The Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901) began with the revolt of native Maya people of Yucatán, Mexico against the European-descended population, called Yucatecos. The latter had long held political and economic control of the region. A lengthy war ensued between the Yucateco forces in the north-west of the Yucatán and the independent Maya in the south-east. There was regular raiding between them.
In the 1850s the United Kingdom recognized the Maya state because of the value of its trading with British Honduras (present-day Belize). In addition, by 1867 the Maya occupied parts of the western part of the Yucatán, including the District of Petén, where the Xloschá and Macanché tribes were allied with them. With growing investment in Mexico, in 1893 the United Kingdom signed a new treaty with the national government, recognizing its control of all of the Yucatán, formalizing the border with British Honduras, and closing its colony to trade with Chan Santa Cruz.
The war officially ended in 1901 when the Mexican army occupied the Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz and subdued neighboring areas. Another formal end was made in 1915, when a Mexican general was sent to subdue the territory. He introduced reforms from the revolution that ended some of the grievances. However, skirmishes with small settlements that refused to acknowledge Mexican control continued until 1933, and non-Maya were at risk of being killed if they ventured into the jungle.
In Spanish colonial times, the Yucatán (like most of New Spain) population operated under a legal caste system: peninsulares (officials born in Spain) were at the top, the criollos of Spanish descent in the next level, followed by the mestizo population (of mixed European-Amerindian descent), then descendants of the natives who had collaborated with the Spanish conquest of Yucatán, and at the bottom were the other native indios.
The indigenous population was particularly concentrated in the Campeche-Mérida region. This was known as the Camino Real, because the majority of the peninsulares and criollos lived in that area. The Maya roughly outnumbered the European-descended groups by three to one throughout the Yucatan, but in the east this ratio was closer to five to one. The elites maintained the strictest discipline and control over the Maya population in the east. The Church, generally allied with the stronger classes, also had a preponderant role where the military organization was strongest.
During the Mexican War of Independence, the intelligentsia of Yucatán watched the events to the north. Following 1820 they organized their own resistance to Spain, forming the Patriotic Confederation, which declared independence from Spain in 1821. The confederation subsequently joined the Mexican Empire that same year; in 1823 it became a part of the federal Mexican government as the Federated Republic of Yucatán. The government of the republic, based in Mexico City, tended towards centralization, which the people in the frontier areas resented. Near the end of the next decade, several provinces revolted against it, including Guatemala in the south and Texas in the north. To bear the costs of the war against Texas, the national government imposed a variety of taxes, including raising importation duties on many items. It even taxed the movement of local goods.
In response to this, on 2 May 1839, a federalist movement led by Santiago Imán created a rival government in Tizimín, which soon took over Valladolid, Espita, Izamal and, finally Mérida on the Yucatán peninsula. To increase his strength, Imán appealed to the Maya population, providing them with arms for the first time since the Conquest. He promised that he would give them land free of tribute and exploitation. With their support, he prevailed in battle. In February 1840, he proclaimed Yucatan's return to a federal regime, then in 1841, declared it to be an independent republic.
But Antonio López de Santa Anna, as head of the Mexican government, did not accept this independence; he invaded Yucatán in 1842, establishing a blockade. Land invasion followed, but the Mexican forces were frustrated in their attempts to take either Campeche or Mérida, and withdrew to Tampico.
As Yucatán was struggling against Mexican authority, its population divided into factions. One faction, based in Mérida, was led by Miguel Barbachano, who leaned toward reintegration with Mexico. The other faction was led by Santiago Méndez, based in Campeche. He feared reintegration would expose the region to attack by the United States, as tensions loomed on the northern border that would soon break out in the Mexican–American War. By 1847, the Yucatan Republic had effectively two capitals in the two cities. At the same time, in their struggle against the central government, both leaders had integrated large numbers of Maya into their armies as soldiers. The Maya, having taken up the arms given them in the course of the war, decided not to set them down again.
The War seemed rooted in the defense of Santa Cruz Indian communal lands against the expansion of private ownership, which had accompanied the boom in the production of henequen, or agave, an important industrial fiber used to make rope. After discovering the value of the plant, from 1833 the wealthier Hispanic Yucatecos started plantations to cultivate it on a large scale. Not long after the henequen boom, a boom in sugar production led to more wealth for the upper class. They expanded their sugar and henequen plantations by encroaching on Maya communal land, and typically abused their Maya workers by treating them poorly and underpaying them. (See also article on Mérida).
Rebel Maya leaders in their correspondence with British Honduras (Belize) most often cited oppressive taxation as the immediate cause of the war. Jacinto Pat, for example, wrote in 1848 that "what we want is liberty and not oppression, because before we were subjugated with the many contributions and taxes that they imposed on us." Pat’s companion, Cecilio Chi, added in 1849 that promises made by the rebel Santiago Imán, that he was "liberating the Indians from the payment of contributions" was a reason to resist the central government. But Imán continued to levy such taxes.
In June 1847, Méndez learned that a large force of armed Maya with supplies had gathered near Vallodolid at the Culumpich, a property owned by Jacinto Pat, the Maya batab (leader). Fearing revolt, Méndez arrested Manuel Antonio Ay, the principal Maya leader of Chichimilá, accused of planning a revolt, and executed him at the town square of Valladolid. Searching for other insurgents, Méndez burned the town of Tepich and repressed its residents. In the following months, several Maya towns were sacked and many people arbitrarily killed.
Cecilio Chi, the Maya leader of Tepich, with Jacinto Pat attacked Tepich on 30 July 1847. In reaction to the indiscriminate massacre of Maya that had taken place, Chi ordered that all the non-Maya population be killed. By spring of 1848, the Maya forces had taken over most of the Yucatán, with the exception of the walled cities of Campeche and Mérida and the south-west coast. In his letter of 1849, Cecilio Chi noted that Santiago Méndez had come to "put every Indian, big and little, to death" but that the Maya had responded in kind. He wrote "it has pleased God and good fortune that a much greater portion of them [whites] than of the Indians [have died].
Yucatecan troops held the road from Mérida to the port of Sisal. The Yucatecan governor Miguel Barbachano had prepared a decree for the evacuation of Mérida, but was apparently delayed in publishing it by the lack of suitable paper in the besieged capital. The decree became unnecessary when the republican troops suddenly broke the siege and took the offensive with major advances.
Historians disagree on the reason for this defeat. According to some, the majority of the Maya troops, not realizing the unique strategic advantage of their siege situation, had left the lines to plant their crops, planning to return after planting. It is said that the appearance of flying ants swarming after heavy rains was the traditional signal for the Maya to start planting. They abandoned the battle. Others argue that the Maya had not laid up enough supplies for the campaign, and were unable to feed their forces any longer, and their break up was to search for food.
Governor Barbachano of Yucatán sought allies anywhere he could find them, sending representatives to Cuba to seek Spanish help, to Jamaica to gain aid from the United Kingdom, and to the United States, but none of these foreign powers would intervene. In the United States, the situation in the Yucatán was debated in Congress, but there was no will to fight. Subsequently, Barbachano turned to Mexico City and accepted a return to Mexican authority. Yucatán was officially reunited with Mexico on 17 August 1848. Yucateco forces rallied, aided by fresh guns, money, and troops from Mexico City, and pushed back the Maya from more than half of the state.
By 1850 the Maya occupied two distinct regions in the southeast. In the 1850s a stalemate developed, with the Yucatecan government in control of the northwest, and the Maya in control of the southeast, with a sparsely populated jungle frontier in between. In 1850, the Maya of the southeast were inspired to continue the struggle by the apparition of the "Talking Cross". This apparition, believed to be a way in which God communicated with the Maya, dictated that the war continue. Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross) became the religious and political center of the Maya resistance, and the rebellion became infused with religious meaning. The largest of the independent Maya states was named Chan Santa Cruz, as was its capital city (now named Felipe Carrillo Puerto in Quintana Roo). The followers of the Cross were known as the "Cruzob".
The government of Yucatán first declared the war over in 1855, but its hopes for peace were premature. There were regular skirmishes, and occasional deadly major assaults by each side into the other's territory. The United Kingdom recognized the Chan Santa Cruz Maya as a "de facto" independent nation, in part because of the major trade between Chan Santa Cruz and British Honduras (present-day Belize).
The Chan Santa Cruz state, stretching from north of Tulum to the Belize border and a considerable distance inland, was the largest of the independent Maya communities of the era but not the only one. José María Echeverría, a sergeant in the army taken captive by the Maya, resided in the town in 1851–53. He reported later that it had about 200 Maya and 200 whites, all well armed and apparently fighting together. The whites were under their own commander, a man "of reddish complexion". They also had several outlying communities under their control; one contained about 100 people and the others unknown numbers. An English visitor in 1858 thought the Maya had 1,500 fighting men in all. He noted that they took the Santa Cruz with them and that its priests were prominent in the society.
The Ixcanha Maya community had a population of some 1,000 people, who refused the Cruzob's break with traditional Catholicism. In the years of stalemate, Ixcanha agreed to nominal recognition of the government of Mexico in exchange for some guns to defend themselves from Cruzob raids and the promise that the Mexican government would otherwise leave them alone. Mexico City gave Ixcanha autonomy to govern itself through 1894 (following a treaty with the United Kingdom that recognized Mexico's rule over the Yucatan), as it was more worried about the Chan Santa Cruz.
Another important group were the Icaiche Maya, who dominated the jungles of the lower center of the peninsula. In the 1860s under their leader Marcus Canul, they had battled against the Mexicans, the Cruzob, and had also raided British Honduras. Marcus Canul and the Icaiche Maya defeated a detachment of British troops in December 21, 1866 the battle is known as the Battle of San Pedro Yalbac. In 1867 the British mounted a retaliatory raid, including in their weaponry incendiary rockets that set the houses of Icaiche on fire from a good distance away, to the awe of the local residents. The Maya briefly took Corozal town in 1870 and their last major attack was in September 1, 1872 when Canul was mortally wounded. The new Icaiche leaders promised respect and friendship with the British. They soon made an agreement with the Mexican central government similar to that of the Ixcanha. Years after the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC) began a series of campaigns to forcibly remove Maya from the Yalbac area.
Negotiations in 1883 led to a treaty signed on January 11, 1884 in Belize City by a Chan Santa Cruz general and the vice-Governor of Yucatán. It recognized Mexican sovereignty over Chan Santa Cruz in exchange for Mexican recognition of Chan Santa Cruz leader Crescencio Poot as Governor of the State of Chan Santa Cruz. The following year a coup d'état took place in Chan Santa Cruz, and the government declared the treaty cancelled.
In 1893 the United Kingdom was enjoying good relations with Mexico's Porfirio Díaz administration, and British investment in Mexico had become of much greater economic importance than the trade between the Cruzob and Belize. The UK signed a treaty with Mexico recognizing Mexican sovereignty over the region, formalizing the border between Mexico and British Honduras, and closing their colony's border to trade with the Chan Santa Cruz "rebels". As Belize merchants were Chan Santa Cruz's main source of gunpowder and guns, this was a serious blow for the independent Maya.
In previous decades, the Mexican army had twice managed to fight its way to the town of Chan Santa Cruz, but was driven back both times. In 1901 Mexican general Ignacio Bravo led his troops to the town to stay, occupying it with a large force. Over the next few years he subdued surrounding villages. Bravo telegraphed the news that the war was over on May 5, 1901. While this is the date most frequently given for the end of the war, fighting continued, although on a smaller scale. With their capital lost, the Cruzob split into smaller groups, often hiding in small hamlets in the jungle. Their numbers were seriously reduced by deaths from epidemics of measles and smallpox, endemic diseases carried by General Bravo's troops.
Inspired by the persistent Talking Cross sect, the Maya of Chan Santa Cruz remained actively hostile to the Mexican government well into the twentieth century. For many years, any non-Maya who entered the jungles of what is now the Mexican state of Quintana Roo was at risk of being killed outright. The combination of new economic factors, such as the entry of the Wrigley Company's chicle hunters into the region, and the political and social changes resulting from the Mexican Revolution, eventually reduced the hatred and hostility. In one form or another, war and armed struggle had continued for more than 50 years, and an estimated 40,000–50,000 people died in the hostilities.
The war was officially declared over for the final time in September 1915 by General Salvador Alvarado. General Alvarado, sent by the revolutionary government in Mexico City to restore order in Yucatán, implemented reforms which more or less eliminated the conflicts that had been the cause of the wars.
Although the war had been declared over many times before in previous decades, records show that the last time the Mexican army considered it necessary to take by force an area village that had never recognized Mexican law was in April 1933. Five Maya and two Mexican soldiers died in the battle for the village of Dzula, which was the last skirmish of a conflict lasting more than 85 years.
Since the late 20th century a similar conflict has existed in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in the southern part of the country, where indigenous people declared war on the Mexican government. The Mayan Zapatista Army (EZLN) on January 1, 1994, the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and their Revolutionary Laws. They effectively declared war on the Mexican government, which they considered so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it illegitimate. The EZLN stressed that it opted for armed struggle due to the lack of results achieved through peaceful means of protest (such as sit-ins and marches).