W. Gabbert: Violence and the Caste War of Yucatán

Violence and the Caste War of Yucatán.

Gabbert, Wolfgang
Cambridge Latin American Studies
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Armin Hinz, Hamburg

In Violence and the Caste War, the sociologist and anthropologist Wolfgang Gabbert examines the uprising on the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, in which a great part of the Maya-speaking rural population revolted against high taxation and called for the right to land. The sheer number of rebels is one reason for the Caste War being one, if not the most successful, insurrection in the postcolonial Americas; moreover, the rebels consolidated an independent political community. Not surprisingly, the long-lasting Caste War (1847–1901) sparked a substantial body of literature, especially in the U.S. and Mexico. Within the Anglophone research, notably Nelson Reed (2001)1, Victoria Reifler Bricker (1981)2 and Don E. Dumond (1997)3, fostered a cohesive narrative of subjugated Indians fighting against the White upper class. The unique character of Gabbert’s study; however, lies in his analytical lens and methodological approach, best subsumed under the term “sociology of violence”: the author uses violence as the key concept for his analysis, which is rich in sources and backed up by archival work.

From the outset, Gabbert counterposes the trope already surfacing among Yucatecan contemporaries that the Indians fought a “race war” against the Spanish-speaking upper class – the narrative of Whites being slaughtered by irrational, bloodthirsty savages seeking retribution. In doing so, he draws on his previous study Becoming Maya (2004)4, which deconstructs the essentialist view of a persistent Yucatecan Mayan ethnicity based on collective ethnic consciousness. In the Spanish colony and the succeeding national state, the term “Indian” was a legal category, as Gabbert points out. Moreover, in Caste War times, Maya language and cultural practices were shared by Indians and members of the non-Indian lower classes. His current study underscores his line of argument by exposing that both warring parties comprised members from each group of the Yucatecan population, and that the motives for the use of violence in the conflict were as diverse itself. Some actors did not really strive for final victory, but were more interested in the economic gains made possible by wartime violence. Conflict resolution, thus the rationale, would inevitably cause the end of revenues.

Gabbert divides his book into six parts. In the first part (pp. 17–29), he explains his theoretical framework on violence “as a multi-faceted means to achieve certain ends […] used to obtain material gain, establish dominance or express ideas” (p. 10). In the second part (pp. 31–58), Gabbert characterizes the pervasiveness of violence in Yucatecan society, in which workers toiling on the haciendas as well as women and children within the patriarchal society were subjected to relationships of dependence upheld by brutal force. The rift among the Yucatecan elite between centralists and separatists fighting for independence weakened the institutions of the emerging nation-state unsettled by numerous coups and military conflicts. This culture of violence sets the background for the various acts of violence taking place in the Caste War.

The third part (pp. 59–90) offers a comprehensive chronological overview. From 1847 onwards, the rebels took control over large parts of the Yucatecan state; however, by 1850, government forces had pushed them into the wild forests in the South-eastern peninsula. Cut off from their former lives, a holy cross appeared in front of the rebels reinforcing their morale. From that time on, the rebels formed their military and civil organisation around a cross cult. In the mid-1850s, the Yucatecan state’s weakened authority made it possible for the independent polity to flourish. Bolstered by the trade with neighbouring British-Honduras, the rebels managed to stand their ground in a prolonged low-intensity war. After a peace treaty was signed by Mexico and Great Britain, this crucial support ended, and the rebels were outgunned by advanced weaponry. In 1901, troops from Central Mexico finally took control of the independent territory.

The following two chapters focus on the practices of violence both parties used during the Caste War. Here, Gabbert analyses the violent behaviour within government forces and the rebels separately, the aggressions against the enemy in warfare, and the hostilities against inhabitants of the buffer zone as well as the pacified former rebel groups. He draws attention to the interconnectedness of institutions, conflict and violence, and illustrates the forms of force exerted within the Yucatecan military by forced recruitment, corporal punishment, and the compulsory labour of the rank and file on their superiors’ haciendas. Both, the rebels and the uninvolved inhabitants of the buffer zone, were subjected to a scorched-earth policy, as the seizing of their crop was one way of providing for the soldiers. Violent practices comprised the military’s massacre of men, women and children, and the government’s slave-trading of captives to Cuba to generate additional profit.

Within the rebel community, regular exertion of coercion as well as corporal and capital punishment were used to discipline followers of the cross cult as well as punish the pacified rebels. To explain the rivalry on command and succession, Gabbert introduces the concept of “caudillismo”, a term which means that the rule of force supersedes the rule of institutions. With excessive use of violence against their opponents, the rebels intended to cause sheer terror; in fact, this strategy enabled them to adjust their stark disadvantage in asymmetric warfare. Gabbert stresses that meaning and logic of violence changed in the course of the war. The rebels, for instance, treated their captives differently over time. Initially, they spared the non-combatants in the newly-conquered territories expecting their support; once they had withdrawn to the Eastern forests, they killed their captives, because scarce resources made it impossible to provide for any surplus eaters. In the late 1850s, the rebel community was well established, and captives were forced to labour either in the villages or on the farms.

In the last part of the book (pp. 247–280), Gabbert points to the propaganda of “race war”, an idea the white elite used to both contest the rebels’ demands for tax reduction and the right to land beyond ethnic affiliation. Additionally, he specifies similarities and differences between the adversaries. Throughout the war, the government in Central Mexico provided the Yucatecan state with military aid (money, equipment, troops); in contrast, the rebels lacked any backing. While the war changed the life for those Yucatecan families whom soldiers left behind, the armed forces were just a minority in the Yucatecan society, whereas, in the rebel community, every male youth was socialized as a warrior. War became the constitutive feature of the independent rebel state as communal life was organized around warfare. The detailed annexes (pp. 282–320) outline the places of attack by both parties as well as body count, casualties, captives, and booty.

In sum, Gabbert’s thorough study and his meticulous use of primary sources gives a comprehensive account of the violence employed in the Caste War: How it was used in various ways, and how it shaped wartime societies on both sides. Although I am familiar with the body of literature on the topic, his way of intertwining theory and empirical findings gave me new insights; moreover, his book counterbalances the romanticizing narrative of the Reed’s and Dumond’s studies. However, I would have appreciated it if Gabbert had not restricted the concept of caudillismo to the rebels’ politics alone since the term has been coined for the leadership of strongmen dominating the political arena of the post-colonial nation states in Latin America. Gabbert’s portrayal of the Yucatecan state with its weak institutions, where the hold of political power rested on armed followers, patronage and vigilance, would undoubtedly fit the concept of caudillismo. Overall, he not only meets his goal of depicting the complexity of violence in war, he also effectively contradicts the Manichean perception of good and evil, with oppressors on the one side and the oppressed on the other. A broad audience of scholars and students in Latin American studies, cultural studies, and peace, conflict and violence studies, may agree that his book, indeed, “helps to remind us that, similar to other wars, the Caste War took the lives of many, most of them innocent people, on both sides of the front and in the buffer zone in between” (p. 280).

1 Nelson Reed, The Caste War of Yucatan: Revised Edition, Stanford 2001.
2 Victoria Reifler Bricker, The Indian Christ, the Indian King: The Historical Substrate of Maya Myth and Ritual, Austin 1981.
3 Don E. Dumond, Machete and the Cross, Lincoln, London 1997.
4 Wolfgang Gabbert, Becoming Maya. Ethnicity and Social Inequality in Yucatán since 1500, Tucson 2004.

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