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From The Publisher

PublisherFrom The Publisher

After carefully reading most of Professor Christine A. Kray’s 2023 book – Maya-British Conflict At The Edge Of The Yucatecan Caste War, I understand some of why the British could not afford to teach us Belizean colonial subjects anything about the Caste War in the Yucatan, which began in 1847. The basic problem was disputed territory in the area of northern Belize where British woodcutter/settlers were cutting down mahogany trees to trim into logs for export to Great Britain and the United States. There were three different Maya groups which were demanding rent from the British companies who were cutting the mahogany. 

Wikipedia has pointed out, as I quoted in last Friday’s column, that the British East India Company which exploited pre-independence India, controlled three armies, which meant that they controlled twice as many soldiers as the official British Army.

So how were the British woodcutter companies and merchants being protected from the Maya groups, two of which were hostile to the British? The more hostile of these two groups was the Icaiche Maya of Chichanha (southwest Yucatan), also referred to as Pacificos. The second of the two groups was the San Pedro Maya, whose leader for most of the Caste War period was Asuncion Ek. Asuncion Ek wanted a peaceful, mutually profitable relationship with the British, but he was under great pressure from within his own group, and from the Pacificos at Chichanha.

It appears to me that the San Pedro area was within what is now northwestern Belize territory, whereas Chichanha is in the southwestern area of the Yucatan near Campeche.

The third Maya group, the Santa Cruz Maya, also known as the Kruso’ob, mostly maintained business relations with the British woodcutting companies, the British Honduras Company (BHC) and Young, Toledo & Co. (YTC), because the British were the source of the guns and gunpowder they needed to fight the Yucatecos (Spanish upper classes) and the Pacificos, who had signed a treaty in 1853 with the Yucatecos which made them enemies of the Kruso’ob.

In previous columns, I have explained to you that after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the centralist government in Mexico City frequently had armed disputes with the federalist-thinking Yucatan, which entertained ideas of being independent. One of the reasons for the Caste War was that the federalists in the Yucatan began to recruit Maya men to fight in their armies. These Maya had been cruelly victimized for centuries, but now the Yucatecan upper classes had found a use for them, a military use which emboldened those Maya who had fought successfully with the Yucatecan federalists.

In the beginning of the Caste War, there had been basic unity at the Maya base, but then there arose disagreement between the Chichanha Pacificos and the Santa Cruz Kruso’ob. Then the San Pedro Maya emerged as a factor in all the disputes and violence which were taking place in the aftermath of the Caste (Social) War.

It seems to me that the basic weapon the upper echelon Yucatecos had been using against the roots Maya was a system of debt servitude, a system similar to that which the British mahogany companies used to keep their workers in a condition almost like slavery. Workers on both sides of the Rio Hondo were advanced money and soon began finding themselves sinking deeper and deeper into debt, a debt from which it seemed they would never emerge. So, workers were running both south and north across the Rio Hondo in order to escape what amounted, to repeat, almost to slavery.

For most of my life, I found it quite difficult to understand the circumstances under which, and the process by which, the settlement of Belize became a British colony (British Honduras) in 1862. Then, there was another confusing (to me) development whereby British Honduras became a Crown Colony. 

The British base in the settlement/colony was Belize Town, and even though I read Professor

Kray’s book as if I were preparing for an exam, there was so much confusing violence and shifting alliances taking place in the disputed areas in Belize’s north and Yucatan’s south, not to mention Guatemala’s east in the Peten, that I think you have to read Professor Kray’s book for yourself. I can’t condense this material for you in a column.

Corozal is a factor in these happenings, because wealthy Yucatecos who were not Maya had come across from the Yucatan and were doing very profitable business in sugar and rum production. The British were selling gunpowder to the Kruso’ob across the presumed border (the Rio Hondo). The border treaty between the British and the Mexican government, Spencer-Mariscal, was not signed until 1893.

From 1866 until he was killed in 1872, Marcos Canul, the Icaiche Pacifico leader, and his second-in-command, Rafael Chan, were raising hell where demands on the British companies were concerned. Asuncion Ek wanted an arrangement with the British, but there was in the war zone a leadership style amongst the Maya which Professor Kray describes as “personalistic.” Maya leaders were frequently killed by their own if they became “soft.” Ek went with Canul in fear of his own life.

Details of the military activities of the British West India Regiments at the time have been basically swept under the rug.

I end with a quote from pg. 21 of Professor Kray’s book: “Canul was mortally wounded (1872), and although Maya groups would continue to lay claim to the western region of Belize for decades to come, the San Pedro Maya and the Pacificos never again took up arms against the British. From the colonial period through the nineteenth century, therefore, the region of Belize continued to be a place where Maya people fled to escape military conflict, oppressive taxes, debt burdens, and forced labor, including the military draft.”   

P. S. Perhaps the single most humiliating incident for the mighty British in the Yucatan Social War era of violence and instability, an incident which the British would not have wanted their colonial subjects in Belize to know about, took place in 1860 when a new British superintendent, Thomas Price, was holding over for Frederick Seymour, who had gone on “a leave of absence.”

Four Maya murder suspects were the subject of a manhunt by the Second West India Regiment, a manhunt in which Price joined.

In January of 1860, the Kruso’ob, under the leadership of Venancio Puc, who appears to have been an alcoholic, had won a great victory over three thousand Yucateco forces after setting a trap for them at Chan Santa Cruz, the Kruso’ob home base.

Various raids into British territory and shows of force by the Kruso’ob precipitated the Plumridge-Twigge expedition, as British officials, in Kray’s words, were “shocked, offended, and plainly scared by Kruso’ob leadership.”

In late March of 1860, then, Price sent two lieutenants, James J. Plumridge (Third West India Regiment) and John Thomas Twigge (Royal Engineers) to tell Venancio Puc that the Kruso’ob should stop coming over to the “British side” and should offer restitution for cattle seized from the British settlement. If they did not, British troops would be sent against them.

When the Plumridge-Twigge expedition reached Chan Santa Cruz, after a four-day journey, a group of Kruso’ob soldiers seized them, held them in a guard room for hours, and marched them to the church at midnight, where they were ordered to kneel before the Talking Cross.

The next morning, the lieutenants were taken before Venancio Puc, who was drunk and belligerent. Puc forced a spoonful of Cayenne pepper into Mr. Twigge’s mouth and compelled him to drink a glass of aniseed afterwards. He made Plumridge swallow aniseed until he vomited. The British lieutenants were held for three more days and repeatedly called before Puc, who in these meetings hauled and pulled them about, slapped them on the head, gave them aniseed, made them kiss him and hug him up, and made them dance and sing. Finally, the officers were released with a reminder/order to send a thousand arrobas of gunpowder to Chan Santa Cruz.       

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