Juan Matalbatz a.k.a. Aj Pop’o Batz

written by Bob Makransky

The only instance, in the entire Spanish conquest of the Americas, when the local chieftain was permitted to retain the power of government.

By the year 1543, after several unsuccessful military expeditions against the warlike Q’eqchi’ Indians, the Spanish conquerors were desperate. At the same time, it had become evident to the chieftain of chieftains of the Q’eqchi’s—Aj Pop’o Batz—the ruler of Tuzulutlan (the Land of War), that the Spanish invaders could not be forever held off by force of arms.

Although he commanded one of the fiercest tribes of the Maya race, Aj Pop’o Batz was as wise as he was courageous. He decided to try to find some political modus vivendi to the crisis presented by the Spanish conquest. As a first step, he gave one of his daughters in marriage to the chief of Zacapulas, who had already been converted to Christianity, and he thereby opened a channel of communication to the Dominican priests under the direction of Father Bartolomé de las Casas.

At about the same time, Father Bartolomé, a defender of the Indians against the excesses of the conquest, had obtained a commission from the crown of Spain to send missionary priests to Tuzulutlan to try to bring the Indians peaceably to the cross and crown. Las Casas sent three Dominican priests, Juan de Torres, Luis Cancer and Pedro de Angulo, to the land of war. And these three, bearing gifts and a band of musicians from Mexico, journeyed to Tuzulutlan, establishing missions and baptizing converts as they went.

By the time they arrived at the capital of Tuzulutlan (now San Juan Chamelco) in May 1543, they were already able to speak Q’eqchi’, and they were cordially welcomed by Aj Pop’o Batz and his lords. Aj Pop’o Batz quickly accepted conversion to Christianity, and had himself baptized with the name Juan Matalbatz on June 24 (the day of St. John the Baptist). He also directed all the members of his tribe to be baptized as well.

This conversion of their chieftain caused great consternation among the Q’eqchi’ people, who lamented the loss of their own god Tzul-tak’a (mountain valley).
As a consequence, there were in the beginning (and down through the years) attempted revolts by disaffected Q’eqchi’s against Juan Matalbatz, which he put down by whatever means necessary. He protected the Dominican missionaries with his life and forged a firm alliance with them.

In February 1545 Juan Matalbatz and several of his lords journeyed to Spain under Dominican auspices and were received at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles V. They presented the king with gifts, including 2,000 quetzal feathers and live, singing birds in cages. The king was delighted, and observing the Indians’ meager garments in the cold climate of Madrid he praised them as “men of steel.” He in turn presented them with religious images for their churches, silver crosses and censers, and the bronze bell which still hangs in the church of San Juan Chamelco.

Just as Juan Matalbatz found it necessary to keep his followers in line, so too did Bartolomé de Las Casas have to vigilantly guard against incursions by other Spanish colonists, who generally treated the Indians brutally. He maneuvered adroitly in both Guatemala and the Spanish court to make Tuzulutlan a Dominican fiefdom, answerable only to the crown.

These efforts were successful, and in September 1554 the Dominicans installed Juan Matalbatz as the first provincial governor. This is the only instance, in the entire Spanish conquest of the Americas, when the local chieftain was permitted to retain the power of government. As governor, Juan Matalbatz was even granted the right to arrest and punish Spanish transgressors of the law, which was considered a great affront by the conquistador mentality of the time.

The great alliance of the Spanish and Q’eqchi’s was celebrated in 1548 by the change in name of the province from Tuzulutlan (land of war) to Verapaz (true peace). Although there was always friction between the two races—even rebellions at times through the years—the Verapaz basically escaped the violent upheavals that characterized the conquest elsewhere.

Communal Indian ownership of the land was respected, and the Q’eqchi’s preserved their own language and culture to a remarkable degree. To this day it is assumed in the Verapaz that a Ladino will speak Q’eqchi’, not that an Indian will speak Spanish.

The Dominican rule endured until the mid-18th century, and thereafter the sheer physical isolation of the Verapaz from the rest of Guatemala shielded it from the revolutions of the 19th century. It was not until the 1880s, under President Justo Rufino Barrios, that the land of the Verapaz was finally expropriated from its Indian owners, thus ending the accord originally forged by Juan Matalbatz and Bartolomé de las Casas.

Nevertheless, the synchronism of these two powerful men of peace made what is now Alta Verapaz an island of relative tranquility in the turbulent sea of the conquest during the three centuries that followed them.

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