At the end of May in 1848, essentially all the surviving non-Maya citizens of Yucatán — the buena gente — had crowded into Mérida or within the high walls of Campeche.
The Maya rebels, led by Cecilio Chi in the north and Jacinto Pat in the south, had swept their oppressors westward across the Peninsula. Terrified masses of refugees had flooded into the cities along with the collapsing army. The military, politicians, and priests had all failed to halt the fighting, which had become a series of massacres. As resistance became suicidal, morale and discipline gave way, exhaustion and cowardice ruled, and the troops fled. Mutineers and deserters were too numerous to arrest or execute.
The population of Mérida swelled to more than 100,000. Refugees — the destitute, sick, wounded, and dying, the old and very young — crowded into the churches, convents, and public buildings. They huddled in desolation under the arcades of the plaza. They broke into abandoned houses seeking shelter and sustenance. Prices, which had been frozen against profiteering, collapsed. Merchants offered entire inventories at a fraction of their value and found no bidders.
Valladolid had fallen on March 15, sending more than ten thousand refugees fleeing westward. Ticul taken on May 26, Izamal on May 28, everything south of Campeche lost, the distant and isolated fortress at Bacalar fallen. The Camino Real between Mérida and Campeche remained open but defenseless. In late May, the troops before Motul withdrew to defend the road from Mérida to the port of Sisal, and military leaders made plans to move the cannons of Mérida to protect that final escape route. The Governor of Yucatán, Miguel Barbachano, prepared a decree for the evacuation of Mérida, but no suitable paper could be found to print it.
Refugees with their salvaged belongings trudged the road toward the one-street town of Sisal to camp on the beach. There they tried to find canoes to take them out to the crowd of vessels anchored offshore — sailing ships and fishing boats in various conditions, flying the flags of various nations — desperate to board anything that would float and reach any port that would accept them.
In the first days of June, the defenders of Mérida awaited the attack. Nothing happened. After a few days, scouting units ventured out cautiously and reached Izamal. To their amazement, they found the burned town deserted except for a few drunken looters. The Maya forces were gone. When a courier brought the news back to Mérida, church bells rang in celebration. What had happened?
Years later, Leandro Poot, the son of Maya General Crescencio Poot, related what he had been told about that time in 1848 (slightly edited here):
“When my father’s people took Acanceh they passed a time in feast, preparing for the taking of T’ho [Mérida]. All at once the winged ants appeared in great clouds from every direction. When the people saw this they said, ‘Ehen! The time has come for us to make our planting, for if we do not we shall have nothing to fill the bellies of our children.’
“In this way they talked among themselves and argued, and when the morning came each said to his leader, ‘I am going.’ In spite of supplications and threats, each man rolled up his blanket, tightened the thongs of his sandals, and started for his home and his cornfield.
“Thus can it be seen that Fate and not the white soldiers kept my father’s people from taking T’ho and working their will upon it.”
The flying ants were Nature’s messengers, since time out of memory, telling the Maya it was time to plant the milpas. These men were peasant farmers, not soldiers. They had already beaten the enemy and captured vast quantities of loot. The choice between finishing the war and leaving their children in hunger was clear. Now it was time to go home to their families and cornfields. Mérida and Campeche could wait.
As a brief aside, the flying ants were members of the most common leaf-cutter species in the region, Atta cephalotes, dispersing in their annual mating swarms. Known as “chicatanas,” “hormigas de San Juan,” “hormigas arrieras,” “zompopos,” and a host of other names, these large ants have been used as food by indigenous people since ancient times. They are grilled on a comal, seasoned with salt and chile, and consumed as a snack or taco filling, or alternatively ground with various spices in a molcajete into a salsa. The flavor is said to be nutty and smoky.
In the cold light of history, the arrival of the planting season was doubtless important, but there was more to the Maya retreat than the folkloric story of the flying ants. Although the months of death and massacre, the panic among the people in Mérida and Campeche, and the desperation measures of the government were certainly real, modern scholars tell us it is likely that neither city was in genuine danger.
The forces of Jacinto Pat were in the suburbs of Campeche, but they would have failed to come within that city’s pirate-proof walls, where relief supplies were already arriving from Veracruz and New Orleans. Although they came within a day’s march of Mérida, both Pat’s army and that of Cecilio Chi were significantly losing strength. The shocking fall of Izamal had come as a surprise to Chi’s troops when its defenders fled without a fight.
White Yucatecans attributed their salvation to the “powerful intervention of a providential being,” but truth lies in the prosaic matter of supply. None of the Maya forces had done an adequate job of providing supplies of food or arms, relying primarily on capturing and being given provisions as they advanced. Such supply lines as existed now extended as far as Belize, with no regular trains of bearers. Importantly, the western Maya people did not join or support the rebels. Long adapted to the Ladinos — which is to say Yucatecans of the “white” as distinct from the Maya society — they did not share the outrage of their more isolated brothers from the east.
Further, the rebel soldiers, like the government’s own militiamen, fought hardest when they were close to home. Besieging the Ladinos in their cities was clearly less motivating than driving them out of the homeland, now far to the east.
Cecilio Chi, the most implacable and uncompromising Maya leader, the living successor to Jacinto Canek, had done an especially poor job of supplying his troops with basic rations. The men of his northern force simply went home. Jacinto Pat, probably the ablest of the leaders, had done better and retained some of his soldiers in the field. They mounted an attack on Tecoh on June 19, fell back, and after more failures at Oxcutzcab and Tekax, they too took the road to the east.
With the realization that the retreating Maya were not supermen, the Ladino defenders recovered their pride and courage. Through the summer, their reinvigorated forces advanced to the east, retaking the burned villages. Yucatán officially reunited with Mexico on August 17, 1848, and new guns, money, corn, and troops began arriving. Ladino militias retook the ruins of Tekax, Sotuta, Yaxcabá, Valladolid, Tizimín, and Peto. On December 13 they entered undamaged Tihosuco, the home village of Jacinto Pat, without opposition.
In October 1848, volunteers from the United States began arriving to aid the Yucatecan cause. Mexican authorities, having just lost a war with the U.S. and well aware of Yucatán’s secessionist tendencies, were not happy with this arrangement but eventually allowed it. Discharged army veterans under Captain George W. White — who had promoted himself to colonel — totaled nearly a thousand men by the end of 1848. They were promised pay of $8 per month and 320 acres of land when the war was over. Mostly from southern states, some dreamed of establishing a new colony or even an independent slave-based tropical paradise.
In December 1848, the U.S. volunteers paraded on the streets of Mérida to the enthusiastic cheers of citizens. These were big, strong-looking men in nice uniforms, well armed, a welcome sight! They marched off toward Valladolid, full of confidence that no Indian could stand up to American steel. Most of the Maya fought only with their machetes, and the few that had muskets were using bullets made of hammered bits of scrap metal, even clay or wood.
The confident volunteers from the north behaved with poor discipline, talking loudly, smoking their pipes, and picking flowers along the way. Their first battle was at Hacienda Culumpich, east of Tihosuco, the former property of Jacinto Pat. They rejected the advice of Yucateco veterans and insisted on making a frontal attack with fixed bayonets against a stone barricade. It was an unmitigated disaster, with more than forty casualties.
Quoting again the aged Maya veteran, Leandro Poot:
“It was easy to kill the strange white men, for they were big and fought in a line, as if they were marching. Their bodies were pink and red in the sunlight, and from their throats came a strange war cry. They were brave men and shot keenly, but we hid behind trees and rocks and so we killed them. Brave men, very brave, none died cowardly.”
Many of the volunteers resigned after a short time, most gone by spring of 1849. U.S. newspapers reported 220 dead and wounded, though this is likely an underestimate. Some remained and performed well. A group of 140 sailed with an expeditionary force to assault Bacalar and retook that strategic town and fort with considerable losses.
The Maya melted into the east beyond the edges of forests and swamps, a region with no towns, largely unknown to the whites. Their morale was further damaged by the deaths of their leaders. Cecilio Chi was murdered by an associate who had been sleeping with his wife. The date is uncertain but may have been in December 1848. A rival leader killed Jacinto Pat during a dispute over strategy in September 1849.
But the rebel Maya continued to defend their territory tenaciously. The revolt settled into continuing guerilla warfare, with a shifting frontier roughly where the boundary between the states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo runs today. With many attacks and counterattacks, the line of contact remained largely unchanged for a very long time.
(The free Maya state and its remarkable central symbol, the Speaking Cross, will be the subject of a future article.)
Between 1846 and 1850, the population of Yucatán declined by 40%. The eastern departments of Valladolid and Tekax lost 75%. The great Maya revolt of 1848, misnamed the Caste War, lasted for more than fifty years. It was the most successful native revolt and an unparalleled disaster for Yucatán.
by Robert D. Temple
The Caste War and its heroes are commemorated in statues, monuments, and murals throughout the Peninsula. Just two of many monuments are in Mérida’s Parque Eulogio Rosado and on Chetumal’s Avenida de los Héroes. Main government buildings in Mérida and Valladolid display representative murals. Tihosuco has a Caste War Museum.
Many defensive works put up during the war were made of loose stones or timber and left few traces. Exceptions are the unusual round stone and masonry pill boxes at the corners of the church yard in Yaxcabá, which date from the 1850s. Cannons from the Caste War era are preserved along the harbor in Chetumal and in Bacalar’s Fuerte de San Felipe.
The adventurous diner can find grilled ants for sale in Oaxaca markets, displayed in season beside the fried crickets.
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