Some of the weirdest, longest wars around have been on the other side of the Big River, but for some reason most American war nerds would rather read about Eurasian battles. Not sure why, except I remember when I was growing up, Mexico just seemed like a depressing place. That was because us gringos don’t go much past the border towns, which are as scummy as border towns anywhere. Once you get past the zebra-striped burro zone, it gets a lot more interesting—still depressing, but a lot more interesting.
I’ve written about a few of the bigger Mexican battles like Celaya, and Black Jack Pershing’s Elmer-Fudd hunt for Pancho Villa, but there was (still is, in fact) a longer, weirder war down in the Yucatan.
The Yucatan is where the Maya had their wacky world. The Mayans are the leading candidate for alien-bred humans, and you can see why when you look into them. They were weird even by local standards, little big-nosed people who had lots of interesting habits including building uninhabitable mini-pyramids, mutilating themselves to celebrate every holiday—you know it’s Arbor Day if the local Mayans are sticking sharp thorns into their dicks. An interesting set of people, with a kind of depth you don’t get from the Aztecs. Those Aztecs were pretty straightforward: We’ll kill ya, period. In that way the Aztecs were a good match for the Spanish, another bunch of shoot-firsters. The difference came down to weapons and the fact that the Spanish, who were a new brand in Mexico, hadn’t had time to piss off all potential allies like the Aztec had. By the time the Tlaxcalans and other tribes got their buyers’ remorse, they were already enslaved and the Aztecs were gone, another top-heavy over-centralized empire that fell fast.
The Maya were always a deeper, stronger people. By the time the Spanish arrived, their glory days were over, but they still had a sense of themselves as being worth something, empire or no empire, and they held on a lot longer than the Aztecs. It helped that the Spanish didn’t like the hot Mayan lowlands as much as the Aztecs’ central highlands, so the Mayans kept the numbers advantage. Not by much, though; fifty years after the Spanish arrived, the Mayan population was down to 150,000, maybe a tenth of what they had been. They died of European imports like smallpox, but the Spanish overlords died of good old tropical favorites like yellow fever and malaria, so they kept pace—in numbers, anyway: three Mayans for every Spaniard on the semi-healthy west side of the Yucatan, five Mayans for every Spaniard in the hotter east-side lowlands.
Disease discriminates, always has. The whites were able to settle North America because they came from a bigger gene pool than the Injuns; the Africans were able to hold on to Africa in spite of losing damn near every battle against the Euros for the simple reason that the white folks (red folks, if you asked the Africans—Euro skin turns red fast when it’s sweating in 110-degree heat yelling at slaves) came from a middling-big gene pool, compared to the Africans—they say there’s more genetic diversity in some African villages than in a lot of whole European countries.
So if Africa was a clear win for the local genes, and North America overall a clear win for the Euro imports, the Yucatan was a sort of a draw: the Europeans were able to kill off a lot of Mayans with new imported diseases, but the Mayans could count on their friends the mosquitoes and a whole bunch of parasites and gut worms to stand up for the home team.
I’m not even talking about intent here. War isn’t a law court; I don’t know how much the Euros wanted to donate smallpox to the Injuns, although we’ve all heard those stories about the Anglos generously contributing blankets crawling with the virus to the Algonquin. Intent doesn’t mean much; it’s a matter of death rate vs. death rate, and whether the other team cries or cheers at your funeral doesn’t make much difference.
The Mayans are harder to put out than a tire fire, and slower than a peat fire in the Delta. I remember those fires–we used to go up to fish Frank’s Tract every fall and you could smell the peat burning under your feet. Good way to think about guerrilla war: a peat fire in wet delta dirt.
The first encounters between Conquistadores and Mayans happened around 1512, and the last armed conflict between them was…lessee, what’s the date today? Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration but you can definitely call the neo-Zapatista uprisings in the 1990s another chapter in the Mayan pushback. Of course they had coffee-house urban Mestizos like what’s his name, “Comamandante Marcos,” some kind of professor, in command, but the troops were pure Mayan villager. Which makes damn near 500 years of fighting. Not at a steady pace, but then guerrilla war, ethnic war, never happens at a steady pace. If the Eastern Front in WW II is at one end of the spectrum, total war every day until one side is all dead, then this is close to the other end of the scale, slow misery year after year with occasional bursts of crazy chop-fests.
Even the first conquest took a long time, from the 1520s to the late 1540s. The Maya were hopelessly divided into local village groups—and although that hurt them tactically, I get the impression that in the long run it helped them. This is an interesting thing about guerrilla war: It can actually be much harder to stomp a divided irregular force than a totally organized one.
When the weaker tribe joins in a conventional army, it may win a lot of heroic battles but it won’t ever win the war. The Empire—Roman, Persian, British—can afford bad commanders, bad troops, lost battles, because it’s got a system already in place. The rebels lose one battle and then—zzap!—the enemy’s scum-of-the-earth conscripts are loose in your heartland and you’re lucky if half your village survives that little spree.
Or, to take a more what-they-call-topical example, Iraq—remember the ridiculous search for a Mister Big who could be grabbed and neutralized, ending the whole mess? That was all based on the idea there had to be an HQ, a single center to the insurgency. First it was going to be Saddam, then Zarqawi the Invisible, then, I don’t know, Gollum or something, but it never happened. They just divided by neighborhood and went into another long sulk, which’ll end with a bang one of these years.
So the Aztecs and Incas, overcentralized to the point of God-king crazy, fell like a Lego penthouse, but the Maya, all spread around the selva in sullen little villages, held out for 20 years.
“Peace” post-conquest: Mayan puppet (Hidalgo) strangling brother on Spanish command
Then something that you could call “peace” broke out. Funny thing about “peace”: that’s what the books written by the winners call what happens when the losers give up. It was peace if you were one of the Spanish overlords in your hacienda, with your pick of the fruit, meat and girls of all your peons; but it wasn’t exactly peace if you were one of those peons. There’ve been lots of comparisons of Dixie slavery and Maya peonage, usually to let some jerk off the hook, either a Spaniard vampire or plantation slave-breeder, but it’s closer to truth to say that they were both about as close to Hell on this earth as you can get without just killing the victim. Always makes me laugh when some smug bastards says the nasty rebels started the violence. There was plenty of violence before that, ya dummy. It was just all one way and didn’t make the news. “Violence” to these geniuses is what starts when the losing side starts fighting back.
Well this white-man’s-hacienda/red-man’s-Hell thing was not as Jimmuh Cartuh might say, the basis of a true an’ lastin’ peace. When you’ve truly crushed the slaves, like the Dixie planters did their Africans—forbidden them to use their tribal languages, mixed up tribe and tribe til you’ve got nothing but Alex Haley sad-sack Roots stories–then you really can have “peace”–if you wanna call it that. But when the slaves still remember who they are, like the Haitians and the Mayans did, you only get a generation or so of “peace” until the old dreams flare up after some ex-lord’s daughter gets taken up to the big house to be raped or some kid of noble blood gets beaten to death for not cutting enough henquen in his 14-hour shift. That’s how it was for the Mayans: They groveled when they had to, and fought back when they could.
The really bad times for the Maya—as compared to the bad times before—came after 1833, when the Spaniard Yucatecos realized the agave plants (henequen) that grew like weeds could be made into rope and other saleable stuff. They grabbed all the Mayans’ communal lands (ejidos) and made them into plantations, with the villagers as field slaves. People will do all kinds of sleazy stuff for a 700 percent profit, which is what you could make in the 1830s planting henequen. The whole discovery of henequen was a lot like the cotton gin: A clever little dealie that messed up the lives of a whole lot of people.
You’ll notice I’m calling the white overlords of the Yucatan Spaniards, not Mexicans. That’s cuz that’s what they were. When Mexico threw the Spanish out in 1821, los Peninsulares (the Spaniards) cleared out of the Highlands, but stuck around in the Yucatan, well out of reach of the new “Mexican” elite. So in every fight between whites and Mayans up to the 20th century, it was Spanish vs. Mayan, not Mexican vs. Mayan.
The biggest pushback by the Mayans was the Caste War, which ran longer than a Qadafi speech: something like 50 years, or up to 80, depending on how you keep score. The first shots were fired in 1847 and the last casualties among Mexican gov’t troops attacking a Mayan village to bring it under Federal control were recorded in 1933. Yup, 1933. Up in the snowy heartland of the hairy barbarians, us Alemani, FDR was having fireside chats; down there in the Maya lowlands, the very last village was taking KIA (five villagers vs two gov’t troops) to stay independent of Mexico—more than 80 years after the Maya started fighting back.
If you know your US military history you can guess why this biggest push started in 1847. Yup, we were having a little scuffle with our Mexi-friends, called (in these parts) the Mexican War. And when the news of the Anglo invasion hit Yucatan, the local Spaniards were so offended at the thought of Yanqui domination that they did the one thing slave-owners should never do. And what is that? All you prospective slave-owners better memorize this one: Never, never arm your slaves. The Confederates knew it, which is why Pat Cleburne, one of the finest Dixie officers around, never rose past division command: Bein’ a mere immigrant, he dared to suggest the obvious: “The slaves will fight for the Union if we don’t get them to fight for us.” The Rebel brass heard that and stuck Pat in division-level command long enough for him to get killed leading a suicidal (or like FoxNews would say, “homicidal”) charge at Franklin under Hood, a man not smart enough to shine Cleburne’s boots.
And they were right, the wackos: Slaveowners shouldn’t arm their slaves. It gives them ideas. The Spaniards armed their Maya peons, but the Yanquis never went as far south as the Yucatan. So…you’re a Maya,descendant of Cloud Jaguar 13 or some other offspring of the Hero Twins, and suddenly you’re holding this musket that used to be the symbol of Spanish rule. It’s going to occur to you sooner or later that you can point it in any direction you want, such as: At the forehead of the fat Spanish prick who beat your uncle to death, stole the communal lands and raped your little sister.
And they did. It wasn’t a pretty war; it won’t get made into any game (although it’d be great if somebody’d finally figure out how to game real irregular war). There weren’t a lot of set-piece battles. And that’s one reason the Maya lasted so long: Because victory in conventional battle is a trap to an ethnic guerrilla army, what architects call “an attractive nuisance.” Last thing you want is to control territory and parade in uniform. Mao tried to tell y’all that. Beats me why nobody listens to Mao; I don’t give a damn about his politics, the man was a military genius and the sooner we admit that the sooner we stop running around like fools.
The Maya, splintered into local forces, fought most of the war by bushwhacking any white who wandered into the selva, avoiding battles,cringing and groveling when soldiers came around, not worrying about anything beyond the village and the ejido. The one time they got together and fought as a single army is a good lesson in why instant peasant armies (“jacqueries” is the military-history word) don’t work so good.
The Spanish hit first, massacring a lot of villages after hearing that the Maya were getting together and holding on to their muskets. The Mayans retaliated by chopping up 80 Spaniards in Villadolid, which had a rep as a particularly nasty Spanish-only gated community. And so the dance began, the way it does in real wars: Massacre followed by massacre, not as “atrocity” but simple, sensible tactics, based on the fact that the land has to belong to one tribe or the other.
The Spanish, with better organization and weapons, were winning the massacre war. The Mayans were scared into a temporary—real temporary—unity push, so their united army marched on Merida, the big Spanish city on the north side of the peninsula, and had it completely surrounded in 1848. The story goes—I don’t know if it’s true, because it sounds too good to be—the story goes that the Spanish commander was ready to order the evacuation of Merida but there wasn’t enough paper in town to print up the notices. The few Spanish troops and militiamen he had under command were stretched along the road from Merida to the coast, guarding the civvies’ escape route. Everything was ready—but this guy, who must’ve been a bureaucrat’s dream man, couldn’t order the evacuation because there was no damn paper.
And so the big Spanish bug-out was delayed a day or so…and then, ta-da! The actual bugs arrived. One of those insect miracles, like the Mormon locusts: All of a sudden the sky around Merida was full of flying ants. It was the signal to the Maya peasants waiting outside the walls with their muskets and machetes to go home and plant their maiz (“You call it corn,” as the snotty fake Injun lady used to say in the commercial). That was the signal their fathers and father’s fathers, etc. had always used: Ants fly, plant corn. So, like a bunch of plain old walking ants, they went home. But they held on to their muskets.
That’s the weakness of peasant armies with no discipline: They’ll never win a decisive conventional battle. But when you see what happened in the long term, it’s the strength of those armies too. The Mayans didn’t surrender, then or ever. They dispersed, but held on to the eastern lowlands and as much of the west side as they could claim. There was no Mayan Mister Big to capture and kill, no head vampire to stake.
The Spanish had used up their miracle on the flying ants, and the Mayans, like a nerd turning in a set in Risk, decided to use theirs in 1850, after the Spaniards had pushed back and taken the west side—or at least the cleared parts. They managed to capture and kill the closest thing the Mayans had to a leader, Cecilio Chi. The Maya needed a miracle of their own.
And when the Mayan miracle popped up, it was classic Maya weirdness: A Talking Cross. The Mayans had a thing about trees—well, they had a lot of “things,” like you know how the Hero Twins insulted the Lords of Death in the big Maya epic poem? They call them “Users of Owls.” Oooh, that’s gotta hurt! “Mom, he called me a user a’ owls!
Their God-stories said the world came out of a tree, and the hero twins—I dunno, something else about a tree—so it was natural they’d tree up when it was time for a cause-saving miracle. The story went that lightning hit a bunch of trees on a hilltop and they burnt into the shape of a cross. Which was a pretty cool way to hit the perfect demographic mix, actually. The Cat’lics had already been around a while, and the Mayans had gone for that Muthah-Mary stuff in a big way, so some Mayan rebel Karl Rove type realized whoa, we’ve got the perfect story here, it’s got the Catholic cross thing and the Mayan tree thing all in one—and so the Croozoob, the “Cross People,” were launched.
Some people—probably Spanish sympathizers—say there actually was a local Mayan Karl Rove type who knew ventriloquism and made the tree “talk,” but ventriloquism to me is one of those things you believe in when you’re 11 and find out doesn’t work nearly as well as the movies tell you (like silencers). And more to the point, there are plenty of miracles in history that can’t be put down to somebody throwing their voice. What happens seems a lot simpler than that: When people are desperate, they’ll believe all kinds of crap. And after their leader Chi was killed, the Mayans were pretty desperate. They needed some sign God or gods or whoever was on their side, so they made one up.
The place where the tree started chatting was a village on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula that the Mayans called Chan Santa Cruz, which is another classic Cat’lic/Pagan name, because “Chan” apparently means “Great” in Mayan and “Santa Cruz” means no letter grades—no, actually it means “Holy Cross.” So even the name has that mix of language and gods you’d want if you were that grubby peasant Karl Rove running the show.
Chan Santa Cruz: Where Trees Talk without Shrooms
The cross kept it simple: It told the Mayans to keep fighting. They did, but they were too weak to stage another advance on the big Spanish city. They settled for holding an arc of malaria swamp around the village with the jabbery cross in it, which just happened to be in the center of the area where no Spaniards really wanted to live, and where the Maya outnumbered the whites 5:1. Miracles are wonderful the way they take demographics into account like that.
Like a lot of tribal wars, this one didn’t have a neat Appomatox ending. There was a treaty signed in 1855, but when you start to look at Mexican history—Hell, any history—your eyes start to glaze over when you see the word “treaty,” because you know it’ll mean about as much as the average UN- brokered African agreement. Nothing really changed. The Croozoob held that arc of land around Chan Santa Cruz, and machete’d any white dumb enough to wander around the selva; the Spanish still had all the money and connections, and treated the Mayans like crap the way they always had; and nobody in the Mestizo elite in Mexico City cared either way. For that matter, not many cared even in Merida; there was no profit to be got out of those eastern coastal lowlands anyway, so let the crazy cruzeros have them.
What finally made a difference was crop changes. Just like the henequen boom started the worst times for the Maya, the chewing-gum boom in the early 20th-c. broke their ethnic monopoly on the peninsula. Those trees that the Mayans loved so much didn’t just talk, they oozed a sap called “chicle,” which may sound familiar if you know anybody who chews “Chiclets.” That sap could be made to double yer flavor, double yer profits, and suddenly Mestizo peasants from the Highlands were pouring into the Yucatan to draw it. The pure Mayan feel of the place was diluted a little bit, which if you ask me is a good reason not to trust trees any more. Trees’ll turn on you as easily as a cat will, they’re just slower.
The whole war was a classic slow-cook crock-pot classic. Like I said, the last Mayan village fell to Mexican Army troops in 1933, but that doesn’t mean the others were already wearing suits and saluting the Snake’n’Eagle. They still believed in an underworld in those limestone caves under their feet and dropped offerings in the sinkholes (cenotes) that led the way down to where the “Users of Owls” lived. They still died of stuff that respectable people up No’th didn’t get any more. And they were still more than ready to march when the latest round of coffee-house Guevaras called them out a few years ago.
Which kind of raises the question: Who won?
Read more: war, Africa, mexico, Empire, celaya, pershing, pancho villa, yucatan, mayan, aztecs, spaniards, tlaxcalans, smallpox, europe, algonquin, conquistadores, zapatistas, commandante marcos, Yucatecos, Gary Brecher, The War Nerd
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