Aug 10, 2007

Book Review: Maya Society Under Colonial Rule

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Fariss, Nancy.
Princeton University Press, 1984, 600 pages


Farriss is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, and she is an ethnohistorian who was bestowed with the MacArthur Fellowship. Maya Society Under Colonial Rule examines the reasons behind the ability of the Yucatecan Maya to preserve their collective ethnic identity despite centuries of colonial rule.

Farriss argued that one of the reasons for the ability of the Maya to maintain an independent identity during the colonial period was due to what she termed as the status of the Yucatán Peninsula as a “colonial backwater.” The region, according to Farriss, did not possess significant natural resources that, for Europeans, could be exploited for commercial gain. In addition, the Yucatán possessed climatological barriers to European domination, possessing both “steamy heat “and a “teeming population of noxious insects.” The growth of commercial agriculture was stymied in the by these and other ecological considerations, which contributed to “the retardation of the landed estate.” The author noted that soil conditions were not favorable for many crops with commercial potential, and only the traditional maize and beans fared well in most of the region.

The author next examined demographic evidence in her effort to explain the cultural resiliency of the Maya. While waves of epidemic European diseases raged through the immunologically-naïve Maya with the same virulence as other Amerindian groups, peoples of the Yucatan did possess one significant demographic advantage: the ratio of Spaniards to Amerindians was lower in the Yucatán than most of the other regions in New Spain. Spaniards in Mexico City, for example, made up 50.3% of the population, as compared with a mere 7.9% of the Yucatán in the late 18th century; for the region as a whole, Spaniards constituted 18.6% of the total population of New Spain.

Left: Map of Mayan civilization during the Classic period

Thus, the sheer numerical dominance of the Maya population in the Yucatán helps explain why Spanish culture failed to extinguish Mayan ethnic identity. In addition, the physical territory controlled by the Spanish was quite limited, and effective control was limited to a few cities and outposts. Farriss characterized Spanish holdings as “islands, at best archipelagos, in a hostile Maya sea.” Finally, the low numbers of Spaniards in the colonial Yucatan reduced the effects of miscegenation, unlike the “melting pot” outcome experienced by other indigenous groups in Mesoamerica.

The relative poverty of the colonial Yucatán, according to Farriss, conversely bode well for cultural survival of the Maya. Colonial Yucatán elites - not buoyed by the wealth of silver mines, profitable agriculture, or lucrative ranching – could thus ill afford to import many African slaves, thus further reducing the melting pot effect. Likewise, the cash-starved colonial missions in the Yucatán could only meet the expenses of schools for the wealthiest inhabitants, and the only education most Maya received came in the form of catechism classes, which were conducted by native speakers in the Mayan tongue. Such regional poverty also reduced the opportunities for any would-be hierarchical ladder climbers among the indigenous population to embrace the social world of the Spanish colonizers.

Farriss turned next to the social structure of the Mayan society, which had a number of characteristics that served well the cause of cultural survival. The author noted the near-complete self sufficiency of local groups, whose basic needs could be met without the development of local and regional markets. A self-contained economy, therefore, reduced the need for interaction with both Spanish and regional indigenous peoples, and concurrently reduced the influences of such groups upon Mayan culture.

Left: Ruins at Uxmal

Perhaps the most groundbreaking importance of this work is the development of a sociological model by Farriss to explain the basic unit of Mayan society: the patrilineal, milpa-based extended kin network of the Maya. This extended family, or “milpa gang,” acted cooperatively and collectively for the mutual benefit of individual members. Farriss argued that Mayan communities, composed of these independent extended families, served in the manner of modern corporations in that they “combined forces to promote the common good” and “spread the burden and risk of individual hardship or calamity more evenly among all its members.”

In addition to her skills as a researcher, Farriss exhibited in Mayan Society a superb ability to create compelling prose. The author’s description of English palo de campeche camps on the Gulf coast was particularly memorable: “…the miserable little settlements of dyewood loggers in Belize managed to sustain a brisk commerce in luxury goods out of all proportion to their size and wealth.” A dry wit is evident throughout the book, and Farriss - in describing the Spanish imposition of the onerous taxes, tributes, and repartimientos borne by the Maya - acknowledged that her summary did not “count the many unauthorized supplements devised by the fertile colonial mind.”

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