Geronimo de Aguilar

Saving Stranded Priest

In the long list of instructions that Hernán Cortés had been given by Velázquez, the governor of Fernandina (Cuba) under whose orders he had sailed to Yucatan, was a mandate to find several Christians believed to be stranded on the coast.

That document is descriptive of the times and is worthy of study. It instructed Cortés to treat the locals with “much kindness”, find out more information about Amazons and dog-faced people living in the forests and, above all, to serve God.

Six lost Christians were mentioned several times, indicating just how important it was to find them.

There was no trace of them on Cozumel, however, although the local Mayas did say that two Spaniards were living in the nearby mainland town of Chaktemal.

After an argument with the local chiefs who didn’t want to send their own men to Chaktemal for fear of their death, Cortés ended up dispatching three ships with more than fifty Spaniards and some natives of Cozumel to fetch the lost men.

A week passed with no news, then, following a few more days, the small expedition returned empty-handed.

Restless after a long stint of inaction, Cortés ordered his fleet to depart again. They sailed to Isla de Mujeres, and there encountered a lucky series of delays that helped one of the stranded Christians to reunite with the people of his faith.

First, one of the main ships sprung a leak, obliging Cortés to return to the friendly Cozumel where the damaged ship took a few days to get repaired.

Then, when all seemed ready to sail again, the wind changed, bringing about another day of delay.

Cortés then decided to attend mass before sailing off, since March 13 was a Sunday and his most important directive was to serve God.

A canoe arrived from the mainland right after the mass, and one of the three men who surfaced addressed the Spaniards in their native tongue, thanking God for his miraculous rescue.

The man was Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan friar shipwrecked at the Yucatan coast some eight years earlier.

Aguilar claimed that another surviving Spaniard, Gonzalo Guerrero, had decided to remain among the Maya, for he was ashamed of his tattoos and wanted to stay with his Maya wife and three children.

Whether Guerrero ever existed is unclear, although other Conquistadors later claimed to have corresponded with him and reportedly saw his body after he got killed in a skirmish with a Spanish force. There could’ve been more than one Spaniard who had decided to go native; alternatively, Aguilar may have invented a man with a conveniently common name to highlight his own return.

Having spent that many years among the Mayas, Aguilar spoke their language. Although he had lost complete fluency in Spanish, he became a perfect interpreter for Cortés.

And as for Cortés, he had been rewarded for his two weeks of waiting. He had fulfilled another part of his mission.