Lempira (Lenca ruler)

Lempira (d. 1537) was a war captain of the Lencas of western Honduras in Central America during the 1530s, when he led resistance to Francisco de Montejo's attempts to conquer and incorporate the region into the province of Honduras.

There are two very different historical accounts of Lempira. The first, by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (appearing in "Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos....", published in 1626 in Sevilla, Spain) identifies Lempira as a war captain appointed by Entipica, leader of the Cares, a named subgroup of the Lenca. Herrera reports that Lempira, whose name means something like "Lord of the Mountains" in Lenca, commanded over 30,000 soldiers from over 200 different Lenca towns. In 1537, there are widespread indigenous uprisings in Honduras, and the Cares were one group that revolted against Spanish rule. The Spanish, on instruction from their Governor, Francisco de Montejo, attacked him at Cerquin, near Gracias a Dios. Lempira, according to Herrera, retreated to a fortified hill top where he resisted the Spanish for many months. Finally, the Spanish lured him out to talk, and a concealed Spanish soldier with an arquebus shot and killed him. On seeing this, Herrera reports, the Lenca surrendered. This is essentially the story as taught to Honduran children in school.

In the 1980s, the Honduran historian Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo discovered a very different account of Lempira in a document entitled "Meritos y Servicios: Rodrigo Ruiz, Nueva España" written in 1558 in Mexico City, and located in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain. That document, Patronato 69 R.5, tells the story of Rodrigo Ruiz and his service in the conquest of Honduras under Francisco Montejo. It includes his account of killing Lempira. The document is in the form of a series of questions, answered by witnesses to the services Rodrigo Ruiz gave to the Spanish King. Its purpose is to get a pension. Ruiz wrote the questions, some of which are translated, in part here.

:"Question 3: Having arrived at the town of Siguatepeque, the Governor and Captain Francisco de Montejo, who conquered these provinces for your Majesty, sent me, Rodrigo Ruiz, and other Spaniards to the fortified place called Cerquin to call the people there to peace with us. We arrived calling them to peace, and asking them to come out and give obedience to your Majesty. Over 2000 armed men came at us and killed Francisco de Mesa and Garparin, and we left, beat up and wounded. Have them (the witnesses) tell what they know about this and what they saw." [Folio 11, back, translation]

:"Question 5: Ask them what they know, etc. .....that we covered that land many times, cutting off their water and making war because they would not come out and make peace and give obedience to Your Majesty. And us Spaniards, were wanting, especially for food, because they had taken it all with them into their strongholds...and an indian captain of said forces, called El Empira, got them all worked up and said there would be no peace until we were dead. There were four of us Spaniards, and we had no shoes, arms, or anywhere to go, so in the middle of the night I got the idea to withdraw back to Siguatepeque, where we had left from, to join up with the other Spaniards there. Ask them if its true that the said captain, El Empira, came out of his stronghold with many warriors and burned and looted the Spanish town (Gracias?) and dug up the bodies of Francisco de Mesa and Gasparin, whom he had earlier killed, and hung their bodies in the pine trees...

:"Question 7: Ask them if they know what I Rodrigo Ruiz de and if they knew that I was sent by the General, and that we, the Spanish, were in great danger because it was well known that the native peoples were leaving their towns do fight with us, coming from all over, and we had to retreat from our towns to Siguatepeque....Many of us were wounded, and others so sick that they could not fight, and it was a great disservice to our God and your Majesty that that captain, called El Empira" dishonred the Spanish people. And he sent them against us in an uprising, and I, Rodrigo Ruiz, giving service to Your Majesty, and at great personal risk, undertook to infiltrate their forces with my sword and shield, and went to the place where the captain called El Empira was animating his troops by telling them they would kill us. He was dressed in the clothes and carrying the weapons of the Spaniards he had dug up. I fought with him and killed him, cutting off his head and managed to get out of there and return to the General with the head in my hand, although I was sorely wounded. Ask them to swear to what happened, and if this is the truth."

:"Question 8: ....after I cut off his head, they retreated and within 4 days we controlled all of their towns, and they gave obiedience to your Majesty as they were obligated to do....and later we founded the town of Gracias a Dios. Ask them to say what they know and if its true that I served in said war, all the time it lasted, serving with myself, my weapons, my horse, at my cost, and was not rewarded for it."

Rodrigo Ruiz goes on to detail other service to the Spanish Crown, but questions 3 through 8 are about El Empira. The many witnesses in this 100 page document agree that Rodrigo Ruiz fairly outlined his service and told the truth. Ruiz asked for a pension of 1000 pesos for his service.

Interestingly, the modern Honduran Lenca preserved in their oral tradition elements that match the Ruiz story, Lempira's belief that wearing Spanish clothing made him impervious to Spanish bullets, and that Lempira died in combat, not through ambush.



External links

* [http://honduras.com/history/lempira.html Lempira] , extract from the book "Honduras" by Oscar Acosta, reproduced on Honduras.com website
* [http://aer.mcu.es/sgae Archivos Españoles en Red] , Digital Portal to Archives in Spain, including the Archivo General de Indias.

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