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Tuesday 12 June 2018

Weird Happenings at the Battle of Acoma

     God, gold, and glory should have been the motto of the Spanish conquistadors. Possessed of an inordinate greed for wealth and power, combined with a hypocritical, but nevertheless sincere, religious zeal, they cut a swathe of cruelty and plunder through Central and South America. In the pursuit of these goals they were prepared to endure any hardship, and face any odds. Though their crimes were execrable, their deeds were nevertheless some of the most heroic ever recorded. This story is about the Massacre at Acoma in January 1599, but more particularly some very strange incidents at its climax.
    The main events can be briefly summarised. Inspired by a pipe dream of gold, silver, and pearls which could be had for the taking (not, of course, for the working), Juan de Oñate led an expedition into what is now New Mexico in 1598. It is important to note that the expedition included special notaries whose task it was to keep a precise record of the expedition. I mention this to point out that what is about to be described is not some legend created many years after the event. It must also be understood that they were not the first Spaniards to have communication with the Indians, and interpreters were also available.
    Having established a settlement at San Juan de los Caballeros (St. John of the Knights), he invited the heads of all local pueblos for a festival, essentially to notify them that they were now his subjects. For their benefit, the colonists put on a play, a bullfight, a mounted tournament, and a sham battle enacting the old wars between the Spanish and the Moors. Interestingly enough, the chief of Acoma did not attend, but he did send spies, and they noted, in watching the sham battle, that no-one was killed by the firearms. Were they, perhaps, harmless after all?
     The following month, Governor Oñate led a party westward to check out the rumoured pearls of the Pacific coast. A month after that, his nephew, Juan de Zaldívar headed off to join him, and when they reached Acoma, they requested food, which they were promised if they ascended to the top of the mesa the following morning.
     Acoma stood atop a sandstone mesa 400 feet high, accessible only partway by a narrow trail, with the final accent only by means of toeholds cut into the rock. At the summit, they discovered that it was not one rock, but two, split by a deep chasm. Zaldívar ordered his men to separate and collect food. Suddenly, a scream rang out from the chief, and the Indians fell upon them with every weapon available. The battle raged for three hours, at the end of which 13 Spaniards were dead, and only four survived to regain their comrades left at the bottom.
    Probably Oñate would have been incensed at the pueblo rejecting his authority in any case, but this was treachery! They swore bloody revenge. The Governor himself, on the urging of his followers, remained in San Juan, but a punitive expedition of 70 soldiers was organized under the command of Vicente de Zaldívar, the brother of the murdered Juan. By command, all the men confessed their sins and received absolution, except for one "abandoned wretch", who refused any dealings with the sacrament. They marched out on 12 January 1599. Acoma being ten days' march away, there was no way for those at home to know how the expedition was faring. Then, on the 24th a strange visitor arrived. I shall quote the words of historian, Paul Horgan.
    Late in the afternoon of that day, a small, ancient Indian woman, all bone and folded skin, asked to see the Governor. She came with an air of circumstance proper to one so old and so used to the respect given to old age by her people. The Governor received her.
     Yes? he said.
     There, she replied, westward, far, that flat country, and that great high rock that rose straight up from it, with a pueblo on top.
    Yes, Acoma, what then?
    War and battle, around and around and around, men striving against each other, beating, so, and stabbing, so, and killing.
     Yes, yes?
     Some with swords.
     Yes, soldiers?
     Some with arrows.
     Indians. And then?
     The air full of power and fury. One, two, three days of this. The rock was wide and the struggle flowed back and forward upon it. There was death everywhere. In the sky there came something - a vision in light. Then up, waving upwards, smoke entered the whole air. And then it all ended.
     When? When did it all end?
     Today. Just today. The war was over.
     Over? But who was victorious?
     Swords. The soldiers were victorious.
    The Governor thanked her and let her go. But who was she? And where did she come from? Certainly not Acoma, for that was ten days' march away by fit men. But he was to learn the truth of it nine days later when the quartermaster rode in with two prisoners, and a remarkable story.
     The morning after their arrival at the foot of the mesa, Vicente sent the larger part of his men against one end of the mesa while himself leading eleven men under cover to scale the other end - where he managed to secure a foothold, after fighting off 400 wild Indians.
     On the second morning, the soldiers from the plain swarmed up onto the mesa. Now began a ferocious battle, which involved such actions as a beam being thrown across the chasm, soldiers using it as a bridge and then drawing it after them. When it was seen that their forces were cut in two, a Captain de Villagrá took a running jump across the chasm and threw the piece of timber back. The "abandoned wretch" who had refused to confess his sins before setting out was accidentally hit by a musket ball. Recognizing his eternal danger, he staggered down the cliffside to the plain, just in time to blurt out his sins, which were no doubt numerous, to the chaplain before dying.
    On the third day, the Indians elders suddenly approached with tears in their eyes offering to surrender. They had known they were beaten, they explained, when they saw a great warrior with a long white beard (Indians are beardless) and a fiery sword, riding a white charger in the sky above the invading army, attended by a beautiful woman in a blue robe and crowned with stars. The soldiers were dumbfounded. It must have been their patron saint, St James of Compostela, and the Virgin Mary herself!
     500 prisoners were led back to San Juan to be tried for rebellion. Enslaving the Indians was against the law, but not penal servitude for a set time. Every prisoner over the age of twelve was sentenced to twenty years servitude, with the men over twenty-five receiving the additional penalty of having the right foot amputated. However, as it turned out, this punishment was inflicted on only twenty-four.
    But what really puzzles me is the mysterious old woman who announced the outcome of the battle long before the news could possibly have arrived, and the vision of saints at the battle. Now, people of that period had a tendency to place supernatural interpretations on natural events. A chaplain of Cortes claimed to have seen St James on a grey horse before one of the engagements with the enemy, although the chronicler of the invasion, Bernal Diaz thought it looked more like a certain fellow soldier, Francesco de Morla. The trouble is, at Acoma it was the Indians who claimed to have seen the vision, not the Spanish, and it was in the sky, not on the ground. Perhaps their descriptions of the vision gained something in translation, and morphed into the traditional aspect of the saints in Spanish iconography. Still, it is all very mysterious.
    Just the same, I find it hard to believe the the Saviour's apostle and mother would looked with anything but horror at the atrocities being committed in their names. I am pleased to say that a similar horror was felt by some of their contemporaries, for the cruelty to the inhabitants of Acoma was included in the indictment of Oñate when he was eventually brought to trial in Mexico.

Reference: Paul Horgan (1963), Conquistadors in North America, Macmillan. His source appears to have been George Hammond and Agapito Rey (editors), Don Juan Oñate, coloniser of New Mexico, 1595 - 1628, University of New Mexico Press, 1953, a collection of original documents.

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