Hernán Cortés arrived on the island of Cozumel on February 21, 1519. The island was then called Kúutzmil (Island of the Swallows) by the Yucatec Maya.
He needed that island because it had the closest known harbor to Fernandina, or Cuba, which was on the way to Yucatán. Earlier Spanish expeditions had talked of some Christians stranded on the island, so saving those Christians was one of the orders Cortés had received from the Cuban governor Diego Velázquez.
A storm scattered the expedition almost immediately after it left Cuba. When Cortés arrived to Cozumel, five out of ten ships were already there. One of his most influential business partners, the red-haired Pedro de Alvarado, had been loose on the island for at least a full day.
Alvarado, used to treating the “primitives” as slaves during his boisterous career in the Caribbean, had already managed to ransack the main village (situated where San Miguel de Cozumel now stands). He had seized food from the farms, some gold from the temples, and even a few villagers. The people of Cozumel, unable to repel the sudden invasion of hundreds of armed Europeans, had fled into the forest.
Upon his landing, Cortés brushed aside the disdainful habits of the Spanish explorers and didn’t join in the looting. Instead, he scolded Alvarado, imprisoned his pilot, and demanded that all the detained people and stolen property be returned.
While waiting for the remaining ships, Cortés explored the island. For the first time, he saw its stone buildings, so superior to everything he had seen in the Caribbean, its sophisticated food, and, to his utter astonishment, its pictorial books.
The Spaniards found a noble woman who had stayed behind in the village. Cortés placated her with gifts, and she agreed to invite the others to return from their hiding.
And so began in earnest the conquest of Mexico, with Cortés attempting to make friends with its inhabitants.
At that time, around 10,000 people lived on the island. About a year later, an expedition of Spaniards led by the unfortunate Narvaez ravaged the island. They brought with them a killer strand of small pox, and when the dust had settled a mere generation later, there were only 300 people left of the original inhabitants of Cozumel.