Ambivalent Conquest

An Overview of the Book

In the Ambivalent Conquest, the author, Inga Clendinnen examines the Mayan trials initiated by Diego De Landa when he visited the Yucatan in 1561. Landa’s inquisition was motivated by reports of human sacrifice purportedly performed by the Mayans, whom he believed had been converted to Christianity[1].

Landa set out to eliminate the pagan practice of sacrifice of young women from a region that was under his control. He had brought Christianity to the natives and instituted a royal court to try Spanish soldiers who had committed crimes against the natives[2]. However, the relapse into pagan worship made him to set up harsh trials against the natives in a bid to root out the practice.

Clendinnen attempts to explain Landa’s actions when he served as a rights activist and as an inquisitor. The author uses Landa’s pieces of writing, including the ‘Relacion’, to explore why Landa advocated for justice for torture victims (natives), but later punished the natives who offered human sacrifices[3].

In the book, Clendinnen analyzes the different issues raised by historians and scholars about Landa’s inhumane actions against the natives. She carefully explores the historical contexts, incidents, and controversies surrounding the Mayan culture and way of life. Overall, the book provides a compelling argument on the subject of Landa’s role before and after Yucatan’s Spanish invasion.

Clendinnen’s Main Argument

The book presents the author’s narrative in a clear and unequivocal manner. The author’s monogram is clear, detailed, and replete with facts. However, the information bountiful information provided makes it difficult to understand the book’s thesis. The book’s chapters, the monogram, and the conclusion do not explain the author’s central argument.

Clendinnen’s main argument relates to her attitude and views about the Mayan culture. The author writes that Landa treated the Maya people with love and thus, felt betrayed when they left Christianity and returned to their heathen practices[4]. Thus, in a bid to correct them, he instituted harsh inquisition trials against them.

In the author’s view, Although Landa did not intend to the Maya people, his punishment was unjustifiably severe. She argues that the inquisitions gave Landa another opportunity to redeem the lost souls of people he considered his sons and daughters. Previously, Landa had sought justice for the Maya people who had been tortured by the Spanish military and thus, his inquisition trials were not meant to eliminate them, but rather to save them[5].

This interesting argument underscores the author’s perspectives on Landa’s actions towards the Maya people. She argues that Landa’s actions during the Mayan trials, though very severe at the time compared to other inquisitions, were justified. To reinforce this argument, the author describes the procedures were used during the inquisition and observes that Landa was fair in deciding who to be punished. Moreover, the author seems to believe that Landa had the authority and jurisdiction to oversee the trials.

The inquisition was instituted in 1230 C.E. to fight paganism and heathen practices in parts of Europe[6]. It, however, led to the persecution of small religious sects by the Catholic Church. The Dominicans and Franciscans later dominated the inquisition, but received orders from the Papal Bull[7].

At the time, Landa was an appointed Franciscan Order who had arrived in Yucatan in 1549. He initiated the trials in 1561 without waiting for the orders of the appointed Bishop who was on his way to the Yucatan. The author argues that Landa’s actions were excessively severe and cannot be construed as disciplinary.

Methods and Evidence

The author uses Landa’s own books on his Yucatan trip to explore his perspective on the inquisition trials. She uses the Landa’s book titled the Relacion de la Cosas de Yucatec to explain Landa’s perspective about the trials and his earlier opposition against the Spanish incursion in Yucatan.

This primary source allowed the author to articulate Landa’s perspective on the subject. Clendinnen also presents her narrative through a monograph on Landa’s actions between 1517 and 1570. In the monograph, she provides detailed information and her perspective on this historical subject.

Thus, her use of various primary sources, including those authored by Landa lends credence to her analysis of the historical injustices meted against the Maya during Landa’s inquisition trials. Moreover, Clendinnen’s monograph on this topic gives important insights into the Mayan culture and life. She presents her perspective in a way that does not criticize prevalent social, religious, and political conditions during this time.

Strengths and Weakness of the Book

In this book, Clendinnen attempts to explain Landa’s actions when he championed for the rights of the Maya people and when he established trials against them. One of the strengths of this book relates to the author’s use of primary sources of information, including books authored by Landa, to support her argument.

As aforementioned, this makes her argument compelling to the reader. Among the sources used is Landa’s ‘Relacion’ in which he explains the rationales for his ambivalent conquest. The author also explores the controversial issues surrounding this conquest.

Another major strength of the book is the inclusion of the author’s monograph. The monograph presents the historical facts and perspectives without condemning the Catholic Church, the Spanish military, the Dominicans, or the Franciscans. The monograph is also presented in a clear and readable manner. The narrative captivates the reader, as it is straightforward. However, some aspects of this book make it inadequate.

One of the weaknesses of this book is that the author’s thesis is not clear. Although Clendinnen organizes her narrative into different chapters, a monograph, and a conclusion, she does not clearly state her argument from the outset. Her failure to state the book’s thesis made her argument vague and equivocal.

Clendinnen at some point writes that the Mexican Provincial Council had by 1555 put in place clear policies and procedures on how inquisitions are conducted, which Landa should have followed[8]. However, she does not provide a relevant citation to support this assertion.

Clendinnen portrays Landa as a patriarchal leader whose actions were so severe and inhumane. It is difficult to determine whether the Yucatan leaders were familiar with the Mexican Council’s inquisition order. Despite Clendinnen’s assertion, Landa may not have been familiar with such an order, which explains his inhumane actions.

Significance of the Book

The book’s account of Landa’s actions reveals the historical injustices meted against the Maya people. It shows Landa’s role in liberating them from the Spanish incursion, his missionary work, and inhumane trials against the natives who had strayed to heathen practices. It underscores Landa’s sincere quest for the revival of the Mayans, which, however, subjected them to torture and inhumane treatment.


Clendinnen Inga. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniards in Yucatan, 1517-1570.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

  1. Inga Clendinnen. Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniards in Yucatan, 1517-1570. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 17
  2. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 25
  3. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 25
  4. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 121
  5. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 78
  6. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 43
  7. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 71
  8. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests, 212