Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule:
Time and History on A Colonial Frontier
by Grand D. Jones
p. 1989

     Although it's easy to think of books on academic subjects as existing outside the market economy, it isn't true.  Academic titles have long been a part of the "rare" book trade, and Amazon and other on-line vendors now put that market on line for anyone to see.  For instance, this book sells for between 50 and 150 bucks on Amazon.  In this case, it's a price directly attributable to Maya Resistance being "Out of Print" or "OOP" as they say on Ebay, but it also shows a steady demand for the title and multiple sellers who think they can get 50 bucks for it.

     Mayan studies have always been hampered by the traditional "Classic" and "Post-Classic" distinction, with the "Classic" period (lasting only until 900 AD or so) DOMINATING the scholarship.  This, despite the fact that the actual existing civilization that the Spanish contacted was the "Post Classic" variety.  Western scholars have been like children, drawn to big ostentatious temples and eschewing the harder, less glamorous work of unraveling the situation immediately prior to and after post-Spanish contact.

   At the time of contact, post-classic Mayans were organized into a series of regional kingdoms that practiced agriculture, trade and shared a generally organized religion.  After the "collapse" the regional Mayan kingdoms, located across the Yucatan peninsula and the areas of Belize and Guatemala, were gradually influenced/infiltrated and in some cases out-right conquered by Nahua speaking peoples who were typically bearing the culture of the Toltec/Aztec/Mexico City area.

  Cortes's conquest of the Aztec Empire did not directly concern the Maya succesor states, but it was only a matter of time before the Spanish consolidated their control over the Yucatan region, founding the cities of Merida in Valladolid.  These towns, located in the far North of the Yucatan bump, were supposedly in control of an area reaching all the way to Guatemala- a distance of 500+ miles- most of it solid jungle and jungle mountains.

  After the Spanish arrived, the Mayans began to drift southward, into the remaining regional Kingdoms that had not been conquered by the Spanish.  Because the terrain was so difficult and the Mayans so resistant, the period between the mid 16th century and the 19th involved lengthy periods where the Mayans in the southern part of their original territory remained independent and actually repulsed Spanish colonization attempts on multiple occasions.

   Resistance was concentrated inside the Mayan state centered around the modern lake Peten Itza.  The relationship was defined by weak Spanish attempts to colonize- a real lack of will, you might say, combined with determined but low level organized resistance, which largely focused on convincing subjects of Spanish rule to escape to the south.  The Spanish, in turn, supported themselves by forcing the natives to provide Cocoa and Wax for export.  Thus, this pattern led to multiple Spanish attempts to "Reduce" the run-aways via small scale military expeditions into the bush.

  At several points, this back and forth elicited actual attacks by the Maya on nearby settlements- killing people (Spanish and collaborating Indians) and cutting out their hearts, staking them through their rectums, but there were also multiple visits by the Spanish to the heart of the Itza hold-out Kingdom- only some of which ended with the Spanish being murdered by the (justifiably) pissed-off Itza.

  One of the best single stories in this book is how, during an early visit by the Spanish to Lake Peten Itza, they found the Mayans worshiping a horse idol- apparently Cortes, during his early barnstorming tour of the area, had left the Mayans with a horse, and the horse died, and then they started worshiping a statue of the horse.  Despite the fact that the Spanish realized they had to be on their best behaviors, one of the Spanish priests couldn't control himself: He smashed the idol to bits and started lecturing the Natives on the evils of their idolatry.   Not only did that particular mission not end well, it was being cited by defiant Maya for a century afterwards.  I'm sympathetic.

    In fact, the Spanish come off like a bunch of bumbling morons- Jones actually says that the main extract from this entire historical period is how the Spanish failed to not only modify a failing colonial policy (forced extraction from the native population, punishment and increased burdens for those that rebelled) but failed to even recognize the flaws in the policy.  And this is over a period of a century and a half.

   An important aspect to understand about the Mayan/Spanish colonial experience in this region (modern Belize/Guatemala is how small the population groups were.  In this entire 300 page book there isn't a single mention of a city/town/village with more then 1000 people.  Most of the towns involved have about 100 Indians, Spanish or mix.  All of the armed forces involved in conflict range from 10-40 people.  So it was more like a long running, low intensity guerrilla war that lasted until the Spanish "conquered" the Peten Itza centered kingdom at the turn of the 18th century.

  It's also important to recognize this north-south dynamic.  The southern Petin Basin was both the original "Mayan heartland" and the place where the last Mayan kingdom held out BUT, at some point, the local post-classic successors were usurped by Northern Refugees. Thus, the classic ruin of Chichen Itza is in the north, at the site of the present day Spanish town of Merida and the ruling priests of the Peten Itza lake said they had come, from the north.  So there was some conflict between the folks who "never left" and the folks who had actually lived under Spanish rule.  That's probably a universal dynamic in the communities of partially colonized peoples.  Some people 'don't get it', others 'don't like it,' others 'want to be like it.' the it being the colonizing culture.

  How the non-colonized/partially colonized community reacts seems to be critical in the success rate, with history's "winners" being imitators and the losers being the 'don't get it' and 'don't like it' groups.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review: The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
by T.J. Stiles
p. 2009/paperback 2010
Vintage  Books

    The Vanderbilt family, to a certain degree, defines America.  Not only is there the founder and business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, there are all his descendants, down to Anderson Cooper (son of Gloria Vanderbilt) today.  Stiles 2009 biography of Vanderbilt was a certified hit, winning a National Book Award and meriting a classy paperback edition, the version I read.  I don't often criticize the manufacture of a book, but this one actually fell apart when I was reading it, something that never happens, and it has to be because the spine of the paperback book was poorly designed/manufactured.  I don't think you need to include all the ancillary material if you are doing a paperback version, that's all I'm saying.

   Throughout The First Tycoon, I was reminded of two other books: Alfred Chandlers, The Managerial Revolution and Alan Trachtenburg's, The Incorporation of America.  The former title describes, factually, how the American economy was changed in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th.  The later title describes how that change influenced American Culture and Way-of-life.

   Corneilus Vanderbilt stands astride both the change itself and the way this change effected everyone, since he was either the first or one of the first men to obtain Wealth and Fortune from his mastery of this new, corporate, way of life.  He also did, indeed, live an Epic life, born during the Presidency of George Washington, he lived to do business with John Rockefeller- truly bridging the time span of several life times. Vanderbilt's life unfolds like a three act play:


    Vanderbilt got his start in the Dutch populated farming villages on the islands off of New York City.  His father worked by ferrying agricultural products from Staten Island and it's environs to New York City.  Vanderbilt followed in his father's footsteps.  As a young "Merchant" Vanderbilt was on the ground when the Steam Boat arrived, and he was quick to combine his already existent knowledge about the shipping/ferrying business with the new technology.

   Vanderbilt's Steam Boat enterprise was not a modern business corporation, nor was the country ready for that step.  Corporations were very limited by the state- requiring separate charters and limited life times and purpose.  Despite lacking modern business structure, Vanderbilt developed a business that had many of the characteristics of the modern business corporation: it was large, spread out and delegated decision making power to local employees.

  At the Dawn of Act 2, the reader can imagine a scene from the discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill outside of Sacramento.  The California Gold Rush was a major impetus for people to want to take Steam ships.  Despite popular perception, most people got to California by taking a Steam Boat down to Central America, crossing and then picking up another Steam Boat on the other side.  Vanderbilt's life ended before the Panama Canal was built,  but he saw the California traffic as "the future" and spend the time between 1850 and 60 in a series of baroque political/military adventures in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

  Ultimately, Vanderbilt abandoned Central America and it's ceaseless turmoil.  He was helped towards this decision by the Civil War, which Vanderbilt participated in by giving his biggest steam boat to the Union for sub-hunting duty.  It was probably during the Civil War that Vanderbilt began to take on his mythic proportions in the minds of the American Public.

  During the Civil War, Vanderbilt got heavy into Railroads.  Railroads had existed for thirty years but they were kind of a mess from a business perspective, in that the owners would regularly play games with the stock and the capital in an attempt to benefit themselves.  Insider trading was not illegal at this time, so much of early "BIG BUSINESS" reads like the machinations of English Dukes during the War of the Roses.  Very few people had the strength and clarity of vision to develop the type of Railroads that did develop, and which now appear inevitable to the modern eye.

   Vanderbilt had the vision, and the money to implement it.  His big move was buying the Harlem Railroad, which had the benefit of being the only line that had track leading to downtown Manhattan.  On Railroad land he built Grand Central Station.  In the post Civil War era he engaged in a series of high finance shenanigans, often for no grander reason then spite.  As you would expect in a biography of Vanderbilt, he comes out better then his adversaries, but it's hard not to see a bit of the Simpson's Montgomery Burns in his elaborate financially based plots of revenge.

   Vanderbilt lived and was healthy long enough to conspire with John Rockefeller and Standard Oil in the late 19th century.  It's there that you can really see the outlines of "CORPORATE AMERICA" in grand, fully sketched out form.  Throughout The First Tycoon, Stiles shows a firm and capable hand deploying primary and secondary sources.  He is surely writing from the Corporate Appreciation school pioneered by Chandler, but he is versed enough to recognize the counter-thesis embodied in Trachtenberg's Incorporation of America.

  Much of the middle section involving Central America is less relevant to the modern reader.  Presumably one doesn't need to learn about American involvement in Central American politics in the 19th century from a popular biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, but if you do it's eye opening but not central.  Perhaps the one attitude that truly differentiates Vanderbilt from his successors is his utter lack of interest in the West past Chicago.  Despite the fact that he ran shipping lines to California, he never went there.  He never traveled between Chicago and California.  He was a man of the North East.

Blog Archive