Biography of Pedro de Alvarado

Conqueror of the Maya

Pedro de Alvarado
Pedro de Alvarado. Painting by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Tlaxcala Town Hall

Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541) was a Spanish conquistador who participated in the Conquest of the Aztecs in Central Mexico in 1519 and led the Conquest of the Maya in 1523. Referred to as "Tonatiuh" or "Sun God" by the Aztecs because of his blonde hair and white skin, Alvarado was violent, cruel and ruthless, even for a conquistador for whom such traits were practically a given. After the Conquest of Guatemala, he served as governor of the region, although he continued to campaign until his death in 1541.

Early Life

Pedro's exact year of birth is unknown: it was probably sometime between 1485 and 1495. Like many conquistadores, he was from the province of Extremadura: in his case, he was born in the city of Badajoz. Like many younger sons of minor nobility, Pedro and his brothers could not expect much in the way of an inheritance: they were expected to become priests or soldiers, as working the land was considered beneath them. In about 1510 he went to the New World with several brothers and an uncle: they soon found work as soldiers in the various expeditions of conquest that originated on Hispaniola, including the brutal conquest of Cuba.

Personal Life and Appearance

Alvarado was blond and fair, with blue eyes and pale skin that fascinated the natives of the New World. He was considered affable by his fellow Spaniards and the other conquistadores trusted him. He married twice: first to a Spanish noblewoman, Francisca de la Cueva, who was related to the powerful Duke of Albuquerque, and then later, after her death, to Beatriz de la Cueva, who survived him and briefly became governor in 1541.

His longtime native companion, Doña Luisa Xicotencatl, was a Tlaxcalan Princess given to him by the lords of Tlaxcala when they made an alliance with the Spanish. He had no legitimate children but did father several bastards.

Alvarado and the Conquest of the Aztecs

In 1518, Hernán Cortés mounted an expedition to explore and conquer the mainland: Alvarado and his brothers quickly signed on.

Alvarado's leadership was recognized early on by Cortés, who put him in charge of ships and men. He would eventually become Cortés' right-hand man. As the conquistadores moved into central Mexico and a showdown with the Aztecs, Alvarado proved himself time and again as a brave, capable soldier, even if he did have a noticeable cruel streak. Cortés often entrusted Alvarado with important missions and reconnaissance. After the conquest of Tenochtitlán, Cortés was forced to head back to the coast to face Pánfilo de Narváez, who had brought soldiers from Cuba to take him into custody. Cortés left Alvarado in charge while he was gone.

The Temple Massacre

In Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), tensions were high between the natives and the Spanish. The noble class seethed at the audacious invaders, who were laying claim to their wealth, property, and women. On May 20, 1520, the nobles gathered for their traditional celebration of Toxcatl. They had already asked Alvarado for permission, which he had granted. Alvarado heard rumors that the Mexica were going to rise up and slaughter the intruders during the festival, so he ordered a pre-emptive attack. His men slaughtered thousands of unarmed nobles at the Festival.

According to the Spanish, they slaughtered the nobles because they had proof that the festivities were a prelude to an attack designed to kill all of the Spanish in the city: the Aztecs claim the Spanish only wanted the golden ornaments many of the nobility were wearing. No matter what the cause, the Spanish fell on the unarmed nobles, slaughtering thousands.

The Noche Triste

Cortés returned and quickly tried to restore order, but it was in vain. The Spanish were under a state of siege for several days before they sent Emperor Moctezuma to speak to the crowd: according to the Spanish account, he was killed by stones thrown by his own people. With Moctezuma dead, the attacks increased until the night of June 30, when the Spanish tried to sneak out of the city under cover of darkness. They were discovered and attacked: dozens were killed as they attempted to escape, laden down with treasures.

During the escape, Alvarado allegedly made a mighty leap from one of the bridges: for a long time afterward, the bridge was known as "Alvarado's Leap."

Guatemala and the Maya

Cortés, with the help of Alvarado, was able to regroup and retake the city, setting himself up as governor. More Spanish arrived to help colonize, govern and rule the remnants of the Aztec Empire. Among the loot discovered were ledgers of sorts detailing tribute payments from neighboring tribes and cultures, including several considerable payments from a culture known as the K'iche far to the south. A message was sent to the effect that there had been a change in management in Mexico City but the payments should continue. Predictably, the fiercely independent K'iche ignored it. Cortés selected Pedro de Alvarado to head south and investigate, and in 1523 he gathered up 400 men, many of whom had horses, and several thousand native allies. They headed south, delirious with dreams of plunder.

The Conquest of Utatlán

Cortés had been successful because of his ability to turn Mexican ethnic groups against one another, and Alvarado had learned his lessons well. The K'iche, at home in the city of Utatlán near present-day Quetzaltenango in Guatemala, were by far the strongest of the kingdoms in the lands that had once been home to the Mayan Empire. Cortés quickly made an alliance with the Kaqchikel, traditional bitter enemies of the K'iche. All of Central America had been devastated by disease in the previous years, but the K'iche were still able to put 10,000 warriors into the field, led by K'iche warlord Tecún Umán. The Spanish routed the K'iche in February of 1524 at the battle of El Pinal, ending the greatest hope of large-scale native resistance in Central America.

Conquest of the Maya

With the mighty K'iche defeated and their capital city of Utatlán in ruins, Alvarado simply had to pick off the remaining kingdoms one by one. By 1532 all of the major kingdoms had fallen, and their people had been given by Alvarado to his men as virtual slaves.

Even the Kaqchikels were rewarded with slavery. Alvarado was named governor of Guatemala and established a city there, near the site of present-day Antigua. He served as Governor for seventeen years.

Further Adventures

Alvarado was not content to sit idly in Guatemala counting his newfound wealth. He would abandon his duties as governor from time to time in search of more conquest and adventure. Hearing of the great wealth in the Andes, he set out with ships and men to conquer Quito: when he arrived, it had already been captured by Sebastian de Benalcazar on behalf of the Pizarro brothers. Alvarado considered fighting the other Spaniards for it, but in the end allowed them to buy him off. He was named the Governor of Honduras and occasionally went there to enforce his claim. He also returned to Mexico to campaign in the Mexican northwest. This would prove the end of him: in 1541 he died in present-day Michoacán when a horse rolled over on him during a battle with natives.

Further Adventures

Alvarado was not content to sit idly in Guatemala counting his newfound wealth. He would abandon his duties as governor from time to time in search of more conquest and adventure. Hearing of the great wealth in the Andes, he set out with ships and men to conquer Quito: when he arrived, the Pizarro brothers and Sebastián de Benalcázar already held it. Alvarado considered fighting the other Spaniards for it, but in the end allowed them to buy him off. He was named the Governor of Honduras and occasionally went there to enforce his claim. He also returned to Mexico to campaign in the Mexican northwest. This would prove the end of him: in 1541 he died in present-day Michoacán when a horse rolled over on him during a battle with natives.

Alvarado's Cruelty and Las Casas

All of the conquistadores were ruthless, cruel and bloodthirsty, but Pedro de Alvarado was in a class by himself. He ordered massacres of women and children, razed entire villages, enslaved thousands and threw natives to his dogs when they displeased him. When he decided to go to the Andes, he took with him thousands of Central American natives to work and fight for him: most of them died en route or once they got there. Alvarado's singular inhumanity drew the attention of Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, the enlightened Dominican who was the Great Defender of the Indians. In 1542, Las Casas wrote "A Short History of the Destruction of the Indies" in which he rails against the abuses committed by the conquistadores. Although he did not mention Alvarado by name, he clearly referred to him:

"This man in the space of fifteen years, which was from the year 1525 to 1540, together with his associates, massacred no less then five millions of men, and do daily destroy those that are yet remaining. It was the custom of this Tyrant, when he made war upon any Town or Country, to carry along with him as many as he could of the subdued Indians, compelling them to make war upon their Countrymen, and when he had ten or twenty thousand men in his service, because he could not give them provision, he permitted them to eat the flesh of those Indians that they had taken in war: for which cause he had a kind of shambles in his Army for the ordering and dressing of mans' flesh, suffering Children to be killed and boiled in his presence. The men they killed only for their hands and feet, for those they accounted dainties."

Legacy of Pedro de Alvarado

Alvarado is best remembered in Guatemala, where he is even more reviled than is Hernán Cortés in Mexico (if such a thing is possible). His K'iche opponent, Tecún Umán, is a national hero whose likeness appears on the 1/2 Quetzal note. Even today, Alvarado's cruelty is legendary: Guatemalans who do not know much about their history will recoil at his name. Mostly he is remembered as the most vicious of the conquistadores if he is remembered at all.

Still, there is no denying that Alvarado had a profound effect on the history of Guatemala and Central America in general, even if most of it was negative. The villages and towns he gave away to his conquistadores formed the basis for current municipal division, in some cases, and his experiments with moving conquered people around resulted in some cultural exchange among the Maya.

Sources:

Las Casas Quote: http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/slatta/hi216/documents/dlascasas.htm#5link

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. New York: Penguin, 1963 (original written circa 1575).

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

Foster, Lynn V. New York: Checkmark Books, 2007.