Back to top

Yucatán's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War

Yucatán's Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War

A study of one of the largest and most successful Mayan peasant rebellions.

October 1996
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
263 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 maps, 4 tables |

Conflicts between native Maya peoples and European-derived governments have punctuated Mexican history from the Conquest in the sixteenth century to the current Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. In this deeply researched study, Terry Rugeley delves into the 1800-1847 origins of the Caste War, the largest and most successful of these peasant rebellions.

Rugeley refutes earlier studies that seek to explain the Caste War in terms of a single issue. Instead, he explores the interactions of several major social forces, including the church, the hacienda, and peasant villagers. He uncovers a complex web of issues that led to the outbreak of war, including the loss of communal lands, substandard living conditions, the counterpoise of Catholicism versus traditional Maya beliefs, and an increasingly heavy tax burden.

Drawn from a wealth of primary documents, this book represents the first real attempt to reconstruct the history of the pre-Caste War period. In addition to its obvious importance for Mexican history, it will be illuminating background reading for everyone seeking to understand the ongoing conflict in Chiapas.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. A Rural Society in the New Century
  • 2. The Return to Pagan Antiquity
  • 3. The Other Side of the Golden Age
  • 4. Dilemmas of the Maya Elite
  • 5. The Imán Revolt
  • 6. "The Devil Will Overtake Us"
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Terry Rugeley is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at the University of Oklahoma.


Browse the book with Google Preview »

On the evening of October 18, 1866, the citizens of Mérida, Yucatán, gathered in a ceremony which for all its air of sanctity would leave the participants with a sense of bitterness, of lost opportunities and shattered dreams. The event was a benefit for the widows and orphans of men killed in the battle for Tihosuco, a town deep in the Yucatecan interior. Nineteen years earlier, Tihosuco had been a starting point of a rural revolt known to history as the Caste War (la guerra de castas). The village had remained an epicenter of fighting, repeatedly taken and lost in an endless war without quarter. But on this evening one could see little evidence of peasant jacqueries, only the respectable men and women of Mérida clad in Victorian coats and dresses, which Yucatán's barely perceptible autumn rendered no less uncomfortable.

The high point of the evening's commemorations was a reading by one of Mexico's most promising young poets, Juan A. Mateos. Following the classic poetic tradition, he began by invoking the spirit of his art and asking this muse to reveal to him scenes invisible to the mortal eye. The spirit complied. It spoke to him of the highest goals of nineteenth-century liberalism: progress and civilization: "I will sing the glory of Yucatán," it promised, the ballad of its heroic sons and soldiers past:

And by that beam of light which today illuminates
Splendid recollections and memories dear,
Before the altars of that generation
DIVINE LIBERTY will fall kneeling!

These were glories indeed. Of course, that Divine Liberty should kneel before human beings, and not vice-versa, presented an unusual metaphor and, to the critic, might have raised questions about the sort of society that had emerged here. But something more serious darkened this poetic vision. Some anomaly within Yucatán's march to glory was thwarting the poetic splendor. Midway through his invocation Mateos beheld a vision of Chan Santa Cruz-"Little Holy Cross"-the jungle stronghold where Maya rebels lived beyond the reach of Yucatecan law. Heeding the commands of his muse, Mateos suddenly cried out:

Chan Santa Cruz! Over your bloody temple
Weighs a curse. Listen to your century:
Accept civilization, or perish of contempt!
You who have lived
Amid the terrible bacchanal of crime
In degradation and filthy airs
Without feeling in your soul
The faintest remorse,
From the deep sleep of terror you awaken.
The faith of Christianity
Warring against your rude fatalism,
Once, and yet again, calls to your door.

This, the rebel stronghold, the unspeakable barbaric Cross, the mere fact of peasant rebellion, darkened the vision of glory. Despite Mateos' prophesy of a Biblical destruction for Chan Santa Cruz, the rebel society would live on, both in actuality and in the vexed imaginations of Mérida's bourgeois gentlemen.

If Mateos sounded a note of bitterness in his poetry, he was to be forgiven. Much had been lost. In 1846 Yucatán stood on the threshold of destiny, ready to take its place among the favored nations of the earth. Its recent separation from Mexico, a separation which now seems merely to have been another case of the economic frustration and national disintegration endemic to nineteenth-century Latin America, then appeared in a far more positive light. Yucatecan nationalists believed that they had carried out the latest momentous war of independence in the Americas, the culmination of a tradition which extended from the United States to Haiti to the Spanish colonies and, finally, to this peninsula, the "living rock," "mayab t'an," "the land of pheasant and deer."

Their destiny had been centuries in arriving. When the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo arrived in 1526, he found the Yucatec Mayas fragmented into warring tribes. Montejo assembled a force of some four hundred soldiers, more than twice the number that Hernin Cortés had first brought to Tenochtitlin. But success proved elusive. One bemused Maya asked the conquistador, "What will you do here, stranger, when you are set upon by as many Indians as there are hairs on the skin of a deer?" The prediction proved only too accurate. The Spaniards spent their time repulsing Maya attacks or else foraging for provisions along the desolate northern coast. Ultimately the conquest required eighteen years and in the end yielded nothing but some parched real estate and a potpourri of traditional tribute—corn, beans, chiles, honey, wax, and cotton blankets—hardly a conquistador's dream. The Mayas regrouped under the protection of the corporate village or maintained a resistance in the Guatemalan Petén. Spaniards settled in the Europeanized towns in the north. But over time the two cultures gradually blended. Native demographic collapse, together with growing urban markets, tempted Spaniards to set up commercial estates in the countryside. Only in the eighteenth century, then, did Yucatecans see the first inklings of rural transformation.

By 1820 the hope of the future lay in sugar. For over three centuries sugar had been sweet gold, a dependably lucrative commodity on the world market. And what sugar had done for the Portuguese in Bahia, the British in the West Indies, the French in St. Domingue, and the planters in Cuba, it would surely do now for the cultured and enlightened citizens of Yucatán. To pave the way for commercial planting, the creoles who controlled the state apparatus enacted legislation allowing over a million acres of land to pass from public domain into the hands of private entrepreneurs. New labor laws bound dispossessed peasants to the estates, while the national trade and political structures constantly changed as sugar producers and merchants maneuvered for the best possible terms.

It was an age of progress in other ways as well. Yucatecans established their own legal and political institutions. They signed treaties and fielded diplomats as an independent nation. Successfully they defied the Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna. Yucatecans had their own primitive ports—Sisal, Bacalar, and the walled city of Campeche—and would soon construct another in the northern coastal village of Progreso. In the cities the elite of society enjoyed streetlights, theater, festivals, literary journals, and the fruits of modern medicine. Throughout the countryside, a network of schools was emerging which, the inhabitants hoped, would soon make the ideals of literacy and progress universal fact. Informed by the "spirit of enterprise," Yucatecans also boasted a special emblem of modernity, the steam-driven cotton mill, the first of its kind anywhere in Mexico. To hopeful creoles it now seemed they were about to join the affluent nations of Europe in nineteenth-century bourgeois afiluence.

But the sugar empire was not to be. Twenty years later, as Mateos recited before the crowd, the vision of independent Yucatán lay in cinders. During the Caste War, rural insurgents, originating primarily in the south and east, had pushed toward Mérida, destroying many of the towns and estates which lay in their path. By mid-1848 the worst was over, and in the face of reinvigorated military opposition the insurgents retreated into forest strongholds. But the damage was done. The upheaval had killed or dislocated as many as 200,000 people. Some died in battle, some in retribution at the hands of either of the two armies, many through starvation, and many more through the cholera epidemic which followed in 1853. Still others fled to outlying islands, to Tabasco, to the remote forests of Belize, or to the Guatemalan Petén. After the humiliating spectacle of offering themselves as a colony to various nations, Yucatecan creoles returned once more to Mexico, which would eventually sever off Campeche as a punitive measure and as a safeguard against future separatism. The many fine haciendas and even the churches, long-sacred icons of the countryside, were now burned-out rubble. In the south and east, much of the deep, fertile soils of the sugar territory lay uncultivated for years, and the entire territory of Quintana Roo, even with the entry of Mexican troops (1901), was to remain the province of unrepentant separatists long after revolutionaries had taken up arms against the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Sugar would return, but only as a secondary crop, and Yucatán would look elsewhere for its future. Small wonder, then, that creoles issued a curse on the bloody temple of Chan Santa Cruz.


What provoked Yucatán's greatest conflict? I offer this volume as a social history of the decades preceding the Caste War, a survey of the varied human relationships which characterized rural life of the time and which ultimately gave rise to the war itself. The years between Mexico's independence in 1821 and the rise of the dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1876 were undoubtedly the nation's most turbulent period and remain its least understood. In the case of Yucatán, historians tend to read the years 1821-1847 as a coda to the eighteenth century, an extension of the restructuring begun by the Bourbon reforms of late colonial Spain. Some, in a second approach, regard them as one more outbreak of an unchanging racial schism which continues to characterize Yucatecan society. Others, in a third and closely related view, have chosen to emphasize the ways in which pre-Columbian Maya culture secretly circulated beneath the facade of the creole state. Finally, still others read these years as an era which served merely as an entrée to the more familiar period of henequen dependency and revolution.

As useful as these studies have been, I think that they have missed certain features which are all too apparent in the written record of the times. The first concerns our concept of the early national period. While sharing certain elements with both the colonial and porfirian periods, the first half of the century has much to characterize it as a period unique in itself. Moreover, it is possible to reconstruct the history of this period beyond a mere recitation of the larger contours of polity and political economy. These long-familiar structures threaten to become sterile concepts unless we are able to establish how people lived and moved within them. And in people I include the majority of the people, the some 425,000 members of the Maya peasantry. We can rediscover peasants, both individually and in mass, as active agents in the annals of pre-Caste War history.

This brings us directly to a second point: ethnicity. Perhaps more than any other group in the Americas, the Mayas have remained the elegidos of gods and scholars alike. Their appeal derives from an ancient and exotic past, an apparent otherness, and a sheer persistence over the ages. These tendencies have heightened under the rage for ethnic study prevailing in late twentieth-century intellectual circles. The tendency, therefore, has been to interpret the Caste War as a sudden collision of two hitherto separate worlds. I would suggest, however, that while ethnic and cultural identities did indeed exist, the lines separating the "ladino" and "macehual" worlds (that is, Spanish and Maya) were considerably less distinct than Nelson Reed or his academic successors have allowed. For all its neocolonialism, the world of Yucatán before Porfirio Díaz and henequen was a fundamentally interactive world.

In pinpointing the war's origins, I cannot entirely reject the long-standing argument that land alienation was a major factor. Between 1840 and 1847, an undetermined but significant amount of public land passed, at least on paper, into the hands of private developers. Haciendas gobbled up "vacant" public lands, and settled villages found themselves boxed into increasingly circumscribed and inadequate preserves. Peasants could no longer meet subsistence needs, let alone the continued tax demands of church and state.

However, the simple appeal to changes in land tenure raises other questions. In transforming other parts of the world, land alienations have certainly generated local rebellions, but those rebellions have seldom approached the scale or success of the Caste War. Why rebellion here, and why rebellion of such striking success? These questions force us to explore the ways and means of the Yucatecan development, and the local and overwhelmingly rural context in which it transpired.

Yucatán's transition from peasant subsistence to commercial agriculture began in the northwest in the mid-eighteenth century and gradually worked its way southward and eastward. A consistent point of previous interpretations, then, has been that peasants rebelled when they lacked access to subsistence lands and could no longer avoid pressures by flight. But neither situation seems to have pertained exactly. Creoles had scarcely penetrated into the eastern forests, and there is no convincing reason why peasants themselves could not have continued to migrate there or to cultivate the eastern forest lands. The same applies to the deep south of Campeche. The peasants were fully able to work this land with existing technology. Undoubtedly the land expropriations of the 1840s put enormous pressures on rural cultivators, but here as elsewhere, land tenure was not a purely independent variable. The pressures of the new land practices appeared within the context of specific social relationships and circumstances, which in this case favored peasant revolt to a remarkable degree.

The obscurity which covers the early national period partially results from lack of precise information about the people and institutions of the time. For that reason, I have found it necessary to say a great deal about the nonpeasant community as well. For example, we know relatively little about the church, a cornerstone of stability in rural Mexico. Existing scholarship tends to dismiss the church as weakened or committedly precapitalist or simply corrupt. All too often these charges are misleading. Although one of the least studied institutions of Yucatán's early national period, the church is also among the best documented and in virtually all regards offers a key to understanding the pre-Caste War peasantry. Far more than the secular political structure, the church's parish system served as one of the key organizing principles of the countryside. Parishes divided the rural world into headtowns and outlying settlements. Curas (pastors) tabulated populations and ethnic distributions. Most importantly, the church provided the economic backbone of the peninsula, particularly in rural areas. In a largely pre-capitalist system of forced economic participation, church taxes comprised the principal device for prying money and labor out of the Indians. The private coffers of priests were some of Yucatán's main sources of finance and development capital, while individual clergy became formidable landowners in their own right. In all these features the church participated in the growth of agrarian commercial structures.

But the rural clergy's position was more ambiguous, both economically and politically. If rural priests funded nascent agrarian capitalism, they also perpetuated colonial tribute (in the form of peasant church taxes), while maintaining their accustomed prestige and paternal authority in an increasingly competitive milieu. They protected the Mayas in old ways but also exploited them in new ones. These ambiguities made the clergy a focal point for social tensions and later a target for peasant jacqueries. Did peasants see priests as allies, oppressors, or some combination of the two? To what extent did the colonial Catholicism instituted during the conquest, and continued after 1821, succeed in dulling peasant will for autonomy? These are only a few of the questions which need to be explored in tracing the Caste War's origins.

Similarly unexplored is the tax problem. The volatile issue of taxes remained the subtext of peasant relations with both church and state, each of which operated its own collection system. While not the material root of the peasants' difficulties, taxes were uniquely frustrating. They expropriated the farmer's wealth directly from his hands, after he had already expended the toil necessary to produce ajar of honey or a bushel of corn. Between 1800 and 1847, taxes generated more invective and spilled more ink than all other peasant grievances combined. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this long-ignored issue in generating insurrectionary tension. For over three decades tax resistance and revolt would furnish the peasantry with ample occasions to rehearse its eventual role as a revolutionary force. In Yucatán the short-lived Spanish constitution (1812-1814) generated millenarian expectations of tax relief, even of tax abolition. Three decades of repression would fail to extinguish these expectations, and in the 1840s bitter murmurings over taxes would erupt once again, now as the language of revolution.

But there is more. None of these issues can explain the Caste War without a clearer picture of the nineteenth-century peasant community, a picture which includes not only strands of commonality, but of internal disunity and conflict as well. This is not to deny the centrality of the community to peasant experience, but only to observe that there were countervailing tendencies as well. A key argument of this study holds that Yucatecan peasant communities contained different strata of peasant interests held together not so much by a core culture transcending whole epochs, but by lines of power and authority which had evolved under colonialism. The diverging interests and aspirations of these strata conditioned their relationships to the colonial and post-independence regimes and also determined their roles in the eventual rebellion. Stated in another way, the decisive issue was not so much whether peasant villages were cohesive, but rather how internal cohesion was articulated with powers and opportunities beyond those villages. Ripples in the wider world could wreck havoc in the little community.

A key to the insurrection was the alienation of peasant elites, who were well accustomed to the benefits of commercial agriculture and the adventure of political machinations. This upper tier of peasant leadership, which included village caciques (in Maya, batabs), lesser officeholders, prosperous peasants, and members of the Indian church staff, remained attached to certain structures of the colonial system. In exchange for their assistance in maintaining peace in the countryside, they enjoyed material rewards and social privileges which distinguished them from their fellow Mayas. The batab and other officeholders monopolized a disproportionate share of the peasant village's literary skills, organizational knowledge, and familiarity with creole institutions and weaknesses. They also enjoyed the traditional social status which enabled them to mobilize peasant energies: their word was sufficient to bring peasants to the town plaza. Perhaps most important of all, peasant elites controlled more material resources than their poorer kinsmen. Rebellion (at least successful rebellion) was an expensive business, and the more that rebels had put aside in reserve, the more likely they were to maintain armed struggle against superior powers. As long as Maya elites remained content, serious unrest was unlikely.

The lower tier, the mass of poor Maya peasants who received little in the way of patronage from either the church or state, had a far different perspective. Maya commoners groaned under well-documented tax and labor burdens. Peasants paid annual church taxes, fees for incidental church services, taxes to subsidize periodic church inspections, and taxes to subsidize mandatory catechism of their children. They also paid annual civil taxes (an updating of colonial tribute) and filled the labor rosters for state-decreed projects ranging from turning water-wheels to killing grasshoppers. In later years they provided military service, paid civil land rents on their own cornfields, and were expected to subsidize official measurements of their own village properties. Equally galling was the endless and unappeasable moral scrutiny which peasants endured, with the complex of church and state holding review on everything from marriage to personal travel to public speech. The grievances of poor peasants had always existed but remained secondary issues as long as peasant leaders and marginal creole elites were content with the larger political arrangement.

Prior to 1800 the Spanish successfully kept rural discontent under control. Spanish patronage coopted native elites, while a balance of repression and paternalism served to quiet the masses. Those rebellions which did occur were brief and localized. But once the old colonial system broke down, the status quo proved difficult to maintain. Yucatecan creoles quickly disposed of the Spanish monopoly on peninsular wealth and power. Like most decolonializing peoples, the creoles were fractious and incohesive, all the more so for their comparative poverty; their subsequent wars with Mexico and among themselves disrupted ancient customs and jeopardized many of the traditional fields of success for batabs. Growing disaffection of peasant elites after 1840 was to prove instrumental in undermining rural stability and ultimately in creating the conditions for the Caste War.

The years 1821-1847 caught rural society in a curious intersection of opposing tendencies. In some regards, poorer peasants witnessed the gradual deterioration of a moral economy, of understood limits of exploitation which had protected them for much of the colonial period. At the same time, however, a new impatience now colored their grievances. Troubles and disadvantages which they had borne patiently for centuries seemed intolerable now that the chance for their elimination was at hand. Peasants no less than creoles hoped to benefit from the accelerating changes of the late colonial and early national periods. They actively competed for the advantages of increased prosperity, government patronage, and material improvements such as hydraulics, orchards, and sugar distilleries. Peasants also expected (and actively worked for) the reduction or even elimination of taxes, a boon which creoles had learned to promise in the series of factional disputes beginning with the momentary abolition of church taxes and obligatory service in 1813 -1814. In no small part, widespread discontent among the mass of the peasantry related to the failure of these expectations to materialize.

The contradictions implicit in the development of Yucatecan rural society reached a crisis only twenty-six years after independence. Beginning with a factional revolt in 1839, peasant expectations erupted once more as creoles recruited the Mayas with promises to eradicate church taxes. The moment of rebellion marked a collision of opposing tendencies: heightened expectations versus renewed assault on communal resources; mobilization of peasant masses versus the deteriorating prestige and economic position of the Maya leadership. The peasant elites who instigated this rebellion were only too well acquainted with creoles, their law courts, their military strategies, and their political quarrels. In some instances they were chums with prominent creoles and shared their entrepreneurial proclivities. Collectively they seemed to embody the prophetic Maya utterances of the Chilam Balam, which had predicted that before war would come a time when two people "tried on each others' hats." Prior to the failure of the 1848 Caste War offensive they would never have considered the possibility of retreating to the forests on a permanent basis. And in the final analysis they rebelled because they had come to understand how rebellions should take place and found themselves at the precise cultural and geographical midpoint which favored their enterprise of war.

We should avoid reductionism in analyzing an event as complicated as the Caste War. For no part of this world was the development of insurrectionary consciousness a unicausal process. Land alienation was merely one facet of a larger evolution from a colonial tributary society to one based on agrarian capitalism. The transformation involved many aspects of social interchange which, while closely linked to land usage and ownership, nevertheless assumed symbolic and economic importance of their own. Were peasants free to move as they chose? What would be the conditions of their labor? Who would educate their children, and to what purpose? A more complete understanding of the Caste War's origins must therefore incorporate many related grievances and weigh those grievances as peasants themselves experienced them. Then as now, people rebelled for many reasons.

I have attempted to shift the emphasis of study as far as possible from the traditional sources. These consist of patrician historians of the nineteenth century, state statistical reports, Yucatecan literary journals, and the accounts of foreign travelers, above all John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). An unfortunate result of these familiar elite perspectives has been to emphasize peasant passivity and separateness. At the same time, I have tried to maintain distance from a recent and diametrically opposed reading, the idea that indigenous peoples such as the Mayas operated in an autonomous core culture that shared little with the outside world. In my view, both traditional and revisionist perspectives encourage the notion that peasants and elites collided against one another only to bounce away unaffected—in Eric Wolf's memorable phrase, "like billiard balls." Economic rationalism often prevailed over cultural values. Those peasants best able to take advantage of new opportunities did so, mentalités notwithstanding, while those who could not remained committed by default to a communal ethic which provided them with moral vindication. I have not avoided the traditional sources, but whenever possible I have tried to work from documentary material in the archives of Yucatán, Mexico City, and various repositories of the United States . In conjunction with an emphasis on new source material I have tried to offer a skeptical treatment of many of the traditional readings of the Caste War and the social fabric which was its context. Peasant passivity, peasant homogeneity, peasant intransigence to all aspects of modernization, hermetically sealed indigenous communities and cultures, unicausal rebellion, a weakened or simplistic role for the church: we must question all these concepts.

Antonio Mais, the Tihosuco priest who witnessed the Caste War in its gestation, referred to the local peasantry as "a brutal, fierce, and audacious people." We do not normally associate the word "audacity" with peasants. And yet this accurately describes much of the behavior of the Mayas of the nineteenth century: an enterprising, competitive people as much at odds with elements of their own community as they were with the creole elites who strove to dominate them. What the documentation reveals is a rural world teeming with conflicts and contradictions. Like the poetic vision of Mateos, Yucatán of the early national period contained many voices, no one of which was destined to silence the others.


“Rugeley's book is not so much another study of 'why peasants rebel' but, rather, a study of how societies explode.... His approach to the problem is subtle, complex, and well worth studying.”
Paul Sullivan


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca