The Mayan slaves that trafficked on Spanish ships to Cuba were sold for 160 pesos for men and 125 for women.

Although the fall of the Mexica Empire is the most popular reference to the devastating effects of the Conquest for the pre-Hispanic peoples of Mexico, the arrival of the Spaniards to the Yucatan Peninsula brought with it a long process of exploitation, subjugation and invisibility of the mayans, its culture, social organization and territory, whose echoes subsist to this day.

And although some episodes like the henequen haciendas of the Porfiriato that worked with the forced labor of Mayan slaves, the low intensity war that Díaz maintained against the Mayans and the ‘War of the Castes’ are well documented, there are countless stories that have not yet come to light.

Such is the case of Mayan slave trade from Yucatan to Cuba, a history of exploitation that begins to take shape after the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) revealed the discovery of a Spanish ship that transported slaves to the island.

Photo: SAS-INAH Archive, 2017. Photo: Helena Barba.

The Subdirectorate of Underwater Archeology of the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) presented the finding of a shipwreck occurred 159 years ago in Sisal, 3.7 kilometers from the mainland, a steamboat that regularly covered the route transporting people and goods, as well as Mayan slaves in subhuman conditions.

The first evidence of this ship was discovered in 2017 and since then, the INAH Yucatán Center has worked to identify the shipwreck with the help of fishermen from the port of Sisal. At that time, they could verify that it was a steam powered boat with side paddle wheels, built between 1837 and 1860.

Three years after an exhaustive search in the archives of Mexico, Cuba and Spain at the time, the INAH was able to confirm his identity: it is about lthe remains of “La Unión”, a ship that “belonged to the Spanish company Zangroniz Hermanos y Compañía, established in 1854 in Havana, which, a year later, was authorized to trade in Mexico, making crossings between Sisal, Campeche, Veracruz and Tampico.”

Mayan slaves YucatanPhoto: SAS-INAH Archive, 2017. Photo: Helena Barba.

On paper, “La Unión” carried passengers from Yucatan to Cuba in first, second and third class, in addition to carrying different types of merchandise such as henequen, deer skins or tanned hides.

However, the Spaniards in charge of the ship they also used it to traffic Mayan slaves captured on the peninsula, which they later sold for forced labor on the island, specifically in sugar cane plantations.

“The Union” is sank on September 19, 1861 after a fire caused by the explosion of the boilers consumed part of its structure, sending the hull 7 meters to the bottom of the sea. Records state that the accident cost the lives of 80 crew members and 60 passengers, not counting the Mayan slaves it transported.

Mayan slaves YucatanPhoto: SAS-INAH Archive, 2017. Photo: Helena Barba.

Also read: Venus: the planet that fascinated the Mayans and guided their lives

The modus operandi of the Mayan slave traders was part of a whole chain of exploitation that began with people known as hookers, “Whose job was to go to towns like Yxil, Kanxoc and Valladolid, to offer the indigenous people —many of whom had lost their lands due to the war— false papers to make them believe that they would go to Cuba as settlers, where they would have land and generate income”.

“Each slave was sold for up to 25 pesos to intermediaries, and they could be resold in Havana for up to 160 pesos, men, and 120 pesos, women,” explains INAH.

Although shipwrecks of slave ships coming from Africa bound for America have been found in recent years, the identification of “La Unión” confirms for the first time that a steamer also covered a Mayan slave trade route in national territory towards Cuba.

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