The first Maya settled in Cozumel 2,000 years ago. However, during the classic period 300-900.A.D.- a time when priests were at the top of the social hierarchy in the Maya world and life revolved around religious ceremonies – Cozumel became one of the most important sanctuaries in the Yucatan region with nowadays many ancient archaeological sites. Cozumel Island derives its name from the Mayan words Cuzam (swallow) and Lumil (land of), which form the word Cuzamil (land of swallows).
The Mayan word changed with time to the Spanish name of Cozumel. The Mayans believed the island to be a sacred shrine. Religious pilgrimages were common to the island especially from women who were either pregnant or wanted to get pregnant. They pay homage to the goddess IX CHEL, the deity of the moon, pregnancy and childbirth.
An ancient Mayan tradition
It was a tradition among the Maya People in general to make the trip at least once in their lifetime to the shrine of this goddess in the Island By 1200 D.C, in Middle America there existed an important long distance trade in which Cozumel was a key link. It was on this island where all kinds of merchandise arrived from far away places. Goods were temporarily stored before being sent in canoes to other distribution points.
It was by 1518 that the Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva arrived to the coast of the island on Holy Cross Day (May 3rd), named this land as “Isla de la Santa Cruz” and proclaimed the land as property of the Doña Johanna and Don Carlos Kings of Spain, The Spanish arrive, to Cozumel on May 06 making a peaceful stop on the island, received by the locals, exchanging gold and a variety of goods. Juan de Grijalva ordered the chaplain Juan Díaz to offer a mass on the same place that the islanders had a temple therefore on may 6th the first catholic ceremony was held in México, at a location named by the Spanish like Saint John (currently named Las Casitas (little houses), where every year mass is still celebrated by the locals. The visit was followed a year later by Hernán Cortés. Cozumel was the first site touched by the army of Hernán Cortés in what is now Mexican territory, becoming the starting point for the conquest of Mexico. It was on this island that the long, drawn out domination of the Yucatán started and was carried out.
The arrival of Cortés
Between the arrival of Cortés in 1519 and the year 1524 when the conquest culminated, there were no large-scale confrontations between the Indians and the Spaniards on the island. The Mayan ruler of Cozumel accepted their domination peacefully.The conqueror proceeded to destroy many of the Mayan temples. By the time, Cortés left Cozumel, the ancient civilization lie in ruins. At the same time, an outbreak of smallpox killed thousands.
By 1525 Francisco de Montejo made a request to the king of Spain to autorize the conquest and development of the Isla of Cozumel (Montejo was one of the captains that arrived with Cortez 9 years prior). Don Francisco de Montejo arrives to Cozumel On September 29 of 1527 and gave the christian name of San Miguel de Cozumel. As the Spaniards became more familiar with the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, they realized they did not have to stop-over in Cozumel, excluding it as a port of call for Spanish ships. At the same time, as an immediate effect of the conquest, Mayan trade was nullified and the cult of the goddess Ix Chel suppressed. The islanders, deprived of their principal economic activity, were forced to depend only on agriculture for their survival. By the decree of the King of Spain of July 15 of 1583, Cozumel became directly dependent upon the Yucatan church.
A safe haven for pirates
Between 1519 and 1570, the island’s population dropped from 40,000 to 30. By 1700 it was finally uninhabited.
Although several pirates used Cozumel as a base of operations in the 17th century, including the notorious Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte, the island was not resettled until 1848.England and Holland pirates came inside the land to capture Indians and Spaniards as slaves. During the caste war , refugees fled to the island.
Cozumel´s economy boom
The mestizos founded San Miguel on the west coast and the Mayans settled at El Cedral. From mid-19th century to the beginning of the 20th , Cozumel´s economy boomed and it become an important port. The depression (1930´s) seriously affected the island economically, it bounced back during World War II putting Cozumel on the map.
The U.S. built an air base for planes hunting U-boats in the mid-Atlantic and an airport was built . Drawn by the clear waters, frogmen came to train and returned home with stories of magnificent underwater vistas.
Jacques Cousteau’s declarations in 1960 about the richness of the coral reef surrounding the island made underwater enthusiasts aware of Cozumel’s existence. By 1970, Cozumel’s population quickly growth to 10,000 and today the island boasts a population of more than 75,000.