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Beltran de Guzman, an unrelenting application of evil: a cruel tangle of anti-church, anti-Cortez, anti-Indian

A Spanish settler’s repeated attempts to find a satisfactory physical location was only part of its marred, repetitive attempts to drive down permanent roots.

Once these were frustratingly settled, there came the matter of Spanish brutality. 

This was an undisguised, almost unbelievably cruel tangle administered by its anti-church, anti-Cortez, anti-Indio “founder,” Nuño Beltran de Guzman. He readily spurred an unrelenting spill-over of hate among most fellow Spaniards, and unabated loathing among native Mexicans — the entire indigenous population of Mexico.

He had come to New Spain after the Conquest, appointed by Spain’s European rulers to be the Governor of Panuco, in North-Eastern Mexico. In 1528, Guzman became president of the first Royal Audiencia — the powerful High Court of New Spain. The Audiencia was created to investigate charges leveled against people such as Hernando Cortez, possibly replacing and stripping them of any military power, which Cortez had exercised even before the fall of the Aztec Empire.  

Guzman had assumed Cortez would be stripped of any of the Royal approval he often enjoyed.  New World conquests by Cortez – infuriating Guzman – stirred Mexico with Royal praise, and an “unbelievable” new title: “Marquese del Valle de Oaxaca,” a weighty estate. This was in addition to Cortez’s retention of his military authority – demonstrating Royal backing, even with divided power, limiting several of displeased Cortez-planned enterprises.

Guzman’s Audiencia also had banned direct – and revealing – communications with authorities in Spain.  This was so effective that the Biscay bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, was completely unable to communicate with fellow clergymen in Spain, as well as sympathetic government authorities there. His mail seemed to never get to where it was sent. Zumárraga discussed this problem with a fellow Biscay mail-sender. The two outlined ambitious remedies.  With the aid of a wily Biscay sailor, Zumárrga wrote a candid, tightly folded letter that was deftly wax-sealed, then placed in a cask. It was successfully addressed to fellow Spanish Catholic authorities by the same knowing Biscay sailor.    

As Cortez returned to New Spain in 1530, Guzman was removed from the office of president of the Audiencia and appointed governor of Nueva Galicia. He subsequently continued his politics of violent submission of the Indians of the Gran Chichimeca, and came into conflict with church authorities such as Zumárraga, the first Bishop of Mexico, appointed as “Protector of the Indians,” and Vasco de Quiroga, the Bishop of Michoacán.  

By early 1529, Guzman began gathering a “military force” of some 400 discontented conquistadores and close to 8,000 indigenous Nahua allies. 

He set out on December 21,1529, to the west of Mexico City to conquer lands and peoples.  Among the officers of this expedition was Pedro Almindez Chirino.  This “campaign” began with the torture and execution of the Purépecha cazonci Tangaxuan II, a powerful indigenous ally of the Spanish crown. Yet Guzman proceeded to launch a fierce campaign into Chichimec lands in the province that was to become known as “Nueva Caliciam” reaching as far as Culiacan. Part of the purpose of the expedition was to find the fabled Cibola – the Seven Cities of Gold. 

This expedition has been called a “genocidal enterprise.” Typically, the conquistadors attacked an Indian village, stole the maize and other food, razed and burned the dwellings, and tortured the native leaders to gather information on what riches could be stolen there, or from nearby populations. In great part, these riches did not exist. 

For instance, the Spanish were received peaceably in Tzintzuntzan by Tangáxuan II, the cazonci of the Tarascan state, which coincides with the modern state of Michoacán. Tangáxuan gave Guzman presents of gold and silver and supplied him with soldiers and provisions. Nonetheless, Guzman had him captured and tortured to get him to reveal the location of hidden stores of gold. Evidently there was no more gold, for Tangáxuan did not reveal it under torture. Guzman had him dragged by a horse, then burned alive February 14, 1530.

Moving north, Guzman continued the violent suppression of the peoples of today’s states of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Nayarit and Sinaloa. In the latter state, he founded the city of San Miguel de Culiacán, September 29, 1531. He returned to Tepic, where he set up headquarters, sending out new expeditions from there. One of these founded the cities of Santiago de Galicia de Compostela and Purificación. Another traveled as far as the current Mexican state of Sonora. His violent expeditions into Chichimec lands were a main cause of the Mixtón rebellion. 

In 1531, Zumárraga published a treaty nailing down Guzmán’s 1529 campaign as unjust. Guzmán, who had by then made a slew of enemies, fell out of favor with the authorities and the Second Audiencia.  In 1533, he was removed from the Governorship of Pánuco and, in 1534, that of Nueva Galicia. Much hateful, harsh applause could be heard widely.

Guzman was arrested in 1536, and held a prisoner for more than a year. Then he was sent to Spain in fetters. He was released from the Castle of Torrejón prison in 1538. In 1539 he returned to his position as a royal bodyguard. Court records show him on the payroll every year from 1539 to 1561 (in 1561 as “deceased”).

One 19th-century chronicler of the Conquest referred to Beltrán de Guzman as “the detestable governor of Pánuco and perhaps the most depraved man ever to set foot in New Spain.” Fray Bartolomé de las Casas called him a “great tyrant”.

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