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Caste War of Yucatán

Caste War of Yucatán

Regarded by many as the most militarily successful Indian rebellion in Latin American history, the Guerra de Castas (Caste War) remains the central historical event in the regional popular mind. In fact, many Yucatecans often assume that when one speaks of "the Revolution," one is referring to the great peasant rebellion unleashed in 1847, not the more recent national upheaval that began in 1910.

The rash of agrarian revolts and caste wars that erupted in several key Mexican regions in the aftermath of independence points up both the disintegration of the imperial central state and the political and economic disenfranchisement of Indian minorities during the early national period. In Yucatán, hostilities broke out on the state's southeastern frontier of commercial sugar expansion. Here the Maya peasantry bitterly resented increased taxation, the loss of their milpa (maize lands), and debt peonage and physical abuse on the sugar plantations. Also, the Church caused widespread resentment among the Maya. Although priests lost power after independence, according to some scholars they remained owners of large properties and used their position to repress Native American communities. But unlike their more domesticated counterparts in the older northwestern zone of corn-and-cattle haciendas, the frontier Maya still had the cultural capacity and the mobility to resist white domination. When a series of petty disputes between elite political factions expediently put guns into Indian hands, the frontier Maya turned these guns on the white leaders.

Recent ethnohistorical research, particularly in Maya language sources, has helped to clarify the racial or caste nature of the war. A dominant theme in the communications of Indian leaders is that the laws should apply equally to all peoples, whatever their ethnic background. In this sense, the free Maya made a social revolution to erase caste distinctions. These demands began with the dismantling of the colonial order. During the independence movement, indigenous communities cited the liberal Spanish constitution of 1812 to argue for equality and lower taxes. On the other hand, the fearful and skittish white elites bore most of the responsibility for redefining a social conflict into a brutal race war. During the earliest days of the rebellion they decided not to honor the distinction that then existed between rich Indian Caciques (or hidalgos, as they were then called) and the majority of poor, landless Indians. Many of these educated, politically powerful Maya had connections in, and identified closely with, white society. By persecuting and actually lynching members of this privileged class, the whites forced such caciques as Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi to identify as Indians and contribute their leadership abilities to the rebel movement. Interestingly, while the war was generally fought along racial lines, many Maya peons tied to the haciendas of northwestern Yucatán remained loyal to their white patrones. Indeed, their support may have been crucial in preventing their masters from being killed or driven from the peninsula during the darkest days of the war in 1848. It is the participation of these Maya auxiliaries—as well as the defection of some mestizo and white troops to the rebel Maya side—that has led some historians to argue that the War of the Castes is badly named.

Other nineteenth-century indigenous peasant rebellions would last longer than the Caste War of Yucatán (for example, the Yaqui rebellion in Sonora), encompass a greater geographical area (the Sierra Gorda revolt in central Mexico), or range more freely in their depredations against the dominant white society (the Cora rebellion of Manuel Lozada). Yet none had as many advantages as the rebel Maya: a homogeneous ethnic base still animated by a vigorous pre-Hispanic cultural tradition; the absence of serious natural obstacles (mountains, rivers, and so forth), which reinforced this ethnic identity and strategically facilitated mobility across the frontier of white settlement; the proximity of British arms and supplies from Belize; and the weak economic, political, and logistical ties between Yucatán and central Mexico, which permitted the revolt to proceed for some time without federal intervention.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Yucatecan rebellion was the most violent of this turbulent age, nor that its regional consequences were likely the most profound. Estimates of human loss and economic dislocation are staggering: the peninsula's population declined at least 30-40 percent. The southeastern sugar industry was destroyed; Yucatán's economic and demographic center of gravity would shift from the southeast to the northwest, the site of the future Henequen boom.

But Henequen's development would begin only after the northwest had been cleared of rebel Maya. At the point of their furthest advance, in June and July 1848, these indios bravos controlled three-fourths of the Yucatán peninsula—and were on the verge of capturing the last two important white strongholds, Mérida and Campeche, before their campaign was interrupted by the economic and cultural imperative to return home for the planting season. In the meantime, the whites were able to regroup—receiving food and ammunition from Havana, Veracruz, and New Orleans, and reinforcements from the federal government. By 1853, the Maya had been driven across the southeastern frontier of settlement into remote portions of Yucatán and what are today the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo. That year a substantial number of the rebels—known henceforth as the pacíficos del sur—signed a truce that permitted them a relatively autonomous existence in the Chenes region of Campeche. Meanwhile, however, to the northeast, in the chicle forests of Quintana Roo, a diehard faction of rebel Maya, the Cruzob, would have no truck with the hated whites. Remarkably, they would maintain an independent Maya state centered on a millenarian cult of the Talking Cross until they were finally overrun by a large, combined force of Yucatecan and federal troops in 1901.

See alsoMessianic Movements: Spanish America; Race and Ethnicity.


Bricker, Victoria R. The Indian Christ, the Indian King (1981).

Campos García, Melchor. Guerra de Castas en Yucatán: Su origen sus consecuencias y su estado actual, 1866. Mérida, Yucatán, México: Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 1997.

Joseph, Gilbert M. Rediscovering the Past at Mexico's Periphery: Essays on the History of Modern Yucatán (1986).

Reed, Nelson. The Caste War of Yucatan (1964).

Rugeley, Terry. Yucatán's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Sullivan, Paul. Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars (1991).

                                     Gilbert M. Joseph

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