Spanish Franciscan friar and the second Bishop of the Yucatan Diego de Landa is best remembered today for two things: his classic account of the pre-Columbian customs, language, astrology, and writing of the Mayas, and his brutal attempts to convert them to Christianity. Landa was one of the many priests in the 16th century who responded to the Spanish Crown's call to bring Christianity to the people of the New World. While some friars like Bartolomé de Las Casas worked compassionately with and for the indigenous people, others like Landa resorted to torture and the destruction of native icons, temples, and writings.
Born into a noble Spanish family in the town of Cifuentes, Landa joined the Franciscan order at 17 and asked to be sent to the New World as a missionary. In 1549, he was assigned to the Yucatan peninsula where the zealous young friar became one of the first Franciscans to live among the Mayas, learning to speak their language and taking extensive notes about their culture.
For more than a decade, Landa and his fellow missionaries struggled to convert the Mayas to Christianity while the indigenous people steadfastly clung to their own spiritual beliefs. Finally, Landa launched an inquisition against the Mayas, torturing thousands and killing more than one hundred in an effort to get them to confess to human sacrifice and other sins. Convinced that the Mayan spiritual traditions were the work of the devil, in July 1562, Landa burned five thousand native religious images and at least twenty-seven painted books filled with hieroglyph-like images relating to their traditional religious practices and beliefs. Only four pre-Columbian codices, containing rare examples of Mayan writing, survived.
Bishop Francisco de Toral finally stopped Landa's inquisition and sent him back to Spain, where, in 1564, he was tried for his excesses. He was eventually absolved of any misdeeds.
As he waited for his case to be resolved, Landa wrote Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, now considered an authority on Mayan customs and language. The book would not be published for another three hundred years, but in the 20th century, Landa's work provided a valuable record and important clues for modern day scholars trying to decipher Mayan writing.
After Toral's death, Landa was sent back to the New World in 1573 and was ordained Bishop of the Yucatan, a position he held until his death at age 54.