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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 762-763
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Maya Wars: Ethnographic Accounts from Nineteenth-Century Yucatán . Edited by Terry Rugeley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. Photographs. Illustrations. Map. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. xiv, 224 pp. Cloth, $39.95.
The title of this work is misleading: although the first phrase seems to point to a series of separate conflicts, the book's coverage is restricted to one war-torn Yucatecan century marked by the prolonged rebellion widely known as the Caste War. The "ethnographic accounts" of the subtitle suggests—at least to this anthropologist—a set of more or less dispassionate descriptions by outsiders, and this is not fully the case. Rugeley's introduction is an excellent and succinct recounting of Yucatec Maya prehistory and history, including the sweep of events in the chosen nineteenth century. Following this are 38 separate source accounts chosen to "illuminate ethnographic details not found elsewhere" (p. x). Rugeley introduces each piece with a brief but clear statement, placing the chapter within the universe the book embraces.
Although the introduction proposes that it is time for a collection of writings by Maya themselves, at least 10 of the original documents are from English originals. Another 14 are certainly translated from Spanish, and it is not clear whether the remainder were translated from Maya or Spanish originals. The set includes some from Belizean sources that, while not immediately available, are familiar from a number of works related to the Caste War: the account of José María Rosado's captivity among the rebels at the end of the 1850s and young John Carmichael's report of his visit to the rebel capital of Chan Santa Cruz in 1867. But there are other equally useful and lesser-known recitations, especially the description of Maya around Corozal provided by Methodist missionary Richard Fletcher.
Most of the selections, however, are short accounts of this and that: reports by outsiders, correspondence by Maya-named leaders, routine documents (such as wills) dealing with affairs of individual Maya, and so on. The selections are in roughly chronological order, and the majority can best be described as vignettes, many of them of less than a printed page. Many of these inclusions will benefit scholars who seek illuminating statements by observers or participants on specific topics.
It is somewhat surprising is to find that three of the few selections in the final major section (German geographer Karl Sapper's account of his 1890s trip through territory of the pacified rebels, the careful ethnographic description of British archaeologist Thomas Gann, and Santiago Pacheco Cruz's word picture of a rural Maya celebration) are generally accessible from previous publications. Although the Pacheco Cruz account, from his 1947Usos, costumbres, religión y supersticiones de los mayas,is perhaps not always easy to come by in the original, those of Sapper and Gann were published as monographs by the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology and are available in most large U.S. libraries. These do, however, provide a wrap-up of this set of readings. [End Page 762]
Despite the incisive introduction and explanatory notes prefacing the selections, there is no real sense of continuity, so that the sum of the many provocative and interesting parts is less than a single coherent whole. Although the book jacket touts the collection as "ideally suited for classroom use," it could only be so used in close tandem with something that provides more of a sense of the historical rush of events through a very full century.
The book closes with a description of "Yucatec Mayas in the modern day," a glossary of Mayan terms, and a very useful bibliographic essay. The latter goes beyond individual works to characterize archival and library holdings in the United States, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Lacking in regard to the Archives of Belize is a notation that documents of particular interest to historians of the nineteenth century date only before 1885 as systematized by Sir John Burdon, and that coverage in them is spotty even in the 1870s. After these...