Feb 20, 2007

Book Review: Maya Conquistador

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Matthew Restall, Maya Conquistador Restall, Matthew

Boston: Beacon Press, 1998, 254 pages


Restall is a Professor of Colonial Latin American History at Penn State University, and he has authored three books on the history of the Maya and the Yucatan Peninsula. Maya Conquistador is Restall’s attempt to explain the factors behind the remarkable ability of the various Mayan groups to maintain an ethnic, cultural, and historical identity despite political subjugation by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century. The text is divided between the author’s analysis of historical Mayan identity and chapters that include a selection of previously unpublished Mayan sources.

Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have struggled to explain the continuity and strength of Mayan societies despite being “conquered” by the Spanish, as they have maintained their identity despite nearly five centuries of colonialism. Moreover, extant Mayan accounts of the arrival of the Spaniards do not portray this period as particularly horrific, and their annals, titles, and books of the Chilam Balam sometimes depict the conquistadores in a positive light. Restall argues that the “Conquest” of the Mayas, in their eyes, was really an exercise in historical continuity; in the Mayan belief of a cyclical nature of history, the Spaniards were merely the latest interlopers to appear as lords. In addition, the Spanish use of existing social hierarchies – and the official creation of titular Mayan nobility – meant that little changed in the daily life of individual cahob (villages) and chibalob (clans). Finally, Mayans tended to view the period of political subjugation in terms of struggles between various cahob, rather than in the context of a Spaniards-versus-Maya dichotomy, and the political changes were often depicted as conflicts in which the Spanish were merely one small group of players among many in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Pre-Conquest Mayan states in the Yucatan Peninsula Pre-Conquest Mayan states in the Yucatan Peninsula

The book’s title is a play on words, as Restall showed that conquistadores were both Mayan and Spanish. Mayan groups that collaborated with the Spanish became part of the historical conquistadores, at least in the eyes of Mayan chroniclers. Moreover, the actual “Conquest” itself was limited to the southwestern corner of the Yucatan Peninsula and a few enclaves like Mérida. The fact that Mayan cahob paid tribute to the Spaniards, argued Restall, comes across in the surviving texts as almost an afterthought. This was just a realignment of the nobles to whom an annual debt was owed, and “the Conquest resulted in a confirmation by colonial authorities of the social status and political position of the same Conquest-era leaders.”

Prior knowledge of Mayan history is helpful when reading this text, as the author assumes a basic level of understanding of the years of the Conquest. The author provided a glossary for some of the Mayan and Spanish terms, and the text includes maps, photographs of documents, and a chronology of the pre- and post-Conquest history of the Yucatan. Restall also included extensive footnotes and a 13-page bibliography for further reading. While the author’s post-structuralist and identity politics tendencies might bore some readers, his insights are worth the effort to decode. Most important in this text, though, are the Mayan documents that Restall translated and edited; passages such as the following (from The Accounts by Gaspar Antonio Chi) help inform modern readers of the nature of the calamities that befell the Maya after the arrival of the Spaniards:
This land was populated with many Indians, a great many at the time the Spaniards invaded. The causes of them having decreased are understood to have been the war of the conquest with the Spaniards … Also their having been brought together and congregated in towns and removed from their ancient settlements to indoctrinate them has been a great cause of many of them falling ill and dying. Also a further misfortune resulted from this, which is that famines have occurred, because the people who are now together in one town used to be divided into six or eight, and as they were spread throughout the whole land and had all of it occupied, no rain fell which did not fall on cultivated lands, which was why in that era they had a great abundance of provisions. Also the smallpox and other pestilences which have occurred…
Thus, to the Maya the arrival of the Spaniards was but one of a series of catastrophes they faced, and the temporal cyclicity with which the Maya viewed history meant that this period was one much like earlier – and future – times of turmoil.

1 comment:

microdot said...

Bad joke of the day:
The Mayans invented the concept of the Number/Synbol Zero. True fact.
Why did they do it?
To rate Mel Gibsons last film!