It could have happened anywhere in the world, but this time it happened in Central Mexico. Central Mexico was then known as New Spain.
In 1546, just four years before the war began, a band of Indians possessed some rocks laced with silver. And they made a deadly mistake with those rocks. They showed them to a Spaniard. A silver rush quickly ensued, and soon these hapless Indians found themselves overwhelmed by hordes of Spanish settlers, greedy to mine their argent-rich hills.
But then another deadly mistake was made, and this time by the Spaniards. They decided to enslave the Indians and force them to work in their mines.
These were the Chichimeca Indians. They did not enslave easily.
They went to war against the Spanish, and these autochthonous souls held tremendous strategic advantages. They were one with the desert around them, and knew their territory far better than their adversaries. And they were nomadic, dwelling in caves, or in rudimentary shelters they could quickly construct and abandon. This made them difficult to track down. And they lived off the land, hunting and gathering, which made it impossible to cut off their food supply.
But worse than this for the Spanish, were their arrows.
The arrows they flung from their four-foot bows were long, thin, fragile missiles. In fact, these arrows were so lightweight and flimsy, it seemed laughable to the Spanish that they could pose any threat to their conquistadors clad in heavy metal armor. But they soon stopped laughing. These flying slivers were so narrow, they easily pierced through armor chinks, and slipped like cactus needles through Spanish muscle and bone.
And the Chichimecas were perhaps the best archers in the world. One Spaniard recounted a scene where he saw them heave an orange into the sky. As it soared upward, they shot that orange full of arrows. The force of the multiple impacts suspended the fruit in the air for an extended period of time before it finally dropped to the earth in disintegrated bits and pieces.
The Chichimeca conducted many successful raids against their would-be conquerors, and profited more from these sorties than the Spanish profited from their mines.
The Spanish became desperate and embarked on a campaign of “fuego y sangre”, or war of “fire and blood”. They were determined to kill any and all Chichimecas they could find. Problem was these Indians were like ghosts, and seemed to appear from thin air, and then disappear into that same element.
They exacted a heavy toll of blood and treasure on the Spanish settlers, with their raids. They even stole Spanish horses and learned how to ride them in battle, becoming the first Native Americans to utilize horses in war.
They fought like commandos. On one occasion, 50 Chichimeca warriors invaded a Spanish settlement of 2,000 people, and they slaughtered every single settler.
Statue of a dancing Chichimeca warrior.
Why did the Chichimeca fight so viciously? The main reason was slavery. They loved freedom, and hated the idea of being enslaved. So they made the Spanish pay a heavy price for this forced labor the miners relied upon.
The Chichimeca War spilled thousands of gallons of blood from 1550 to 1590. Both sides lost many lives during these four tragic decades, but the Spanish got the worst of it, by far. By 1590, they’d had enough and raised the white flag. This mighty world power conceded defeat to a small population of primitive natives.
The Spanish sued for peace. They abandoned their campaign of war by “fire and blood”, and replaced it with a policy of “peace by purchase”.
They gave food, clothing, and tools to the Chichimeca. They even gave them weapons for self-defense. And they replaced soldiers with priests, who gradually Christianized them, and helped them to assimilate into Spanish society.
Eventually hostilities died down, and the Chichimeca adopted a sedentary, peaceful lifestyle. They lived free amongst the Spanish, and ceased being a threat to them.
The Spanish colonizers learned a lesson from this and adopted a new policy. This new policy was aimed at peacefully assimilating natives, rather than trying to subdue them with violence, or force them aside.
More importantly, the Chichimeca War signaled to Spanish leadership that slavery was perhaps not the most productive or economical approach to business. And it fueled an ongoing dialogue within the Americas, Spain, and all of Europe over the abolition of slavery.
Nonetheless, the chains of slavery dragged on in the Americas. Support for it was on the wane, but even so, for the next three centuries more rebellions would have to be fought and additional blood would have to be shed, to free human beings from this treatment as chattel. Complete manumission in the New World was still a long way off, but the Chichimeca War was what really got the ball rolling in that direction.
Today the classical form of slavery that we know from history is practically extinct. But some argue that slavery still continues to a lesser degree, in various subtle forms. Forms such as poverty wages, socioeconomic repression, and suppression of worker’s rights.
And to the degree that it exists, resistance exists.
The spirit of the Chichimaca is in all of us. Because we all love freedom, and no one wants to be a slave. Thus, movements continue to thrive that pit employees against employers, the poor against the rich, and the powerless against the powerful. This is the way things will always be, to some extent. But with perseverance and determined resistance, it’s nice to know that freedom has a way of finally prevailing.