The Americas 58.3 (2002) 488-490
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Lawrence Feldman has selected and translated a fine compilation of primary sources from Spanish governors, commanders, and friars (mostly Dominican) who [End Page 488] were involved in expeditions and settlements in the Yucatan peninsula and Guatemala. He has culled letters from the late 16th century to the early 18th century in an effort to enlighten readers about one of the least studied colonial Mayan lowland peoples: the Manché Chol. Feldman readily recognizes the inherent handicap in depicting an indigenous group from the invader's perspective, consequently he falls short of his claim to "present both sides of this long-lasting conflict" (p. xix). The documents paint detailed pictures of the topography, botany, climatic conditions, and Spanish perceptions of the Manché and other neighboring Mayan speakers during the Spanish attempts to subdue the Manché lowlands. Feldman asserts that this book is strictly a translation, not an analysis. Nonetheless, his preface and short introductions to each set of letters serve well to orient non-specialists.
These documents support the notion that the Spanish invasions were primarily economic and religious endeavors. The sources include letters from Martin Tovilla, the Spanish governor of Verapaz and Dominican Friar Francisco Ximénez who is known for his command of a number of Mayan languages and advocating for his charges. It is interesting that Ximenez's letter reveals him in a different light as he supports torturing and killing obstinate or unruly Maya.
The strength of this collection lies in the disclosure of the diverse Spanish perceptions of the Maya whom they wanted to subjugate. Some Spaniards held the Maya in high esteem for their physical and intellectual attributes. According to these accounts, the Maya were strong rowers, excellent travelers, capable horsemen, and some quickly learned Spanish and the Catholic doctrine. Tovilla remarks that during one festival they had a "Spanish manner so gallant and graceful that no one would consider them Indians" (p. 98). In contrast, other authors focus on the poverty and laziness of the Manché. These Spaniards attribute their own inability to resettle and convert Manché to the latter's own failings. Manché consistently fled to the protection of the forests to avoid Spanish subjugation. One Spanish sergeant major and governor opines that the Manché easily escaped to the forests "because the Indians lacked love for their houses and fields" (p. 214). Surely, the causal relationship was not based on the consistent Spanish physical and spiritual intrusions. Another myopic view emerges in the laws set forth by the inspector general of the provinces who prohibits sending Mayan girls to work in the houses of Spanish justices or priests "because the weakness of the Indian men and women is so well known" (pp. 93-4). This perception shifts culpability to the exploited as the hearts and minds of Spanish officials remain chaste.
The letters provide some insight into Manché reality and ample evidence of their resistance to Spanish incursions. For example, Manché burned or destroyed their own farms and houses (so the Spanish could not utilize their harvests and homes), lied to deceive the Spanish, and refused to work for them. The Spanish were not the only ones infringing upon the Manché's lifestyle and livelihood, however. Other Mayan speakers such as the Mopan and Q'eqchi' fought with the Manché for control of territory and markets, but the English and Zambo slave raiders were the most threatening as they abducted Manché to Jamaica. [End Page 489]
This book will certainly be a valuable teaching tool because it allows students to analyze and interpret primary sources; however, it has a few shortcomings. Feldman's attempt to locate and re-identify the mysterious and elusive Xocmo people is incomplete and at one point he contradicts himself in his assessment of them. In addition, some analysis via the...