Among the first Spaniards to venture into the Yucatán Peninsula, the Franciscan friar Diego de Landa owes his fame, and infamy, to two distinct but related actions:
1. He is the author of the “Relación de las cosas de Yucatán” (Account of the Things of Yucatán,) : a document providing a vivid, detailed description of Maya culture, religion, language and writing system, written around 1566 on his return to Spain.
2. His religious zeal prompted the destruction of Maya artifacts and texts (or codices), in a crusade to extirpate idolatry and spread Christianity among the Maya. That was a crusade accompanied by tortures, beatings, imprisonment, burnings at the stake, and many other atrocities against the natives to obtain “confessions” on their continuing adherence to non-Christian religious beliefs and practices.
In 1562, a chance discovery of a cave near the village of Maní containing numerous idols and human skulls launched Landa on a crusade to extinguish idolatry: all the rituals the Spanish conquerors could not understand were labelled as idolatry, superstition, or even devil worship.
He ordered an Inquisition, ending with a ceremony called “auto da fé” on 12 July: he ordered a pyre to be prepared on the main square of the town of Maní, and burnt several thousand objects worshipped by the Maya and believed by the Spaniard to be the work the devil. Among these objects, there were several codices, precious folding books where the Maya recorded their history, beliefs, and astronomy.
Landa was then sent back to Spain to be tried for conducting an illegal Inquisition. It was then that he wrote the “Relacíon de las Cosas de Yucatan”, to explain his actions
He was absolved of every accusation, so he returned to Yucatan, where he was appointed bishop, a position he held until his death in 1579.
The actions of Landa passed into the “Black Legend” of the Spanish in the Americas.