- Maya Lords and Lordship: The Formation of Colonial Society in Yucatán, 1350–1600 by Sergio Quezada
Mayanists and Yucatan specialists will be familiar with the numerous, wide-ranging, and highly readable publications by the eminent Yucatecan scholar Sergio Quezada. One cannot write about the peninsula’s history between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries without referencing his work. Hitherto, however, all his books and articles have been in Spanish, making all the more welcome the appearance of Maya Lords and Lordship—neither a simple translation of one of Quezada’s Mexican publications, nor an entirely new book, but something in between.
The main body of research and writing in this book was carried out by Quezada in the 1980s, resulting in a 1990 doctoral dissertation that was published in Mexico, unaltered, a few years later. Pueblos y caciques yucatecos, 1550–1580 has now been revised, updated, [End Page 658] and transformed into this book. The original study was a groundbreaking examination of Maya rulership in the earliest decades of the colonial period. It showed how Spanish officials and modern-day scholars had failed to grasp the way in which Maya settlements were tied together to constitute larger polities. Those polities were not provincias, as the conquistadors called them, using “a set of territorially based categories drawn from their own culture” (p. 41), but jurisdictions forged by ties of dynasty, nobility, and marriage—the underpinnings of batabil, or lordship. Spanish misunderstanding of Maya political culture, combined with the disruptions of conquest and colonization— especially the attempts to consolidate and reorganize indigenous “provinces” during reducción campaigns—created a convolution and chaos that Quezada has seen through with brilliant clarity.
Perhaps the most significant and interesting aspect of this book is the way in which the author articulates his understanding of that cultural clash and the shifting system around it, with even greater clarity. Further refining his analytical model and conclusions, he argues that the batab or Maya lord “maintained his power through personal, and not territorial, associations” (p. xiv), “weaving an intricate and durable web of personal ties . . . in order to animate his batabil” (p. 123). Quezada insists that “[t]his way of seeing things flies in the face of what I had assumed in 1990, and what Mayanists have always held” (p. xiv). If that claim to a dramatic volte-face is a little too giddy, no matter; Quezada’s newly fine-tuned thesis is resoundingly convincing. Its impact on our understanding of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Yucatan is profound, and archaeologists studying that period will need to absorb Quezada’s argument and examine how it may correlate with their own discoveries. His thesis also sheds further light on the conquest and the functioning of the early colony, allowing him to show that it was generations of hard-fought change that led to “political power based on the principle of territorial association” being “a fundamental reality” by the late seventeenth century (p. 124).
That said, potential readers should not be misled by the subtitle into thinking the book includes a detailed exploration of the preconquest centuries; the author deals with these only in part of the first chapter. Nor is this the long-needed book on the conquest of Yucatan to replace Robert Chamberlain’s terribly outdated 1948 study (upon which Quezada is obliged to lean rather heavily). And in fairness to the two dozen or so scholars who have in the past 25 years published revealing work on the Yucatán of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, in Spanish and English, only some of that work is included here; this is by no means a comprehensive historiographical updating.
On the other hand, that does leave the book taut and accessible, with only 124 pages of text, and another 124 pages comprising useful end matter (including appendices that will be of great interest to students and scholars of Maya political organization and of early colonial Yucatán). The maps...