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1500's Piracy Around Isla Mujeres by Fidel Villanueva Madrid, Isla Mujeres Historian

  This article was written by Isla Mujeres historian Fidel Villanueva Madrid and translated by Ronda Winn-Roberts, and was originally titled El asalto pirata a boca iglesia. All rights are retained by the original author. It was originally published in a local newspaper, but is no longer available at that link. 
     Boca Iglesias is part of the municipality of Isla Mujeres and the site of the first church in New Spain-Mexico. Ekab was the name of that community, as well as the name of the Mayan 'township' or 'chiefdom' that preceded the Isla Mujeres municipality.

History of Piracy around Isla Mujeres in the 1500's
     During the 1500's, the eastern coast of what is now Quintana Roo was of little importance to Spain whose maritime routes were concentrated in the Antilles. Occasionally, a boat from the Gulf of Honduras sought the shelter of the islands of Mujeres and Cozumel during bad weather, or whetheir boats needed repairs. Except in those incidences, loneliness was the common denominator of our coasts and islands. This suited the purposes of the pirates, who found  the isles to be excellent shelters from which to spy and attack the Spanish ships, that sailing to and from Havana, Cuba.

1500's Chapels from ColonialMexico blog.
  During the centuries of colonial Spain,  there were no significant towns of interest to pirates between Yalahau to Chetumal. However there were some coastal towns, and from north and south they were: Ekab, Pole, Xelhá, San Miguel & Santa Maria (the latter two in Cozumel) and Salamanca de Bacalar. The latter was the most prosperous community,  and therefore it was the hardest hit by harassment from pirates, in those distant times.
    These settlements were typical  poor  "Indian towns", and  therefore lacking much to attract many thieves from the sea. At that time, the pirates were monitoring the main routes of the ships of New Spain, Cartagena de Indias, or Santo Domingo, and routes between Cuba to Europe.
    Of those six settlements that inhabited the coast in 1550, all have disappeared, some temporarily and others forever, from not receiving any kind of help. This was because during the colonial era, the Yucatan was really was not really part of New Spain. This area was administrated separately as a "General Captaincy" that included a large an area of ​​land incorporating areas now known as Belize, Honduras, and parts of Chiapas and Tabasco. Control of this vast area was impossible due to the lack of roads and other means of communication.
     Therefore, the pirates found strategic shelter in Ascension and Espiritu Santo Bays, and at the Islands of Cozumel,  Contoy, and Mujeres. They were periodically expelled, every five or ten years, by the Yucatecan government, who sent expeditions for this purpose. However, after the military left the area, the outlaws would blatantly return.
        The few people of these settlements were mostly Mayan, shy and trustworthy, who in their state of abandonment by the government, had to allay themselves with the pirates to save their lives. For fear of reprisals, they usually failed to report the abuse they suffered.
The Assault on Ekab Easter 1571
     Spain had known since 1537 that the waters of the Caribbean were infested with pirates. However, by the 1570's,  no progress had been made to contain them. In 1571, the French pirate Pierre Sanfroy and 35 of his henchmen attacked three ships off the coast of Yucatan, then then seized a ship in Cozumel and looted "Hunucmá". Next, they attacked and besieged the people of Ekab during Easter. 
  Sanfroy and 20 of his men reigned terror upon Ekab, with the others remaining on board watching for surprise attacks. Juan Gutierrez, Mayor of Valladolid, attacked and when the pirates at Ekab saw the combat at sea, they took the canoes of the population and fled inland down the coast to Playa del Carmen. Some of the pirates sought shelter in the church of St Michael in Cozumel and other went to the "Indian village" called Santa Maria at the southern part of the island.
   Eight pirates were killed during the fighting, and the two who were gravely injured were hanged at St Michael's. The other ten were taken to Merida where four were hanged. The others spent some time as slaves, before being taken to Mexico City were they were charged as victims of the Inquisition as heretics and enemies of the Catholic religion (Lutherans) , rather than for the murders and robberies they committed. (Blond Sanfroy was only 28 years old in 1574 when he reconciled, and accepted his punishment of loss of property, 200 lashes, and six years forced labor.)

Photo By Jorge Martin Castill
    There is testimony from some of the victims of the raid at Boca Iglesia. The mayor of the settlement, Pablo Pat, 50, said the pirates burned a box of books and the ornaments of the church, except the ones that had been hidden in the jungle. He said he and others refused to eat meat for Good Friday, and the pirates smeared their noses and faces with meat. The pirates desecrated the church with graffiti, which was pro France and anti Spain and anti Catholic.  There are other accounts of raids and expeditions along this coastal area in the late 1500's. 
   In his document “Relación de Cozumel” in 1579 Diego de Contreras wrote:
"They (the pirates) tend to go to this French island (Cozumel) , and it has been a year or more or less, since the French stole the island, taking a large amount of corn, chickens and blankets  and the church bell "   This speaks of abandonment (by the governments of Yucatan and Spain).

Spaniards Sweep Thru Seizing Every Islander 
       As for the (governmental) expeditions, in 1592, Antonio de Vozmediano, governor of Yucatan, instructed the veteran Spanish conquistador, Juan de Contreras, to go on an expeditionary mission to the coast and islands.  In 1592 Contreras and his men traveled to the islands of  Contoy, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, seizing every human being they met, including the chief of Chan cenote, John Chan,  the Maya rebels and and  negroes from Guinea, who were hiding on these islands, fleeing from slavery.
      Five years later, in 1597, Juan de Contreras launched a new expedition capturing the entire population that existed in the islands. The Spanish policy of concentrating the population in urban centers reflected their need to control the Mayans and to impose a new religion upon them, but more so, to exploit their labor in the fields. 
    According to Lopez de Cogolludo, in 1599 English pirates had settled in Cozumel. The Yucatan government sent warnings and forced them to leave the place, preferring to  prevent all coastal towns because of the presence of the criminals.
    Cogolludo reports another incident involving the presence of pirates on our shores. It happened in February 1602 and when a ship had sailed from Rio Lagartos, was bombarded and taken by English pirates near Cape Catoche.
       There are many stories in the history of this area, and many are unknown or forgotten.The Quintana Roo of  today is an amalgam of races, customs, creeds and ideologies. A great deal of work lies ahead to rescue, conserve, and preserve the Caribbean identity of  this area, which is unique among world cultures, both in natural and human history, as we become more well known among visitors. 
    And as our natural attractions have been degraded, we have also lost many of our historical attractions, because we are no longer know about the place where we live, and we are permitting our young people to imitiate a culture that is different from ours.  As for the histories of pirates and buccaneers, Quintana Roo has many more stories to be saved.        

Original in Spanish by: Fidel Villanueva Madrid.Lifetime Historian Isla Mujeres.Mail: ixcheel_48@hotmail.comDecember 2012

Fidel Villanueva Madrid is in this recent video of Boca Iglesias

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