“By Our Will” Chapter 2: Civilizing the Conquistadors

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The Mesoamericans that Gil González de Avila’s conquistadors encountered in these coastal areas were more developed and advanced than those encountered on the Spanish Main at Limón and, indeed, perhaps more “civilized” than the Spanish marauders themselves. In the hills and littoral areas to the west, the people were historically affiliated with great Aztec and Mayan cultural traditions and, according to one distinguished scholar, were more peaceful and susceptible to conquest even as others have written that the reverse is true.

First of all, we must understand why we must use the term, “Mesoamerican” and not “Indian” to describe the native people of Guanacaste. The term  was coined by Paul Kirchoff in 1943 but has been interpreted to mean a wide range of ethnic cultures, geographies and historic periods. Amazingly, Columbus’ erroneous label, “Indians,” for the native people of the Americas has stuck, even as he was fully 9,000 miles off the mark.

Guanacaste’s historic record begins with pre-Columbian migration from central Mexico to the Nicoya Peninsula thousands of years ago when the Mayan Empire invaded and expelled what was considered less significant civilizations south into today’s Pacific Nicaragua and Costa Rican coastal areas.

The problem is that the archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have different theories in conflict with one another about what happened to the native people of Guanacaste in the decades, if not centuries, after Spain’s conquest.

As Olga Linares of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama has written, “The archaeology of Lower Central America is just beginning to emerge from decades of scientific neglect and antiquated research.” (3)

The estimates for the area that became all of Costa Rica was that between 120,000 and 400,000 native people lived in the region at the time of the Spanish invasion. (4).

Route used by the Spanish during the XVI century.

Scholars estimate that in the centuries following the first conquests, the population dropped 80 to 90 percent in many parts, disappearing altogether in parts of Guanacaste, reduced to an estimated 1,000 natives by 1800. (5)

 While the Spanish Inquisition of the 1500s was at full bore in South America, the same brutality existed in Central America; one in the name of Catholicism, the other for gold. Mass murder and enslavement was followed by the scourge of smallpox, malaria and yellow fever, providing meager defenses for the few primitive villages along the Nicoya Peninsula’s coast.

While British, French and other Spanish colonists in North America performed their own versions of ethnic cleansing, all these conquests were brutal, yet Europe sent settlers to develop  North America while simply trying to extract treasure from the South.

Perhaps, now, 500 years later, we grapple with the same issues, but simply at a different register. We can think of any number of spoilers from the 16th through the 20th centuries, where the shoes of the barbarians were on the other foot, mostly in the name of notions like  white supremacy or the global force of religious zealots who compromised civilized behavior with these rationalizations, becoming the polar opposite of the Enlightenment of the West.

One strain of Nicoya’s confusing and complex history of Spanish misrule is that when Gil Gonzales de Avila landed in Costa Rica in February 1522, his bursar recorded 6,063 people living in Nicoya village and the surrounding landscape. Gonzales baptized all of them into the Catholic faith before killing their cacique, Nicoa (the chief), and enslaving for export a steady stream of defenseless locals.

While most of these thousands of indigenous people died in periodic pandemics or were carried off in chains, the few hundred who were left went about their business as always . Two hundred years later the town had no more than 320 indigenous residents. (6).


Read more of the series “By our will”:

Chapter 1: The Arrival of Gil, The Conquistador, in Guanacaste 

Chapter 2: Civilizing the Conquistadors

Chapter 3: Purple Treasure

Chapter 4: Path Between the Seas

Chapter 5: Land of Opportunity

Chapter 6: Nicaragua y Costa Rica

Chapter 7: Celebrating Guanacaste

Chapter 8: The Costa Rican Railroad

Chapter 9: Hamburger Heaven


1)  Sanders, W. T., (1968 ) Mesoamerica: The Evolution of a Civilization, Random House, New York.

2) Kirchhoff, P. Mesoamerica, sus límites geográficos, composición étnica y caracteres culturales, Acta Americana 1 (1943), pp. 92-107.

3) Linares, O. F., What is Lower Central American Archaeology? Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 8 (1979), pp. 21-43.

4) Lovell, W. G. and C. H. Lutz, The historical demography of colonial Central America, Yearbook. Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, Vol. 17/18, (1991), pp. 127-138.

5) Ibid, Lovell and Lutz, pp. 129–131.

6) 1760 Complementario Colonial, Expediente 315, Archivo Nacional De Costa Rica, variously cited in translation.

Rosenbaum has been a researcher and consultant on isustainable tourism and community development for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the World Bank in several countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. In addition, he has published more than half a dozen books on cultural issues as a senior researcher at George Washington University. Due to his own personal interests – he lived in Nosara and visits Guanacaste often-, Alvin decided to delve into the history of Guanacaste to understand this environment in the best way possible: by incorporating variables from the past into the analysis done going forward, to understand the present and the future of this land that welcomed him with open arms. Alvin spent many hours and several months systematizing all of the information from books and interviews, and talking with Guanacastecans who are well-versed in local history to finally produce a series of installments titled “Por Nuestra Voluntad” (By Our Will).

The chapters of the series By Our Will are the author’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of this newspaper. If you wish to write an opinion article, contact us at [email protected]