Cultural History of Cozumel

The name Cozumel derives from the Yucatec Mayan cuzamil, or “land of the swallows.”

The long-term result of this project will be a cultural history of Cozumel in the form of a monograph that synthesizes contributions from multiple disciplines with new archival research in Mexico. The effort is a reconstruction of Cozumel’s experience, following where the evidence, an idea, or some characters, rather than the methodology, leads: a conversation, if you will, with the sources.

Human occupation of Cozumel began in the Preclassic as the island offered hunting and fishing to semi-nomadic peoples. Population growth continued at a slow, steady level through the Classic period, but the rise of Chichen Itza during the Post-Classic strengthened Cozumel’s position within a centuries-old trade network. The settlement of offshore islands underscores Maya maritime activity, and the Maya plied sea and inland waterways, supplying cities with marine resources and other commodities. By 1200 CE San Gervasio, a great city center, and dozens of minor dependent communities, filled the island. Cozumel was also an important pilgrimage site, and the thousands of Maya living in hundreds of habitations may have provided the infrastructure to receive visitors to its shrines, the most important pilgrimage site being the shrine of the goddess Ixchel (Lady Rainbow, pictured left in the Dresden Codex), patroness of childbirth, pregnancy, and fertility. Father Diego de Landa, whose ethnography Yucatan Before and After Conquest, remains nearly 500 years later an invaluable resource, wrote that the Yucatan Maya held Cozumel “in the same veneration as we have for pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome, and so they used to go to visit these places and offer presents there…as we do to holy places.” No sculptures of Ix Chel survive and few myths are remembered today.

In the spring of 1518, Juan de Grijalva, captain general of a small expedition out of Cuba, landed on Cozumel and celebrated the first Catholic mass in Mexico. In 1519 Hernán Cortés landed there and put into motion the events leading to the conquest of Mexico. Cortés wrote of “fine buildings of stone for the idols, and a fine town,” and gained the cooperation of chief Naum Pat. Cortés persuaded his men to treat the island’s inhabitants with unaccustomed gentleness, thus establishing a prudent convention. Cozumel had a long history of accommodating outsiders who came in peace and its inhabitants saw themselves outside the Maya political arena, and enjoyed a tranquil cosmopolitanism. Disease and warfare ravaged the island’s population; the island became unimportant to the Spanish imperial project, and until the twentieth century, remained almost completely abandoned. As early as the beginning of the seventeenth century, not even the parish priest was required to live on the island!

Three centuries later new players considered the island’s attractive position and offerings. In 1842, charges-d’affaires Alphonse Duboise de Saligny of the French Legation to the Republic of Texas, reported a conversation with president of the Republic, Sam Houston. Houston had offered to take Cozumel by force from Mexico, and then sell it to France. Like many of Big Sam’s ideas, at first glance, this scheme does not seem to make sense, however, a deeper investigation may help us understand Houston’s overture to the French. For example, Saligny also reported of one Col. Martín Francisco Peraza y Cárdenas, a Mexican military officer in Yucatan who might have been persuaded to assist in the Texian conquest of the entire peninsula. Years later, in a survey of the island, Peraza, now Commander General of Yucatan wrote that cotton grew “marvelously” in Cozumel; that it was “soft and lustrous,” and rivaled American Upland Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) in its quality, and that other commodities (sugar, corn, indigo, and tobacco) all were cultivated in the island’s virgin and uninhabited lowlands and wetlands. Houston, Savigny, and Peraza comprise a constellation of historical figures suspended over the island’s future, perhaps harboring the dream of imposing a plantation economy on the island, or at least of securing an imperial port of entry to the Mexican mainland. It should be remembered that before the Conquest, the finest cotton clothing traded within the Aztec Empire originated in Yucatan and prized by the indigenous nobility.

With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and subsequent closing of that principal and preferred destination to North American tourists, Mexican empresarios began to organize a tourist infrastructure: hotels, restaurants, an airport, and cruise terminal sprang quickly to receive modern-day pilgrims. Today, the port of Cozumel is Mexico’s largest tourist port. On one day in 2010, Cozumel received sixteen cruise ships and 40,000 passengers. In 2010 more than 2,600 cruise ships carrying more than 6.7 million passengers called on its port, contributing $545 million to Mexican economy. Unlike other Maya zones, the inhabitants of Cozumel “warmly welcomed” the Spanish, perhaps given their mercantile pragmatism. Today, tourists scurry to visit ruins and to shop at a simulacrum of a Maya market (mall). Unfortunately, this “pragmatic approach,” the mercantile adaptability, openness, and opportunism that characterized Late post-Classic Maya seaports, may have carried the seeds of its own destruction.

On Cozumel, “tourism” is a primordial economic activity, directly related to natural and cultural resources. Today, however, instead of the pragmatic mercantilism that characterized Maya trade, there exists the antagonism of the capitalist mode of production that concentrates wealth and property in the hands of a few, pressures the environment, and marginalizes the descendants of the island’s first inhabitants.


Ixchel Shrine

Ixchel Shrine

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Cite this Page:

Charles V. Heath, “Cultural History of Cozumel,” HistoricalMX, accessed May 27, 2018,

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