Feb 16, 2006

Review - Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570


Author: Inga Clendinnen
Publisher: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 242 pages

(Toledo, OH) The ability of the Maya to successfully evade complete subjugation by the Spaniards has fascinated historians, and Clendinnen’s work weighs in on the subject. The “ambivalence” in Clendinnen’s title refers to both the Spaniards’ lackluster efforts at conquering the peninsula and, more importantly, the superficial acceptance by the Maya of the practice of Christianity.

The seemingly half-hearted process of Yucatan conquest can be traced, according to Clendinnen, to the earliest years of contact between Spaniards and the Maya. The author argued that this is in part due to the existence of a much bigger prize to the north - the empire of the Aztecs:
The Cortés expedition effectively ignored Yucatan…That pattern was to persist for the decade it took to dismember and to distribute the spoils of the Aztec empire. With the prospect of Mexican riches the inhospitable coasts of Yucatan lost all attraction.

The text is separated into two sections – “Spaniards” and “Indians”- although the reader would be making a poor assumption to think that the book is as simplistic as this dichotomy might suggest. The chapters on the Spanish follow a chronological approach, while the Mayan chapters are more thematic. Both sections lead into an examination of the crux of the book: the 1562 idolatry trials conducted by the Franciscan friars.

One of the strengths of the book is the superb prose with which Clendinnen narrated the early history of the bitter conflict and uneasy coexistence between the Maya and the Spaniards. The author successfully wove thorough research with evocative rhetoric in a way that is intellectually satisfying. The following passage is representative of the kind of inscribed beauty that permeates this book:
But colonial situations also spawn multiple realities, and that painful fissuring within the Spanish world is perhaps better caught by a different image: a hall of distorting mirrors in which each individual sees himself, as he thinks, truly reflected, while those about him are disquietingly altered into grotesques, as familiar gestures and expressions are exaggerated, parodies, even inverted.

In my initial perusal of the author’s work, I was puzzled by a reference in the text to British labor historian EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: “most men in all ages have expressed themselves more fully in actions than in words, and in words – sung, chanted, or shouted as well as spoken – more fully than in script.” The reference fit the model Clendinnen constructed, whereby the Maya should be understood as much through a close reading of their recorded actions as through texts such as the Chilam Balam. However, the reference also showed a debt of gratitude to graceful writers like Thompson, who helped debunk the notion that historical writing must be dry, quasi-scientific treatises.

One drawback in the book is the abbreviated index; terms such as “Chilam Balam” and “balche,” though referenced in the book, are not to be found in the index. However, this is a minor quibble, and certainly does not detract much from an especially well written work that is as useful for the scholar as it is for the general reader.


Anonymous said...


Is your interest in the history of Central America new or is this something that you've dedicated your life to?

I took two classes on the history of Central America while I was in college, but retain little of the knowledge. I find your book reviews interesting.


historymike said...

I have always been fascinated with everything south of the Rio Grande, and Latin American history is one of my passions.

Having fluency in Spanish and Portuguese makes this region natural for me to study.

I am still trying to nail down my exact specialization before my formal entry into a doctoral program this fall.

Stefan Schmidt said...

I am still trying to nail down my exact specialization before my formal entry into a doctoral program this fall.

A specialization in Mayan history would be interesting but so would a lot of other things.

What other areas are you considering?

Stephanie said...

Mike, were the Aztecs and the Mayans at war at this time? Which civilization came first?

historymike said...

Stefan: My main interest is in epidemiological history, particularly inter-continental spread of disease.

However, most PhD programs focus on geographical areas, so I will probably do early modern Europe and colonial Latin America.


At this time (16th century) the Maya were on the decline, and in some areas were tribute-paying subjects of the Aztecs. Their heyday was several centuries before the Aztecs, who had just nicely come into power when the Spaniards showed up in 1519.

Stephanie said...

I was always told (obviously incorrectly) that it went:

Incans developed a civilization, were overthrown by Mayans in bloody battles that left no Mayans alive, and never with peaceful co-existence. Mayans built their civilization and were overthrown by Aztecs, who killed off the Mayans, never with peaceful co-existence. Spaniards came, nearly obliterated the Aztecs (some escaped by hiding in the mountains), with no peaceful co-existence.

From your posts lately I'm getting the distinct impression that the "history" I learned in school was inaccurate and highly abbreviated, to say the least.

Anonymous said...

I think what our author is showing us, is not necessarily how poor the natives are in the regard of spanish conquest, it come's down to a battle of church and state, a legitimacy to power, and indigenous who learn how to play the game by being the victem and playing Franciscans and colonial government against one another...