A little-known citizen of Tizimín, in remote northeastern Yucatán, started a rebellion that became a revolution and created the independent Republic of Yucatán. In the war that followed, Yucatán defeated Mexico and proudly remained an independent nation for some seven years.
In 1835, Santiago Imán y Villafaña was not a happy man. His comfortable life in Tizimín had been disrupted. Estate owner, merchant, and captain in the local militia, he was becoming violently unpopular. The militia had always been an easy duty, but now the national government was requiring him to supply troops to fight in far-away Texas. Men were fleeing conscription, disrupting labor markets already troubled by falling sugar prices. Imán was even having trouble finding workers to plant his corn.
To escape the role of villain, unwillingly acquired by dragooning hapless locals into military service, Imán began a minor protest movement. Authorities court-martialed him and threw him in jail for his efforts.
Yucatán was seething with resentment in the late 1830s. The presidency of Antonio López de Santa Anna had brought control of the state to the Centralists, who represented the interests of wealthy landowners, clergy, and military, with authority centered on the president. Yucatán had favored Federalism, with a balance of power among the three branches of government and considerable self-rule for the states. Santa Anna had revoked the liberal Constitution of 1824, converted the autonomous states into dependent departments, and installed governors of his liking. Further, the Centralist government ignored the interests of states on the periphery, such as Yucatán, and imposed onerous taxes and military levies to deal with the revolution in Texas.
Released from prison for alleged health reasons after nine months, Santiago Imán began plotting a full-scale revolt. By this time, the military had shipped three thousand men out of Yucatán. In Texas, Yucatecan soldiers were at the Alamo. Objections to the “exterior” war increased after the disastrous Mexican defeat at San Jacinto. Mass desertions began in 1838 as Santa Anna demanded more forces to fight the so-called Pastry War against the French in Veracruz.
Protests erupted in Yucatán, and rumors about overthrow of the Centralists were everywhere. In a serious clandestine plot, a group of prominent Federalists pledged to begin an insurrection on May 29, 1839. Only Santiago Imán actually did it.
At the head of a band of dissatisfied soldiers and deserters, Imán took over Tizimín and made raids on nearby towns. The main interest of his followers seems to have been looting, especially church ornaments. When confronted by real Centralist soldiers, they fell back in defeats at Espita and Chan Cenote. Forced out of Tizimín, Imán retreated southeast toward Chemax.
In a last-ditch effort, Imán made two fateful decisions — he mobilized the Maya and declared that Yucatán should be independent of Mexico.
Militias had previously excluded the Maya, and even when a few began to be admitted in the 1830s they had no arms, training, or uniforms. Imán won the support of some local Maya leaders, who brought along their enthusiastic followers. He provided them with the first arms they had had since the Conquest, promised land free from exploitation, and pledged to eliminate the church taxes especially hated by the rural poor.
With renewed energy, the rebel forces grew rapidly, joined by many Maya peasants and workers from the cane fields. Refugee Haitian soldiers from San Fernando de Aké joined. Several boatloads of conscripts on their way to Veracruz mutinied and returned to join Imán. They retook Tizimín, and in June the eastern towns of Tihosuco and Peto joined the uprising. They terrorized the wealthier citizens into providing money and provisions. Although still isolated in the northeast, Imán created a rival government and proclaimed Yucatán to be an independent Federalist republic.
Yucatán had precedents for independence. As far back as colonial times, the province often had a status separate from the other lands that became Mexico. When Yucatán had declared allegiance to the Mexican Republic back in 1823, after flirting with independence for seven months, it was explicitly as a Federated Republic, and not otherwise. A neighboring part of Mexico had seceded peacefully and become the independent Federal Republic of Central America, though later fragmenting into separate nations. Most importantly, there was the immediate example of Texas, which was successfully maintaining its independence after winning it by force of arms. Also in the north, the Republic of the Rio Grande — the states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas — was fighting for independence. It appeared to many that Mexico was coming apart, with revolts springing up in several other regions. Could Yucatán possibly go it alone? Imán took a stand, while the politicians dithered.
Imán’s growing force attacked Valladolid, the largest town in the east, on February 8, 1840. The town had been weakened by a cholera epidemic and fell easily. The thousands of victorious troops, mostly Maya, sacked the city. Within weeks, all Yucatán fell to the Federalist side. Mérida welcomed Imán as a liberator, with festivities, ringing bells, and cannon salutes. Finally on June 6, the city of Campeche surrendered after a brief siege.
Mexico declared war on Yucatán. They proclaimed Yucatecan vessels to be pirates, blockaded the ports of Campeche and Sisal, and began organizing a military force to invade the peninsula.
Yucatán’s independence was provisional, not an absolute separation like that of Texas. Reunification might take place if Mexico returned to Federalism and restored the liberal constitution of 1824. Should Yucatán maintain the provisional status, declare absolute independence, or rejoin Mexico under some special conditions? Arguments and negotiations dominated politics for years.
On August 20, 1840, the Congress of Yucatán elected Santiago Méndez Ibarra and Miguel Barbachano y Tarrazo as Governor and Vice Governor. Méndez essentially became the President of Yucatán, although that title seems to have been used inconsistently. These two gentlemen alternated in the governorship during most of the existence of the Republic. Although both were Federalists and natives of Campeche, they were often at odds, identified with opposing interests in Campeche and Mérida. Through endless political wrangles, Barbachano and his Mérida colleagues pushed for absolute independence, while Méndez and the Campeche faction tended to favor continued negotiations for rejoining Mexico.
Santiago Imán received the honorary title of Brigadier General and two square leagues of land — about 9,000 acres — near Sucopó, east of Tizimín. In October he went back to private life, promising more military action if needed, and faded into obscurity.
On March 16, 1841 an armed crowd led by Barbachano forced the independence issue. They broke into a City Council meeting in Mérida and demanded that the Council assert its authority to the Congress and demand absolute independence. Amid great enthusiasm, some partisans climbed to the roof and raised the new flag of Yucatán. After long and acrimonious debates, the Chamber of Deputies finally made it official by adopting the Act of Independence of Yucatán on October 1, 1841. The new nation celebrated its independence with a parade of 150 Maya troops in Mérida’s main plaza, uniformed with blue sashes added to their white cotton peasants’ clothing. Before assembled citizens, the flag of Yucatán rose over the governor’s palace, and soldiers and bands carried the flag through the streets to rousing cheers. Revelry continued for several days.
Congress adopted a new Constitution for the Republic of Yucatán, one of the most advanced of its time. Distinguished jurist Manuel Crescencio Rejón was a primary author. The Constitution of 1841 guaranteed individual rights, religious freedom, direct popular elections, jury trials, press freedom, abolition of military and ecclesiastical privileges, and subordination of the military to Congress. A key feature was introduction of a new legal form called amparo, devised by Rejón to protect the fundamental rights of citizens and corresponding in part to habeas corpus in English common law. Amparo is now an essential part of the Mexican legal system.
However, some other new laws, designed to promote industry and agricultural capitalism, seem less enlightened. Land used in common by Maya farmers was declared “vacant” and sold at low prices for development. Draconian laws prohibited vagrancy and enforced debt peonage. These measures seriously disrupted the already fragile Maya society and came to have disastrous unintended consequences.
Governor Santiago Méndez still delayed a final independence vote in the Senate, hoping to reach some agreement with Mexico that would avoid the imminent invasion. Mexican President Santa Anna commissioned Andrés Quintana Roo, a hero of the War of Independence, distinguished politician, and native of Yucatán, to negotiate reintegration. In November 1841, Quintana Roo obtained a compromise agreement in which Yucatán would retain limited sovereign rights. Santa Anna rejected it. Under attack for lack of action, Méndez surrendered the government to Barbachano. Yucatán remained precariously independent, and the invasion was on.
In August 1842, four Mexican warships appeared off the coast of Carmen Island (now Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche). A few days later, soldiers took the island without resistance. Reinforced with four thousand troops from Veracruz, but struck by a typhus epidemic, the Mexican forces moved slowly up the coast. They took Champotón and Lerma, won a battle at Chiná, and laid siege to Campeche. The Mexican commander, General Matías de la Peña y Barragán, had orders to march on Mérida, but he failed to breach Campeche’s thick walls and was having difficulties with supplies. Facing a large Yucatecan force, he judged advance to be impractical and instead moved about half his men by sea to the northern coast at Telchac Puerto.
Yucatecan forces under Sebastián López de Llergo, well informed of the enemy’s movements, force-marched north up the Camino Real and through Mérida to an encampment at Concal. Peña advanced from the coast through lightly defended Telchac Pueblo and Motul, then won a nine-hour battle at Tixcocob. He arrived before Mérida at Hacienda Pacabtún, within sight of the rooftops of the capital. But his supplies were near exhaustion, and any element of surprise had been lost. Mérida was well defended by the Yucatecan army, and an informant advised Peña (probably falsely) that eleven thousand Maya reinforcements were about to arrive. Local security forces and citizens had hurriedly put up defensive works in Mérida’s eastern neighborhoods, through San Cristóbal and Mejorada north to the plaza of Santa Ana. On April 16, General Peña withdrew the Mexican forces to Tixpéhual, eight miles to the east, where he proposed to regroup and negotiate. The Yucatecans moved quickly and surrounded the retreating Mexicans. Forced to surrender on April 24, 1843, Peña agreed to total withdrawal of his troops and payment of indemnities for damages.
Yucatán also prevailed in a naval battle a few weeks later — but that’s another story. Mexico evacuated the peninsula while retaining control of Carmen Island, a strategic base for possible future action.
Yucatán had been victorious, but the loss of trade with Mexico was causing deep economic problems. Delegations were exchanged and political arguments continued, all without results. Finally, in December 1843, Méndez, back in the governorship and under pressure from bankrupt commercial interests in Campeche, used emergency powers to sign an agreement with Santa Anna. Yucatán was to rejoin Mexico with a special status, retaining some elements of sovereignty.
Yucatán prepared to resume trade with Mexico, and the Republican government elected delegates to the national Congress. But the reunification was short-lived and never genuine. Mexico quickly abrogated the agreement and continued to enforce trade restrictions, treating Yucatán like a foreign country for its most important export products. Both Mexican and Yucatecan legislatures ruled the agreement illegal. Dissatisfaction with the arrangement grew, and the pro-independence Barbachano forces remained powerful. The Mexican Congress finally revoked the agreement in December 1845. The Congress of Yucatán reasserted its independence on January 1, 1846. Barbachano took over as governor.
The Republic of Yucatán remained standing among the nations of the world, never conquered by Mexico, deeply troubled, but still defiantly independent.
By Robert D. Temple.
The historic flag of the Republic of Yucatán has red-white-red bands on the right and a green field with five stars on the left. The stars represent the Republic’s five departments — Mérida, Izamal, and Valladolid, west to east, occupying its northern third; Campeche, the southwestern third; and Tekax, the southeastern third. The flag was variously used on ships and buildings during the period of independence, then made illegal after eventual reunification with Mexico. Today it is popular as a civic symbol in the State of Yucatán.
The Hacienda Pacabtún, scene of the almost-battle when the Mexican army threatened Mérida in 1843, is still identifiable. Modern explorers can find it within the city of Mérida. It is on the east side, just inside the periférico and north of the railroad line to Valladolid (Calle 7/45). It remained private agricultural land for many years but is now an industrial area surrounded by a high wall.
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