The Republic of Yucatan & the Golden Circle

by Caveat Lector

By   | May 13, 2012 |

In the first half of the nineteenth century New Englanders and Southerners were each moving westward, populating new territories and States and carrying their cultures with them. The competing civilisations, tragically locked together in an ill-advised Union, struggled for supremacy in Federal elections. Each sought to gain the White House and to control the US Congress, hoping to promote policies which would benefit their section. In this struggle, the North had the upper hand based on soil, climate and political borders; they had more territory (from which they carved out States) which suited their culture. Southerners simply had fewer areas they could colonise, and thus were doomed to minority status in the US Federal Government and subject to the increasingly hostile demands of the North. During this period Southerners began searching for other places they could either colonise or bring into the Union on their side. The Southern colonisation and eventual annexation of Texas, a vast, seceded Mexican province, was a major success for the South’s cause and bitterly opposed by much of the North. Some Southerners also dreamed of bringing Cuba, a Spanish colony dominated by a European planter elite much like the Lower South, and other Caribbean lands either into the United States or joining them in an independent, Southern-led confederation. Robert Barnwell Rhett, a leading Southern nationalist during the era, spoke of possibly incorporating large portions of Mexico into what others of the era referred to as the ‘Golden Circle.’ Had it been realised, the Golden Circle would have included the lands around the Gulf of Mexico and the islands throughout the Caribbean. These highly stratified, agricultural regions shared much in common economically, culturally and politically despite the different Western European languages (English, Spanish, Dutch and French) which they spoke. A semi-secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, was formed to promote the idea and try to make it a reality. In the end, Southerners failed to heed the advice of Rhett and the Fire-Eaters, waited too long to secede from the United States, and lost their war for independence against the United States. Had the South won the war, it’s possible that the dream of Rhett and other Southern visionaries might have been realised.


One of the areas which would have fit nicely into the Golden Circle was the Republic of Yucatan, a secessionist region on the Gulf of Mexico which had a history of independence:

The Republic of Yucatan was a sovereign state during two periods of the nineteenth century. The first Republic of Yucatan, founded May 29, 1823, willingly joined the Mexican federation as the Federated Republic of Yucatán on December 23, 1823, less than seven months later. The second Republic of Yucatan began in 1841, with its declaration of independence from the Mexican Federation. It remained independent for 7 years, after which it rejoined the Mexican Federation. The area of the former republic includes the modern Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. The Republic of Yucatán usually refers to the Second Republic (1841–1848).

The Republic of Yucatan was governed by the Constitution of 1841, one of the most advanced of its time. It guaranteed individual rights, religious freedom and what was then a new legal form called amparo (English: protection). The 1847 Caste War caused the Republic of Yucatan to request military aid from Mexico. This was given on the condition that the Republic rejoin the Mexican Federation.


The Caste War of 1847 was in fact a race war between the White Yucatecos and the Mayan Indians:

The Caste War of Yucatán (1847–1901) began with the revolt of native Maya people of Yucatán, Mexico against the population of European descent, called Yucatecos, who held political and economic control of the region. A lengthy war ensued between the Yucateco forces in the north-west of the Yucatán and the independent Maya in the south-east. It officially ended with the occupation of the Maya capital of Chan Santa Cruz by the Mexican army in 1901, although skirmishes with villages and small settlements that refused to acknowledge Mexican control continued for more than a decade.

In Spanish colonial times, Yucatán (like most of New Spain) was under a legal caste system, with peninsulares (officials born in Spain) at the top, the criollos of Spanish descent in the next level, followed by the mestizo population, then the native hidalgos (descendants of the Pre-Columbian nobility who had collaborated with the Spanish conquest of Yucatán) and at the bottom were the other nativeindios.

Although Spanish peninsulares frequently left Mexico following the patriots’ victory, Yucatan’s Spanish population largely remained and continued to exercise local rule. Although there had long been tensions between the peninsulares and criollos in the Yucatan as elsewhere, the two groups cooperated because they feared the potential power of the mestizos and the natives.

The indigenous population was particularly concentrated in the Campeche-Mérida region, known as the Camino real, because the majority of the peninsulares and criollos lived in that area. Mayas roughly outnumbered other groups by three to one throughout the Yucatan, but in the east this ratio was closer to five to one. The elites maintained the strictest discipline and control over the Maya population in the east. The Church, generally allied with the stronger classes, also had a preponderant role where the military organization was strongest.

During the Mexican War of Independence, the intelligentsia of Yucatán watched the events to the north, and following 1820 organized their own resistance to Spain, forming the Patriotic Confederation, which declared its own independence from Spain in 1821. The confederation subsequently joined the Mexican Empire that same year, then in 1823 became a part of the federal Mexican government as the Federated Republic of Yucatan. The government of the republic tended towards centralization, and several provinces revolted against it, including Guatemala in the south and Texas in the north. To bear the costs of the war against Texas, the government imposed a variety of taxes including raising importation duties on many items, and indeed put taxation of the movement of even local goods.

In response to this, on 2 May 1839, a federalist movement led by Santiago Imán created a rival government in Tizimín, which soon took over Valladolid, Espita, Izamal and, finally Mérida. To increase his strength, Imán appealed to the Maya population, providing them with arms for the first time since the conquest, and promised that he would give them land free of tribute and exploitation. These forces allowed him to prevail in battle, and in February 1840, he proclaimed Yucatan’s return to a federal regime, then in 1841, an independent republic.

However, the Mexican government of Antonio López de Santa Anna did not accept this independence and invaded Yucatán in 1842, establishing a blockade. Land invasion followed, but the Mexican forces were frustrated in their attempts to take either Campeche or Mérida, and thus withdrew to Tampico.

As Yucatán was struggling against Mexican authority, it was also divided into factions. One faction, based in Mérida, was led by Miguel Barbachano which leaned toward reintegration with Mexico, and the other faction, based in Campeche, was led by Santiago Méndez and feared reintegration would expose the region to attack by the United States, as the Mexican–American War loomed. By 1847, in fact, the Yucatan Republic had effectively two capitals in the two cities. At the same time, in their struggle against the central government, both leaders had integrated large numbers of Maya into their armies as soldiers. The Maya, having taken up the arms given them in the course of the war, decided not to set them down again.

…In June 1847, Méndez learned that a large force of armed Mayas and supplies had gathered at the Culumpich, a property owned by Jacinto Pat, the Maya batab (leader), near Valladolid. Fearing revolt, Mendez arrested Manuel Antonio Ay, the principal Maya leader of Chichimilá, accused him of planning a revolt, and executed him at the town square of Valladolid. Furthermore, Méndez searching for other insurgents burned the town of Tepich and repressed its residents. In the following months, several Maya towns were sacked and many people arbitrarily killed. In his letter of 1849, Cecilio Chi noted that Santiago Mendez had come to “put every Indian, big and little, to death” but that the Maya had responded to some degree, in kind, writing “it has pleased God and good fortune that a much greater portion of them [whites] than of the Indians [have died].

Cecilio Chi, the Maya leader of Tepich, along with Jacinto Pat attacked Tepich on 30 July 1847, and in reaction to the indiscriminate massacre of Mayas, Chi ordered that all the non-Maya population be killed. By spring of 1848, the Maya forces had taken over most of the Yucatán, with the exception of the walled cities of Campeche and Mérida and the south-west coast, with Yucatecan troops holding the road from Mérida to the port of Sisal. The Yucatecan governor Miguel Barbachano had prepared a decree for the evacuation of Mérida, but was apparently delayed in publishing it by the lack of suitable paper in the besieged capital. The decree became unnecessary when the republican troops suddenly broke the siege and took the offensive with major advances.

Historians disagree on the reason for this defeat. According to some, the majority of the Maya troops, not realizing the unique strategic advantage of their situation, had left the lines to plant their crops, planning to return after planting. It is said that the appearance of flying ants swarming after heavy rains was the traditional signal to start planting for the Maya rebels, leading them, in this instance, to abandon the battle. Others argue that the Maya had not laid up enough supplies for the campaign, and were unable to feed their forces any longer, and their break up was in fact a search for food.

Governor Barbachano sought allies anywhere he could find them, in Cuba (for Spain), Jamaica (for England) and the United States, but none of these foreign powers would intervene, although the matter was taken seriously enough in the United States to be debated in Congress. Subsequently, therefore, he turned to Mexico, and accepted a return to Mexican authority. Yucatán was officially reunited with Mexico on 17 August 1848.

Though Yucatan was officially rejoined with Mexico in 1848, fighting between Mexican and Mayan forces carried on in the region until 1915. In fact, as late as 1933 a break-away Mayan town had to be taken by force.


It’s easy to imagine a counter-factual history in which at least the Lower South States were independent and helped the Republic of Yucatan. Note in the above history that during the Caste War Governor Barbachano sought help from the United States and elsewhere but received no aid and therefore was forced to accept re-unification with Mexico. By 1848 there was a fairly strong secessionist movement in the Southern States, especially in South Carolina and Alabama. Had the Lower South, or even perhaps just one Southern State, been independent, it might have seen fit to come to the aid of Barbachano and the Yucatecos. The Lower South was incredibly wealthy and some of its money or perhaps a relatively small force might have repelled the Mayans at Mérida and saved the Republic of Yucatan. The racial caste system of the Yucatecos was similar to the social hierarchy of the Southern States and we know from numerous sources that Southerners closely watched the Caribbean area for word of slave uprisings. The worst fear of Southerners was that of a Haiti-style revolt in Dixie with ‘the subject race… rising and murdering their masters.’ Southerners were deeply sympathetic to cultures like their own throughout the Americas and strong connections were maintained between these various lands during the Antebellum period. Would South Carolina, Alabama or a free Southern confederacy have came to the aid of the Republic of Yucatan in 1848? It’s difficult to image someone like Robert Barnwell Rhett or William L Yancey hearing the pleas of Barbachano and turning him down. The Yucatan leader even offered sovereignty over his land in exchange for foreign aid. With a relatively small amount of Southern wealth and manpower the independence of the Yucatan might have been secured, the Mayans and Mexican central government could have been kept at bay and Dixie might have had a nearby ally, colony or confederated State. In such a counter-factual world, the Yucatan today might be considered an integral part of Dixie, a safe, prosperous, First World republic in the Golden Circle.

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