Diego de Landa is a person who changed the course of Mayan history forever, and as most of these stories, go the outcome was not a positive one. Diego de Landa was a Spanish priest who was given the task of converting the Mayan people to Catholicism, and in the process almost singlehandedly destroyed the Mayan language.
How did one person wipe away a whole ancient civilization’s language, making deciphering the carved symbols on discovered artifacts so difficult? De Landa accomplished this through burning books and religious idols that would have helped to give insight to the language and other aspects of Mayan life. This was not to say that he was an evil person, he was just very passionate about converting other people to Catholicism and so anything disputing his religion needed to change. While he felt sympathy for the Mayans who were facing disease and societal collapse, the matter of religion took precedent as he believed that by converting the people they could be saved. De Landa was fervently against the practice of human sacrifice, something that the late Mayans performed as a form of appeasement to the gods. He felt he needed to rid Mayan society of this barbaric practice and so attempted to destroy all text, art, statue or physical manifestation of the idea of sacrifice altogether. In doing so, he burned many books in an effort to rid Mayan society of their “evils”, including the idea of sacrifice and their other pagan rituals. Performing somewhat of his own inquisition in the Yucatan, he rid the Mayans of their texts and stripped them of their beliefs and practices, something that did not bode well with the people.
After what he believed to be a successful conversion, it did not take de Landa very long to discover that the people were not pleased with him and that things were not going as smoothly as he originally believed. Upon discovering that some members of society were still worshipping old gods, retaining their original beliefs, and still performing religious ceremonies, de Landa devised a brutal plan. He decided to jail and torture many people, in some cases murdering them if he found them suspicious or guilty of going against the Catholic church. In doing so, he angered the church, who declared his actions to be too harsh and unwarranted. His actions were investigated but were cleared by the church, and he then went on to be appointed to bishop of Yucatan.
After realizing the error of his ways, de Landa decided to write a book on Mayan history, called Relación de las cosas de Yucatán in 1566. After destroying much of the Mayan language and culture, de Landa’s choice of chronicling the civilization is odd. It can be noted that de Landa actually felt remorse later for the way he treated the Mayan people while he was investigating their outlawed religious practices, and felt this was a way to correct his errors. The book was important in helping to decode the hieroglyphics that were written all over Mayan sites and in the discovered texts and artwork, because it provided the full Mayan alphabet as well as ways to sound out the words phonetically. However this deciphering did not happen until the late 1800s to early 1900s because the book was not published until then. With the addition of de Landa’s information, roughly 1/3 of all Mayan hieroglyphs were able to be decoded, a number that is much higher today.
While de Landa was a detrimental person to the fate of the Mayans, he did contribute sufficiently to the understanding of the language and culture with the detailed descriptions in his book. With that being said, there really is nothing to admire about the man. The fact that he treated the Mayans so poorly, tried to get them to abandon their own beliefs and practices with the use of violence and fear, along with the fact that he attempted to destroy one of the most major pieces of their civilization demonstrates his true character. While he tried to make up for it in the end, his whole plan was extremely counterintuitive. De Landa could have saved himself a whole lot of time, effort, and work if he would have left the Mayans in peace in the first place.