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Terre et société coloniale

Michel Bertrand


Traduction de Papworth R.

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1Studies of land tenure have been a favorite topic of Americanist research for several decades. This interest in the history of the American countryside is justified by the fact that the countries that were subjected to Iberian colonization remain predominantly agrarian today. In addition, agrarian structures have hardly changed since the nineteenth century and have been the cause of tensions, conflicts, revolts and even revolutions in the more or less recent history of those countries. Current studies seem to have covered the most fundamental aspects of this crucial problem in Latin American history, except perhaps for two. Firstly, the research carried out to date has largely focused on the key areas of the old colonial empires: New Spain and the Peruvian Andes. Furthermore, studies have been concentrated on the most spectacular form of land tenure, the latifundio, which was the dominant element in the colonial and post-colonial agricultural system. This is why, without seeking to question the current view of rural Latin America, we have tried an approach which differs somewhat from those undertaken to date.

2First of all, we chose a region which, if not altogether removed from the Spanish Empire, was certainly of secondary importance to the Conquistadors: Verapaz, in the Capitania General of Guatemala. It cannot be denied that a profound change was brought about when the Spanish authorities granted the Dominican order permission to embark on an evangelical conquest. It was no coincidence that the region of Verapaz was chosen in this respect: the Spanish Crown was unwilling to take risks in case of failure.

3We have also sought to study agrarian structures from the perspective of the land owned by local communities – generally modest in size and often insufficient to support even the subsistence needs of a single family – rather than the large haciendas owned, more often than not, by landowners who did not live in the region. Our work was therefore based on the villages and hamlets of the Baja Verapaz of today. Other forms of land tenure have only been examined to the extent that they affected the daily life of the communities under study. The chronological limits of our study are those imposed by our sources, beginning in the sixteenth century when agrarian structures were just being established and the determination to erase pre-colonial history from the collective memory was strong. For the purposes of this study, political independence is not viewed as a significant change, but rather as a general repetition of events that were to take place fifty years later. It was not in fact until 1871, during the period known as the Reforma, that the forms of land tenure established in the sixteenth century were definitively discarded. Vestiges are still to be seen in the twentieth century, but that is another story...

4Within that time frame (1524-1871), we have divided our study into four main periods, each of which is well defined.

5Our natural point of departure focuses on the situation as the Dominicans found it around 1540 in what was to become Verapaz but was still known as the tierra de guerra. After describing the population of the region, which bears evidence of its ethnic homogeneity and a conflictive past from the eleventh century, we studied the Spaniards' first attempt to colonize. This was a key period, lasting from 1520 to 1540, and marking the "end of a world" as well as the impossibility of establishing a colonial mold as envisaged by the group of Conquistadors headed by Pedro de Alvarado. It is clear that by the end of that period some very real changes had taken place, although resistance to them was equally strong, perhaps less so in Rabinal itself than in outlying areas, especially beyond Salamá.

6The partial failure of that initial colonization was followed by the Dominican attempt headed by Las Casas (which makes up the second part of our study). It was characterized by the “will to edify” shared by the Church and the royal administration. For over two centuries (1540-1750) this cooperation, arising out of an agreement signed by Las Casas and Maldonado, the governor and captain-general of Guatemala, gave Verapaz a new and original configuration which was to serve as an example for the Spanish Empire as a whole. The establishment of a new administrative framework, the reducción, made it possible to deal with the chronic Indian population crisis and at the same time strengthen royal power through the support and mediation of the Church. As of the seventeenth century this system provided the decimated native population with a stable environment and without a doubt helped to stabilize population growth. The reducción also encourage the birth of a new Indian society that brought together pre-Hispanic and Spanish elements but at the same time gave rise to new ruptures.

7More significant from our standpoint was the establishment of a new system of land tenure at the outset of the reducción. The joint existence of two social groups – Indians and non-Indians – led to two different occupations of geographical space. The heart of the region where, surrrounded by high hilltops and isolated from the exterior, communal land was owned by villagers and often appropriated by village members was sharply different from the periphery, located mostly to the south and inhabited by all those forbidden from entering the Indian zone. This juxtaposition was zealously guarded by the Dominican friars, who owned the only large scale landed estates and were therefore the dominant landowners.

8That initial agrarian geography was based on the establishment of a system of exploitation which mainly placed a burden on the indigenous population. It was in fact threefold exploitation, exercised by the Spanish administration, Indian dignitaries and Dominican friars. The establishment of such a system profoundly changed the Indian economy by adapting it to the economic model imposed by the Dominican order. This, however, did not prevent a more traditional subsistence economy from continuing to exist.

9After two centuries, the native population of the region was subjected to a new form of life, conceived as a “vaste enfermement” (vast enclosure) in the words of M. Foucault. Il would be erroneous to suppose, however, that this rigid model for society promoted, among others, by Las Casas would survive until 1750 without undergoing modifications.

10The desintegration of the colonial system forms the basis of the third part of our study. It seems probable that the pressures borne on colonial society to change its rules appeared quite soon. In the region under study such pressures began to be felt more strongly during the second half of the eighteenth century.

11The rejection of the colonial system first came about as a questioning of the reducción from both the material and intellectual points of view. The closed world conceived during the sixteenth century was riddled with contradictions after two centuries. Crossbreeding highlighted the impossibility of keeping the region isolated. The monopolization of communal lands by a few goes to show a solid, consistent community life was a Utopian belief, especially since population growth was making available land increasingly scarce.

12At the same time, the idea that the Indians could only become acceptable if they were assimilated was coming into being. Thus the belief that that Indians were weak, even infantile beings who should be protected by the Crown from the greed of the Spaniards gave way to the concept of the ladino, a person of Indian origin mixed, both racially and culturally, with European blood. From then on, attempts to reform the colonial system became increasingly common.

13Such progressive desorganization became evident in the development of regional agrarian structures. Although the role of the Dominicans remained important, they were no longer able to prevent the outcasts – i.e. non-Indians – from settling closer and closer to Indian lands in ever-increasing numbers. The saturation of the traditional mestizo region encouraged non-Indians to settle to Indian villages and even in areas that until then had been neglected. The inhabitants of reducción lands naturally resented this “invasion”, which provoked a real but more or less effective resistance on their part. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, mestizos were generally the most numerous landowners in the region. This development gave rise to a conflictive, opposing agrarian structure, with large and small recently-settled landowners co-existing with landowners and sharecroppers, collective and individual owners, rich and poor villages... Such conflicts led to the birth of a more or less cohesive society, and the divisions affected both disappearing (due to escapes and internal rivalries) Indian society and mestizo society, which escaped administrative and religious control through its very dispersal. These changes in forms of land tenure had economic repercussions. Until that time the region had been removed from the colonial economy due to Dominican control, and it now began to feel the winds of change that were sweeping colonial Guatemala. The isolation of the Indians had thus become a myth by the onset of the Independence movement.

14The evolution of the colonial system made the burden of domination increasingly unacceptable. Although revolts were not a widespread phenomenon at the end of the eighteenth century, they seemed to be becoming more frequent in the region than they had previously been. Although not as complex as in other regions of the Empire, they nonetheless strengthened Indian identity in the life of the colony. The causes of such rebellions can be attributed simply to the excesses of the colonial administration and its local representatives. But the often violent repression that they triggered served to cover up the divisions that had sprung up in the Indian world, first in villages and then regionally. Indian consciousness was therefore founded more on a rejection of the imposed colonial system than in references to a pre-Columbian world that in all probability had been largely forgotten.

15The year 1821 was a key period in Latin American history. For the population of Verapaz, however, it merely signalled a change from “one colonization to another”. The agrarian situation certainly changed, but little by little; it was not until after 1870 that radical changes were to take place.

16The fourth and final part of this study analyzes the change from reducción to village. It took half a century to get the juridical status of the reducción to be abolished: this favoured a crossbreeding process within the frame of what is to become a village. Although Indian communities resisted the change, they had few means with which to do so. The old reducciones thus disappeared and with them the society they had engendered, except for certain vestiges such as the cofradías. This slow process was accompanied by the gradual disappearance of the religious, custodians of colonial order. The sale in lots of the Dominican haciendas reflected this development. By 1870, Verapaz had become a region like any other, or almost. Ladino domination – one could say colonization – took the place of the Spanish colonization carried out by the Dominican order. For the descendants of the communities regrouped by Las Casas around 1535-1540 the situation was new but had by no means improved. The Independence won by the Creoles extended political, economic and cultural power to the ladinos. The latter did everything in their power to apply the same system throughout the country, especially in Verapaz, the model of rejected colonization. The new region that gradually emerged around 1870 in Verapaz remains much the same today. For how long? Do the recent campesino revolts against plurisecular domination in Verapaz and elsewhere point to a new chapter in the history of the Guatemalan countryside? Whatever analysis made of the current situation, only by placing the events of the last ten years in their proper historical perspective will we be able to gain a better understanding of rural life in Guatemala today.

© Centro de estudios mexicanos y centroamericanos, 1987

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