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HISTORY > Caste War

(1847 - 1904)

The Caste War is a well-known episode of the Yucatecan past and had a profound influence on the history of Northern Belize. It was not only the largest and most successful of Yucatan's rural rebellions, but also the central event in the peninsula's modern history and the source of much of Northern Belize's culture.

Historians have attributed a number of theories for the cause of the war: to the privatization of public lands; to a group of Mayas rebelling against powerful and bigoted intruding Europeans (known as Yucatecos); or as a defense to retain their lands against these same Yucatecos.

For the Spanish to maintain their control over the indigenous people of Yucatan, they had to devise ways to split the Mayan population and prevent them from uniting with each other. This painting by Marcelo Jimenez depicts a member of the Mayan hidalgo (nobility) presenting his captured brother before the Spanish landowner to be punished for trying to escape. The Spanish favored the Mayan hidalgos through granting them extra rights and privileges, and therefore won over an influential section of Mayan society. The hidalgos could then be used to control the other Maya who, through birthright, were lower down the Maya heirachy and therefore respectful to the hidalgos (indirectly the Spanish!).

The seeds of the conflict can be traced to the second decade of the 19th century, when a series of conflicts between Yucatan and Campeche erupted. The Maya Indians were inlisted by the Yucatecos to fight on both sides. In 1847 hostilities reached the point to which the Yucatecos military formed battalions of Maya Indians to attack other Mayan towns. One Mayan battalion entered Valladolid and massacred the inhabitants. As a result of these incursions, the fury of the Maya grew.

The hatred borne by the Maya against the Yucatecos was so great that one of their goals was to rid Yucatan of them. The Caste War is thought to have officially began with the execution of three Mayan leaders at Valladolid for having planned an Indian uprising together.

In 1847, two men from Tihosuco and Tepich, Cecilio Chi and Jacinto Pat (featured in this painting by Marcelo Jimenez) met to make plans for a Mayan offensive. Their plans were discovered prematurely.

The Maya attacked cities and towns spreading terror and death. Early in the war, the Yucatecos fled to Merida, and were just one battle away from defeat when the rains came. The Maya were forced to lay down their weapons and returned to their fields to plant corn. This allowed the Yucatecan army to regroup and attack the Maya.

In early 1850 the Maya insurgents found themselves on the brink of defeat but with no intention of giving up. Weakened and demoralized, the Maya sought refuge in the dense jungles of central Quintana Roo were they founded small communities. An act, which falls into the realm of disbelief, brought them together and motivated them to continue the struggle. This was the apparition of the Talking Cross in mid-1850. The cross was the medium by which God talked to the Maya, his chosen people. The cross ordered them to continue the war against their enemies, the Whites, and promised them that they would be safe from their bullets. The location where the cross appeared was transformed into a place of worship.

This is how Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross) originated as the principal sanctuary of the rebel Maya, who named themselves the Cruzoob (followers of the cross). Thus, the rebellion took on a sense of sanctity.

In 1858, the Maya rebels massacred the inhabitants of Bacalar and captured Fort San Felipe. They held it for years before destroying and ransacking it.

The conflict heated up once more. The booty obtained from the sacking of the towns which fell to the Cruzoob, was exchanged for arms, gunpowder and other supplies provided by the Belizeans along the Hondo River. The relationship between the Cruzoob and Belize became closer to such a degree that in 1887 the Maya expressed their desire to be placed under the protection of the Queen of England and that the territory they occupied be annexed to this British colony. The proposal was declined. However, this incident opened the door to talks between the Mexican and British governments and they agreed to cooperate in the campaign to pacify the Maya and to determine the territorial limits of both nations. This, in addition, provided the impetus for the Mexican government to start another military push in Quintana Roo.

In order to stop the Belizeans from supplying arms to the Maya, a customs post was built at the mouth of the Hondo River in 1898, in front of a point popularly called Cayo Obispo. The city of Cayo Obispo (today Chetumal) was founded by Lt. Othon P. Blanco. Contrary to what happened in the Zona Maya, where General Bravo ruled the Cruzoob rebels with an iron fist, colonization and pacification under the supervision of Lt Major Othon P. Blanco at Payo Obispo were more effectively executed. Nevertheless, the pacification of the Maya was still a few years away.

Chetumal Harbor
Chetumal Harbor and Caste War Period Canon

Although the end of the Caste War is associated with General Igancio A. Bravo's entrance into Chan Santa Cruz in 1901, it took three years for the end of the war to be officially declared. However, the Maya were in no way pacified.

But even when the war was officially over, the Maya continued their struggle against the white Yucatecan authorites; the different tribes fought each other and also threatened the security of the British mahogany cutters and the northern part of the colony. Those days were far from peaceful. On various occasions the settlers were terrorized by attempts to attack Corozal. Forts were built and guarded by soldiers from Jamaica under British officers. These attacks were from the Chichenha Indians who were sworn enemies of the Santa Cruz Indians. They disliked the English very much. These same Indians were later known as the Icaiche Indians. They had changed their residing village from Chichenha to Icaiche because in 1863, they were terribly defeated by the Santa Cruz Indians.

In 1872, Marcus Canul, a Maya leader made his last attack on the British intruders at their fort in northern Orange Walk Town and was defeated. This attack by the Maya was in retaliation for the constant sacking and burning of their villages by the British woodcutters as they penetrated the interior for better wood. The British colonists were by no means blameless for the disorder which took place on the northern frontier, and untill the end of the century, they continued to supply the Santa Cruz Indians with arms while complaining bitterly of the activites of the Icaiche Tribe. As a result of the constant threats of violence people moved further inland to Sarteneja, Progresso, Orange Walk, San Pedro Ambergris Caye, and Caye Caulker to settle.

Fort Mundy, Orange Walk Town, Belize
Fort Mundy, Orange Walk Town

The eroded ruins of two forts, Mundy and Cairns, still exist within the center of Orange Walk Town recalling the bloody history between Belize's early settlers in the region and the indigenous Icaiche Maya.

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