THE BATTLE OF MEZCALA ISLAND
by Robert M. Burnet
June 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 16, Number 10
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
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 peo-ple
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 Ixican, east of Mezcala,
The rebels retreated in the face of the better-armed opposition, but
the burning of San Pedro Ixicán 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
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
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
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
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
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.