Pronounced koze´mel, the first Maya settled in Cozumel over 2,000 years ago. The island derives its name from the Mayan words Cuzam (swallow) and Lumil (land of), which formed the word Cuzamil (land of swallows). The word changed over time to the current spelling, Cozumel.
During the period between 300 and 900 A.D., Cozumel became an important sanctuary in the Yucatan region. At that time, priests were very high up in the social classes, which propogated religious ceremonies. Mayan women from all over the Yucatán Peninsula and beyond made pilgrimages here to pay tribute to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility and the moon. There was a temple erected in her honor at San Gervasio, near the centre of the island.
At that time, Cozumel also became a significant trade center, thriving from its excellent position between routes to and from Honduras and Veracruz. Cozumel became a sort of distribution stop, attracting many types of goods that were sometimes stored before being sent to other distribution points.
On May 3rd, 1518 the Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva arrived on the island. He declared the land “Isla de la Santa Cruz” and proclaimed the land property of the Doña Johanna and Don Carlos Kings of Spain. The Spanish came peacefully to Cozumel on May 6th, and were well received by the locals, exchanging gold and a variety of goods.
May 6th became the first catholic ceremony when Juan de Grijalva ordered the chaplain Juan Díaz to offer a mass on the same place that the islanders had a temple, at a location named by the Spanish like Saint John (currently named Las Casitas (little houses). Every year mass is still celebrated there by the locals.
A year later, Hernán Cortés and his army came to Cozumel, which became 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. Between the arrival of Cortés in 1519 and the year 1524 when the conquest began, 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. 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.
In 1848, Indians fleeing the War of the Castes found their way to Cozumel, and by the early 20th century its now mostly mestizo population grew, thanks in the most part to chewing gum. Locals harvested chicle on the island (Cozumel was a port of call on the chicle export route); the natural gum was sugar-coated in America and turned into the ubiquitous Chiclets. The later invention of synthetic chewing gum meant the need for chicle eventually waned, as did Cozumel’s major industry. However, the economy stood strong for a while because of the construction of a US air base during WWII.
During the caste war , refugees fled to the island. 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.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island, just 12 miles off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cozumel is 28 miles long & 10 miles wide. The climate is subtropical.
For a map of Cozumel, click here.