Nelson Reed opines that there were four definable areas in the Yucatan of 1847 – with distinct economic, political and social problems. These were Merida and the northwest; Campeche; the frontier; and Valladolid.
Merida was the center of the Yucatecan Ladino world. Campeche was the second city of the peninsula and the only Yucatan port until Merida developed Sisal in 1811.
Neither Campeche nor Sisal (both on the western coast of the Yucatan) was a natural port; tenders were necessary for oceangoing vessels, and “there was no protection from the dreaded norte, which brought fierce storms from the north.”
When Mexico became independent in 1821, Yucatan chose the federalist as opposed to the centralist philosophy of government, “a choice that drew on its experience as a separate entity under the Spanish Crown. Federalism became synonymous with liberalism rather than centralist-conservatism.”
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a liberal hero and at first a federalist in favor of states’ rights, changed sides after a term as president taught him that Mexico was a collection of weakly joined anarchic states and would need firm handling to become a nation. Beginning in 1835, his congress began to pressure Yucatan. “National troops were sent to garrison Yucatan and paid with state money, while Yucatecans were sent overseas to fight rebellion in distant Texas—a serious matter for the soldiers involved, for there was no provision for their return upon discharge. And those Texans were fellow liberals.”
In May of 1838, Santiago Iman, a captain in the Yucatan state militia, began a federalist revolt at Tizimin against centralist Mexico City. Defeated in the first skirmish, he received reinforcements when men of his former battalion seized the ship that was taking them to Texas and forced the captain to put them ashore. Iman was defeated in a second battle, however, and forced into hiding, whereupon a desperate idea occurred to him. The Indios had long been forbidden to bear arms, but had recently been forced to serve in the militia. Many of the Indios had shotguns; all of them carried machetes, and they were many in number. Iman recruited thousands of Indios with various promises and took Valladolid, whereupon the whole of Yucatan came to his assistance and drove the national Mexican troops from their last stronghold of Campeche in June of 1840. Yucatan declared independence.
Mexico City declared Yucatan ships outside the law and closed mainland Mexican ports, such as Vera Cruz, to them. The Yucatecans retaliated by hiring three ships from the Texas navy to guard the sea lanes between Vera Cruz and Yucatan.
Santa Anna returned to power in 1843 after being defeated and captured by the Texans. Santa Anna sent an ultimatum and an army to Yucatan, where Yucatecans were flocking to arms to defend the peninsula. Yucatan raised an army of 6,000 men, mostly among the Indios, who were promised land and, for the second time, a reduction of their church taxes. Among those Indios was a Maya named Cecilio Chi, chief of the village of Tepich, and a sergeant named Manuel Antonio Ay, both without arms except machetes.
Then the central government of Mexico City sent reinforcements by sea. “The Mexicans had overwhelming naval superiority—three steamers and four brigantines. Two of the Mexican steamers were the Montezuma and the Guadalupe, ironclad paddle wheelers equipped with the latest pivot guns bought from England. These ironclads were manned by British sailors and commanded by British officers on leave from the Royal Navy.”
In response, the Yucatecans turned to Texas to rehire the Texan navy. This is a whole story in itself, involving a Texan Commodore named Edwin Moore, who disobeyed orders from Texas president Sam Houston to return to Texas, and instead sailed south to Merida and Campeche.
In my Tuesday column this week, I told you that the pre-Caste War story and the situation in Mexico before the 1847 war were complex. If you really want to understand the pre-Caste War situation in Yucatan and Mexico, not to mention Texas, then you have to read Nelson Reed’s book, although, since Reed’s first edition in 1963, many, many papers and books have been written about the Caste War. I must point out that where you see quotation marks in this column, this means these are Nelson Reed’s words. Let me continue.
In skirmishes between Mexican soldiers and Yucatecan troops near Merida, more than one hundred men were killed or wounded on each side. The Yucatecans, under the command, of Colonel Sebastian Lopez de llergo, a Meridano, were considered the victors, and llergo was promoted to general.
In April of 1843, the Texan sloops, Austin and Wharton, appeared with thirty-three medium-range cannons between them, to strengthen Yucatan. But the Guadalupe, featuring well-trained English gunners, was the world’s first ironclad steam-driven warship. “It had only four guns, but they were two times and four times heavier and had a much longer range than the weapons of their adversaries.” The Montezuma was of wooden construction, but had eight modern cannons. “There were four other Mexican sailing ships with a total of thirty-six guns, but the steamers were the heart of the matter and could be expected to reduce the Texan ships to burning, sinking hulks before they got within range to reply.”
But the battle went in the Texans’/Yucatecans’ favor. On the Guadalupe, forty-seven were killed and sixty-four were wounded. On the Montezuma, forty were killed and wounded. Among the Texans/Yucatecans, five were killed, twenty-two wounded. The invasion of Yucatan was over.
“Following the Mexican-American War, and with a stronger sense of nationality, a remembrance of Yucatecans hiring Texans to fight Mexicans might not have been politically correct. For the Yucatecans of that time, revolting Federalists in alliance with another revolting federalist state was proper and the money well invested.”
But the Yucatecan leaders had to realize that independence was not practical. Plus, there was the problem of what to do about the land promised to the Indio volunteers. So many had enlisted that it was considered impossible to reward them all.
“His Serene Highness Lopez de Santa Anna had signed the treaty of reincorporation in December 1843. But the treaty terms and the defeat of his army and navy galled him, and two months later he reneged, banning the entry of all products of Yucatan to Mexican ports.” Then he appointed a governor.
Well, what happened then? There was protest in Yucatan, then a declaration of independence by the Merida garrison, and the election of Miguel Barbachano as provisional governor.
The Mexican-American War began in 1846. Santa Anna, overthrown and exiled that year, ended up promising Yucatan its full rights as listed in the 1843 treaty. Barbechano chose to believe Santa Anna.
But, intimidated by the Texas navy, Campeche revolted against Mexico. The Campechanos marched towards Merida.
In January of 1847, troops which featured the Indios defeated the Barbachanista militia, a second victory of Maya Indians against whites.
Around the same time, a Barbachano unit murdered the leaders of the Maya of Tabi. Maya troops under Colonel Antonio Trujeque, hearing of the murders, stormed Valladolid three days after the executions, and a slaughter of the inhabitants resulted. It was very, very bad. Bonifacio Novelo led a lynch mob to the suburb of Sisal. “A paralyzed curate was macheted in his hammock; upper-class girls were stripped and raped before their helpless relatives, then tied spread-eagled to the grillwork of windows and mutilated.”
“Violent emotions cloud the facts. Even cannibalism was included in the charges. The sack continued for six days, during which at least eighty-five civilians were murdered.”
This would be described as the beginning of the Caste War.