Trust Me On This : No Happy Ending

<i> Mark I. Pinsky is a Times staff writer</i>

A 29-year-old, academic history of an obscure 19th-Century uprising might not spring to mind as the ideal traveling companion. But I have found that in a decade of annual visits to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, each accompanied by a different book about the Maya and their ancient civilization, nothing has affected me as indelibly as Nelson Reed’s “The Caste War of Yucatan” (Stanford University Press). And, as with the best travel guides, I strongly suspect that an armchair traveler would be equally impressed, especially in light of the recent armed uprising of Maya peasants in neighboring Chiapas.

Reed’s account is admittedly a bloody Baedeker. “There should be enough battles in this book for anyone’s taste,” Reed notes whimsically in the introduction, “but readers must be warned that the shooting doesn’t start until Chapter 3.”

In January of 1847, the Maya rose against their European masters, called Creoles, in a six-day eruption of urban warfare and mob violence that rivaled in its savagery the worst of the French revolution’s Reign of Terror. The incident, in the city of Valladolid, sparked a revolt known as “The War of Castes” that lasted 65 years and cost more than 200,000 lives. Barely mentioned in Yucatan’s tourist literature or development brochures--or even Mexican textbooks, which consider it a minor sideshow to the nation’s history--this story can easily escape even a regular visitor to the peninsula’s ruins and resorts.


With Reed’s book in hand, I saw many of the ruins and cities I thought I knew well in a profoundly different, sometimes disturbing, light. But the darker prism of “The Caste War” only deepens a traveler’s appreciation, providing unexpected insight into the psyche of the enigmatic Maya and their modern descendants.

Once you have consumed Reed’s work--and “consume” is the way most describe their reading experience--it is impossible to view the modern Maya is precisely the same way. This is especially true for me on those not infrequent occasions when an Maya slips from a jungle trail on the road, machete slung on his belt, from some back-country, slash-and-burn rancho in the interior. For this history is more than just a picturesque background: His grandfather might have fought in a rebel army.

Yucatan’s three preeminent cities--Valladolid, Merida and Campeche--had for years after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 been jockeying for power. In internecine skirmishes, the cities’ Creole elites fought each other and, in various combinations, the central government in Mexico City. Weary of doing the battling themselves, the Europeans raised militias from local Maya, over whom they claimed lordship, treating the Mayas as slaves, serfs and, finally, as cannon fodder.

After one skirmish between rival municipal militias, a company of Maya soldiers marched on Valladolid, flushed with success. In the city, which banned both Mayas and mixed bloods from its center, the Maya began to celebrate with the local brew, aguardiente, and then ran amok, massacring the local Creoles and hacking to death their own light-skinned officers. The battle cry of the warriors in breechclout, echoing Paris’ sans-culottes, was: “Kill everyone in trousers!”

Several months after the Valladolid rising, a full-fledged rebellion exploded in the nearby town of Tepich. It was an epic struggle--at one point in the war the rebels had captured nearly the entire peninsula, to the gates of Merida and Campeche in the west. But with total victory in sight, they decided it was time to go home to plant maize. Even after several military and political disasters and numerous plots and betrayals led to their ultimate “pacification” around 1910, the rebels managed to hang on to Yucatan’s Caribbean coastal jungle--much of what became the unassimilated Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

For modern travelers to the area, most of whom are drawn to ancient Maya ruins like those of Chichen Itza and Tulum, touring with “The Caste War” in hand adds another dimension. Even a favorite tourist haunt like Isla Mujeres, the sleepy village off the coast of Cancun, was settled by descendants of frightened Creoles who fled their haciendas on the mainland during the uprising.

The chill I have experienced on visits to Chichen Itza I long supposed was due to all the blood in the ground at the spiritual center, which I always took to be ritual, symbolic and ancient: Here, more than a thousand years ago, Maya priests ripped the still beating hearts from captives atop pyramids, and threw bejeweled young people into the sacred cenote. But these were not the only sacrifices. During the Caste War, hundreds of Mexican prisoners were massacred by rebels beneath the stone arch of the nearby hacienda.


The Caste War rebels became masterful guerrillas, early practitioners of biological warfare and superb tacticians. They poisoned wells in abandoned villages in the path of their advancing enemies by tossing in clothes from dead cholera victims; dipped thorn bush branches in the decaying bodies of foxes and left them for the barefoot Creole soldiers; dug concealed pits above sharpened stakes; and learned to advance before gunfire by lying on their backs and rolling large stones with their feet toward the enemy.

On a larger scale, the rebels exploited differences among their white opponents--including Yucatan’s inter-city rivalries--and took advantage of geopolitical events that distracted the attention of the central government: the Mexican-American War; Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico; and Mexican designs on neighboring British Honduras, now Belize.

There was also American military involvement, almost all of it opposed to the Maya rebels, in the persons of freebooting veterans of the Mexican and Civil War. When the Caste War capital of Chan Santa Cruz fell to the Mexican government in 1901, Edward Thompson, the American consul to Yucatan, wrote to his superior, an assistant secretary of state: “The reconquering of this territory is of importance to the United States for it means the opening of large tracts of land containing mahogany, cedar logwood and sapote. It has been a tantalizing proposition to many Americans, but until now the obstacles have been hard to surmount. Those obstacles will soon not exist.” Sure enough, two years later J. Pierpont Morgan, Cyrus McCormick and the Deering brothers formed International Harvester, and before long the cordage of Yucatan’s sisal crop was controlled by the “Twine Trust.”

In light of this history, I wonder how that Mayan standing by the side of the jungle road, machete in his belt, sees me. Am I equally the heir of the American soldiers of fortune and economic imperialists, as he is the heir of heroic rebels? Does he see me as just the latest in a long line of Yankee visitors to the neighborhood who have come to loot archeological sites, exploit natural resources, “save” souls, subvert the government or administer well-meaning but ineffectual aid programs?

It is tempting to distance myself from this legacy by simply romanticizing the Caste War, simplifying the struggle and elevating the rebels to Spartacus status. Walking the crumbling walls of Tulum, an ancient Maya city overlooking the Caribbean Sea, lolling on its sheltered beach, climbing the temple that faces the sea--from which two lights marked the passage through the reef to ocean-going canoes--I think of the beleaguered Mayan rebels in the final stages of their revolt, defending the last pockets of resistance.

“The Caste War” was published in 1964 by Stanford University Press, and has sold steadily since then. In the U.S., it is used as the standard college text on the war. There have been eight Spanish language editions published in Mexico, where it is also still considered the definitive work, although one reviewer in Merida charged the book was “anti-white,” Reed told me in a telephone interview from St. Louis.


Reed, a twice-wounded veteran of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army and winner of the Bronze Star in World War II, wandered into Yucatan in 1948 while on summer vacation from Washington University. It was in the town of Bacalar, he wrote in the forward, that he was inspired to write what has become the classic work on the subject.

“I was surprised to find the overgrown ruins of a Spanish colonial town, including a church and moated fortress picturesquely situated on a hill above a lake,” he wrote. “A few people lived there, and a missionary priest had partially repaired the church, but street after street of roofless buildings stood as evidence of its past. In answer to my questions, I was told that the place had been destroyed by Indians in something called the War of the Castes.”

At the time, Reed was at a crossroad in his life, studying painting before he was expected to join the family business in St. Louis. Captivated by the history he stumbled across, he began 15 years of research into the Maya uprising. He taught himself Spanish, haunted archives in Mexico and Belize and traveled by bus, mule and canoe to interview survivors of the rebellion and their descendants.

After writing “The Caste War,” Reed spent the next 25 years with Reed Oil Rubber Co. He also worked on a number of archeological digs in the United States and, as a part-time research associate at Washington University, lectured to college classes. He retired from the family firm in 1991, a year after publishing “Family Papers,” a study of his colonial Virginia forebears. Now, at 67, he is at work on a novel based on the life of Gonzalo Guerrero, a shipwrecked 16th-Century Spaniard who became a Mayan chief famed for battling invading Conquistadors on the Yucatan coast.

About seven years ago, Reed made his last visit to Yucatan, invited by the governor of Quintana Roo State to a conference on the Caste War held in the capital of Chetumal. During the conference, Reed said, incendiary pamphlets in the Maya language were slipped under hotel room doors by local communists, who claimed kinship with the Caste War rebels, appropriating it as part of their own revolutionary legacy.

Whether or not those communist guerrillas were the rightful standard-bearers of the Caste War rebels is debatable, but what is certain is that the old revolutionary spirit has not been extinguished in Yucatan. In the villages of the interior, the Maya have been left to govern their own day-to-days lives. Over the past decade, the Maya’s insurgency has been most broadly manifested by electoral opposition to Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI.


This is in marked contrast to the Maya peasants of Chiapas, about 1,000 of whom mounted an armed insurgency on New Year’s Day, which cost more than 100 lives, but not before seizing and occupying eight cities and town before it was crushed by the Mexican army. As recently as December, the Maya of Yucatan demonstrated in large numbers in Merida, protesting what they said was the PRI’s widespread fraud at the polls during recent state elections: The heirs of their Creole masters had triumphed again.

The Caste War combined the worst aspects of race, class and communal struggles. With barbarism on both sides, quarter was rarely asked and rarely given. In its set-piece battles, with artillery used by both sides and village-by-village campaigns decided by machete, the war was reminiscent of better-known, late 18th-Century peasant uprisings. In its brutality, the Caste War rivaled 20th-Century European civil wars in Spain, Greece and the former Yugoslavia.

“It was a human tragedy, of course, for everyone involved,” Reed said. “There was no happy ending.”

Trust Me on This is an occasional feature in which writers make a case for that forgotten, obscure or unsung book that they put in everyone’s hands with the words: “Read this. You’ll love it. Trust me on this.” “The Caste War of Yucatan” is available in paperback from Stanford University Press.