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Caste War of the Yucatán
by Jeanine Kitchel


Tales from the Yucat¶n

FLICKR ALBUM: Lessons from Mexico

- From 1847 until the early 1900s, the Caste War of the Yucatán made it impossible for a light-skinned person to walk into the eastern Yucatán or the territory of Quintana Roo and come out alive. Only indigenous Maya could safely roam here; any Spanish or Mestizo would be killed on sight. What caused the fierceness of this Maya uprising which lasted over half a century?

No single element alone instigated the rebellion, but as in most revolutions, a long dominated underclass was finally pushed to its limit by an overbearing uberclass that had performed intolerable deeds. These included changing the status of public lands which the Maya used for farming, breaking contracts, and enforcing cruel and unfair work conditions on the local peasants. Added to this was the timing of Mexico's successful break with Spain, which led to numerous changes in the Yucatecan government, including arming the Maya to help fight the Mexican war against the United States in Texas. For the first time ever, the Maya were allowed to own guns.

As a bit of background, Spanish invaders battled 19 years to conquer the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula. Unlike the Aztecs in central Mexico who succumbed to Cortez in less than two years, the Mayans were not easily overtaken. But by 1700, a once robust Maya population had fallen to 150,000 due to disease, displacement and famine. As peace reclaimed the area, however, the Yucatán Peninsula's combined population of Maya, Mestizo and Spanish ballooned to a whopping 580,000 by 1845. More people on Yucatán soil meant more food was needed, and thus began the battle for land.

The history of the caste war, not unlike Mexico's dramatic history, is complicated to say the least. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the Yucatán, a former territory, joined the Mexican Union. But by 1839, the Yucatecan elites chafed under federal authority and revolted against the new government, severing ties to Mexico, and enlisting the services of the Maya, offering promises of land, along with freedom from taxes, according to Terry Rugeley, author of Yucatán's Mayan Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War.

The Yucatán generals armed the Maya, and with their help, the revolution was a success.


But a few years later, the new Yucatán government made sweeping changes, including the suppression of monasteries separating church and state, and adopting new land and property rights, which included a clause allowing former public lands to be cultivated and sold. Over the next seven years, Rugeley states, several hundred thousand acres of land once used by Mayan peasants was taken from them and transferred into the ownership of the colonial and church elite, who felt the uncultivated lands were barely used by the Maya. To the Maya, however, forest land was sacred and far from vacant, as it housed the deities of the wild places and the guardians of the corn, and to the Maya, corn was the divine food, Rugeley states.

So not only were ancient lands stolen from the Maya but the promise of deeded land for combat duty was reneged on and never awarded them. The elimination of church taxes, another pledge, was also ignored, leaving the Mayans embittered. By 1843, Yucatán had waffled again and rejoined the Mexican Union, but retained these newer land laws as well as division of church and state that had been set up during the interim government.

With the church on its own and receiving no state funding, the clergy imposed hefty fees, called obventions, on the indigenous Maya when performing marriages or baptisms. The Maya became easy targets for recouping the church's lost income.

At the same time, water rights protection was removed and cenotes (limestone sinkholes that served as reservoirs to the dry, often bleak landscape) which had supplied an area's water for centuries suddenly became private property. On a parched peninsula, things were changing rapidly.


With independence from Spain just two decades earlier, the Yucatán was reeling from loss of trade with Europe. As one-time key exporter for goods like cattle, timber, salt and cotton, it had been replaced as a trade partner by Argentina and Belize.

With the failure of old money-making exports, the Yucatán needed a new cash crop. Enter henequen, an agave plant, raised for fiber that could be manufactured into rope. An overseas market soon developed and in 1833, the first commercial henequen plantation was founded.

Local landowners slowly converted their rural farms to suit this new crop, named green gold, and as the adaptation took time, cattle and corn crops were not immediately affected, leaving the land issue status quo, and imposing no drastic changes to the Mayan lifestyle. But by 1845, henequen became the major export crop of the Yucatán, and a port city named Sisal was developed near Merida to handle all overseas shipments of the fiber.

Sugar cane, too, began its reign when other traditional crops and exports were phased out after Mexico's split with Spain. And with cane's lofty payback, a 700 percent annual profit guaranteed by the second year's production, this high maintenance crop became popular with the hacendados, or landowners, according to Nelson Reed, author of The Caste War of Yucatán. Two things were needed to expedite this new moneymaker: Land and labor.

Due to this, forest land became a coveted item and although it had been deemed "land owned by all" under Spanish rule, with a new Mexican government, this land could be cultivated and sold. The Mayans would be allowed to lease it back from the government, but then they would be subject to taxation on the land they used. Few Mayans had the resources to do this.

Regarding labor, at the time of Mexico's independence, the Maya were declared free, but hacendados decided that 'the custom of the land' would continue, meaning the Mayan would remain in servitude to his master. The ancient hacendados had grown accustomed to a class of native serfs; they came with the property and could not leave nor marry without the master's consent. And by creating a 'company store' debt system, the Maya could never repay the hacendado, meaning he would stay on indefinitely in serfdom. This well-suited the need for intensive labor in the sugar cane and henequen fields.


Great social changes were taking place on the Yucatán Peninsula. Prior to Mexico's secession from Spain, the Maya had been forbidden to serve in the army or to own military weapons. But with changing times and governments, Mayan numbers were needed to assure victory in whatever present battle was being fought, both on the peninsula and elsewhere.

Three times the Maya were recruited and armed with rifles and machetes, and the third time it backfired. In 1847, after hearing of the death by firing squad to one of their leaders, Maya troops marched on Valladolid , the most elitist and separatist city in Yucatán, and macheted 85 people, avenging old wrongs. Mutilated bodies were carried triumphantly through the streets. With this news, a wave of dread hit Merida, the economic axis of the peninsula, as it was sure to be the next staging ground for what was now becoming a race war.

"The Maya were recognizing their true enemy, the white man," Reed states in The Caste War of Yucatán. "There was a debt to be paid and it was paid with the machete -- for the robbery of their land, for imposed slavery, for whippings, for impiety to God and the forest, and for the severed ears of their grandfathers."

In retaliation for the Valladolid massacre, the Yucatecans descended on the ranch of one of the Maya leaders, raping a 12-year old Indio girl. With this affront, eight Maya tribes joined forces and drove the entire elite population of the Yucatán to Merida, burning towns and pillaging as they went. So fierce was the threat of slaughter, all non-Maya prepared to evacuate Merida and the peninsula, leaving both entirely in Maya hands.

But just as the Maya approached Merida, sure of victory, fate intervened when great clouds of winged ants appeared in the sky. With this first sign of coming rain, the Maya knew it was time to begin planting. They laid down their machetes and headed for home and their corn fields, in spite of pressure from their chiefs. Now it was time to plant corn. A thing as simple and ancient as that.

In 1848, the Yucatecans staged a comeback, killed Mayan leaders and reunified. But as the Mayans harvested corn they had planted in hidden fields, they kept fighting. Hunkering down, they attacked Yucatecan villages, burned huts, murdered any white man they encountered, with no thought of giving up. They relied on guerilla war tactics and fought to preserve the only life they knew.

Through all this, they were pushed to the eastern and southern regions of Yucatán and Quintana Roo, as far south as Bacalar. Mexico slowly gained control over the Yucatán, but the rebels held firmly onto Quintana Roo, using the pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz (present day Felipe Carrillo Puerto) as their base.


Eventually a peace treaty was signed, but the Chan Santa Cruz Indians still remained hostile. Although the caste war officially ended in 1855, more or less from lack of interest by those in power in Merida, the struggle which had killed 247,000 would continue well into the 20th century, and involve a bizarre cult named The Speaking Cross, organized by the Chan Santa Cruz Indians who were to remain hostile for decades. Only when the chicle boom hit Quintana Roo in 1915 did their hostility weaken. The Wrigley Company sent in chicleros, chicle collectors, to gather the resin from the sapodilla tree which was used for chewing gum.

At first the chicleros were killed by the Chan Santa Cruz, or robbed of their equipment. But in time, a new Mayan leader took over, General May, who recognized deals could be made with the chicle companies, and slowly an end came to the old system of killing any white man who walked into the territory. Progress was on the way, and in the depths of the forests of Quintana Roo, even the Chan Santa Cruz Indians heard the call.

When 1915 ushered in the Mexican Revolution, General Salvador Alvarado was sent from Mexico City to restore order to the Yucatán, Mexico's most prosperous state, due to the henequen boom.

That September, the final decree ending the caste war came, riding in on the coat tails of the Mexican Revolution. Topping his list of reforms, General Alvarado canceled all 'debt labor' which freed 60,000 Maya and their families, after 350 years of slavery. The Revolution had arrived, and with it, the caste war of the Yucatán ended after 60 years of revolt by a people who fought fiercely to preserve their way of life.


Jeanine Lee Kitchel writes about Mexico, the Yucatan and the Maya. Her travel memoir Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is now available on Kindle from Jeanine is a frequent contributor to Planeta with her series Tales from the Yucatán. Updates on the Planeta Wiki! Contact Jeanine via email.




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