By Robert M. Burnet
Mezcala Island, a rocky and chayote-covered outcrop near the north shore of Lake Chapala, today bears scant evidence of the long and bloody battle waged there during the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. The little-known battle has considerable historic importance, however, because of the major change it produced in the Spanish attitude toward the treatment of prisoners.
In 1812, the war for independence had been in progress for two years when Encarnación Rosas, a young fisherman from the shores of Lake Chapala, enlisted some 60 men from the area and rose in rebellion against the many Spanish cruelties imposed on the indigenous people there.
Spanish troops moved in to quash the uprising, but Rosas and his men, armed primarily with lances, sticks and rocks, and reinforced with insurgents headed by José Santa Anna, defeated them near the town of Mezcala on the north shore of the lake.
The Spaniards lost sixty men and a great quantity of war materials.
This bloody defeat prompted a new attack against the rebels, this time with 200 men against about an equal number commanded by Rosas and Santa Anna. The two forces met at the town of San Pedro Itxican, east of Mezcala, The rebels retreated in the face of the better-armed opposition, but the burning of San Pedro Itxicán by the Spaniards prompted a counterattack that forced the Spaniards to flee to Poncitlan, leaving behind many dead and three hundred firearms. The rebels then attacked Poncitlan, and after a day-long fight, pushed the Spaniards into the Santiago River, where many died. When the insurgents withdrew to the nearby mountains, the Spaniards reoccupied Poncitlan, but the rebels again attacked, completely destroying the Spanish forces and capturing 100 firearms, two cannons and most of the ammunition.
Now better equipped for battle, Rosas and Santa Anna moved to Mezcala Island, where they gathered nearly 1000 men from the nearby lakeshore towns and set the scene for the long siege of the rebel stronghold.
While Rosas was instrumental in fomenting the original insurgent movement in the Lake Chapala area, the soul of the resistance on Mezcála Island was Don Marcos Castellanos, a former curate of Ocotlán who had proclaimed the insurrection in his area in November 1810. As described by Don Julio Zárate, in the third volume of México a Través de Los Siglos, Castellanos was “a resolute and serene man, with military talent, who carried in his heart a sacred desire for independence and was the choice as chief to direct that group of fervent and obstinate patriots.” Castellanos built a series of trenches around the island, acquired canoes and food and trained the garrison in the use of arms.
For his part, Don Jose de la Cruz, the governor of New Galicia, as Jalisco was then called, moved to exterminate what Zarate called “that group of brave insurgents, who, in a few months and with such scarce resources, had humiliated the Spaniards in four successive armed encounters.” Cruz ordered Lt. Col. Angel Linares to march to the lake at the end of December 18 12, and to attack the island as soon as a launch and various other boats arrived from the Nayarit port of San Blas. Linares made his camp on the still-smoking ruins of the village of Tizapán, which he had burned because it served as a food and supply depot for the defender of Mezcala Island. In February 1813, he attacked the island, in an effort which proved disastrous for the Spaniards.
Only a few soldiers escaped and Linares and others were captured.
Cruz reported the action to Viceroy Don Francisco Javier Venegas, then governor of New Spain, in part:
“ . . . When Linares embarked with his seven canoes, he came too close to the island and was surrounded by more than 70 canoes and in spite of giving glorious resistance, was finally the victim of imprudent and unnecessary rashness . . . I cannot please myself with thinking that any of the unfortunate officers and troops are prisoners, because I know the fierceness of those Indians . . . we saved only three canoes . . .” Cruz pleaded with Viceroy Venegas to send men to replace those lost in this first attack on the island.
Some accounts state that the rebels took Linares to the ruins of Tizapán, where they hanged him, threw his body into the lake and executed 15 other prisoners. As the siege wore on, the Mezcala insurgents, especially the industrious Santa Anna, repeatedly attacked the Spanish forces wherever they tried to establish positions around Lake Chapala. Improvements to the fortifications of the island continued with the installation of 17 cannons, many fírearms and much ammunition captured from the Spaniards.
Cruz ordered more boats, which were brought to the lake from San Blas on heavy carts, and in June 1813, Spanish colonel Don Pedro Celestino Negrete gathered 1200 well-trained troops in the town of Tlachichilco, just west of the village of Mezcala. He attacked the island, but the defenders replied with heavy cannon fire and “when the boats approached the cliffs of the island, the Indians of Mezcala covered them with a rain of rocks that caused immense damage to the attackers.” (Zárate) The Spaniards again withdrew after losing many sailors and soldiers.
Cruz, unwilling to inform Viceroy Venegas of the defeat, sent reinforcements to aid Negrete in the hopes of winning a quick victory, but Negrete, disheartened and embarrassed by the failure of the campaign, asked to be relieved of command of the Spanish forces and was replaced by José Navarro. In the face of these seversetbacks, the Spanish decided to make no further attacks on the island for the time being.
Instead, they established a rigorous blockade of the island in the hope that lack of food and supplies would force the insurgents to surrender without further losses of Spanish soldiers and sailors. Cruz then sent an emissary to the island, inviting the defenders to surrender or face the certainty that “much blood would run,” if they did not accept the offer. To a man, the breve and defiant Indians shouted their reply “Let the blood run!”
Navarro tightened the blockade, but Santa Anna and Rosas slipped through it nearly every night to attack the Spanish garrisons around the lake. During 1813 and 1814, the Spanish losses mounted. Navarro, still hopeful of mounting another attack, wrote Governor Cruz that a successful campaign against the insurgents would require a boat capable of carrying 250 to 300 infantrymen. Cruz ordered more boats from San Blas.
The islanders, too, were suffering their losses in the prolonged struggle. On April 16, 1814, Spanish and insurgent boats clashed in the neighborhood of Tuxceuca. A Spanish officer described the scene: “In this action, the waters and beaches were stained with blood and littered with pieces of canoes and the remains of more than 100 of the perverse defenders, counting dead and wounded.”
More successful for the islanders was the May 25, 1814 attack on Jocotepec. Santa Anna led a fleet of 30 canoes against the Spanish forces there, forcing them to seek refuge in the church. Learning of a strong Spanish contingent en route to the aid of the besieged Jocotepec garrison, Santa Anna withdrew, but the following day attacked the royalist detachment at the town of Chapala, killing 70 of its members.
The buildup of Spanish forces around the lake continued. About 2,000 men were now garrisoned at Tlachichilco. As insurgent resistance faded elsewhere in the face of superior forces, the Spaniards proclaimed in June 1814 that “In all the kingdom, the rebels hold no military positions with the exception of Lake Chapala and that will soon be their sepulcher.”
Meanwhile, the rebels had captured a large Spanish sailboat, but efforts to recover it failed. Annoyed by the defeat, Governor Jose de la Cruz pressed his officers to mount a new attack. His officials, however, again convinced him that to assault and capture Mezcala and its tiny neighboring island would be an undertaking that could not be accomplished with the resources they had at their disposal. The blockade continued.
By 1816, the Spanish forces around Lake Chapala were estimated at 8,000 troops. “And from the middle 1816, a new and terrible enemy was squeezing the unbreakable islanders. The poor quality of their food, their wounds and the constant vigilance to prevent surprise attacks brought about on the island a disease whichstruck down many of the defenders. But despite their great misery and their inability to go for food, none of the islanders talked of surrender.” (Zarate) Cruz, aware of their weakened condition, repeatedly asked for their surrender. All requests were refused.
Finally, as the islanders’ suffering mounted, Castellanos and Cruz agreed on terms for the surrender of the island. The agreement provided that none of the defenders would be persecuted, that all would have their lands returned and their homes rebuilt, that they would be given oxen and seed and that the sacraments would be administered to them without cost.
Santa Ana was named governor of the island and on Nov. 25, 1816, Cruz took possession of it to end the long and difficult siege. On the island, he found 16 cannons, many guns, and about 800 hunger-weakened men. Moved by their condition, Cruz ordered corn brought to the island to feed them.
Cruz upheld the conditions of surrender and allowed the defenders to return unmolested to their homes in the villages around the lake. “ . . . This was the first time in that exterminating and pitiless war that the Spanish had granted pardon to the warriors of the independence.” (Zárate) Verdia (1952), put it this way: “The capitulation provided proof of the change operating in the character and tendencies of the Spanish government, since five years earlier it would never have considered a conditional surrender, but would have demanded the immediate execution of all the prisoners.”
Muria (1981) stated that up until that time, Cruz would have deceived the defenders of Mezcala and ordered their immediate execution as soon as they surrendered. In rewarding and praising the performance of his own soldiers, Gov. Cruz “elevated, probably without thinking, the heroism of the islanders, who for the space of four years sustained bloody combats almost daily, faced with bravery the fire in the fields of battle, suffered with impassivity the misery and the plague and only delivered their arid rocks when the rigor of all their problems prevented them from wielding their weapons with arms so weakened by hunger.” (Zarate) Those tumultuous times are now long past. Most of the towns involved in the struggle for independence still stand in their original locations around the great lake.
For more information about Lakeside Living visit: Lake Chapala Towns
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