Three decades ago Nelson Reed’s popular history, The Caste War of Yucatán, resonated deeply with a generation that was caught up in the complications of a contemporary peasant rebellion, the war in Vietnam. Whether or not the Maya uprising in mid-nineteenth-century Yucatán could seriously be regarded as a precursor of what Eric Wolf termed the “peasant wars of the twentieth century,” did not really matter—Reed’s account of the rebellion made for exciting reading. Moreover, many Latin American scholars, as well as undergraduates, welcomed a book based on the groundbreaking but unpublished work of Howard Cline, even if Reed’s book was devoid of the usual academic paraphernalia—footnotes and lengthy references to the scholarly literature. Don Dumond’s The Machete and the Cross is an updated and expanded scholarly reprise of the same ground covered by Cline and Reed, with a slightly different emphasis.
Dumond’s fascination with the Caste War began, as he writes in his preface, with Alfonso Villa Rojas’s field studies among the Maya of east central Quintana Roo, and was nourished by the work of Reed and the research of anthropologists such as Alfredo Barrera Vázquez and Victoria Reifler Bricker. However, from the earliest days, Dumond’s work veered off in a different direction, leading him into a lengthy and fruitful preoccupation with the Maya rebels who negotiated a separate peace in 1853, the so-called pacíficos del sur. Dumond’s current book, The Machete and the Cross, is an expansion and broadening of this uniquely southern perspective on the Caste War and its aftermath. The many effective maps and illustrations reinforce Dumond’s detailed examination of the geographical dimensions of the conflict. In other respects, however, the book is less successful.
While Dumond tries to establish his own place in the debate over the causes of the rebellion (pp. 134–39), emphasizing the social position of the Maya peasantry rather than their ethnicity, his discussion of the events and conditions leading up to the rebellion is heavily dependent on nineteenth-century narrative sources, particularly Serapio Baqueiro and Eligio Ancona. He even employs Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory of rising expectations (unleashed by the liberal reforms of the early independence period) to put his own twist on the question of why the rebels acted when they did. Dumond’s work, unfortunately, does not tell us anything new about this period, nor does it offer fuller portraits of well-known rebel leaders Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi than the classic works of Reed and Cline.
Perhaps because the bulk of his research is based on archives in Belize and on Colonial Office correspondence located in the British Public Record Office, Dumond’s most significant contribution to the historiography of the Caste War is his painstaking recreation of the complex and often tortuous relations among the rebels of Chan Santa Cruz, the pacíficos del sur, Yucatecan exiles, and Belizean authorities and gunrunners. That said, it is not clear why Dumond chose to cover the entire history of the Caste War from its origins to its inconclusive ending in 1901. Nowhere, neither in the preface nor in the introduction, does the author explain why he wrote the book. The reader has to infer, then, that Dumond’s primary goal is to narrate and not to offer a new interpretation of the events of 1847 and after. From a historiographical perspective, Dumond’s work not only adds little to our understanding of how the Caste War relates to the rest of nineteenth-century Mexican history, it ignores recent publications on the social origins of the rebellion and the relationship between indigenous peasants and the state in other regions of Mexico. The Machete and the Cross is profoundly retrospective, rather than innovative.