Recent historical scholarship on Yucatán is noteworthy both for its quantity and quality. Within less than a decade, Yucatán’s long neglected past has perhaps become the most studied of any region in Mexico. Mexican and North American scholars from without, yucatólogos (as they call themselves) have parceled the region’s history among themselves much as Yucatecan elites divided the land. Allen Wells writes about a particularly important time and topic: Yucatán’s “gilded age,” when, during the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the region was profoundly transformed by the production and export of the hard fiber plant, henequen.

Wells decorticates Porfirian Yucatán on three interrelated levels. He examines the role of Yucatán in the international economy; the relationship between the state and the national government; and the effect of monocrop production on the local economy and society. Following the first chapter on the prehenequen past, five chapters treat successively the henequen marketing system, family elites, regional economic disparity, the commercial plantation, and labor. The second chapter, unquestionably the most important in the book, describes and analyzes the indirect system of control which United States cordage companies, primarily the International Harvester Company, established over the region’s monocrop economy. Unlike the United Fruit Company’s operations in Central America, International Harvester worked through elite collaborators in Yucatán to control the price and supply of henequen instead of owning the land, operating the plantations, building the economic infrastructure, and directly controlling the labor force. This “informal empire” cost Yucatán reduced export revenue and it limited and deformed the region’s economic growth and development.

The four remaining chapters examine the consequences of the henequen boom. Aside from the approximately 30 families that owned the land and reaped enormous profits when the price of henequen was high, the fiber proved to be more a curse than a blessing for Yucatán. Appearances aside, the prosperity of this gilded age was narrow, corrupt, and temporary. The boom failed to spur economic development of the southeast (today Quintana Roo), and led to the political partition of the peninsula by Mexico City. As was true with regard to other peripheral regions, “Yucatán was regarded by federal authorities as a commodity, a potential source of riches—to be plundered rather than developed” (p. 111). The conversion of self-reliant cattle and maize haciendas into commercial henequen plantations, highlighted by Wells in a close examination of one estate, took place at the expense of the villages in the henequen zone that lost their lands and liberty. The rise of the plantation system was also accompanied by a brutal and efficient system of debt peonage. In the collective memory of villagers today, this “Gilded Age” is remembered as the “Age of Slavery.”

Yucatán’s Gilded Age is a lean volume free of superfluous detail, social science jargon, and dependency bombast. It is, therefore, a readable as well as an impressive scholarly history. Wells consulted public and private archives in Yucatán, Mexico City, and the United States. Surprisingly, he did not consult the mammoth but indispensable (for Porfirian history) Colección Porfirio Díaz. This omission may account for the book’s one shortcoming, its cursory and scattered treatment of regional government and politics. Notwithstanding this, Wells’s economic history of Porfirian Yucatán is an important and welcome contribution to the historiography of modern Mexico and Latin American underdevelopment.