The confused and little known 19th-century Mayan tragedy is here told in an effective narrative. A population of possibly 300,000 at the end of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán declined to approximately 130,000 by 1700 as a result of demoralization, plagues, and war. Back up to some 575,000 by 1845, it was plunged into the catastrophe here related.
After gaining independence from Spain the whites in Yucatán stepped up their demands for Indian lands and services. The ensuing frictions culminated in war in 1847. Though outnumbered by as much as seven to one in some districts, the ladinos (whites and half-whites) rallied for a desperate resistance. Fortunately for them the Indians were cursed by factionalism and frequently fought each other. Also, when complete victory seemed within the grasp of the Indians “All at once sh’mataneheels [winged ants, harbingers of the first rains] appeared in great clouds…. [said one] ‘Ehen! The time has come for us to make our planting….’ ‘I am going.’” And the Indians left for their cornfields. Given this breathing spell and with superior organization the ladinos rallied and soon could march where they would. Yet for several more years they were faced with a war with “no front, no rear, and no vital objective, against an enemy that was far from through.” The end result, concludes the author, was that at least 30 per cent of the population died “by the guns, the machetes, starvation, or disease.” The grave uncertainties of the time are reflected in the fact that Governor Santiago Méndez offered complete “domination and sovereignty” over Yucatan to Spain, Great Britain, or the United States in exchange for protection. President Polk was reported to be interested but polities intervened. Europe kept hands off.
Over the years the Indians had accepted the Christian god as head of their pantheon but retained their own nature gods in lower ranks of the hierarchy and identified their old earthquake god as the devil. Now, early in the Caste War, the Indian leaders launched the religion of the Speaking Cross (Chan Santa Cruz) to centralize military, political, and religious control. In the early stages they shrewdly used ventriloquism, or the voice of a man in a barrel or echo chamber, to give resonance and inspire awe when the Cross orally directed the affairs of men. The Tatich, as the head of the new system was called, operated through company leaders who served as heads of communities or as military officers as occasion demanded. Many religious practices retained a Spanish flavor, but social procedures and agricultural practices and beliefs were for the most part Indian revivals. Once more the Spanish idea of relatively large towns was replaced by small Maya villages clustered around a ceremonial center. The power of the Tatich was so complete that he not only controlled his people but made treaties in the name of the Cross. Indeed, the British from Belize extended de facto recognition and freely traded guns and supplies for logwood and chicle with the Indian state.
It remained for the long career of Porfirio Díaz as President of Mexico after 1876 to exert the attrition that undermined the system. The last great Indian religious festival was held at Chan Santa Cruz on May 3, 1900. Soon after this General Ignacio Bravo had brought the whole area of Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo under effective Mexican control. And here the real story of the book ends for the author simply “roughs in” events connected with the new henequen industry as the central theme of the next half-century.
In telling his dramatic and pathetic story the author makes no effort to paint his savages as noble—they were often brutally cruel—but he does want his reader to feel the tragedy of the era. Later scholars may correct details in this account for the lack of footnotes leaves a feeling that, in spite of an effective bibliography, there may be gaps not immediately obvious. Also the exceedingly complicated details of the decade following 1847 may need reconsideration. The author narrates them conscientiously, but his real interest centers in his attempt to catch the spirit of a stubborn Indian folk in their tropical jungles who persistently went their way and lived their own lives in spite of all their so-called betters and superiors could do about it. In the process they made a society and a culture that will intrigue scholars for years to come. For this job well done he deserves the praise of his colleagues.