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Ethnohistory 47.1 (2000) 262-264

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Book Review

Maya Conquistador

Maya Conquistador. By Matthew Restall. (Boston: Beacon, 1998. xvi + 254 pp., preface, maps, illustrations, bibliography, index. $25.00 cloth.)

The initial Spanish conquest of the Yucatán peninsula was a protracted, discontinuous campaign, lasting from about 1517 until the establishment of Mérida in 1542. In some parts of the peninsula the process of conquest lasted much longer, with pockets of continued resistance and in some regions to the south even counterconquest by native populations. The Spanish [End Page 262] perspective on this was unitary in its relentless representation of progressive “pacification.” But what was the Maya’s perspective? Obviously, there were many, varying by geographic location, local and regional political identity, social class, and time period. Matthew Restall’s Maya Conquistador not only contributes admirably to the need for a better understanding of indigenous discourses on conquest but also adds a significant contribution to a recent spate of major writings (including his own Maya World: Yucatec Society and Culture, 1660–1850), which have collectively challenged previous Eurocentric approaches.

Restall introduces part 1 with a poignant description of conquest events as witnessed in 1541 by a Maya boy, Alonso Canche. Years later, Canche recalled the arrival at Calkini of the adelantado Francisco de Montejo, along with other Spaniards and Nahuatl-speaking warriors from central Mexico. After being offered a generous ritual gift of victuals and cotton, the foreigners insultingly grabbed the goods and seized a number of men, including those of the highest status, hauling them away as prisoners. This recollection sets the stage for a critical review of the events of the Yucatán conquest from the Spanish perspective, followed by an up-to-date political history of the region in the centuries before the Europeans arrived. Readers informed primarily by the older literature will be surprised by the radical shifts in interpretation resulting from recent research. This part is perhaps the best summary of the “new history” of northern Yucatán currently in print.

Restall stresses how different Maya writings were from Spanish ones, which emphasized a series of penetrations and battles, leading ultimately to pacification, the quelling of rebellions, and the establishment of colonial control. The Maya texts, in contrast, seldom address events in a simple chronological framework. Written well after the initial invasions, by nobles and notaries who were themselves already influenced by Christian evangelization and colonial life, they display, in Restall’s view, several major characteristics: The accounts seldom lay the blame for bloodshed, cruelty, and such calamities as epidemic diseases directly on the conquerors themselves; rather, their “depictions of violence tend to lack moral judgment” (35) and are contextualized in terms of the disunity among the Maya themselves. They also emphasize continuities in Maya life despite conquest, thus further deemphasizing the importance of Spanish-promulgated events—continuities, that is, in hardships related to social inequalities within Maya society, the survival of indigenous nobilities, and the importance of nonlinear or cyclical interpretations of time in framing and interpreting events.

In a striking passage regarding Chilam Balam prophecies of the coming of the Spaniards, Restall suggests that postconquest Maya writers managed [End Page 263] to turn the conquest into an anticonquest whereby calamity became continuity, weakening the impact of calamity “by denying its uniqueness and its inexplicability; more than this it also serves to deny that the Conquest, as the Spaniards saw it, ever occurred” (43). The effective denial of conquest appears most strikingly in primordial titles produced by local Maya nobles, especially the Pech, who had sided with the conquerors against their traditional indigenous arrivals. They saw themselves as “hidalgo conquistadors,” becoming the conquerors of those who opposed them and their Spanish allies, thus the title of Restall’s book. Such documents, produced by rulers of towns (cahob), who were also the noble elites of lineages (chibalob), portray the conquest as a phenomenon of local corporate interest and interregional conflict. The parallels that Restall draws between these aspects of the Maya texts and those of central Mexico offer a welcome invitation to identify Mesoamerica-wide patterns of discourse about Spanish conquest.



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