There’s an important article on the Caste War in this Tuesday’s edition of Amandala, but it is a fairly long article and I’m sure most of you won’t take the time to read it. The reason the article is important is because it was written by a former British High Commissioner to Belize, Mr. Peter Thomson, and because it is the first admission I know of, in 2004, by a British official that the British and the Santa Cruz Maya had a “rapprochement” in the second half of the nineteenth century, at the same time that the “Mexicans” had a similar relationship with the Santa Cruz Indians’ “most significant rival Indian tribe, the Icaiche (or Chichuanha).” In other words, it was Belize and the Santa Cruz Maya (the bravos) versus Mexico and the Icaiche (the pacíficos) at various times during the 1850s.
The quotation marks around “Mexicans” are mine because in 1853, when the Mexicans and the Icaiche cut a deal, Mexico was not the modern nation-state we know today. The Yucatán had always been somewhat of a self-contained entity, because it was so distant from the federal capital in those days. Transportation was probably faster by sailing ship than by road 150 years ago, and if you look at the map you will see that Texas is actually much closer to the Yucatán than Mexico City is. There is a history between the Yucatecans and the Texans, who were both giving the federal Mexican authorities all kinds of trouble from time to time.
Before its independence in 1821, Mexico was known as “New Spain,” and its territory included both the Yucatán and Texas. A couple decades after Mexican independence, there were Sam Houston and Davy Crockett and Santa Anna and the Alamo, and Texas became a part of the United States of America.
Anyway, when Thomson referred to “Mexicans” on page 91 of his book, Belize: A Concise History, he was referring to Mérida and Campeche. I can’t see it any other way.
Before I proceed, let me say this. There is a scholar in Belize who is an expert on the Caste War. His name is Dr. Angel Cal, but he never, ever participates in any kind of public discourse on that conflict which is so historically relevant to the history of Belize. The reason Cal never engages in public discourse in his area of expertise, I submit, is because he is a professional academic, and he is concerned about his career in Belize, this being a country where academics are intimidated by politicians.
Belize is not Jamaica, and Belize is not Barbados. Belize is not the British Caribbean. The reason this is so, apart from the fact that Belize was the only British possession in Central America, is because of the Caste War. This was a war which was buried in history because such a burial suited the interests of the Yucatecans north of us and the British here in Belize. But such a burial in history of the Caste War is definitely not in the best interests of the new nation-state of Belize.
By the way, in this issue of Amandala there is another long article on the Caste War, even longer than Tuesday’s. This one is taken from Don E. Dumond’s epic The Machete and The Cross, published in 1997. I urge you to read it. The excerpt from Professor Dumond’s book covers a period of conflict between the British and the Santa Cruz Maya between 1860 and 1861. There was no real border between British Honduras and the Yucatán in 1860 and 1861. Mahogany contractors from Belize had been encroaching on Mexican territory to cut and extract hardwoods. When the Caste War broke out in 1847, the Santa Cruz Maya, followed by the Icaiche, began to “tax” these contractors. The extortions involved violence, and the British, according to Dumond, “felt themselves powerless to take effective action.”
Since, it appears to me, the history has recently emerged in these parts that Belize settlers arranged for London to make Belize a British colony in 1862 because the Belize settlers had gone broke, it suggests to me a reason why in Belize we never used to hear a thing about the second half of the nineteenth century here, except for the beginning of “Centenary” in 1898. The reason is that the Maya, who were not supposed to exist, were kicking a—in the north and the west, and the Brits couldn’t do much about it.
In 1892, a delegation of Santa Cruz Maya visited the British Governor, one Sir Alfred Maloney, at Government House in Belize. The Santa Cruz leader was General José Crescencio Puc, and he brought with him a black man as his interpreter. In his dispatch, Governor Maloney refers to this black man, seated in the middle of the front row with his legs crossed in the accompanying photograph from Dumond’s book, as “a saucy ruffian.” The caption describes the black man as “a demerara boy” who came to Belize as a servant to one of the West Indian Regiment officers and ran away to the Santa Cruz Indians.
The photograph intrigues me at the same time that it frustrates me. From his exaggerated pose, you can see that Governor Maloney was a pompous British official who would have had a problem with a liberated black man. Personally, I would have liked to meet the “saucy ruffian.” More than that, I would have liked for him to have had an encounter with Simon Lamb. I am betting that in Noh Cah Santa Cruz, “demerara boy” would have been like royalty. And in Belize, he would not have taken any disrespect from Maloney or any of his people.
The frustration derives from the fact that we don’t know anything else about this brother. Running north to freedom in the Yucatán was a journey black men in Belize had been taking from slavery days in the settlement. The classic such journey was in 1773, when 19 slave rebels from the Belize Old River, out of an original total of 50, reached Bacalar.
Once a black man from Belize reached the Yucatán, the important thing was for him to accept the Catholic religion. Once he did so, the chances are he would end up marrying a Maya or a Mestizo lady. His children, their children, and all his generations down the line, would be considered full-fledged Mexican citizens, and their ancestral origins in Baymen Belize would be forgotten, except perhaps in family anecdotes.
There are black Belizeans here who are Anglophiles: they are British in their behavior and thinking. I understand why. I am not one of those. I am African in my thinking, and I know why. I give maximum respect to the Santa Cruz Maya.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.
When Did the Caste War End?
The Power of General Bravo
The Caste War of Yucatán officially ended, after fifty-four years of horror, when a Mexican army occupied the Maya capital on May 4, 1901.
But the deep-rooted and lingering war really had no definitive final battle, no conclusive peace treaty. No Waterloo, no Appomattox. The end came several times. Or maybe not.
The interethnic conflict began in 1847, raged ferociously for a decade or so, then settled into guerrilla clashes and murderous raids. The cost was about a quarter of a million lives and hundreds of towns destroyed. The Yucatán Peninsula lost a third to half of its population, killed or forced to flee from the violence. The rebelling Maya, defending their culture against subjugation and the advances of capitalist agriculture, established and maintained an independent nation, roughly today’s state of Quintana Roo, with their capital at Chan Santa Cruz.
The independent Maya, known as the Cruzo’ob because of their adherence to the indigenous Speaking Cross religion, were sustained by trade with British Honduras (now Belize). They bought arms and other goods, paying with captured loot and with “taxes” charged to British woodcutters allowed to work in areas they controlled. Great Britain recognized the Maya free state as a de facto independent nation.
The war might have ended in 1884. Mexico re-established diplomatic relations with Great Britain, broken seventeen years earlier in retaliation for Britain’s recognition of the French-imposed Maximilian regime. Britain responded by acting as a peacemaker, sponsoring negotiations between the Spanish Yucateco state and the Maya Cruzo’ob state — while continuing the lucrative arms trade. A delegation of Maya leaders met with a Yucatecan representative, General Teodosio Canto, in Belize. They reached a peace agreement that afforded the Maya a measure of autonomy, selection of their own leaders, and an exchange of prisoners. The day after the signing, a drunken General Canto insulted one of the Maya leaders, Antonio Dzul. The Maya denounced the treaty and left in anger.
In 1887 the Maya formally requested that Britain annex their territory and place them under the protection of Queen Victoria. The British declined the offer. But this incident inspired talks between the Mexican and British governments aimed at pacifying things along their mutual border.
Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, working to put down several long-running Indian revolts, recognized that cutting off the arms supply was key to winning in Yucatán. A first step was to settle the long-disputed boundary between Mexico and British Honduras. The Spencer-Mariscal Treaty, signed in 1893, did that by establishing the Río Hondo as the boundary. Howls of protest arose from Yucatán over the loss of territory they believed to be theirs. Mexico resolved some outstanding debt problems, and the British agreed in principle to suppress the arms trade. In fact, little changed on the last point.
(Secretaria de Marina Mexicana)
Within the Cruzo’ob nation, disputes over peacemaking and allocation of timbering proceeds were causing rapid changes in leadership. Central authority deteriorated, people were emigrating, and the number of effective troops was falling. A rare visitor in 1888 reported Chan Santa Cruz depopulated, although still used as a ceremonial and meeting place, with the Speaking Cross shrine heavily guarded. The Cross itself had been taken to Tulum and then, amid further political squabbles, moved to Chunpom, about midway between the two rival sanctuaries. In 1892, a British merchant opened a store in ruined Bacalar, undermining the isolationist leaders.
In 1896, actions got underway that led to the official end-of-the-war date five years later. Independent-minded Yucatán finally accepted that all-out Federal assistance was the only way to end the war. Mexican and Yucatecan troops established a headquarters for invasion at the abandoned town of Sabán, on the frontier east of Peto, about fifty miles northwest of Chan Santa Cruz. President Díaz selected General Francisco Cantón to be governor of Yucatán, a military man to support a joint military effort.
In a move to stop the flow of arms and timber proceeds to the Maya, Federal authorities ordered a young naval officer, Sublieutenant Othón Pompeyo Blanco, to establish a military station and customs post at the mouth of the Río Hondo. Blanco decided he preferred a floating fortress over a land-based one. His superiors accepted the plan, and Blanco supervised construction of a suitable vessel at New Orleans. It was a game-changer.
Blanco’s vessel, christened Pontón Chetumal, was an unpowered, tub-like barge. Built of cypress planks with an armor-protected deck, it was 62 feet long and 24 feet wide with a draft less than three feet. A single mast supported an armored crow’s nest. Armament consisted of one rapid-firing Hotchkiss cannon, one machine gun (a French mitrailleuse or possibly a U.S. Gatling), fifteen Winchester repeating rifles, six pistols, and eighteen machetes. Chetumal had a motor launch and small sailboat as auxiliaries.
Sublieutenant Othón P. Blanco
His unusual vessel was towed to Belize City. There Blanco dealt with the delicate diplomacy of enforcing an international boundary on a river woodcutters had long considered their private waterway. The British authorities gave their assent, and on the afternoon of January 22, 1898, an American-flagged steamer towed Blanco with his twelve-man crew into Chetumal Bay and to their station off the Mexican shore at the mouth of the Río Hondo. Blanco’s men soon received a letter from the rebel Maya warning them to “leave or have their skulls converted to drinking cups.”
Unintimidated, Blanco recognized the need for an actual settlement, not just his floating fortress, to hold this strategic location. He recruited Mexican refugees and founded a town beside the bay on the left bank of the river. Under protection by his sailors, the settlers cleared the brush, put up barracks and a pier, and laid out sand streets. At dawn on May 5, 1898, and with great emotion, the first residents cheered the raising of the Mexican flag and sang the Himno Nacional Mexicano accompanied by a brass band. They called the town Payo Obispo in honor of a bishop — later archbishop and viceroy of New Spain — Payo Enríquez de Rivera y Manrique, who had stopped there briefly in the 17th century.
The humble barge Chetumal effectively intercepted the supply of arms, gunpowder, and timber revenue and provided a base for conducting reconnaissance on Maya strength in the region.
Then the serious troop build-up began at Sabán — seven battalions of Mexican regulars and three of state militia, equipped with modern five-shot Mauser rifles, machine guns, and rapid-fire de Bange field artillery. General Ignacio A. Bravo, a long-time military supporter of President Díaz, arrived to take command. A small, seventy-year-old man with a huge, drooping white moustache, Bravo was chosen because of his genocidal success against the Yaquis in Sonora. The General declared he was on a “humanitarian and civilizing” mission.
General Ignacio A. Bravo
(Archivo General de la Nación)
The British government urged last-minute negotiations, but neither the Maya nor the Mexicans had much interest.
Bravo initiated a “scientific” campaign. Well supplied, he progressed eastward on a road built through wide clear-cuts, establishing strong points connected by telegraph lines and field telephones. It was basically a construction project, with the military protecting the work gangs and the state government pouring in money.
Maya soldiers first opposed Bravo’s advance on December 27, 1899. Although they outnumbered the Mexican-Yucatecan army, the Maya found their dry stone walls were no match for artillery fire. Their shotguns, ancient muzzle loaders, and machetes were ineffective against modern weapons, and they were short on ammunition for the single shot Martini-Enfield rifles they bought from the British. As shot for their muzzle-loaders, they resorted to using bits of telegraph wires they had taken down and cut up. Bravo’s fortifications, clearings, and good communication precluded the ambushes they had used effectively for so many years.
In four months, Bravo’s army advanced thirty miles toward Chan Santa Cruz, building good wagon road and forts along the way. When the rainy season began in May 1900, the supply routes became impassable, a severe measles epidemic struck the Maya forces, and military action paused. Things resumed in early 1901, with the Maya attacking in force but unable to stop the relentless advance.
A simultaneous naval operation from Chetumal Bay advanced against light resistance and occupied the ruined and abandoned town of Bacalar on March 31, 1901. Forces under General José María de la Vega began advancing toward Chan Santa Cruz from the south. Vega also sent forces to land at a sand spit on Ascensión Bay called Vigía Chico; at Tulum; and at Xcalak, a deserted peninsula seaward of Chetumal Bay. The Maya nation was surrounded.
By Robert D. Temple
The Yucatan Times