While thinking about a topic for this article, it came to mind the case of Jacinto Canek and the horrible torment and execution to which he was subjected. Much has been written about Canek since that distant 1761. Many historians, ether Yucatecans, nationals, and foreigners during all these years, have dedicated numerous pages to this singular leader.
The sources are somewhat confused as to the narration of the events since some authors point out that it was a drunken brawl that got out of control and others that it was a real conspiracy, planned in advance and that the facts and circumstances determined a fatal outcome for the conspirators.
Be that as it may, the Jacinto Canek rebellion was a watershed for another indigenous Mayan rebellion, which became known as the “War of the Castes,” and which took place almost 86 years later and almost destroyed the Yucatan Peninsula. Even today, the image of Jacinto Canek is deeply rooted in the collective memory of the Yucatecan people as a symbol of vindication and resistance of the Mayan people against Spanish oppression.
His real name was Jacinto Uc de Los Santos, and he was born around the year 1730 in the neighborhood of San Román in the city of San Francisco de Campeche when he was still part of the Captaincy General of Yucatan. When he was very young, a Franciscan friar took him under his protection and care. He took him to the Great Convent of San Francisco, where he entered the service and protection of the friars of that mendicant order, receiving an education that those of his race and condition rarely received; it seems that he had knowledge of Latin and basic logic and had access to the volumes of the history of Yucatan from the treasured library the convent had.
However, he was of a rebellious nature and fond of “aguardiente” (rum), which got him expelled from the convent. On the streets, he dedicated himself to the bakery trade, establishing himself in the Santiago neighborhood of the city of Merida. He had close contacts with the servants of the wealthy houses of the city, taking knowledge of the abuses to which his Mayan brothers were submitted under the Spanish colonial domination; It is for this reason that a rebellion began to forge, which had as its scheduled date for the uprising December 25, 1761, however, the events that I will narrate next, anticipated the events.
In November 1761, Jacinto Canek went with his subordinates to the village of Cisteil (pronounced Kisteil) as they were celebrating the feast of the patron saint of that town. On the 20th, as is customary during these festivities, liquor flowed in abundance, so Canek, his followers, and other Mayan Indians who joined them were soon drunk. At one point, they demanded more liquor from a Spanish merchant named Diego Pacheco, who refused them in a wrong way, to the extent that it led to a brawl that resulted in the murder of the merchant by an angry mob. The Mayas tried to attack another Spaniard who was in the village, a priest named Miguel Ruela. He was officiating mass in the village church, which is why the rebels did not dare to break in and waited for the celebration to end. Ruela was warned, so he mounted his horse and fled at full gallop to the town of Sotuta, where, alarmed, he gave notice to the military chief of the place, Captain Tiburcio Cosgaya, who was known for his harsh treatment of the Mayans. Cosgaya sent a messenger to give notice to Merida, sent 100 men to prepare to go to Cisteil, and without waiting for them, he left on horseback and at the head of 10 dragons, some sources mention that there were 14 and 20 others, to face the rebels.
Jacinto Uc de Los Santos had already adopted the nickname of Canek (translated as Black Serpent or Star Serpent). The name came from the Halach Uinic of Petén Itzá in Guatemala. The last stronghold to resist the Spanish, who conquered it on March 13, 1697.
He harangued the people of Cisteil, inciting them to shake off the Spanish yoke, in turn assuring them of victory, since he claimed supernatural powers. It is said that, in the paroxysm incited by his words and alcohol, the indigenous people of the town took the mantle and crown of the Virgin from the temple and crowned him King of the Yucatan Maya. He then dispatched messengers to the neighboring towns, inviting the Mayans to join his uprising and began making preparations to defend the town, since they knew that Father Reulas would come to sound the alarm.
The reckless and confident Cosgaya arrived at nightfall with his riders to Cisteil, thinking that with his mere presence he would pacify the rebels, some sources indicate that he and his men were drunk when they arrived at the main square of the town, he was attacked by the rebels, and the Captain and his men were massacred, only one managed to escape and warn about the defeat. The news spread like wildfire through the neighboring towns. They immediately panicked, even in the city of Merida, where they saw indigenous enemies everywhere, and the false alarms and frights were a daily occurrence.
The news reached Merida and, of course, the governor, who at the time was Governor and Captain-General of the Province of Yucatan, the military veteran Jose Crespo y Honorato, who ordered Captain Cristobal de Calderon to leave with numerous troops. Again the sources vary between 500 to 2000 well-armed men to confront Canek and his people, as well as two field guns. Calderon took his time to attack the rebels. It took him almost a week to gather his troops and make preparations. The attack in Cisteil happened on November 26. It was a bloody battle, the Mayan rebels fought hard, with no sign of surrender, and the Spaniards, for their part, attacked fiercely, giving the defenders no respite. Around 600 Mayans were killed, and only 40 Spaniards wounded. Jacinto Canek and his men set fire to the church, and the royal house of the town filled with those who took refuge in these buildings, and they perished in flames.
Jacinto Canek fled and retreat to the Huntulchac hacienda, where he faced the government troops on November 27, but was again defeated and again fled with the people he had left. That same day he was learned in the savannah of Sibac along with his closest friends.
On November 30, the trials of the prisoners began in the city of Mérida; the person in charge of conducting the summary trial, obviously plagued by procedural errors and omissions, was Sebastián de Maldonado, who held the title of Lawyer of the Royal Councils, Honorary Hearer of the Audience of Santo Domingo and Lieutenant General and Auditor of War of the Captaincy General of Yucatán, and who was equally known for his animosity towards the indigenous race.
On December 11 the sentences began to be dictated, to Jacinto Canek they sentenced him to the death penalty by attachment, his body dismembered and burned and its ashes scattered to the wind and the day to carry out the execution of fixed for Monday, December 14, 1761, to 8 in the morning.
About the execution of Jacinto Canek, little is mentioned in the sources I have consulted, only the sentence and form of execution; however, Roldan Peniche Barrera, in his book “The Uprising of the Witch Jacinto Canek and other violent stories,” narrates the events of that fateful day.
Writer Peniche Barrera tells that on that day, in the main square of the city of Merida, a scaffold was erected to carry out Canek’s cruel execution. The square looked crowded with people; Spaniards, Indians, Creoles, mestizos, and blacks; men and women of all ages alike; Food and liquor stands were set up; near the scaffold, a box was set up for the authorities, including Governor Crespo and Honorato, Licenciado Maldonado and Captain Calderón, with their respective wives. On the scaffold, eight very tall executioners prepared the pincers, iron bars, and other instruments to carry out the horrible sentence, while they passed from hand to hand a bottle of aguardiente to which they gave long drinks.
At the appointed time, Jacinto Canek leaves the public jail that was 200 meters away from the scaffold led by soldiers; this jail was located between the current palace of government and what is known as the house of the sheriff, specifically, where the Picheta Passage is currently located. Canek is followed by his confessor, a priest named Lorra, and other religious men. Upon arrival at the scaffold, the executioners place Canek on the table where the torture will take place and tie his hands and feet. The priest Lorra suddenly jumps on the scaffold and exclaims a singular speech in favor of the condemned man, however, his efforts were useless and only brought him many antipathies to the point that later on he was suspended from his ministry; at a sign from the governor the religious is expelled from the scaffold and the executioners began with the execution of the torture.
This torture is designed to cause the prisoner a slow and painful agony. The executioners begin to tear off pieces of skin and flesh from Canek’s legs and arms and other parts of his body with the pincers that were red-hot from being exposed to the fire. The sentence was carried out with cruel zeal on the part of the executioners, until one, at one point, and since Canek was not exclaiming the expected screams of pain, he laid a brutal blow with his crowbar on his head that took his life instantly. Despite the above, the sentence continued to be carried out, the executioners continued to tear the flesh off with the pincers and incandescent bars, they broke his bones and teeth, they took out his eyes and finally dismembered him, his remains were put into sisal sacks and taken to the field where the battered body was cremated and his ashes scattered by the wind. In the History Room of the Government Palace, there is a mural painting by the painter Fernando Castro Pacheco that illustrates the cruel execution of Jacinto Canek.
Of Canek’s followers, eight of the main ones were executed by hanging two days later in the same main square, their bodies dismembered and their remains sent back to their places of origin; 200 more were, were sentenced to 200 lashes and their right ear was cut off; the rest were condemned to whipping and forced labor and banishment.
The facts narrated above make us wonder if Jacinto Canek’s crimes were sufficient to merit such a cruel and brutal form of execution. In Yucatan history, there was never before or since, a condemned person who suffered such a punishment before I documented for this article, the only case I knew of death by hanging, was precisely that of Canek.
From what I was able to research, it seems that this form of execution was scarce and was intended for people who committed severe crimes. Such was the case of Robert-Francois Damiens, who was executed, just four years earlier, on March 2, 1757, and in a very similar way to Jacinto Canek, for the attempted murder of King Louis XV of France; perhaps it was the case of this unfortunate man that inspired Governor Crespo y Honorato and Licenciado Maldonado.
An inevitable fact is that after consummating the conquest of the Yucatan, the Spaniards lived in the constant anxiety that the dominated Mayans, would rebel and exterminate them, so it is easy to deduce that Canek’s brutal execution was a warning to the other Mayans of the consequences they would face if they rose against their masters. What Crespo and Honorato didn’t count on, is that he turned Canek, not only into a martyr but also into a symbol of a colossal statue, representing the historical struggle of injustices against the Mayan people, a symbol that lasts to this day, 259 years after these events.
by Miguel Fernández-Montilla Cervera
Miguel Fernández-Montilla Cervera is a Yucatan lawyer, specialist in labor law, and an enthusiast of Yucatan’s history. He has hosted the program “El buho de la noche” (The Night Owl) which deals with historical issues and anecdotes of the Yucatan.