Monday, January 14, 2013

Diego de Landa: A Biography

Diego de Landa is the well-known infamous Franciscan friar (then bishop) who lived during the Spanish colonization endeavors of the 1500s. He is remembered for his inhuman actions towards the Maya as well as his appreciation and recording of the Maya culture, a subject of which he is considered a source although some question its authenticity. This is an article of the highlights of his life.
Birth and Entering the Missionary Life
Cifuentes de Alcarria, Spain (near Toledo) around the year 1524 is the setting in which Diego de Landa was born into the Spanish nobility. While very young, he became a Franciscan. After becoming a Franciscan Landa went to the New World as a missionary, during which time he demonstrated sympathy towards native peoples.
To the Yucatán
In 1549 Landa went to the Yucatán Peninsula, where he learned Yucatec Maya. 1552 saw him become the elected overseer of a convent located in Izamal, which he had founded. 1561 saw him become Yucatán's Franciscan provincial. 

Landa's time as provincial was the period of his life in which he committed his most infamous actions. Some resources such as Encyclopedia Britannica say it started when he found evidence of human sacrifice in a cave that contained items of the indigenous Maya religion. In response to finding this, on July 12, 1562 Landa had the local Maya brought to the central plaza at Maní, and made them watch as he caused 20,000 indigenous religious materials --- such as idols -- as well as books put to flame. Beyond this burning, he interrogated and imprisoned various Maya, possibly killing 157 people.

These actions were like an inquisition, which only bishops were allowed to start -- and Landa wasn't one. This, along with the level of violence he used, would later come back to cause Landa problems.
Resulting Political Troubles
In April 1563, the first bishop of Yucatán, Francisco Toral, arrived at Yucatán. He disliked what Landa had done, thinking he had been too extreme in his use of violence during in his interrogations, and had overstepped his bounds in his inquisition-like actions. He undid some of the sentences that had been given. He also demanded the records of completed trials against native "idolaters" but Landa refused, as he was only willing to give incomplete records. Not even a month after arriving, Toral forced Landa to return to Spain to defend himself against accusations of overstepping his rank in the religious hierarchy before the Council of the Indies.
To help him with his case -- though he also had character witnesses --, Landa began to write a book, titled Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (possibly written around 1566), in which he wrote on various aspects of Maya culture including the indigenous religion as well  history, laws, language and society.  This book was later lost to time, but a shorter version -- rediscovered by a man named Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg -- would later become important with the deciphering of the Maya writing system.
Eventually the case reached its conclusion, and the council found Landa innocent of the charges. He returned to Yucatán in 1572 to become bishop. 

A Difficulty As Bishop
Right before he got back to the Yucatán Peninsula, a new governor was put in place, Francisco Velázquez de Gijón. Landa and this governor did not get along. In 1574 there was a disagreement between what to do with some Fransiscan friars who had criticized the de Gijón's treatment of the Maya. De Gijón wanted them to undergo a trial, but Landa wouldn't let it happen, even putting the city of Mérida (now the capital city of today's Yucatán state) under interdictment -- a kind of ecclesiastical sanctioning. Eventually Gijón tried to forcibly take the friars but Landa helped them escape with a letter speaking of Gijón's actions towards the Franciscans.

Diego de Landa died in 1579, in the Yucatán Peninsula. He was about 55 years old.


  1. Words do not exist (likely because he burned them) to describe the irreparable damage this guy wreaked upon pre-columbian history. This guy's very existence is a grotesque error in the judgement of evolution.