As 1846 began, the Republic of Yucatán stood proudly as an independent nation. It had withstood invasions from Mexico by land and sea. It had definitively rejected an insincere, poisonous agreement to reunify with Mexico. Yucatán was at peace.
And then a perfect storm struck the Peninsula. A tragic comedy of bad luck, self-serving politicians, poor judgment, and history cast the Yucatecan people into terrible wars and ended their experiment with independence.
The first storm clouds came over the horizon as a nasty surprise — an international war. On May 13, the United States declared that a state of war with Mexico existed. The nominal cause was disagreement about the boundary between Mexico and Texas, which had become the 28th state of the Union in February. The real reason was certainly the expansionist vision of President James Knox Polk.
Yucatán, with its claim of independence from Mexico, was a question mark for the United States. To determine Yucatán’s position on the war, Commodore David Conner, commander of the U.S. Navy fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, sent Commander Duncan N. Ingraham to make inquiries. Ingraham arrived off Campeche on June 4 with the brig-of-war Somers. The Yucatán Congress declared that all political factions, in a rare show of unity, were in agreement — Yucatán was neutral and wanted no part of the war.
As a test of neutrality, the USS Porpoise visited the port town of Carmen on August 14. The vessel reprovisioned and departed in peace. Commander Conner informed Washington that, despite the promises, he was going to keep a close watch on Yucatán. Small vessels from Carmen and the Laguna de Términos could — and did — easily engage in clandestine trade into the blockaded Mexican port of Frontera, at the mouth of the Grijalva River.
As men from Mexico and the United States began killing each other in the north, Yucatán remained at peace. But events in Mexico City led to strange reversals in Yucatán’s politics and its role in the war.
In Mexico, instead of unity against the foreign enemy, there was chaos. Several regions were in actual rebellion against the central government. In one all too typical event, General Mariano Paredes, sent north to oppose the invaders, instead headed to Mexico City, led a revolt, and installed himself as president. During the twenty-two-month course of the North American intervention, Mexico had ten presidencies, lasting as briefly as seven days.
In Yucatán, two political factions, headed by Santiago Méndez Ibarra and Miguel Barbachano y Tarrazo, had alternated in the governorship since Yucatán declared itself independent five years earlier. The parties had spent years in ineffective argument, and the two leaders seem to have developed intense personal dislike for each other. Their key area of disagreement was independence versus reunion with Mexico. Méndez, a tall, intellectual gentleman-merchant in Campeche, had consistently tried to find a way the Peninsula could rejoin Mexico. On the other hand, Mérida-based Barbachano — son of a wealthy Spanish family, courteous but impetuous, a brilliant orator — argued for absolute independence.
Yucatán had declared its independence to escape Mexico’s oppressive Centralist government. That regime had been personified by off-and-on President Antonio López de Santa Anna. In August 1846, amid the bewildering confusion in Mexico City, a rebellion swept out the Centralists and restored the liberal Federalist Constitution. An election brought in a new Federalist president — none other than Santa Anna.
The new situation triggered bizarre changes in Yucatán.
An incredulous Méndez, long the advocate for rejoining Mexico, declared that Santa Anna as the head of a Federalist government “offended dignity,” and he wanted nothing to do with it. In addition, he realized that reunification with Mexico just then would immediately throw Yucatán into the war with the United States, with blockade of the ports, if not actual invasion.
Barbachano, the steadfast campaigner for absolute independence, suddenly made a complete reversal and called for reunification. With the return of Federalism and invasion by the norteamericanos, Mexican patriotism swept the Barbachano faction. This was, he thundered, “the just, sacred, and patriotic defense of national rights” to save “the religion, customs, and language inherited from the noble and glorious Spain.” Defending the nation required Santa Anna’s leadership and Yucatán’s allegiance. “Time to return to being Mexican.”
In November, Barbachano, then serving one of his five intermittent terms as governor, announced that Yucatán was again part of Mexico and declared war on the United States.
Disasters followed quickly. In Campeche, the neutralist Méndez forces mobilized troops against the unionist Barbachano government, beginning a civil war. Within weeks, the United States began an invasion.
In the so-called “Revolution of December 8,” Barbachano sent his militia against Campeche. The Mérida forces entrenched at Umán, while the Campeche opposition mustered at Maxcanú. Both sides actively recruited Maya as soldiers. A small fleet from Campeche occupied Sisal, Mérida’s port. Towns in the interior — Tekax, Valladolid, Tihosuco — rose in support of Campeche. Defeated and driven back into Mérida, Barbachano declared a state of siege. Fighting continued in the northern corridor from Mérida through Izamal to Valladolid.
On December 20, the steam frigate Mississippi and three smaller warships, elements of the U.S. Navy under Commodore Matthew C. Perry, anchored off the Carmen bar. Perry landed the next day and received the town’s unconditional surrender. He confiscated all munitions and appointed a military governor. He declared Carmen a captured enemy town and the entire Yucatán coast under blockade. All shipping was stopped, and no taxes on commerce were to be collected.
In January 1847 a factional battle in Valladolid deteriorated into a horrifying orgy of rape, looting, and murder by neutralist Maya troops, joined by their local compatriots. The two Yucatecan parties blamed each other and failed to take effective action.
Most of the Barbachano forces collapsed. Santiago Méndez took fragile control and on January 21, 1847 moved the capital to Campeche. Skirmishes continued, but the barbachanistas finally gave up in disorder. Barbachano and his closest associates fled to Cuba on March 1. But he would be back.
Méndez proceeded to re-negotiate neutrality with the United States. While easing restrictions at the ports of Campeche and Sisal, Perry’s forces maintained their occupation of Carmen Island. Concerned that trade in contraband between Carmen and Frontera would resume, Perry left a military governor and strict controls in place. The U.S. authorities pocketed duties at Carmen, plus a ten-percent war tax.
The loss of trade and confiscation of the badly needed duties created serious problems for Yucatán’s economy. Méndez sent official complaints and a delegation to treat with Commodore Conner, Perry’s superior. He also sent a representative to Washington to seek recognition of Yucatán’s neutrality and relaxation of trade restrictions. The emissary, José Rovira (or Robira), met with U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan, who discussed the situation with President Polk. But U.S. authorities remained unconvinced that they could trust the unstable government in Yucatán to remain neutral, and Polk ordered that the occupation of Carmen and trade restrictions continue.
With the failure of Rovira’s mission, Méndez sent a second emissary to Washington, Justo Sierra O’Reilly, his son-in-law. Sierra’s pleas for relief and aid from the United States became more urgent as the situation in Yucatán deteriorated.
As the year 1847 progressed, it was clear that constitutional government had broken down and Yucatán was in financial crisis. Violence continued throughout the peninsula — attacks by failed unionists, robberies by highwaymen, political assassinations.
Could the situation possibly get worse? It could. From the east came rumors of an Indian uprising.
Centuries of mistreatment and exploitation had given the Maya people ample reason for resentment. But two actions by the ruling powers enabled a mass revolt at this time that plunged the Peninsula into disaster. First, the Maya had been armed and trained in warfare, practices carefully avoided in the past. Beginning with Santiago Imán’s revolt in 1839, through the fight against Mexican invaders, and continuing into the civil war between political factions, large numbers of Maya men had been recruited as soldiers. Second, the Yucatecan Republic had adopted new laws, designed to promote agricultural capitalism, under which land used in common by Maya farmers was declared “vacant” and sold to developers. In the east and south of the Peninsula, regions long thought to be of little value and only lightly controlled by central governments, sugar plantations began displacing subsistence corn fields, seriously disrupting traditional Maya society.
As part of the general disorder, small groups of Maya, emboldened by the January massacre at Valladolid, were raiding eastern towns. In an attempt to end what looked like a local problem, the Méndez government captured and executed an indigenous leader, Manuel Antonio Ay, suspected of being a ringleader. Searching for other insurgents, undisciplined government troops terrorized the town of Tepich, burned Maya houses, and allegedly raped a young woman. The effect, of course, was the opposite of what the government intended.
Two Maya leaders, Jacinto Pat of Tihosuco and Cecilio Chi of Tepich, raised an army. Both men had received training and fought under Ladino (white and mestizo) officers. They attacked and defeated government forces, advancing westward. In retaliation for the government’s action in Tepich, Chi slaughtered its Ladino citizens. Rebellion was becoming indiscriminate massacre. The long tragedy later known as the Caste War had begun.
Even on the brink of catastrophe, did the political factions come together to address the problems? They did not. In October, Colonel José Dolores Cetina occupied Mérida with a unionist force and declared Barbachano restored as governor. Neutralist troops loyal to Méndez left the eastern front to confront Cetina, and the Maya advanced. Barbachano urged reconciliation while secretly directing Cetina. Facing defeat in Mérida, Cetina marched east to fight the Maya but instead attacked neutralists at Valladolid. He was defeated there as well, tried to bring Jacinto Pat into an alliance, and finally surrendered in disgrace. The Maya insurgents took full advantage of the distraction, advancing, organizing, growing in numbers, and preparing to kill every Ladino.
Although there is more than enough blame to be shared for the beginnings of the Caste War, the Cetina-Barbachano adventure of October 1847 deserves a large portion.
The government churned ineffectively through special congresses, elections, resignations, skirmishes, reconciliations, and a continuing power vacuum. The Yucatecan public seemed uncertain about whether the Maya wanted political changes — perhaps orchestrated by Barbachano? — or racial annihilation.
March 1848 found Méndez in charge of a government of sorts, now based in Maxcanú. He begged for unity, made significant gestures of reconciliation, and appointed a commission to seek a compromise settlement with the Maya rebels. He generously appointed Barbachano, who apparently enjoyed certain credibility with some of the Maya factions, as peace commissioner.
Jacinto Pat agreed to negotiate with Barbachano, and they signed one of history’s stranger diplomatic accords, the Treaty of Tzucacab, on April 23, 1848. Both sides agreed to end the war if certain Maya demands were met, primarily concerning taxes and land rights, with two additional fantastic requirements: Barbachano was to be governor and Pat the supreme leader of all the Maya — both with guaranteed lifetime appointments.
Although many were prepared to welcome peace at any price, those last requirements proved unacceptable to just about everyone except the signatories. Both sides violated the armistice within weeks. But the treaty had the terrible effect of making it seem that the Maya uprising was only about Yucatecan politics. At this stage, no treaty, no tax reductions, no land reforms, nothing could stop the flood of hatred that had been unleashed.
Facing what seemed like certain slaughter, Yucatán’s leaders pleaded for foreign aid. A substantial shipment of arms arrived from Cuba in March, but the United States blocked further help from Spain, citing the Monroe Doctrine. Commodore Perry came to Campeche to investigate the situation but decided the fighting was just part of the Méndez-Barbachano political conflict and declined to intervene. At the end of May, Perry received notice that the peace treaty ending the war with Mexico had been signed and ratified by both sides. He returned the customhouse at Carmen to local control and paid back the duties collected since February. President Polk at last acknowledged the Maya threat and allowed the import of arms. It was too little, too late.
Desperate Yucatán turned to Mexico, the recent bitter enemy and historic patria. In office once again as governor, Barbachano contacted the Mexican government, displaced at the time to Querétaro, seeking military and economic assistance. Mexican President José Joaquín Herrera responded surprisingly quickly, given the ruinous state of his defeated nation. On July 14, 1848, five shiploads of arms and ammunition landed at Campeche, plus some cash from the blood money the U.S. had paid for Nuevo México and Alta California.
The aid produced an outpouring of gratitude. Amid mutual pledges of forgiveness and brotherhood, Yucatán rejoined Mexico. On August 17, 1848, the brief and glorious history of the Republic of Yucatán came to an end, 6 years, 10 months, and 17 days after the Act of Independence.
by Robert D. Temple
The arcaded government palace on Valladolid‘s main square displays murals commemorating the massacres of the 1840s.
Apparently, no public memorials to either Santiago Méndez or Miguel Barbachano exist. Probably without connection to those gentlemen, a short, unpaved road in Campeche City bears the name Méndez, and a very obscure archeological site in Quintana Roo is called Barbachano. The family of Fernando Barbachano Peón, a grandnephew of the former governor, owns the land under the ancient monuments at Chichén Itzá.
A cultural artifact from these last years of the Santa Anna era is the “Himno Nacional Mexicano,” the Mexican national anthem. Its bellicose words, virtually unchanged from that time, are heard at public events and sung by school children on Monday mornings.
About the Caste War, we shall hear more.
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