Modern day Belize was founded in the 1600s by English and Scottish pirates. But the first European to live here was a Spanish soldier, Gonzalo Guerrero – the victim of a 1511 shipwreck off Cozumel. He was one of the first Heroes of Belize. Mexico commemorates Guerrero and his three children that started the Mestizo race in the Americas. Belize has yet to erect a monument to its first hero.
Gonzalo Guerrero was born in Palos de la Frontera, Huelva, Spain, around 1470.
In 1510, Guerrero was in the New World under the command of Captain Núñez de Balboa. In August of 1511 their ship ran into a storm near Jamaica. Only 18 people, 16 men and 2 women, made it into a small lifeboat, with no food or water. Of those 18, only about half reached the coast of Cozumel in the Yucatán. Other sources claim Guerrero was rescued off the Corozal Bay.
Guerrero was captured by the Maya along with fellow soldier Geronimo de Aquilar.
Bernal Díaz de Castillo (Historia Verdadera De La Conquista De La Nueva España, Chapter XXIX) records Aguilar’s account, whereby Mayans sacrificed some of the ship’s crew almost immediately, while putting the rest into cages for fattening before eating them. The Maya, like many other cultures of the time, were cannibals, sacrificing and eating their enemies. Bernal Díaz de Castillo was a Spanish conquistador, who participated as a soldier of fortune with Hernán Cortés. As a veteran soldier, he was a member of the expeditions to Tierra Firme, Cuba, and to Yucatán before joining Cortés. In his later years Bernal Díaz de Castillo was an encomendero and governor in Guatemala where he wrote his eponymous memoirs titled “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain”.
Guerrero was sent to Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal (present day Corozal Town). Guerrero fell in love with and married the Chief’s daughter Princess Za’asil. Their children are the genesis of the Mestizo (Spaniard-Indian) of Latin America. In the state anthem of Quintana Roo, Mexico, Gonzalo Guerrero is referred to as the Father of the Mestizos. Section in Spanish follows with translation into English. Translation copyright 2010 Belize.com Ltd.:
Esta tierra que mira al oriente
cuna fue del primer mestizaje
que nació del amor sin ultraje
de Gonzalo Guerrero y Za’asil.
Oh, this land that looks off to the east
the cradle of the first mestizo,
born from the pure loving breast
of Gonzalo Guerrero and Za’asil
Using his training as a Spanish solder, Guerrero became a famous war lord for the Maya at Chactemal, present-day Santa Rita, Corozal, Belize. Because of his knowledge of Spanish military tactics, Guerrero (which literally translated into English means “warrior”) became an important military adviser to the Maya of Belize and Yucatan in their subsequent resistance to Spanish domination.
Gonzalo Guerrero is very significant to Belize’s history. English archaeologist Sir J. Eric S. Thompson and early Maya civilization scholar wrote that Guerrero was the “…first European resident of Belize and one who fought for his adopted land.”
Monument to Gonzalo Guerrero in Akumal, Quintana Roo Mexico.
In 1531 Gonzalo Guerrero and his father-in-law led the Maya and defeated an invading army from Spain at Chactemal (Corozal) headed by Alonso Davila. This was the first defence of Belize against an invading European army.
The first battle of Belize was actually fought near Corozal Town and prevented Spain from occupying territory south of the Rio Hondo – the northern border of present-day Belize.
The site of the ancient city of Chetumal has been identified by archaeologists as south of the mouth of the Rio Hondo, and about 8 miles from present day Corozal Town taking into account the town’s suburban expansion as of 2017. Dr. Thomas Gann, carried our excavations there in the 1920s. He discovered and took home numerous artifacts suggesting an important pre-conquest city. Gann did not name the city, but modern archaeologists say this is the ancient Chetumal or Chacktemal.
The British and Scottish pirates would not arrive in Belize until 1650.
Recent research has questioned the reason(s) why Guerrero did not join his rescuers, and chose to remain with the Maya. Some writers suggest Guerreo confronted the reality that returning to the Spanish forces would have made his fate uncertain. Remaining with the Maya, he was a chieftain married to the daughter of a chief. Or perhaps, after years of living among the Maya, he had assimilated.
Gonzalo Guerreo died in battle in June 1536 at Ticamaya Honduras, helping defend Honduran cacique Çiçumba against an invasion by Pedro Alvarado.
— Article by M.A. Romero Chief Information Officer (RET) with research from anthropologist Lic. Mateo Ayuso Corozal Town.