Transformations and Connections
Big Question: What were humanities big turning points? What role does Belize play in the world?
Unit Title: The Causes, Course and Impact of the Caste War
Introduction to the Caste War (1847-1901)
The Caste War, which began in 1847 and did not end until 1901. had a huge impact on the history and development of Belize.
When the war began, the norhtern part of the Yucatan Peninsula was part of the state of Mexico. However, the area had never been fully under the control of the government in Mexico City. The Caste War was between culturally European Spaniards and the indigenous Maya. It started when the wealthier Spaniards attempted to take over land being farmed by the poorer peasants. Most of the fighting occurred in Mexico but there were also battles and population movements in Belize.
Some ways in which the Caste War influenced Belize include:
- The fixing of the Belize-Mexico border in 1893
- A big increase in sugar production in the northern districts
- The elimination of any Maya military threat to English occupation of Belize
- A significant increase in the number of Maya and Mestizo and people in Belize
21.1 Describe one major political, one economic and one social cause of the Caste War of the Yucatan.
When the Spaniards arrived in Yucatan in 1511, they found the Yucatec Maya living throughout the Peninsula but not organized as one major force. In fact, there were several groupings, some large and some small. Chactemal, for example, was said to be one of the most populated provinces in what is today much of southern Quintana Roo and northern Belize with its capital probably in Santa Rita, Corozal.
The Spaniards led by Francisco Montejo, his son Junior and captains including Melchor Pacheco used the rivalry among the Maya to divide and conquer. Nachan Kan supported by his son in law Alonso Davila led the initial resistance to Spanish rule. However, by 1542 most of the Peninsula had been brought under Spanish domination, with the Maya as a subjected people. Most of the Maya were required to pay taxes and to work for the Spaniards. Introduced to European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and measles for which they had no natural immunity, thousands among the Maya died. However, many survived in their towns and villages throughout Yucatan including Belize.
In 1821, the viceroyalty of New Spain gained its independence from Spain as Mexico. Political conflict among many factions followed. Two of the main parties were the Conservatives who supported the King and the Church and the Liberals who favored more liberties for all (except for indigenous people like the Maya) and free trade. In Yucatan, there was also conflict between Campeche and Merida over control of peninsular trade.
In their political fights that sometimes led to civil war, Conservatives and Liberals in Yucatan as well as Campeche and Merida often courted the support of the Maya with promises of reduced taxes and land. In 1840, Yucatan even declared itself independent from Mexico. This state of affairs allowed the Maya to become more experienced with warfare, and to gain a better understanding of the political parties in Yucatan. They also gained leadership experience in participating in local political affairs.
Long before independence in 1821, liberals blamed the Maya for the economic backwardness of Yucatan. It was said that “the Maya can only listen through their back.” The cruel treatment inflicted on Maya workers in haciendas (large, landed estates) were meant to keep them from any ideas of rebellion. Laws were passed which made it illegal for a Maya to leave his patron’s estate if he had any outstanding debts. Wages were so low that most Maya men did not earn enough to feed their family. They had to beg for additional advances on their wages to buy food and to pay the fees that the church also forced them to pay. Small debts (chichán cuenta) soon added up to a big bill (nohoch cuenta) which was very difficult to pay back. So many of the Maya found themselves in debt slavery.
Another economic condition many Maya faced was the loss of village communal lands. Liberal land laws favored the sale of lands for which the village may not have legal title even if the people had been cultivating the land for many centuries. Villagers who lost their communal land had to go looking for wage labor in the haciendas where they soon found themselves in debt. Thirdly, as the production of sugar became more profitable, businesspeople looked for land close enough to the main roads to produce sugarcane. Much of these lands belonged to Maya villages.
Overall, the church, the government, and the society looked down upon, discriminated, and treated the Maya as second-class citizens. Since they spoke mostly Maya, they could not always defend themselves in court, and were often taken advantage of since most of them could not read or write. They were not welcome in social circles of the whites and even of the mestizos. And, while the church would continue to charge them fees for the administration of the sacraments, Maya were not welcome as clergy. To partly protect themselves from discrimination, the Maya mostly remained in their villages or as workers in haciendas. In many cases, Maya ran away from their patron, fleeing to distant and isolated areas of the peninsula, including Belize.
21.2 Outline the major events of the Caste War of the Yucatan between 1847 and 1901.
The Outbreak of the War, 30 July 1847
The Yucatecan authorities were always fearful of Maya rebellions. But from time to time, the various political factions could not help but supply the Maya with arms and with military training when they enlisted them to help fight their cause. Soon, someone reported that Maya leaders Jacinto Pat, Bonifacio Novelo, Cecilio Chi, and Manuel Antonio Ay were plotting to rebel against the Yucatec whites and to drive them off the peninsula. Ay, reportedly caught with some evidence of the conspiracy, was promptly shot and Yucatec troops were sent to capture the remaining three leaders. The troops could not find them and in anger, destroyed Cecilio Chi’s rancho, raped a Maya girl, and killed four Maya defenders. The Maya launched a counterattack. They burnt the village of Tepich to the ground, killed 30 whites and spared only the girls for rape. The Caste War had begun.
The Maya Offensive
The powerful Cocom Maya rose in rebellion, attacking towns and taking no prisoners. Maya leaders organized their strategy. Pat led the attacks near Peto while Chi attacked the area near the white city of Valladolid. Sugarcane plantations, and haciendas, towns and villages known to house whites were attacked and burnt with the hated debt records of the haciendas. Refugees came pouring in from the countryside. Catholic bishops tried to “pacify” the Maya, but they would not hear of it. “When you were murdering us, did you not know that there is a True God?” a leader replied. Valladolid was abandoned. Over 10,000 refugees poured out desperately seeking refuge in Merida. The Yucatec army was no match against Maya forces. Yucatec governor Santiago Mendez begged the United States, Britain, and Spain for “powerful and effective help” in exchange for Yucatan.
After taking Tekax, the southern Maya attacked and occupied Bacalar. Yucatec refugees fled to Corozal in Belize. In May of 1848, the Belize Maya “with bows and arrows” attacked British mahogany camps near Hill Bank. They melted into the forest when British troops were sent to intercept them. The British were nervous. They could not take the Maya for granted.
Soon, the Maya were in control of four-fifths of the peninsula. Only Merida, Campeche and the villages nearby remained to be taken. The Hispanics began to make plans to abandon the peninsula to the Maya. But then, the tide changed. Most of the Maya abandoned the fight and never attacked Merida and Campeche. It seems that they had gone back home to plant their milpas.
Yucatec Forces Regroup and Retake Most of the Peninsula
The Maya took too long to launch their final offensive. Mexico City sent cash, more weapons, and troops. The Maya of the northwest were declared hidalgos (nobles) freed from taxes and from their hacienda debt if they enlisted to fight against the rebels. The United States and Cuba sent help. United States mercenaries from New Orleans came in to fight against the Maya. Merida and Campeche patched up their differences to fight against their common enemy. Then the Maya leaders began to fight among themselves. Cecilio Chi was murdered in December 1848 and in September 1849 Venancio Pec murdered Jacinto Pat. Valladolid was retaken. Bacalar was also retaken and from there the Yucatec forces tried to block war weapons reaching the Maya through Belize. By 1850, most of the 247,118 dead or missing in the war were Maya but the Yucatec forces sensing victory were not ready for peace. Their only concession they made was that instead of killing Maya prisoners, they would sell them as slaves in Cuba.
The Maya Split: The People of the Cross (Cruzob) versus the Pacíficos del Sur (later known as Icaiché).
In 1851, with the help of Peten priests, mayor Modesto Mendez brokered a peace between Yucatec forces and the Maya chief Angelino Itza of the southern Maya capital of Chichanhá. In retaliation, the Quintana Roo Maya attacked and destroyed Chichanhá taking prisoners including Itza. The civil war among the Maya had begun. In 1853, Jose Maria Tzuc, Itza’ successor got the British in Belize town to sponsor a more formal peace treaty between Yucatan and the southern Maya. In the agreement, the southern Maya agreed to accept the authority of Yucatan. In return, their taxes were abolished, they could elect their own leaders, retain the lands on which they lived, and maintain 400 armed troops to defend themselves against the Cruzob.
The People of the Cross (Cruzob) regroup and go on the Offensive
With the southern Maya “pacified”, and the Quintana Roo Maya having retreated to their forests, in-fighting among the Yucatec resumed: Merida versus Campeche and Conservatives versus Liberals. In 1853 a major cholera epidemic swept through the peninsula killing thousands. The Quintana Roo Maya turned to their God and He responded. Chief Jose Maria Barrera found a wooden, speaking Cross who told the Maya not to fear as He would lead his Chosen people, the people of the Cross, Cruzob. A church was built and the Cross spoke to His people from behind the altar.
In 1858, the Cruzob launched their offensive. Tekax was retaken, with hundreds massacred. Spoils of war were taken to buy more weapons. Bacalar was next. Most of the people fled hundreds arriving in Corozal. Forty-one prisoners were taken. The Maya demanded 8,000 pesos for the life of the prisoners. Corozal landowner James Hume Blake offered 2,000 pesos and 1,000 pesos in goods. When a report was received of in-coming Yucatec troops, the order was issued for the execution of the prisoners. Only eleven women and children were spared.
From their capital at Chan Santa Cruz, now Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the Cruzob managed the forest resources of Quintana Roo extending to the border with Belize. With income derived from royalty (license fees) for the cutting of mahogany and logwood, and for land rents on the Maya side of the Rio Hondo, the Cruzob continued to purchase weapons to continue the war on Yucatec forces in central and northeastern Yucatan. A Maya temple, balam na was constructed at Chan Santa Cruz (100 feet by 60 feet) in honor of the Holy Cross. The building had a wing that served as a school.
Cruzob government was headed by a Tatich the head of the army and of the Cruzob religion. Next were the generals, the Chief of Intelligence, and the interpreter of the messages of the Holy Cross. Medicine men and secretaries who could read and write were next in line. The majority of the men were farmers and soldiers, the macelhualob. In an ironic reversal of history, most of the slaves were captured white prisoners, recaptured deserters and some Chinese that had fled from Belize.
In 1863, the Cruzob again attacked Chichanhá in Campeche, this time razing it to the ground. Some 3,000 of the survivors fled deeper into the forest and founded the town of Icaiché. About 1,000 of the refugees arrived in the Yalbac area of western Belize founding a number of settlements with San Pedro as their capital led by Asunción Ek. Over the years, many of the Icaiché Maya would find their way to Belize founding villages along the Rio Hondo of the Orange Walk and Corozal districts.
Caste War refugees, whites, mestizos, and Maya brought with them their language and culture. Small scale entrepreneurs such as Manuel Jesus Castillo of San Antonio Rio Hondo, Florencio de la Vega of San Esteban and Basilio Grajález of San Roman brought with them small-scale sugar making technology, including the planting, harvesting and the processing of sugarcane into sugar and rum. Most of the Maya continued making their livelihood from their milpa and sometimes look for work in the sugar producing ranchos or in cutting logwood. Many of the injustices practiced on the Maya before the Caste War such as debt enslavement were also brought by the refugees to Belize.
The End of the Caste War
The continuing political conflict in Mexico persuaded some Conservatives to offer the government of Mexico to a “royal” person who might command the respect of the people. In 1863, Emperor Maximilian became king of Mexico. The Emperor declared Belize a part of Mexico and sent federal troops from Mexico City to crush the Maya. The plan failed. Liberal forces under the government of Benito Juarez captured Emperor Maximilian and in 1867 had him shot. By this time, the population of the Cruzob had been reduced to about 40,000. The decline continued and by the 1880s, the population reduced by disease, death in war, flight to many areas including Belize had reached about 10,000.
Despite their large population decline, the Cruzob pressed on with their struggle. The English in Belize sensed that sooner or later the Cruzob would be crushed, and they wished to remain on good terms with both the Mexican authorities as with the Cruzob. Moreover, the English wanted help to destroy the Icaiché (remnants of the southern Maya) who laid claim to parts of northwestern Belize launching raids against mahogany camps, Orange Walk and Corozal. In January 1884, as they began to negotiate a boundary treaty with Mexico, the English invited Yucatec and Cruzob authorities to discuss a peace treaty to end the war in Yucatan.
The deputy governor of Yucatan, Teodocio Canto, and Cruzob commandants Crecensio Poot, Aniceto Dzul and Juan Chuc met in Belize and arrived at an outline of the treaty. Unfortunately, in the celebration that followed the tacit agreement, Canto and Dzul got into a fight. The agreement was off.
But the English government continued its diplomatic efforts to conclude a boundary treaty with Mexico and in July 1897, Mexico ratified the treaty. Mexico recognized the Rio Hondo and the Blue Creek as its southern boundary with Belize and the English agreed to prohibit the arms trade with the Maya. In turn, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz sent General Bravo to strengthen Yucatan’s troops to smite the Cruzob a final blow. A railroad was built reaching the Cruzob capital. The Cruzob had nowhere to go except deeper into the forest. Huge tracts of lands were issued to large lumber companies. A floating fort named “Chetumal” was posted at the mouth of the Rio Hondo to block any weapons from reaching the Cruzob. The People of the Cross vowed to have nothing to do with Mexicans, their priests, or their schools. The year was 1901.
21.3 Discuss reasons why the Yucatan state and the Mexican federal government were not able to defeat the Maya rebels until 1901.
For the greater part of the 1800s until Porfirio Diaz became Mexico’s President in 1876, the federal government was very preoccupied. There was much political conflict, violence, and even civil war between many factions but principally between the Conservatives and Liberals.
By the middle of the century, President Santa Ana had overseen the loss of almost half of Mexico’s territory to the United States and in1846, Yucatan declared its independence for a second time. The Caste War forced Yucatan to come to terms with the federal government since the state could not get much military assistance from other countries for its war against the Maya.
The federal government also had to contend with the conflict between Campeche and Merida. As a major region of the Yucatan peninsula, Campeche and Merida were rivals. In the 1850s, Campeche was trying to separate itself from the state of Yucatan and in 1857 went to war against Merida. Finally, in 1862 the federal government made Campeche a state in its own right.
Then the federal government had inherited from Spain the longest indigenous rebellion in the Americas which lasted for about four centuries. The Yaqui people of northern Mexico had refused Spanish colonization and continued a war of resistance that was not crushed until 1929. In 1860 the Yaquis went on an offensive in alliance with the French who had invaded Mexico following the execution of Emperor Maximilian. By 1868 the offensive had been contained. It flared up again in the 1880s until its leader Cajemé was captured and executed. Again in 1896 and again between 1904-1909 the Yaquis took arms against the federal government. The enslavement and exile of Yaquis was a method used to suppress Yaquis resistance (much like the sale of Maya prisoners as slaves to Cuba).
So, we see that the Mexican federal government did not have the necessary resources, weapons, and men to help fight the Maya in Yucatan though they did send some assistance. Besides, they saw Yucatan as too distant and always threatening to break away from the federation. The assistance they offered to Yucatan was too little and ineffective in the type of warfare that the Maya were prepared to fight in the forests of Quintana Roo.
The state of Yucatan like the federal government did not have the resources, weapons, and enough troops to put down the Maya revolt. At various times, they were fighting against the federal government, the government of Campeche, and among local Conservatives and Liberals even when at the same time, they tried to contain the effective resistance of the Maya fighting in the forests that they knew very well. Maya fighters often retreated from their villages and returned after the invaders had left. Even when houses were set on fire, the Maya rebuilt very quickly. On the other hand, if the enemy attempted to stay put to defend territory taken over, they had to be ready for surprise attacks from a very mobile force that easily melted into the forests at will. The Maya had an excellent intelligence unit that provided information about the enemy. Captured leaders among the invading force were often executed, weapons taken, and foot soldiers were often enslaved. The Maya also decentralized day to day command to local village leaders who were well-known to the ordinary farmer/warrior and whose command they were most likely to obey.
The understanding between the Cruzob and the English in Belize through weapons dealers was of critical importance. In return for access to the mahogany and logwood of the Quintana Roo forests, the Cruzob obtained the resources to purchase gunpowder and rifles from Belize.
21.4 Discuss one political, one economic and one social impact of the Caste War of the Yucatan on Belize.
The Caste War of Yucatan 1847-1901 was prolonged, violent, and very costly in human lives and in the displacement of about half of Yucatan’s population, mostly Maya and Mestizo. This prolonged instability created uncertainty as to who would end up dominating the peninsula. The English in Belize did not have confidence that the Yucatec forces could on their own put down the rebellion. If the Maya won, would they cross the Rio Hondo and claim all of Belize as Emperor Maximilian did? It was important for the English to remain in good terms with the Maya and to be in a position to influence them in the manner that best suited their interests in selling British manufactured goods and in gaining access to forestry products in Yucatan.
But by the 1880s, it had become evident that the Mexican federal government was more prepared to intervene with massive force in Yucatan to destroy the Maya to gain access to the forests from which the English were benefitting, prevent a possible extension of English territory into Mexico, resume diplomatic relations with Great Britain to encourage more English investments in Mexico, and to stop the arms trade that the English enjoyed with the Maya. For her part, the English wanted to reinforce their claim to Belize as a British colony by coming to terms with Mexico regarding Belize’s north-western boundary, and its south-western boundary with Guatemala. The Spenser-Mariscal boundary treaty with Mexico ratified in 1897 hit the final nail on the Cruzob’s coffin since the English got the boundary defined and continued to negotiate access to mahogany from Quintana Roo through the new landowners of these resources.
One of the first socio-economic impacts of the Caste War on Belize was the sudden arrival of refugees, Maya, Mestizo, and Spanish Whites to mostly the northern and western districts of Belize. Most of the Maya and Mestizo were milperos, peasant farmers but at the same time, most if not all were willing to double up as laborers. Among the refugees were several Spanish white families with adequate working capital and know-how to establish small-scale sugarcane ranchos for the production of sugar and rum. John Carmichael and the British Honduras Company in Tower Hill and Hill Bank turned to sugarcane and rum production too upon learning from the migrants how to produce and process sugarcane with the labor of the Mestizo and Maya migrants. Soon, the Belize sugar industry was born.
The census of 1861 showed that of the 25,635 inhabitants of Belize, 57% were born outside of Belize mostly from Yucatan. Of the 11,799 Maya, Mestizo and Spanish whites who resided in northern Belize about 4,000 were Maya, 6,000 were Mestizo and over a thousand were Spanish White. Corozal and San Esteban became instant towns. Carmichael in Corozal rented house and milpa lots. Several ranchos and villages were founded. The population increase had the effect of reducing wage labor, increase the demand for goods and services, and allowed for the production of local foodstuffs that reduced their cost for workers in general. Land companies began investing in plantation agriculture for the first time and to expand their mahogany and logwood operations. Many of the Maya and Mestizo took to logwood cutting for sale to the large landowners who exported the dyewood. But as noted above, many of the ways in which workers were controlled in Yucatan were brought to Belize. The colonial government siding with the landowners and small rancho managers passed labor laws that favored the employers.
The Maya, Mestizo, and Spanish White migrants to Belize transferred their culture and language to northern Belize. Up to the end of the 1800s, Yucatec Maya was the lingua franca of northern Belize with Spanish a distant second language and English an even more distant third. Christianity had a strong Maya accent with a Mestizo and a Spanish white flavor and some strong stands of Jesuit Catholic, and lesser notes of Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist beliefs, and practices.
Village or rancho settlements were characterized by extended families, who subsisted primarily from the produce of the land. They cultivated land rented from the land companies from whom they sometimes sought employment. Of course, they also imported to Belize other cultural elements such as food, hand-woven cloth, hand-made shoes/moccasins, housing, medicine, domestic animals, and fiestas. The latter was a major cultural marker among the migrants with mestizadas associated with the worship of village patron saints.
A marked distinction was noticeable among the village clusters in the Yalbac area of western Belize where the Icaiché settled on lands of the British Honduras company. These Maya came to Belize with a socio-military form of village government headed by an alcalde who doubled up as commandant. Asuncion Ek who had been selected as commandant was recognized as the head of not only San Pedro Siris but also of the surrounding Maya villages. Attempts of the English to impose their rules such as the cutting of mahogany were met by a united and potentially deadly armed village militia as the English experienced on 21 December 1866 when a detachment of English troops sent to arrest Ek was humiliated by the determined armed resistance of the San Pedro Maya. The English troops fled leaving a small number of casualties in the field. The alcalde system of Belize was adapted from that imported by the Yucatec migrants to Belize.
21.5 Evaluate the gains and losses of the Maya that resulted from the Caste War of the Yucatan.
The sacrifice, the anguish, the experience of having to come together to fight for their lives, their livelihood, and for their self-respect made of the Maya people both the Icaiché and the Cruzob a more resilient and hardy people who at least for about half a century managed to stand up for what they believed were their rights. In Yucatan and though less so in Belize the White authorities were forced to tread cautiously in laws that required taxes and labor from the Maya. Their steadfast defense based on their village militias pressured the Yucatan state and Belize colonial governments to allow a fair degree of local autonomy to village leaders in the conduct of their village affairs through the alcalde system.
Most of the almost a quarter of a million casualties in the Caste War were Maya and Mestizos, who abandoned their homes and villages in Yucatan fleeing to other parts of Mexico, Peten, and Belize. Flight, death in war, death from disease and from other effects of war reduced the Cruzob population to the point where they could not field enough soldiers to continue the fight and therefore retreated deeper into the forests of Quintana Roo. Those who fled to Belize, for example, found similar injustices practiced on them in northern Belize as they had suffered in Yucatan. In Belize they were landless, abused by the authorities primarily because the laws were written mainly to protect the landowners and employers who for the greater part were Whites. In society, they continued to be regarded as socially inferior. The vast majority of the Maya of present-day Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche who were persuaded to give up fighting the Yucatan authorities and to return to earning their livelihood as before the Caste War had gained nothing from the sacrifices of those who paid dearly for choosing to stand up to injustices in Yucatan.
Text for this page was contributed by Dr. Angel Cal