How Flemish Almost Became the Official Language of Cozumel

posted in: Yucatan & Quintana Roo | 0

In February, 1517, the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, sent Francisco Hernández de Córdova on an expedition that resulted in the discovery of Peninsula of Yucatan.   During the expedition, Córdova captured two Maya near Cabo Catoche and later brought them back to Cuba with him to learn Spanish so they could act as interpreters on future voyages to the peninsula.   The Maya lived in Cuba for a year and as they learned the language, they began to tell the Spanish about the lands from which they were taken.   One of the things they explained to the Spanish, was that the most important places (in their way of thinking) in the land of the Maya was the Island of Cozumel, which the Spanish had not seen or visited up to that time.

King Ferdinand of Spain

The Spanish King Ferdinand died only a year earlier, in 1516, and after a brief interlude, the 16-year-old Flemish Archduke Charles was crowned Charles V, King of Spain.   It is clear that this report made by the Maya interpreters reached the ears of Charles V, as Cozumel was explicitly named (Ysla de Coçumel) in a royal decree dated March 29, 1518, a full month before Juan de Grijalva’s April 1518 voyage that resulted in the actual discovery of the island of Cozumel.   Due to the interpreters’ description of the island as being the most important place in Yucatan, Grijalva made it his first landfall and claimed Cozumel for the Spanish Crown.

Emperor Charles V

But, though Charles was King of Spain and all her colonies, he was also Flemish and ruler of the “Seventeen Provinces,” an assortment of principalities and enclaves that today makes up Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, a good part of the North of France, and a small part of Western Germany. His loyalties lied with his kinsmen, not with the Spanish Court. One such kinsman, Laurent Gorrevod, Charles’ Flemish cousin and his Majordomo, had gained Charles’ confidence as a loyal advisor. As a token of his esteem, the young king granted Laurent Gorrevod the rights to “rule Cuba for the rest of your life” and to “conquer the Island of Cozumel so that you can rule it and possess now and forever, and pass it down to your descendants” by the royal decree mentioned above. On April 1, 1518, Charles sent a letter to the current Governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, ordering him to send no more ships to Yucatan and Cozumel as he was reserving the land for Gorrevod.

Laurent Gorrevod

It was Gorrevod’s plan to use Flemish soldiers to conquer the island and then settle it with more francophone Flemish colonists from his homeland of Flanders.   There were two things standing in his way.   One was lawsuit Cristobal Colon’s family had pending against the Crown, which they filed after the Monarchy had taken away Colon’s rights to rule all the lands he found on the voyages of discovery, originally granted to him on April 30, 1492.   The lawsuit brought up the good point that it was illegal for the Crown to revoke a hereditary right, such as the one granted to Colon.   The other impediment to Gorrevod getting his hands on Cuba, Cozumel, and Yucatan was that Spanish law did not allow foreigners to rule Spanish land, and Gorrevod was Flemish, not Spanish.

After a failed attempt to circumvent the law, Gorrevod agreed to exchange his newly granted right to rule Cuba, Yucatan and Cozumel for the royal license to ship 4,000 black slaves to Cuba and sell them to the colonists there.   Thus, Cozumel avoided the fate of becoming a Flemish-speaking colony of Belgium.

However, Belgium never lost its lust for Cozumel.   In 1840, Baron Félix de Norman was sent by the Belgium government to Mexico to feel out the possibilities of purchasing the island from the Mexican government.   Mexico was very hard up for funds at the time and seriously considered the idea.  In 1841, they responded with a demand of six fully-equipped warships, two barks, two steamships, two cannons, and 500 rifles in exchange for the island.   The British Government, however, was opposed to the idea of a Belgium port in the Caribbean, and sent its minister Richard Pakenham to do his best to wreck the deal, which he was eventually able to do.   The idea was resurrected by the Belgians in 1843, when Martial Cloquet prepared to lead an expedition to Cozumel with the aim of surveying the island, but Belgium’s efforts were again derailed, and the attempt to acquire the island were abandoned.


Copyright 2012, Ric Hajovsky