1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Yucatan
YUCATAN, a peninsula of Central America forming the S.E. extremity of the republic of Mexico and including the states of Campeche and Yucatan and the territory of Quintana Roo. Small parts of British Honduras and Guatemala are also included in it. The natural boundary of the peninsula on the S. is formed in part by the ridges extending across N. Guatemala, the line terminating E. at the lower part of Chetumal Bay, and W. at Laguna de Terminos. From this base the land extends N. between the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea in nearly rectangular form for about 280 m., with about the same extreme width in longitude. It has a mean breadth of about 200 m., a coast-line of 700 m. and an area of about 55,400 sq.m.
The coast on the N. and W. is low, sandy and semi-barren, and is made dangerous by the Campeche banks, a northward extension of the peninsula, covered with shifting sands. The outer shore-line on the N. for nearly 200 m. consists of a narrow strip of low sand dunes, within which is a broad channel terminating to the E. in a large lagoon. There are a number of openings through the outer bank and several small towns or ports have been built upon it. The E. coast consists of bluffs, indented with bays and bordered by several islands, the larger ones being Cozumel (where Cortés first landed), Cancum, Mujeres and Contoy. There is more vegetation on this coast, and the bays of Chetumal, Espiritu Santo, Ascencion and San Miguel (on Cozumel Island) afford good protection for shipping. It is, however, sparsely settled and has little commerce.
The peninsula is almost wholly composed of a bed of coralline and porous limestone rocks, forming a low tableland, which rises gradually toward the S. until it is merged in the great Central American plateau. It is covered with a layer of thin, dry soil, through the slow weathering of the coral rocks. The surface is not so level and monotonous as it appears on many maps; for, although there are scarcely any running streams, it is diversified by a few lakes, of which Bacalar and Chichankanab are the largest, as well as by low isolated hills and ridges in the W., and in the E. by the Sierra Alta, a range of moderate elevation traversing the whole peninsula from Catoche Point S. to the neighbourhood of Lake Peteu in Guatemala. The culminating points of the W. ridges do not exceed 900 ft., and some authorities estimate it at 500 ft.
The climate of Yucatan is hot and dry; the Gulf Stream, which sweeps by its N. shores, adds to its naturally high temperature, and the absence of high mountainous ridges to intercept the moisture-bearing clouds from the Atlantic gives it a limited rainfall. The temperature ranges from 75° to 98° F. in the shade, but the heat is modified by cool sea winds which prevail day and night throughout the greater part of the year. The atmosphere is also purified by the fierce temporales, or “northers,” which occasionally sweep down over the Gulf and across this open region. The dry season lasts from October to May, the hottest months appear to be in March and April, when the heat is increased by the burning of the corn and henequen fields. The rains are quickly absorbed by the light porous soil and leave only temporary effects on the surface, where arboreal growth is stunted and grasses are commonly thin and harsh. For the most part the climate of Yucatan is healthy, though enervating. There are undrained, swampy districts in Campeche, in the vicinity of the Terminos Lagoon, where malarial diseases are prevalent, and the same conditions prevail along the coast where mangrove swamps are found. Yellow fever epidemics are common on the Campeche coast, and sometimes appear at Progreso and Merida. The sites of some of the old Maya cities are also considered dangerous at certain seasons.
All the N. districts, as well as the greater part of the Sierra Alta, are destitute of large trees; but the coast-lands on both sides towards Tabasco and British Honduras enjoy a sufficient rainfall to support forests containing the mahogany tree, several valuable cabinet woods, vanilla, logwood and other dye-woods. Logwood forests fringe all the lagoons and many parts of the seaboard, which are flooded during the rainy season. The chief cultivated plants are maize, the sugar-cane, tobacco, cotton, coffee and especially henequen, the so-called “Sisal hemp,” which is a strong, coarse fibre obtained from the leaves of the Agave rigida, var. elongata. It requires very little moisture, grows luxuriantly on the thin calcareous soil of Yucatan and is cultivated almost exclusively by the large landowners. It is used chiefly in the manufacture of coarse sackcloth, cordage and hammocks, and is exported in large quantities. The labour needed in this industry is supplied by Indian peons, who live in a state of semi-servitude and are paid barely enough to sustain life.
History and Antiquities.—The modern history of Yucatan begins with the expedition of Francisco Hernandez de Cordova, a Spanish adventurer settled in Cuba, who discovered the E. coast of Yucatan in February, 1517, when on a slave-hunting expedition. He followed the coast round to Campeche, but was unable to penetrate the interior. In 1518 Juan de Grijalva followed the same coast, but added nothing to the information sought by the governor of Cuba. In 1519 a third expedition, under Hernando Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, came into collision with the natives of the island of Cozumel. In 1525 the inland part of the peninsula was traversed by Cortés during an expedition to Honduras. The conquest of the peninsula was undertaken in 1527 by Francisco de Montejo, who encountered a more vigorous opposition than Cortés had on the high plateau of Anáhuac. In 1549 Montejo had succeeded in establishing Spanish rule over barely one-half of the peninsula, and it was never extended further. The Spaniards found here the remains of a high aboriginal civilization which had already entered upon decline. There were deserted cities falling into ruins, and others, like Chichen-itza, Uxmal and Tidoom, which were still inhabited by remnants of their former Maya populations. The Mayas have left no record of their institutions or of the causes of their decline, beyond what may be deduced from their ruined structures. The number and extent of these ruins (temples, palaces, ball courts, market-places, &c.) indicate large towns in the midst of thickly settled, productive districts, for there were then, so far as can be determined, no means of supporting large urban populations through commercial exchanges. The exhaustion of the soil in the vicinity of towns, or epidemics brought on by insanitary habits, might easily cause depopulation in so hot a climate. Other remains which bear witness to the civilization of the Mayas are the paved highways and the artificial reservoirs (aguadas) designed for the preservation of water for towns through the long dry season. These aguadas were huge basins, paved and cemented, with underground cisterns, also lined with stone and cement, which may have been used for the protection of water against heat when the principal supply had become exhausted. The great problem in all the Maya settlements of Yucatan was that of securing and preserving a water supply for the dry season. Some of their towns were built near large underground reservoirs, called cenotes, that afforded a perennial supply. Since the Spanish conquest, the Mayas have clung to the semi-barren, open plains of the peninsula, and have more than once revolted. They seceded in 1839 and maintained their independence until 1843. In 1847 another revolt followed, and the Indians were practically independent throughout the greater part of the peninsula until near the beginning of the Diaz administration. In 1910 there was another revolt with some initial successes, such as the capture of Valladolid, but then the Indians withdrew to the unknown fastnesses of Quintana Roo.
The Mexican State of Yucatan is bounded N. by the Gulf of Mexico, E. and S. by the territory of Quintana Roo, S. and W. by the state of Campeche. Pop. (1900) about 306,000. The railways include the three lines of the United Railways of Yucatan (373 m.), and a line from Mérida to Peto (145 m.) . The capital is Mérida, and its principal towns, inhabited almost exclusively by Indians and mestizos, are Valladolid, Acanceh, Tekax, Motul, Temax, Espita, Maxcanú, Hunuemá, Tixkokob, Peto and Progreso, the port of Mérida. Quintana Roo was separated from the state of Yucatan in 1902 and received a territorial government under the immediate supervision of the national executive. It comprises the sparsely settled districts along the E. coast of the peninsula, and the wooded sections of the S., which have not been thoroughly explored. Its population is estimated at 3000, but as its inhabitants never submitted to Spanish and Mexican rule, and have maintained their independence against overwhelming odds for almost four centuries, this estimate should be accepted as a conjecture. Little is known of the wild tribes of the territory.