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Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom

BOOK REVIEW
The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom
by Grant D. Jones
p. 1998
Stanford University Press

  I just finished reading another book by this author on the Maya.  Specifically, Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule: Time and History on a Colonial Frontier.  That book ends where this one picks up, i.e. the conquest of the last Maya Kingdom at the end of the 17th century.  It's what I would call a Werner Herzogian story, replete with forced labor, needless death, insane ambition and pointless conquest.  In fact, I'm a little suprised that Herzog never made a movie about this story, but that might be explained by the fact that the first book written on the subject since the conquest itself WAS PUBLISHED IN 1998.  How's that for forgotten history?

  The last Mayan Kingdom was located around the area of Lake Peten Itza.  At the time of initial European contact, the Mayans lived in a bunch of related Kingdoms on the Yucatan peninsula.  The main Kingdom at the time of the original contact was known as Chichen Itza, the present day Mexican city of Merida, but basically there were several Kingdoms extending through much of southern Mexico, Guatamala and Belize.   Some of these Kingdoms had been strongly influenced by the Mexica/Aztec vibe, others were more traditionally Mayan.

  When the Spanish arrived, they immediately instituted their system of forced labor- resembling European feudalism.  Quite sensibly, this spurred migration by the Mayans from the North to the South. Allegedly the rulers of the last Mayan Kingdom had themselves emigrated from the North within the last century, but they co-existed with local Mayan speakers who had never left.

  This complicated territorial dynamic between the new comers and the never-lefts was something that the Spaniards never really understood, and since this is the first book length treatment of this subject EVER, it's fair to say that until Jones spoke up, no one else understood it either.

  The last Mayan Kingdom was ruled in complex fashion.  There were five sets of paired kings/high priests, four of which ruled for the communities living to the north/south/east/west of the capital.  The last pair ruled the capital itself.  It's quite clear from Jones' source material that the time immediately preceding and succeeding the Spanish conquest of the last Mayan Kingdom was a time of civil war among the Maya- and that this civil war prevented the Maya from implementing a coherent strategy of resistance.

   Various factions among the Maya advocated radically different strategies.  The main/central King was what you would call an accomidationist- to the point where he sent a nephew of his north- in secret- to be converted to Christianity and pledge loyalty to the Spanish King.  A couple years later this created an awkward scene when the Spaniards showed up and gave him European style clothes symbolizing the submission of the entire Kingdom to the Spanish.

  As you could imagine, this created conflict among the other four Kings- none of whom were aware of what the central King had done.  Thus, after this point- which is still a year or two before the conquest, the "main" Mayan King basically lost all authority over his own people and created a climate where conflict between Mayans who wanted to resist and those who wanted to accommodate.

  There were several skirmishes before the final invasion- skirmishes marked by Spanish missionaries and the odd soldier being attacked and having their heart ripped out.  When the Spanish finally did conquer the capital- an island city in lake Peten Itza- it was  a fucking disaster marked by famine and plague.  At the same time, there was a lengthy period of civil war among the Itza themselves- specifically between those who helped the Spanish survive and those who wanted the Spanish to leave.

  In the end, the area wouldn't recover until outside immigration picked up in the 1950s.  The invasion itself happened in 1699- so we're talking about three and half centuries of recovery time.  As I said- it's a Herzogian story.  Someone ought to make a movie.  What's Mel Gibson doing?

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