By Bill Cooper
Bill Bryan, former director of Missouri state parks, and I completed a fabulous week together in the jungles of the Yucatan hunting ocellated turkey, before returning to Merida to prepare for another week of adventure and learning about three important conservation projects in Yucatan State.
Fortunately for us, we headquartered out of Jordi Genes beach house in Progresso for three nights. Besides enjoying the creature comforts of modern civilization, we relaxed by the open side pool, worked on social media posts, podcasts, and article material.
Our first day trip took us the site of Hacienda Tabi, the remains of an enormous hacienda complex dating from the 1730s. Hacienda Tabi is a landed estate of colonial origin, located in the Puuc region of the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Merida, and 20 km (12.5 mi) east of Kabah. Established as a cattle ranch by 1733, it evolved into a sugar plantation that encompassed more than 35,000 acres by the end of the 19th century. Approximately one-tenth of the old plantation now lies within a state-owned ecological reserve.
The following is excerpted from a paper by Kris First. Hacienda Tabi was one of several plantations that were owned by descendants of early Spanish colonists, and, like plantations of the same period in the United States, owed its survival to the labor of Indigenous people and immigrants, most of whom were essentially enslaved. Originally established in the early 18th century as a cattle station or estancia, by 1784 the property's production had diversified enough to be deemed a hacienda. Production on the hacienda eventually included a sugar mill in a distillery for producing rum, farm fields for cotton, sugar, henequen, tobacco, maize, and domesticated pigs, cattle, chickens, and turkeys; all of this continued until the Mexican Revolution of 1914–15 abruptly ended the peonage system in Yucatán.
The center of the plantation included an area of approximately 300 x 375 m (1000x1200 ft) within a thick wall enclosure of limestone masonry, measuring 2 m (6 ft) high. Three main gates controlled access to the "great yard" or patio principal, and the largest and main entry frames the sanctuary, which held room for 500 persons. The major architecture within the enclosure included a large two-story plantation house or palacio, consisting of 24 rooms and 22,000 ft² (~2000 m²). The house, recently refurbished with long-range plans for the development of a museum, boasts classic architecture, including a double colonnade on the south face and neoclassical pediments on the upper and lower levels.
Also within the enclosure was a sugar mill with three chimney stacks, livestock stables, and a sanctuary based on colonial Franciscan monastery architecture. A handful of traditional Maya residences are also located within the enclosure wall apparently reserved for upper-level servants. two small rooms in the lower West and the plantation house were set aside for jailing peasants who disobeyed orders. A small external structure, called the burro building, was, according to oral tradition, used for public punishment.
Outside the walls was a small village where as many as 700 laborers (peons) lived. Laborers lived in traditional Maya houses consisting of one-room elliptical structures made of masonry, rubble stone, and/or perishable materials. The houses were placed in a regular grid pattern with six or seven houses sharing a residential block, and blocks aligned along straight streets and avenues. The interiors of each of the houses were split into two halves by a mat or screen. One-half was the cooking area including a hearth kitchen and foodstuffs in the second half with the storage bathing area where clothing, machetes, and other personal goods were kept. Hanging from the rafters were hammocks, used for sleeping.
Archaeological investigations identified a definite class division within the community outside of the walls. Some of the workers lived in masonry houses that appear to have had preferential placement within the village settlement. These laborers had access to better grades of meat, as well as imported and exotic dry goods. Excavations of a small house inside the enclosure indicated similar access to luxury goods, albeit clearly still occupied by a servant and his family. Historical documentation indicates that life on the plantation for the workers was one of ongoing indebtedness, built into the system, essentially enslaving the workers.
Hacienda Tabi was investigated between 1996 and 2010, under the auspices of the Yucatán Cultural Foundation, the State of Yucatán's Secretary of Ecology, and Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. The first four years of the archaeological project were directed by David Carlson of Texas A&M University and his graduate students, Allan Meyers and Sam R. Sweitz. The last eleven years of field investigation and excavation were conducted under the direction of Meyers, now at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Bill Bryan, Jordi Gene and Sergio Munoz, of TanKab Outfitters, and I were escorted about the grounds by Ms. Garcia, a biologist with the Yucatan State Conservation Office. Bill Bryan and I are in the process of organizing a trip to Missouri’s Bass Pro Wolf School for those involved in the Tabi Hacienda restoration. There we will study outdoor education programs and interpretive services methods.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at www.facebook.com/OutsideAlways, www.aoutdoorstv.com and www.espn1073.com.