Caste War of the Yucatán, 1847 - 1901

The Caste War of Yucatán (18471901) began with the revolt of native Maya people of Yucatán (Mexico) against the population of European descent (called Yucatecos) in political and economic control. A lengthy war ensued between the Yucateco forces in the north-west of the Yucatán and the independent Maya in the south-east. It officially ended with the occupation of the Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz by the Mexican army in 1901, although skirmishes with villages and small settlements that refused to acknowledge Mexican control continued for over another decade.


Background to the War

In Spanish colonial times, Yucatán (like most of New Spain) was under a legal caste system, with officials born in Spain at the top, the Creoles of Spanish descent in the next level, followed by the Mestizo population, then the native "Hidalgos", descendants of the Pre-Columbian nobility who had collaborated with the Spanish conquest of Yucatán, and at the bottom were the mass of native Indios.

With independence there was much rhetoric of a new equality before the law, but little actually changed other than the Creoles taking over the role of the Spaniards at the top of the political pyramid.

The opening of the Caste War is traditionally thought to have been the execution of three Maya at Valladolid, Yucatán, for planning an uprising which may have been originally intended to be political rather than a race war. The War seemed rooted in the defense of communal lands against the expansion of private ownership, and as a reaction to the economic and political power and the cultural bigotry of the European Yucatecos.

The Caste War

The greatest success of the Maya revolt was reached in the spring of 1848, with the Europeans driven from most of the peninsula other than the walled cities of Campeche and Mérida, with Yucatecan troops holding the road from Mérida to the port of Sisal. The Yucatecan governor Miguel Barbachano had prepared a decree for the evacuation of Mérida, but was apparently delayed in publishing it by the lack of suitable paper in the besieged capital. The decree became unnecessary when the republican troops suddenly broke the siege and took the offensive with major advances. The majority of the Maya troops, not realizing the unique strategic advantage of their situation, had left the lines to plant their crops, planning to return after planting.

Yucatán had considered itself an independent nation, but during the crisis of the revolt had offered sovereignty to any nation that would aid in defeating the Indians. The Mexican government was in a rare position of being cash rich from payment by the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo for the territory taken in the Mexican-American War, and accepted Yucatán's offer. Yucatán was officially reunited with Mexico on 17 August 1848. European Yucateco forces rallied, aided by fresh guns, money, and troops from Mexico, and pushed back the Maya from more than half of the state.

In the 1850s a stalemate developed, with the Yucatecan government in control of the north-west, and the Maya in control of the south-east, with a sparsely populated jungle frontier in between.

In 1850, the Maya of the south east were inspired to continue the struggle by the apparition of the "Talking Cross". This apparition, believed to be a way in which God communicated with the Maya, dictated that the War continue. Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross) became the religious and political center of the Maya resistance and the rebellion came to be infused with religious significance. Chan Santa Cruz also became the name of the largest of the independent Maya states, as well as the name of the capital town. The followers of the Cross were known as "Cruzob".

The government of Yucatán first declared the war over in 1855, but hopes for peace were premature. There were regular skirmishes, and occasional deadly major assaults into each other's territory, by both sides. The United Kingdom recognized the Chan Santa Cruz Maya as a de facto independent nation, in part because of the major trade between Chan Santa Cruz and British Honduras.

Negotiations in 1883 led to a treaty signed on 11 January 1884 in Belize City by a Chan Santa Cruz general and the vice-Governor of Yucatán recognizing Mexican sovereignty over Chan Santa Cruz in exchange for Mexican recognition of Chan Santa Cruz leader Crescencio Poot as "Governor" of the "State" of Chan Santa Cruz, but the following year there was a coup d'état in Chan Santa Cruz, and the treaty was declared cancelled.

The Independent Maya Communities

The Chan Santa Cruz state, stretching from north of Tulum to the Belize border and a considerable distance inland, was the largest of the independent Maya communities of the era but not the only one. The Ixcanha Maya community had a population of some 1,000 people who refused the Cruzob's break with traditional Catholicism. In the years of stalemate, Ixcanha agreed to nominal recognition of Mexico in exchange for some guns to defend themselves from Cruzob raids and the promise that the Mexican government would leave them alone. As Chan Santa Cruz was more of a worry, the Mexicans let Ixcanha govern itself through 1894.

Another important group was the Icaiche Maya, in the jungles of the lower center of the peninsula, who in the 1860s battled against the Mexicans, the Cruzob, and made raids and invasions against British Honduras as well, under their leader Marcos Canul. Canul's forces occupied Corazal Town in 1870 and attacked Orange Walk Town on 1 September 1872. The British mounted a retaliatory raid, including in their weaponry incendiary rockets which set the houses of Icaiche on fire from a good distance away, to the awe of Icaiche's residents. Canul was deposed and the new Icaiche leaders promised respect and friendship with the British. They soon made an agreement with Mexico similar to that of Ixcanha.

The Gradual End of the War

In 1893 the United Kingdom was enjoying good relations with Mexico's Porfirio Díaz administration, and British investment in Mexico had become of much greater economic importance than the trade between the Cruzob and Belize. The UK signed a treaty with Mexico recognizing Mexican sovereignty over the region, formalizing the border between Mexico and British Honduras, and closing their colony's border to trade with the Chan Santa Cruz "rebels". As Belize merchants were Chan Santa Cruz's main source of gunpowder, this was a serious blow for the independent Maya.

The Mexican army had twice before managed to fight their way to the town of Chan Santa Cruz in previous decades, but was driven back both times. In 1901 Mexican general Ignacio Bravo led his troops to the town to stay, occupying with a large force and over the next years subduing surrounding villages. Bravo telegraphed the news that the war was over on 5 May (the Cinco de mayo) that year. While this is the date most frequently given for the end of the war, fighting continued, although on a smaller scale. With their capital lost, the Cruzob split into smaller groups often hiding in small hamlets in the jungle, and their numbers were seriously lessened by the epidemics of measles and smallpox that came with General Bravo's troops.

The Chan Santa Cruz Maya, under the influence of the persistent Talking Cross Cult, remained actively hostile well into the Twentieth Century. For many years, any non-Maya who entered the jungles of what is now the Mexican state of Quintana Roo would have been killed. The combination of new economic factors such as the appearance of the Wrigley Company's chicle hunters and the political and social changes resulting from the Mexican Revolution eventually reduced the hatred and hostility. In one form or another, war and armed struggle had continued for more than 50 years and an estimated 40,000 - 50,000 people had died in the hostilities.

The war was officially declared over for the final time in September 1915 by General Salvador Alvarado. General Alvarado, sent by the revolutionary government in Mexico City to restore order in Yucatán, implemented reforms which more-or-less eliminated the conflicts that had been the cause of the wars.

Although the war had been declared over many times before in previous decades, records show that the last time the Mexican army considered it necessary to take by force one of the area's villages which had never recognized Mexican law was in April 1933, when five Maya and two Mexican soldiers died in the battle for the village of Dzula – the last skirmish of a conflict lasting over 85 years.

see also: Chan Santa Cruz

Further reading

  • The Caste War of Yucatan by Nelson Reed, Stanford University Press, 1964
  • The Machete and the Cross: Campesino Rebellion in Yucatan by Don E. Dumond, University of Nebraska Press, 1997
  • Yucatan's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War by Terry Rugeley, University of Texas Press, 1996
  • Xuxub Must Die: The Lost Histories of a Murder on the Yucatan by Paul Sullivan, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004

External links

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