STEPPING INTO A HOSTILE WORLD
Augustus was soon putting his ingenuity and photographic techniques to a field test more rigorous than ever before. In July 1873 he and Alice sailed for the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico where they would contend with heat, humidity, insects, scarce water supplies, makeshift darkrooms set up inside remote Maya ruins, and the threat of attack by hostile local factions of rebellious Maya.
After a few days at sea and a stop in Cuba, their vessel hove to off the Yucatan port of Progreso--the signs were ominous.
In l873, Yucatan was a land divided by rebellion. The northwestern corner of the peninsula, including Merida the capital, was under the control of Mexican federal troops. It was the only portion considered safe to travel in. Most of the remaining territory, including Campeche and Quintana Roo, was controlled by rebels known as the Chan Santa Cruz Maya, who had retreated there two decades earlier after nearly taking Merida. This armed struggle by the Maya to drive the "foreigners" from their homeland came to be known as the War of the Castes. It had seemed almost inevitable from the earliest days of the Conquest in the sixteenth century.
The excesses of the Spanish Church, the cruel tactics of the military, and the harsh exploitations possible under the hacienda system tried to suppress the Maya spirit during the centuries following the Conquest. Spanish priests tore down their temples and burned their sacred books, saying they were pictures of the devil. The hacienda system robbed the Maya of their sacred land, then placed them in slave labor to the new Spanish land owners. The miliary meted out its own form of swift and final punishment.
As the decades wore on and the proud but conquered Maya passed down memories of their heritage--the glorious cities of Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Coba--a particularly heinous event stood out. The Maya remembered well an attempted rebellion in l76l, when Jacinto Canek led his men in a vain effort to drive the foreigners from their homeland. Canek paid the price of Spanish justice; he was drawn and quartered, his parts burned, and the ashes scattered. Eight of his most important lieutenants were garrotted, and 200 received 200 lashes each and had one ear cut off to identify them forever as rebels.
In l847 when rebellion again broke out, Jacinto Canek's name was the rallying cry. This time the Maya were well organized and determined to drive the Spanish, and mestizos, their mixed-blood descendants, into the sea. For two years they pushed toward Merida, taking town after town, finally laying seige on the capital itself.
Then, just as complete victory was in their hands and the residents of Merida were preparing to evacuate by boats from Progreso, the Maya stopped. Winged ants had appeared in great numbers, signaling the coming of the rains. Despite the pleas of their leaders, the Maya soldiers withdrew to their villages and the fields waiting to be planted. Had the rebels stayed one more month, Yucatan would have reverted to the Maya. But without planting, they reasoned, there would be nothing to eat. They could continue the seige of Merida after planting. But the government used that time to reinforce and recover ground. Troops from Mexico were brought to Yucatan in great numbers and the Maya were pushed back to a line running approximately north-south between Chichen Itza and Valla-dolid. Yucatan was effectively cut in half. One could feel relatively safe traveling in areas near Merida, Uxmal to the south, and Izamal to the east; but once the traveler got 25 or so miles beyond, an ambush or even a seige of a town was very possible.
On the sixth of August, l873, two days after leaving the island of Cuba, Alice and Augustus Le Plongeon had their first glimpse of the low, level plain of the Yucatan coast. Alice was struck by the flat monotony of the landscape bathed in the bright morning sunlight. The lush vegetation looked inviting, but the long-planned arrival faced unforseen obstacles. "The first sound from the land that reached our ear was the sharp, shrill call of the bugle--ill omen for the peace of the country," Alice wrote in the diary that was to be her constant companion for many year in the field.
A customs-house boat drew alongside their steamer, the Cuba, and a health officer and the American Consul Martin Hatch came on board. Mr. Hatch told them that yellow fever, carried by rainy-season mosquitos, was making havoc among the foreigners in Merida. Indeed, he had just lost his father to it. The health officer warned them that it was unusually severe that season among the people not acclimated. The Consul advised them not to land, lest they fall victim to the fever.
Equally distressing to them was the news that Yucatan was in a state of revolution with frequent encounters between federal troops and Maya rebels intent on retaking the land of their ancestors. But the Le Plongeons were not about to turn back. Augustus had been priming Alice for this great step for two years. "Not withstanding this rather discouraging news, having started to see Yucatan, we left the steamer about 8 o'clock, A.M. on board a lighter," Alice wrote. "As the weather was very calm, it took us three hours, under scorching sun, to reach the land." After their landing at Progreso, the Le Plongeons traveled to Merida, a few hours away by carriage. They passed well-tended haciendas growing sugar and henequen in territory firmly controlled by government troops.
Once in Merida, the Le Plongeons settled into the Hotel Meridiano and began to explore the bustling capital of Yucatan. They were favorably impressed by the layout of the city, especially the plazas with their flower beds, iron benches, and marble walkways. The uninitiated visitor could not have guessed that Merida had almost become a battle ground two decades earlier or that those conditions still existed all too close in the countryside of Yucatan.
A major social event in Merida was the weekly orchestra concert set in the old tree-lined Plaza de Jesus. A few days after their arrival, the Le Plongeons attended one of these concerts. Alice was favorably im-pressed by the band, the balmy evening, and the graceful ladies. "Dressed, nearly all of them, in white, they glided, rather than walked, to the compas of harmonious sounds. We have never seen any people move as gracefully as do the Yucatecan ladies."
Their enjoyment of Merida was short lived; one week after the Le Plongeons arrived, the dreaded yellow fever struck Alice. For a week she lay seriously ill in the Hotel Meridiano, attended by her husband, "who patiently fulfilled the duties of nurse and physician with the most assiduous care, not sleeping, during seven days, more than an hour in every twenty-four, as we had been assured that no stranger attacked with the fever that year had escaped death." But, under Dr. Le Plongeon's loving care, Alice beat the odds and survived the fever.
When Alice had recovered sufficiently, they moved to more permanent accommodations in Merida and began long months of research in the vicinity. Alice needed time to recover fully and they both had to get acclimated. They studied nearby ruins of pyramids, getting a clearer picture of the relationship of the various sites, determining their condition, and noting features such as hieroglyphic inscriptions and carved figures that might lead to further research.
They spent a great deal of time searching the archives in Merida since they were not in Yucatan merely to photograph and survey the archaeological sites as a number of travelers had done earlier; they were there to unravel the meaning of a civilization long since abandoned. This required in-depth knowledge of the history, ethnology, linguistics, ecology, and archaeology of the area. Augustus, after all, wanted to prove or deny his theory, formed at Tiahuanaco, that the New World was the cradle of civili-zation. He professed a desire to judge for himself rather than follow theories advanced by others.
Augustus and Alice learned to speak Yucatec Maya and became acquainted with local scholars and many Maya speakers. One of their tutors was Father Crescencio Carillo y Ancona, a Maya priest who was later to become Bishop of Yucatan. They saw their ability to communicate with the living Maya as an important step to interpreting the past. In this way they hoped the messages written in hieroglyphics at the sites they were visiting would become intelligible to them. "I prefer to listen to the mute yet eloquent voices of the painters, sculptors, and architects, who have written the history of their nation on the stones of the monuments reared to perpetuate and make known to succeeding generations the events recorded by them," said Augustus Le Plongeon (l879:69).
During the l873-74 dry season, the Le Plongeons paid their first of several visits to the ancient abandoned city of Uxmal. Nestled at the northern edge of the Puuc Hills, about 40 miles south of Merida, it was the most accessible and most visited of the larger Maya ruins in Yucatan. It was also safely inside government-controlled territory, beyond the reach of raids by Maya rebels.
Alice and Augustus set out from Merida very early one morning, passing dozens of men and women on their way to market. Some were on horseback, some carried embroidered blouses on their heads, and some pulled carts full of ramon branches for fodder. The Le Plongeons and their photographic equipment rode in a volan coche, a large wheeled wagon "very suitable for the roads of Yucatan, that, with few exceptions, are like a stormy sea petrified. Three mules and a driver make this conveyance go good speed" (Alice Le Plongeon l885:374).
Despite the heat and humidity, Alice dressed in a high-necked, full-length Victorian dress, the mode of the day. Later she adopted pants covered by a skirt. The conservative Maya women would have been scandalized by a woman in pants, so she wore the skirt over them when in the presence of the Maya and rolled it up around her waist when working in the ruins.
The first stop outside Merida was Abala, about 24 miles to the south where they took some photographs and spent the night. The next day they reached the village of Muna, l5 miles north of Uxmal. There at the community well, they watched the women drawing water from a trough filled continuously by a simple mechanical device powered by a mule. The women gave a handful of maize to the animal for each jug of water they took.
The Le Plongeons stayed for a time in Muna, photo-graphing the sixteenth-century church and the village of adobe buildings and thatch-roofed Maya huts, using 5x8 inch glass plates. They also explored the caves that honey-combed the limestone hills nearby. When their work was completed, they left for Uxmal by the old route skirting the Puuc hills which were the only visible break in the even sea of green flowing to Progreso on the north coast.
In the l870s the archaeological site of Uxmal was part of a sugarcane and cattle-producing hacienda. Its principal residence stood within a large enclosure, where cattle drank from stone troughs. The hacienda employed about 500 workers, whose minuscule salaries often led to a sort of enslavement to the hacienda store. Because of this extreme poverty, "they live and die in abject misery," Alice lamented. She was moved by their plight and vowed to make the world aware of their grave situation by writing about the Maya for the American press. She would continue this effort throughout her life, writing for such publications as The New York World, Popular Science, and The Magazine of American History.
During their first short visit to Uxmal, Alice and Augustus were struck by the magnitude of the ruined Maya city. They camped in the Governor's Palace, sleeping in hammocks slug over beams spanning the corbelled arches inside.
They noted that in l842 Stephens and Catherwood had ordered the brush cleared from the monuments so they could make a general plan of the ruins. The plan was correct as far as it went, the Le Plongeons discovered, but the remains extended much farther in every direction. To undertake a similar brush clearing was considered "a thing today imprac-ticable, except at a large expense" (Alice Le Plongeon l88lb:2). To photograph and survey only the most important structures at Uxmal was an enormous undertaking requiring a number of weeks. The clearing would have to be repeated on each subsequent visit. They took some 5 x 8 inch photos and made plans to return for a more detailed photographic survey.
The Le Plongeons' work and travels became well known in Merida. A year after their arrival, an outbreak of smallpox was racing through the peninsula. Dr. Le Plongeon was approached in a panic by the governor of Yucatan, Dr. Liborio Irigoyen, who begged him to vaccinate for smallpox whenever he saw the need, since the epidemic was out of control. The treasury was too depleted by the War of the Castes to pay the doctor any salary, but Le Plongeon readily agreed. Under this mandate, Alice and Augustus scrutinized the area, traveling for a year to a myriad of lesser sites and towns in the vicinity of Uxmal.
This gave them a welcome excuse to attend
a number of festivals, religious and secular, and observe the customs of
the people. Alice wrote detailed accounts of their local practices.
They also saw that the Indians regarded the ceremonies of their forefathers
with far more veneration than those forced upon them for three centuries
by the Catholic priests.
One of these was the Etzmeek Nylan, performed as a right of passage when a child reached four months of age. A woman chosen for the occasion became a sort of godmother, and her symbol-ic act was to carry the child on her hip. Alice observed the ceremony and how it was believed to shape the child's future.
After the child is placed astride the hip, the woman walks round the outside of the house five times with the baby. Five eggs are buried in hot ashes, that they may there break, and the child thus have its five senses awakened. If the eggs do not break readily, it is a sure sign that the children will not be very intelligent. If they wish to write well, they place a pen in its hand during the ceremony; to read well, a book; to work in the fields, a machete (1879:94).Other ceremonies, such as curing rites based on the traditional use of medicinal herbs, could also be observed in the towns and villages of Yucatan. But not everything followed Maya tradition, Alice noted. "The ancient H-Men (wise man) was possibly a sage of great learning, but the H-Men of today is a trickster and imposter."