from the remaining heavy influences of the catholic church and the aristocracy. In 1829, he was appointed, by Francisco Morazán, as Governor of Guatemala in 1831. He promulgated major innovations in all aspects of the administration. He promoted public education independent of the church, and established civil marriages and divorce. He fostered the sciences and the arts, and founded the national library and the national museum. He promoted citizens rights and the rule of law, guaranteeing freedom of the press, freedom of thought and freedom of assembly.
In February 1835 Galvez was reelected far a second term, during which the Asiatic cholera afflicted the country. The secular clergy persuaded the uneducated people of the interior, many of whom were becoming anxious by the rapidity of reforms under Galvez, that the disease was caused by the poisoning of the springs, by order of the government, and turned the complaints against Galvez into a religious war. Peasant revolts began in 1837, and under chants of “Hurray for the true religion!” and “Down with the heretics!” started growing and spreading. One time friends, including Colonel Manuel Montúfar and Juan de Dios Mayorga. José Francisco Barrundia and Pedro Molina, came to oppose him in the later years of his government after he violently tried to repress the peasant revolt using a scorched earth approach against rural communities.
In February 1838, revolutionary forces, under the conservative Rafael Carrera, entered Guatemala City asking for the Cathedral to be opened to restore order in the catholic communities. Mariano Gálvez was forced to relinquish power. By 1840, the Republic of Central America was gone.
Gálvez died on March 29, 1862 in Mexico and was buried in the Cemetery of San Fernando. In 1925 his remains were repatriated and today they rest in the old School of Law in Guatemala City.
Universidad Mariano Gálvez de Guatemala, founded in 1966 in Guatemala City, is named after him.
The following is from an article by Christopher Minster:
“Beset on all sides, the Republic of Central America fell apart. The first to officially secede was Nicaragua, on November 5, 1838. Honduras and Costa Rica followed shortly thereafter. In Guatemala, Carrera set himself up as dictator and ruled until his death in 1865. Morazán fled to exile in Colombia in 1840 and the collapse of the republic was complete.
“It is unfortunate for the people of Central America that Morazán and his dream were so soundly defeated by smaller thinkers such as Carrera. Since the republic fractured, the five nations have been repeatedly victimized by foreign powers such as the United States and England who have used force to advance their own economic interests in the region.
“Weak and isolated, the nations of Central America have had little choice but to allow these larger, more powerful nations to bully them around: one example is Great Britain’s meddling in British Honduras (now Belize) and the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua.
“Although much of the blame must rest with these imperialistic foreign powers, we must not forget that Central America has traditionally been its own worst enemy. The small nations have a long and bloody history of bickering, warring, skirmishing and interfering in one another’s business, occasionally even in the name of “reunification.”
“The history of the region has been marked by violence, repression, injustice, racism and terror. Granted, larger nations such as Colombia have also suffered from the same ills, but they have been particularly acute in Central America. Of the five, only Costa Rica has managed to distance itself somewhat from the “Banana Republic” image of a violent backwater.”
Since the demise of the Union, numerous attempts have been made to reunite the various states of Central America. Enyclopedia Britannica states “about 25 abortive attempts were made to restore the union.” I’ve seen numbers as high as 65 by other authors.
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
This banknote from Belize celebrates the long Mayan heritage of the region.
Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., the Maya rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, El Salvador, and northern Belize. The civilization continued in its strongest form until about 900 AD, when it began to rapidly diminish for reasons yet not understood by anthropologists.
The history of Belize evolved significantly different from that of other central American countries since the appearance of Columbus. Spanish conquistadors explored the region and declared it a Spanish colony; but did little to settle or develop it as a colony due to its lack of resources, especially silver and gold, and due to its brisk defense by the indigenous inhabitants of the Yucatán. Thus Belize was not included under the Spanish Captaincy General of Guatemala (1524-1821), nor in the Empire of Mexico (1821-1867), nor as part of the short-lived republic of central America (1821-1841). The first British settlers arrived in the early 17th century, but not until two centuries later (1862), did the British formally claim the region as a British Crown Colony, which they named British Honduras. Thus the culture and politics of the region evolved substantially on its own, diverging significantly from nearby Mexico and the other Central American nations. The ancient Mayan heritage persists in much of the region and, perhaps most strongly, in present day Belize. The current population of Belize includes three distinct Mayan groups, the Mopan who are indigenous to the area and returned from Guatemala in the 19th century after evading slavery), the Yucatec (who came from Mexico to escape the Caste War) and the Q’eqchi (who fled from slavery in Guatemala).
Recent discoveries and expanded analyses have led many archeologists and cultural anthropologists to conclude that the center of Maya civilization was, in fact, Belize. As such, Belize is a treasure trove of ancient Mayan temples, towns and cities. It is anticipated that many remains have yet to be discovered and explore.The Mayans inhabited Belize for many centuries. The massive structures combined with extensive residential remains indicate a vast and energetic civilization.
Altun Ha derives its name from the Yucatec Mayan words haltun, meaning stone water deposit or cistern, and ha, meaning water. According to the Belize Institute of Archaeology it means “Rockstone Water,” and is a Yucatec Mayan approximation of the name of the nearby village of Rockstone Pond. Altun Ha lies on the north-central coastal plain of Belize, in a dry tropical zone. The site was very swampy during its pre-Columbian occupation, with very few recognizable water sources. Currently, the only recognizable natural water source is a creek at some distance.
The structure, illustrated, is about 48 meters high, about the height of a five story building, and is located in the central precinct of Altun Ha. It dates from the era of the height of the Mayan civilization, around 600 AD. It has been called the temple of the sun god and the temple of the masonry altars; but these names are generally assigned be archaeologists while the Mayan names remain unknown.
Lubaantun is a modern Maya name meaning “place of fallen stones”. The ancient name remains unknown. It is located in southern Belize about 2 miles from the village of San Pedro Columbia. The site is located on a large artificially raised platform between two small rivers.
Lubaantun’s structures are built mostly of large black slate stone blocks rather than the more common limestone in the region. The stones were laid with no mortar as illustrated in the adjacent photograph. The city dates from the Maya Classic era, flourishing from the AD 730s to the 890s, and seems to have been completely abandoned soon after. The architecture is somewhat unusual from typical Classical central lowlands Maya sites.
“Xunantunich” is from Mayan words for noble lady and stone for sculpture. It is a modern name, the original name remaining, as yet, unknown. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of “El Castillo”, ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone wall.
Xunantunich is located in western Belize on top of a ridge beside the Mopan river. It is thought to have served as a Maya civic ceremonial center, farms having been spread out widely surrounding Xunantunich.
The Maya developed astronomy, mathematics, sophisticate calendrical systems and the first writing system, hieroglyphic, in the Americas.
The Maya were fantastic Builders. They developed elaborate and highly decorated architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories. These were all constructed without metal tools, and, amazingly, without the “discovery” of the mechanical use of the wheel. They cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
The Maya were skilled agriculturalists, figuring out how to grow corn, beans, squash and cassava. The developed agriculture methods in difficult places, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, constructing sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.
The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters. They built complicated looms for weaving cloth. They devised a rainbow of glittery paints made from mica, a mineral that still has technological uses today.
Until recently, people believed that vulcanization–combining rubber with other materials to make it more durable–was discovered by the American, Charles Goodyear, in the 19th century. However, historians now think that the Maya were producing rubber products for about 3,000 years, having combined the rubber tree and the morning-glory plant, producing water-resistant cloths, glue, bindings for books, figurines and the large rubber balls used in the ritual game known as pokatok.
Rafaela was 19 years old when she shot the commander of the British fleet with a cannon.
Standing on the rampart of the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, which commanded a bend in the San Juan river, Rafaela Herrera looked out upon the British fleet.
Nicaragua had attracted Great Britain’s interest because of its geography. Its lakes and rivers represented a potential connecting route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans which would revolutionize world trade. And Britain had sent an expeditionary force up the San Juan river, raiding and destroying undefended Nicaraguan settlements as they progressed. Jinotega and Acoyapa fell to the British force; and then Loviguisca and San Pedro de Lovago were overrun. The mission of Apompua near Juigalpa and the town of Muy Muy were captured. Villages were burned and looted; and many prisoners were taken.
It was 1762, and Britain was a mighty world power. Her navy sailed the seven seas and kept distant colonies under control worldwide. Nicaragua was small and young and alone.
The British expeditionary force consisted of 50 ships and 2000 men. The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception held about one hundred soldiers. At 4 am on July 26, 1762, as the fleet approached the fortress, a British landing party took a Nicaraguan observation post and captured its defenders. That same morning, a few hours later, the fleet anchored before the fortress, and the British commander sent an envoy ashore to negotiate a surrender. The terms were, in exchange for cessation of hostilities, unconditional surrender of the fortress,
Inside the fortress there was anxious turmoil, as their commander had just died a few days before. The second in command, a sergeant, was planning to surrender when Rafaela spoke forth: “Have you forgotten the duties imposed by military honor? Are you going to allow the enemy to steal this fortress, which is the safeguard of the Province of Nicaragua, and of your families?” Rafaela, you see, was the daughter, the only offspring, of the commander of the fortress, Lieutenant Don Jose de Herrera, who had just died.
The men were stunned and not knowing what to do. Rafaela Herrera ordered the gates of the fortress to be locked, took the keys and placed sentries. The enemy envoy returned to the fleet which promptly arrayed itself for battle, thinking to intimidate the defenders. Hererra, whose grandfather was a military engineer, and whose father had trained her in military honor, and the handling of weapons, aimed one of the cannons. Boom! and a volley sailed across the waters. Boom! a second volley; and then, in case they were mistaken as to her intentions, Boom! a third cannon shot sailed forth. On the third volley, the commander of the British fleet was killed.
The British were enraged and commenced an all out assault. Those one hundred rallied mightily, and, inspired by Rafaela’s heroism, responded with ferocious defense. Deep in the night, Rafaela soaked clothes in alcohol and set them afire and adrift on floating branches in the river. The flotilla of flame descending upon the anchored fleet forced them to readjust to defensive positions.
The battle continued at daybreak, and then day after day for six days. Rafaela Herrera commanded the cannons and Lieutenant Juan de Aguilar led the defenders. On August 3, 1762, the British lifted their siege, retreated, and sailed back downstream to the mouth of the San Jose river, never to return.
On November 11, 1781, King Charles III of Spain, issued a royal decree granting Herrera a pension for life as a reward for her heroic actions during the Battle for the Río San Juan de Nicaragua.
Izalco was little more than a curious hole in the ground in a cornfield. The farm was on the southern slopes of the old Santa Ana volcano, and the hole, or “vent”, was at 1300 meters above sea level. Wisps of black sulfuric smoke would occasionally arise but not seem out of the ordinary on the slopes of a volcano. And then one day in 1770, Izalco was born.
Fiery spurts and flowing mounds of lava issued from the side of that old mountain, and El Salvador’s youngest volcano began to build its own mountain. Lava flowed down the slope up to 7 kilometers and hardened. More lava flowed and hardened on top of the previous flow. More lava and more lava flowed, and layer upon layer hardened, and the young volcanic cone began to rise. One hundred meters, two hundred meters, three hundred meters, the new mountain rose from the slopes of the old. Its eruptions were almost continuous. As its elevation grew its incandescent night time displays of fire became visible from further and further out at sea. Izalco became a reliable night time guide for seagoing vessels to the port of Acajutla in El Salvador. “Faro de Pacifico”, the Lighthouse of the Pacific, it was christened.
Five hundred meters, six hundred meters, our volcano continued to grow. Eruptions were almost continuous with just brief interruptions for two hundred years. So many people wanted to see the volcano that a hotel with a vantage point was planned and construction began. Six hundred twenty meters, six hundred thirty meters, six hundred forty meters and hotel construction neared its conclusion. Six hundred fifty meters and the hotel was finished. And so was Izalco. It is a curious feature of history that the volcano which erupted almost continuously should stop just when the hotel was completed. But so it was. Izalco has not erupted since 1966. But it is still visited and climbed by many intrepid travelers.
Detail of the forests at the foot of the volcano. Izalco is El Salvador’s youngest volcano. The cone rises without vegetation from the forest below.
Our volcano is featured in the beautiful tale of Le Petite Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It was inspired by his El Salvadoran wife Consuelo.
The national coat of arms features 5 volcanoes. These five symbolize the five member states of the United Provinces of Central America, formed July 1, 1823.
Projected on a staff above the volcanoes is a Phrygian cap, an ancient symbol of liberty. The five flags are upheld with indigenous wooden war spears with obsidian points.
The motto below is “Dios, Union, Libertad”.
The old worlds and new worlds are depicted on the front of the 10 colones banknote.
The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, the three sailing ships that constituted the expedition of Christopher Columbus, are depicted sailing to the new world from the old world.
The Hacienda may look small on the outside, but it is big on the inside, and looms bigger still in history, for here a giant was stopped.
In what is historians widely consider the turning point in Nicaragua’s wars for liberty, a small band won the day against a much larger force. They did it with the combination of grit, guts and guile, which is the stuff of every memorable battle.
On a September morning in 1856, three hundred well armed troops under William Walker marched on a small farmhouse known as Hacienda San Jacinto. Walker, a mercenary from California, had organized this private military expedition with the goal of establishing a private colony in Central America under his personal control. Colonel Jose Dolores Estrada was at the farm with his men, numbering about one hundred, to prevent Walker from seizing the livestock. The Matagalpa, a local indigenous tribe of Nicaragua, responded to Estrada’s call for help, and sent sixty archers to reinforce the position, bringing the total number of defenders to about one hundred and sixty.
Walker’s men, known as “filibusters” which was the name given to such mercenaries in those days, were armed with revolvers and repeating rifles. Estrada’s defenders were armed with bows and arrows and single shot flintlock muskets. Walker’s men were uniformed and booted. Estrada’s men were ragtag and sandaled. Walker’s men were cocky and fighting for wealth. Estrada’s men were desperate and fighting for their country.
A morning lookout spotted Walker’s army at 2000 yards and approaching from the South. Estrada divided his men into three defensive positions, a stone corral on his right, the house in the middle and a wooden corral on his left. Orders were given not to fire until fired upon, or until the enemy was within 50 to 75 yards, as that was the maximum effective range of their old muskets. Walker’s men divided into three columns of 100 men each and continued their march toward the defended positions. At 7 am the first shots rang out.
The invaders attempted to climb the barricades with impunity but they were met with war by the defenders. Furious battles erupted at each of the three defended positions. Arrows flew, gunshots rang and swords clanged. Then the attackers withdrew, reorganized, rearmed and reattacked. Three times over the first two hours they attacked, and three times the defended positions held. But the defense of the wood corral on the left was beginning to break. Frustrated by their inability to take the stone corral on their left or the house in the middle, they combined their forces into a single mass and renewed the attack on the wooden corral on their right.
At 9 am, the defense of the wooden corral broke. The fighting was furious, and hand to hand, and the defenders’ ammunition was running low, when Andres Castro stood up. His gun having failed, he leapt forward picking up two stones. The first, about the size of a billiard ball, he hurled mightily with his right. The filibuster took the stone on his head, stopped, stood for an instant, dropped his gun and then, leaning backward, staggered over the fence, fell and died on the spot. The defenders witnessing this sight, rallied with mighty enthusiasm; and screaming, and shouting “Viva Nicaragua!”, picked up stones and fired them on the filibusters like a hail of bullets.
But the attackers, having abundance of arms and ammunition, kept advancing until some of them were at the house and some were even on the porch. It was a terrible state. Estrada, seeing the situation was dire, shouted to the officers between the corral and the house, ordering them to defend to the death, “Firm to the last drop!”
Estrada next ordered others to attack the enemy’s flank. Then sprinted 17 men to a small forested hill 100 yards behind the house, and circling around unseen, faced the flank of the invaders. Fixing bayonets and shouting mightily “Viva Nicaragua”, they attacked with such ferocity that about 30 horses corralled nearby were startled and stampeded. The enemy facing such fury forward and now on their flank, and now hearing with alarm the sound of approaching hoofbeats, thought them to be mounted Nicaraguan reinforcements descending upon them. The filibusters, hesitated in alarm, began to retreat from the house and corral, and then fled the battle field for their lives.
Twelve miles they fled, all the way to Hacienda San Ildefonso, and for many of those miles they were chased by the victorious patriots.
So stunning was the defeat, that Walker soon left off his project and departed from Central America. The French sage, Elisee, upon hearing the tale of the battle, called it the Marathon of the Americas, after the battle in which the outnumbered Greeks turned back the Persians so many centuries before. The image of Castro hurling the stone has fixed the image of “David versus Goliath” into the national imagination. The painting below by Luis Vergara Ahumada immortalizes the battle and is found in very many public buildings and private homes throughout Nicaragua.
His tail feathers may be 3 feet long, and colored blue green. His head is golden green with a rounded crest. His back is blue, tinged with gold. His belly is crimson red. He is glorious in flight.
To the Mayans, he symbolized the movement of creation and the will of the Creator to come to earth. Kings and priests wore ceremonial garments decorated by their iridescent feathers. They saw the combination of the quetzal and the serpent in their god Qetzal Coatl, “the plumed serpent”, the Animator of all creation. He is glorious in flight.
Tecun Uman was the great leader of the Maya in the age of the Spanish conquest.
The Spanish cavalry charge shocked the Mayans who had never seen horses. Tecun Uman, clothed in quetzal feathers and accompanied by his animal spirit guide, the quetzal bird, stood up to meet the horse mounted leader of the Spanish army, Alvarado, face to face. Thinking the mounted man and horse were one single being, he attacked and slew the horse. Turning round and seeing the still armed Alvarado dismounted, he realized his mistake, attacked again and died on Alvarado’s spear. His quetzal spirit guide was so grieved, he landed on Tecun Uman’s fallen chest, his breast feathers mixing with the hero’s blood, and died.
Forever after, the quetzal’s breast was red and his song not heard. And if a quetzal was ever placed in captivity, it died, making it a symbol of liberty.
Buried deep in the rainforest, these temple grounds appear to have escaped the notice of the Spanish conquistadors.
This fabulous pyramid standing as tall as a 10 story building was lost in the jungle until its rediscovery in the 19th century by Alfred P. Maudslay.
In his own words: “I was naturally anxious and expectant on this my first visit to a Central American ruin, but it seemed as though my curiosity would be ill satisfied, for all I could see on arrival was what appeared to be three moss-grown stumps of dead trees covered over with a tangle of creepers and parasitic plants . . We soon pulled off the creepers, and . . . set to work to clear away the coating of moss. As the curious outlines of the carved ornament gathered shape it began to dawn upon me how much more important were these monuments, upon which I had stumbled almost by chance, than any account I had heard of them had led me to expect. This day’s work induced me to take a permanent interest in Central American Archaeology, and a journey which was undertaken merely to escape the rigours of an English winter has been followed by seven expeditions from England for the purpose of further exploration and archaeological research.”1
The archaeological record of Tikal dates from around 1000 BC. It was a thriving city from around 300 BC until its decline between 700 AD and 900 AD.2
“Alegoria”, or “The Allegory of Coffee and Banana” is the name of the beautiful mural painted by Italian Artist Aleardo Villa in 1897. It decorates the ceiling of the National Theater in San Juan and has been cataloged as one of the ten most beautiful ceiling murals in the world. It was commissioned to illustrate the vitality and progress of the nation.
The lamppost planted in the sandy beach may seem out of place, but it is an allegorical painting after all. But there was good reason to include it in the mural.
San Juan, the capital city of Costa Rica, was one of the first three cities in the world to have electricity, after London and New York!
One can imagine their civic pride! Look closely and you can see people looking at it in admiration.
The produce of Costa Rica is marshalled for export to the ports of the world.
In the background are the masts of sailing ships of the old world are mixed with the funnels, or stacks, of the steamships of the new world.
The sacks are loaded with coffee beans, each proudly marked “Café de C. Rica”.
Women are harvesting coffee accompanied by girls and boys and men.
Notice the animals in the background whose strength assisted the arduous daily work.
Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica in the 1700s. By the time of our mural’s painting, coffee had become a major industry for Costa Rica, providing funding for young academics in Europe, the first railroad to the Atlantic ocean, and for the national Theater.
Costa Rica was the first nation of Central America to plant and export bananas. Millions of bananas were exported by Costa Rica by the turn of the century, 1900.
The man in our mural is happily displaying a luscious bunch of bananas, but, unfortunately, he is holding them up side down! We might forgive our muralist, a brilliant artist living in Italy, and who, as far as we know, never actually visited Costa Rica.
The artist’s interpretation might be seen by some, now a hundred years later, as a something of a prophetic allegory in itself. The prosperity supported by the cultivation of bananas in the late 19th century would lead to what some have called the banana wars a few decades later which turned the region upside down for a time.
Nicaragua 5 Cordobas 1972
Sculpture monument to the pre-Columbian Indian leader (cacique) Nicarao (sculptor Edith Gron) at the Park of
Stone Sculptures (Parque Las Piedrecitas) in Managua
Vivandera – fruit and grocery seller
Nicarao was said to be the name of an indigenous chieftain or cacique who presided over a territory in southwestern Nicaragua during the early 16th century. Based on research done by historians in 2002, it was discovered that his real name was Macuilmiquiztli.
Christopher Columbus, on his 4th and last voyage in 1502, explored the eastern coast of what is now known as Nicaragua but did not venture to its western coast, nor did he come into contact with any indigenous people. In 1522, the Spanish conquistadorGil González Dávila left Panama with 100 men, beginning the first incursion into the western regions of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. When they arrived in southwestern Nicaragua, they encountered a Nahuat-speaking tribe, and with the help of two indigenous interpreters who had come with González Dávila, he was able to have a discourse with the tribe’s cacique, who has since been commonly referred to by the name Nicarao.
The territory or cacicazgo ruled over by Nicarao was situated in the isthmus of what is now known as Nicaragua’s Rivas Department, next to Lake Nicaragua, and it extended southward to what is now known as the Guanacaste Province in northwestern Costa Rica. The tribe’s capital city or principal settlement was called Quauhcapolca, though it has sometimes been referred to in history books as Nicaraocallí, and it is believed to have been situated near the modern lake port of San Jorge.
According to a once-popular theory, the name “Nicaragua” was derived from a portmanteau of the name Nicarao and the Spanish word agua which means “water”, due to the presence of two large lakes and other bodies of water in the country.
In 2002, through the research done by two separate Nicaraguan historians working independently of each other, it was argued that the true name of the cacique was actually Macuilmiquiztli, which meant “Five Deaths” in the Nahuatl language.
It is not known how the name Nicarao came to be associated with the cacique Macuilmiquiztli. It’s possible that the Spanish conquistadors may have derived the name Nicarao based on the ethnicity of his tribe, which was composed of Pipil-Nicarao people, who were a branch of Nahuas. Andrés de Cereceda, the treasurer of González Dávila’s expedition, wrote in his log the names of the caciques of the villages where gold was collected. In the vicinity of Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya, they found the largest indigenous village they had visited, which was ruled by a cacique named Chorotega. Since then, linguistic sources have used the name of that cacique as an eponym, “Chorotega people “, to encompass a number of villages which had cultural and linguistic similarities despite being physically separated.
There are two prevailing theories on how the name “Nicaragua” came about. The first is that the name was coined by Spanish colonists based on the name Nicarao, who was the chieftain or cacique of a powerful indigenous tribe encountered by the Spanish conquistador Gil González Dávila during his entry into southwestern Nicaragua in 1522. This theory holds that the name Nicaragua was formed as a portmanteau of Nicarao and the word agua which means “water” in Spanish, to reference the fact that there are two large lakes and several other bodies of water within the country. However, as of 2002, it was determined that the cacique’s real name was Macuilmiquiztli, which meant “Five Deaths” in the Nahuatl language, rather than Nicarao.
The second theory is that the country’s name comes from any of the following Nahuatl words: nic-anahuac, which meant “Anahuac reached this far”, or “the Nahuas came this far”, or “those who come from Anahuac came this far”; nican-nahua, which meant “here are the Nahuas”; or nic-atl-nahuac, which meant “here by the water” or “surrounded by water”.