ALONG THE COAST
Unaware of the problem befalling the artifacts sent to the United States and desiring to see new sites after their disappointment over the Chacmool, the Le Plongeons set sail for Isla Mujeres. They sailed round the north coast of Yucatan in a 20-ton sloop called the Viva. Augustus found the nine-day trip tolerable. "All things considered--putting aside discomfort, danger of capsizing, and all other small inconveniences that we have become accustomed to bear patiently we did not fare as bad as we expected" (1876a).
Alice did not fare as well during the first rough days of their voyage, as she confided daily to her diary:
21. At dusk anchored a short distance from land at a place called Telchac. How stupid I was to comeWhen she later published an account of the trip, she added, "To those who have been seasick I need offer no apology for such a diary; they will fully understand that I am not responsible" (1886a:2).
in this miserable boat! 22. Stopped at Sacrisan, and again at Hocum. Don't know why. 23. Stopped
at Dzilan. Wish the water would stop. Head wind. Heavy thunderstorm. Very rough. Extra sick.
Wish I was dead! 24. Stopped at Holbox. Feel a little better. Ate a cracker. Fine weather.
Arriving at Isla Mujeres, the Viva anchored in the Bay of Dolores. Alice and Augustus began their search for ruins.
They first sought the Maya city of Ecab which, according to the Spanish historian Diego Lopez de Cogolludo, was on the mainland west of Isla Mujeres. It was said to be a large city, inhabited even at the time of the Conquest, although no recent travelers had mentioned it. They used their spyglass, keeping a safe distance offshore, for the Quintana Roo mainland was "territory of hostile Indians who without asking if they like it or not, invariably kill every white individ-ual who dares to indulge for a stroll on their premises."
Despite the danger and considerable inconvenience the Maya hostilities caused, the Le Plongeons remained sympa-thetic to their position.
Customs," Augustus wrote to a friend, "Are said to change with time--when Spaniards firstTo explore Isla Mujeres, Augustus hired a boat to sail along the coast, searching for ruins. Local residents watched them warily. The island had been used for years as a pirate's lair, so they thought Alice and Augustus were on a treasure hunt.
landed there, those people were very kind, welcomed them with open arms and doors--but
since then, the conquerors and their descendants having made themselves obnoxious to the
people--these in turn have changed their mild habits and acquired the strange custom of cutting
any intruder to pieces."
A few days later, Senor Don Salustino Castro, who lived on the island of Cozumel, invited them along on a family outing to see the ruins on Isla Mujeres. It was a welcome invitation, and a chance for the Le Plongeons to explore the south end of the island again. On this visit to the temple Augustus noted a spot at the foot of the altar that had been disturbed. When one of Don Salustino's servants began shoveling in the soft sand, he unearthed a clay foot in a sandal. To Le Plongeon's dismay it had "unmistakable marks of having been just amputated from its corresponding leg."
Feeling very proud of his exploit, the servant was about to continue excavating, when Augustus interceded.
"Falling on my knees, in presence of all the picnicking party, with my own hands, I carefullyIn other explorations on the coast of the peninsula, the Le Plongeons inspected several sites of ruins. At El Meco, possibly also known as Ecab, they found remains of a stone construction,
removed the damp sand from around an incense burner, of which the whole body of a female
in a squatting posture had occupied the front part. It had lain there for ages, but alas! it was now
before us in pieces."
"a ruined edifice surrounded by a wall forming an inclosure, adorned with rows of small columns.They found similar structures at a place called Niscute and surmised that these small structures had been built by a race of small people, or dwarfs. They had heard numerous tales of Aluxob, a magical race of small people said to be living in the jungles of Yucatan, and knew there was a tradition of "little people" among the Maya, so they con-cluded the small buildings were the work of these same diminutive persons.*
In the center of the inclosure an altar. The edifice, composed of two rooms, is built on a graduated
pyramid composed of seven andenes. This building is without a doubt an ancient temple" (Salisbury 1877:103).
As they made their way down the coast, Augustus and Alice held out the hope of visiting the abandoned Maya city of Tulum, whose gleaming white walls on the rocky cliffs had so impressed the Spanish conquis-tadors when they first caught sight of it from their ships in 1519.
But there were many Cruzob Maya in the village of Tulum, about three miles from the ruins. This was undisputedly their territory; Chan Santa Cruz, their headquarters lay a dozen miles south connected by paths through the thick forest. The Maya regularly burned copal incense and wax candles on the steps of the ancient temples and practiced "rites of the religion of their forefathers." The village itself was a stronghold of an oracle, "the Speaking Cross." A speaker hidden behind it gave forth to the faithful, prophesies and orders, to rally support for the Maya rebel-lion.
In Tulum, Maria Uicab, a priestess, was said to evoke the power of the Cross, and, in effect, controlled the village. She had ordered the execution of a missionary who had landed near the village. Le Plongeon wanted badly to visit Tulum, but knew that he did not have enough protection to hazard such a trip. "It is as much as one's life is worth to land at Tulum; the natives being hostile, make it necess-ary to be always on the alert and ready to take to the boat or fight," wrote Alice (1886a:66).
By early February 1877, realizing that the visit to Tulum was an impossibility, the Le Plongeons decided to explore Isla Cozumel, just off the coast a few miles north of Tulum. Upon landing at San Miguel, a scattered village of 500 souls, they requested a house since they had no tent and planned to stay on the island for several months. After some delay, they were grudgingly offered a dirty thatch-roofed room at the southeast corner of the immense grassy square that was the town plaza.
In the windowless gloom of the hut, they could see dry coconuts strewn about the damp floor and a pile of them in one corner, to which they immediately began adding others. "We were throwing one after another as fast as possible when the old priest of the village introduced himself and said he was glad to find out what the noise was, and he had feared it might be an earthquake coming on; though they had never had one in Cozumel." The priest, Father Rejon, apologized for appearing in his shirt-sleeves, explaining "I cannot afford to wear a coat everyday." He invited them to play cards with him in the evening, "and also gave us the welcome intelli-gence that our house was haunted."
During the course of their days in San Miguel,
the Le Plongeons heard many stories of local beliefs and customs.
Father Rejon had lived there long enough that he himself had come to accept
some of them, including the villagers' belief that he suffered from the
evil eye, by which he could harm anything he looked at. Residents
often accused him of such nefarious deeds as looking at a pig and causing
it to drop dead, at which time they would of course ask him for remuner-ation.
The poor curate could do little about the affliction and was convinced
of its authenticity.
The padre also knew of interesting ruins and natural formations on Cozumel. He happily offered to take the Le Plongeons around to explore the sites. On one such outing, they examined a small structure about a mile from the village, similar to others they had seen along the coast. Its doors, noted Le PLongeon, were only 3 feet high and 20 inches wide.
Not far from the building, Father Rejon showed them a cenote, somewhat obscured by a heavy growth of brush. To get a better look into the deep limestone sinkhole, Augustus leaned out over the edge hanging onto a branch. Suddenly the branch broke, and he plummeted to the rocks below. He suffered a severe gash on his forehead, which bled profusely. Alice quickly scrambled down to him, but she could not control the bleeding even with a hand-kerchief held tightly over it. So she and one of the Maya assistants clambered to the water below to fill a gourd to wet the kerchief and stop the bleeding. Try as she might she could not reach the water--two inches more and she could have filled the gourd.
Meanwhile Augustus was bleeding dangerously. His cut ran from the top of his forehead to the eyebrow, "disclosing the bone." Alice's Maya companion would not help her, apparently feeling the water to be sacred or thinking that the wound was beyond curing, so in desperation she drew her revolver and ordered the Maya to fill the gourd. He complied.
The wet handkerchief slowed the bleeding enough for her to lead her injured doctor under the scorching sun back to their cottage. "Then I played the surgeon," Alice wrote. "Certainly the patient was much to be pitied in my hands; nor did I like the business. It was a jagged wound; bled for six hours, in spite of perchloride of iron, and refused to close by first intention." The wound was slow to heal and caused a problem for some time. "After a new skin formed, I had to cut it to extract splinters that worked their way to the surface, though we believed they had all been washed out."
While the Le Plongeons coped with their problems on Cozumel, cut off from the rest of Yucatan by the Chan Santa Cruz Maya, the Chacmool left hidden near Piste was about to be confiscated by the government of Yucatan, then by the federal government in Mexico City. It all happened very quickly, unknown to the Le Plongeons, and before they could take any action.
On February 1, 1877 an armed force led by Juan Peon Contreras, director of the Museo Yucateco, marched out of Merida to retrieve the Chacmool. They cut a road through the jungle, and with the help of "150 indians," pulled the great statue on its wagon first to Izamal on February 26, and finally to Merida on March 1. There was great excitement in the capital over the arrival of the Chacmool, and a holiday was declared. The next day the event was described in great detail in Merida's newspaper, the Periodico Oficial.
A great crowd gathered along the road from the Hacienda Multuncue waiting for the statue and its procession of digni-taries. When the Chacmool arrived, the military band broke into the stirring strains of a war march. In the first of many open carriages was General Protasio Guerra, Governor and Military Commander of the State, accompanied by his political chief Pedro Ehanore. Other military officers, the museum director, politi-cians, and municipal school representatives followed.
The band struck up "The Hymn of the State," as the procession turned onto the Calle Porfirio Diaz, newly renamed in honor of the new president of the republic. As the limestone colossus passed the Siempre Viva school, a young girl read a poem to it, which the newspapers promised to publish later. The accounts noted the "great satisfaction to see the bevy of children that attended this triumph of Science." The Chacmool was placed on the street in front of the Cathedral of Merida until afternoon, when it was installed in the atrium of the cathedral for a few days of exhibition before being moved to its intended home, the Museo Yucateco.
The arrival of Le Plongeon's Chacmool at the capital was heralded by the press as forming "an epoch in the annals of Yucatecan history and it will be remembered along with Governor General Protasio Guerra under whose administration our Museum has been enriched with a jewel so priceless."
The politics of the moment completely overshadowed the discoverer of the statue. Even the dedication on its pedestal was changed from "the discovery of the wise archaeo-logist, Mr. Le Plongeon, in the ruins of Chichen Itza" (Salisbury 1877:95), to an exaltation of President Diaz and Governor Guerra, following the instructions of Museum Director Contreras.
The politicians of Yucatan had their time of glory, but it was short. A mere two months later, Senor Contreras was shocked to learn that the new provisional governor del Rio had given in to pressure from Mexico City, allowing the Chacmool to be carried off to the national museum, possibly as another offering to President Diaz. How it must have galled the independent-minded Yucatecans to have their Chacmool moved to Mexico City! Apparently, to mollify the Yucatecans, President Diaz agreed to let them make a cast of it "by a skillful Yucatecan artist."
But before the copy could be made, federal troops had arrived unexpectedly from the war steamer Libertad and carried the statue off to Veracruz. From there it went overland to the Department of State in Mexico City to be displayed at the national museum. Governor Guerra soon requested of President Diaz that a copy be sent to Merida "as a just compensation."
When the news finally reached Cozumel that Governor Guerra had ordered the Chacmool and other pieces found by the Le Plongeons to be taken from Piste, Augustus sent a letter protesting the action. "Senor General before you as Governor of the State, before the whole world, and before the Supreme Government of the Nation, we present ourselves claiming for us as our property the two statues [the Chacmool and a reclining jaguar], bas-relief of the same and other stones found by us; and protesting against any act which tends to deprive us of them." (1877a)
The 1827 law that President Tejada had used some months before to ban the exportation of Le Plongeon's finds to the Centennial Exhibition did not forbid the ownership of antiquities by private individuals. So Le Plongeon felt he should at least receive some redress for the amount of money and labor it took to uncover the Chacmool. And, as he pointed out, they had found the piece in disputed territory. At that time, Chichen Itza was not under control of the Mexican or Yucatecan govern-ments, but in rebel territory. Furthermore, a law of Yucatan specifically stated that objects of value for the sciences and arts could be purchased at a just price from the finder, essentially acknowledging individual ownership of the object.
Le Plongeon next appealed, without success, to John W. Foster, the American ambassador in Mexico City, and A. J. Lespinasse, the American consul in Merida. Lespinasse did not want to become entangled in the affair, telling Le Plongeon that it is "a personal question between yourself and the parties who took possession of the statue" (1877).
The great pain the confiscation of their prize inflicted on the Le Plongeons was evident in a letter Alice wrote on April 3, 1877 to her friend Mrs. Gaylord. "We have suffered from extreme indignation and sorrow, and have been quite unwell in consequence of what has happened. The bust and most beautiful fruit of our knowledge, labor, suffering, and heavy expenditures, stolen: and by the Government of the place where in we have made those expenses."
She recounted the hardships they had willingly endured, depriving themselves:
"of all that makes life pleasant, and even of its commonest necessities, in order to completeAlice told Mrs. Gaylord of the perils of working in what amounted to a war zone. "Surrounded by enemies, Remington always at hand, death lurking for us in every direction. All this was nothing, for we were buoyed up with the pleasant thought of carrying Chacmool back to the world."
our grand discovery. We have been sick to death in places where we could not procure medicine
of any descrip-tion, where, at times, we had not even bread; and when we could obtain a few
black beans or some squash it was a feast."
In September 1877 and again in April 1878 Augustus wrote directly to President Diaz, petitioning for return of the Chacmool, explaining carefully his legal position and the amount of money and time he had expended in excavating it. Stephen Salisbury was asked to intercede through his Washing-ton connections. Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts presented Le Plongeon's claims to the United States Congress in 1878, but no action was taken.
The matter was closed. The Chacmool
was in Mexico City, and there it would remain. The Le Plongeons were
to receive no compensation.