“An Appalling Record of Death and Destruction”

The Disastrous Flood Caused by the Saint Francis Dam Break in 1928

The worst disaster in recent California history is the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Over three thousand people lost their lives in the quake and the ensuing fires. Today, while Martine and I were visiting the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society in Newhall, we were forcibly reminded of the second worst disaster in recent California history: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March 1928 and the resulting wall of water that swept some fifty-four miles until it found its way to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. Almost five hundred people lost their lives, decimating much of the then sparsely populated northern communities of Los Angeles, as well as many in nearby Ventura County.

If you have seen the movie Chinatown (1974), you know something about William Mulholland, the engineer behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water to L.A. from the distant Owens Valley along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas. Almost singlehandedly, he made Los Angeles a viable city that could sustain its amazing record of growth. It was the same man who took responsibility for the dam failure that was to end his brilliant career, referring in a speech to the disaster’s “appalling record of death and destruction.”

The St. Francis Dam Site in San Francisquito Canyon in 2012 (The Dam Itself No Longer Exists)

According to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society:

To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in August 1928 was 385, but the remains of victims continued to be discovered every few years until the mid-1950s. Many victims were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific Ocean and were never recovered, while others were washed ashore, some as far south as the Mexican border. The remains of a victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and other bodies, believed to be victims of the disaster, were found in the late 1970s and 1994. The current death toll is estimated to be at least 431.

The War Between the Archaeologists

The Hieroglyphic Stairs at Copán

When I first started visiting the Maya ruins in Yucatán and Chiapas, I had picked the losing horse in the race to interpret the glyphs that were to be found at so many of the ruins. The archaeologist I followed was John Eric Sidney Thompson, better known as J. Eric S. Thompson. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he had a number of books in print that I studiously pored over, including Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, Maya Archaeologist, Maya History and Religion, and The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization.

Essentially, Thompson believed that, beyond significant calendar dates, the glyphs didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t until after Thompson died in 1975 that such pioneers as Linda Schele, Michael D. Coe, and David Stuart suddenly discovered that the glyphs at Palenque not only had calendar dates, but also the names of rulers and a description of events being commemorated. Quite suddenly, the Maya had a history. And what worked at Palenque also worked at scores of other Maya sites in Yucatán and the jungles of the Petén.

Maya Archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson

The problem was that Thompson was not only uninterested in languages (he never learned Mayan), but he stood like a watchdog to make sure that no one who had the right background would not endanger his conclusions.

When last I went to the Maya archaeological zone, the Maya lacked a history. Thanks to the pioneering work of two Russian researchers—Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov—the Mayans of the Classical Period now have not only a history, but a rich one as well.

 

Star Wars and Axe Wars

Fresco at Maya Site at Bonampak in Chiapas

I have just finished reading Peter D. Harrison’s The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. During the reign of the kalomtes, or divine kings of the Classic period of Maya history, wars were almost constant. They were of two kinds:

  • “Star Wars” are wars whose timing is mandated by the positions of the planets, especially Venus. These do not usually involve massive destruction or conquest.
  • “Axe Wars” are wars of conquest or revenge.

In all my postings on the Maya, I have neglected to note one important fact: the Maya were never an empire of diverse peoples, such as the Aztecs in Northern Mexico and the Inca in the Andes. Instead, there were powerful city/states that rose into prominence and just as often fell to other Maya city/states. Tikal in Guatemala was probably the largest; but at different times such cities as Palenque, Calakmul, Chichen Itza, and Cobá in Mexico; Copán in Honduras; Caracol in Belize; and El Mirador, Dos Pilas, and Quirigua in Guatemala were first among equals.

With so many hundreds of Maya cities spread across Southern Mexico and Central America, the number of possible wars numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. When I think on this, I realize that the Maya were probably pretty happy to get rid of their kings and concentrate on survival rather than fighting in astrologically dictated conflicts or axe wars against powerful entities like Calakmul.

Then, too, it was hard work building all those temples and pyramids when none of the people of the Americas had the use of the wheel. Stones had to be shaped and carried long distances by men. There was probably a massive sigh of relief throughout the Maya world when all this war and labor was mostly behind them.

 

 

The Thunder Horse

What Happened When Cortés Left a Horse Behind at Tayasal

In 1525, Hernan Cortés visited Tayasal in Guatemala—where some 172 years later, the last Mayan were conquered by the Spanish—he left behind a horse that became, for a while, a god in the Maya pantheon. Here is how Robert J. Sharer tells it in The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition:

[In 1618, Fathers Bartolomé de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita] were shown a large idol in the form of a horse, called Tizimin Chak, the “yhunder horse.” When Cortés had visited Tayasal in 1525 he had left behind a lame horse with the Kan Ek’ of that day, promising to return for it himself or to send for it. After Cortés’s departure, the Itza treated the horse as a god, offering it fowl, other meats, and flowers, but the horse soon died. The Itza later made a stone idol of the horse. When Father Orbita saw this image, the idolatry so enraged him that he smashed the image to bits. The Itza, outraged at this sacrilege, tried to kill the missionaries, but Father Fuensalida seized the occasion to preach a sermon of such eloquence that the tumult subsided and the missionaries’ lives were spared.

On the island of Flores in Lago de Petén, the site once occupied by Tayasal, there is today a stone statue of a horse commemorating the poor thunder horse.

 

Handsome Devil

Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541), One of the Cruelest of Cortés’s Lieutenants

Even his enemies were impressed with him. The Indians of New Spain (Mexico and Guatemala) called him, in Nahuatl, “Toniatuh,” meaning “sun.” In Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s scholarly study, The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition describes the depredations wrought by this cruelest of conquistadores:

[Fray Bartolomé] Las Casas goes on to itemize the atrocities committed by Alvarado during the conquest of what became known as Guatemala. There is no reason to reject Las Casas’s account, for Alvarado’s own letters, which provide the best history of the conquest of Guatemala, allude to the terror tactics he employed against the defenseless populace.

About his campaign in the Valley of Quetzaltenango, Alvarado writes:

We commenced to crush them and scattered them in all directions and followed them in pursuit for two leagues and a half until all of them were routed and nobody was left in front of us. Later we returned against them, and our friends [the Mexican allies] and the infantry made the greatest destruction in the world at a river. We surrounded a bare mountain where they had taken refuge, and pursued them to the top, and took all that had gone up there. That day we killed and imprisoned many people, many of whom were captains and chiefs and people of importance.

One of the victims was Tecun Uman, a K’iche commander, now considered a hero to the Maya people, and after whom a city bordering Mexico has been named.

Monument to Tecun Uman, One of Alvarado’s Victims

There was no way the Maya could withstand the force of firearms, horses (which the Maya had never before encountered), and the ruthless military intelligence of Pedro de Alvarado.

Below is a mask of Alvarado used in Highland Maya processions and ceremonies in Guatemala to commemorate the losses sustained by the Maya:

Guatemalan Dance Mask of Pedro de Alvarado Used in Maya Ceremonies

 

Optimates and Populares

The Roman Senate with Cicero Accusing Catiline (Seated by Himself at Right)

Over the last couple of days, I have been reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. We think of the Roman Republic in very decorous terms, with all those dignified men in togas. We don’t see many representations of Roman plebeians, who were not permitted to wear the toga—let alone the thousands of slaves living in the city.

It was actually a far from decorous time, with over a hundred years of violent conflict between the optimates (wealthy upper classes) and the populares (common people). This century included the Brothers Gracchi, who were murdered; the brutal dictator Sulla; the victorious general Marius; and ended with the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. In many ways, it was reminiscent of our own times—a time when we are envisioning the end of our own Republic from the repeated assaults of the Dictator Trump.

Among the optimates, there were the senate, the consuls, the priesthood, all the Republican offices (Quaestor, Praetor, Aedile, etc.), as well as the class of equites, or knights. For most of its existence, these are the people who ruled the Republic. The populares, or plebeians, were everyone else (always excepting the slaves, who had no one to speak for them). The optimates did everything in their power to aggrandize their power at the expense of the populares. In fact, one of the reasons Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate in 44 BC was his policy of sharing power with the populares. The men who stabbed him were all Senators.

I am tempted to equate the optimates with Republicans, and the populares with Democrats. In fact, the situation was complicated by the inhabitants of the various provinces of the Republic—and these provinces began right outside the Rome city limits.

 

 

La Guerra de la Sed

Translation: “The War of Thirst”

Paraguay has given the world two horrendous wars over the last two centuries. Yesterday, I posted about the War of the Triple Alliance. Today, we will see one of the most horrendous wars of the Twentieth Century: The Chaco War of 1932-1935 between Paraguay and Bolivia. The Grand Chaco is a desert area comprising most of Paraguay’s territory (in an area the size of Poland) but with only 3% of the population. In its earlier war, Paraguay lost big. The Chaco War was actually fought to a draw, with heavy casualties on both sides.

The Bolivians were hampered by the fact that their supply line was so much longer, and most of their troops were from the altiplano and were not used to lowland deserts, especially truly horrible ones like the Chaco. Here there were few water holes, cockroaches that ate human hair, poisonous snakes, jaguars, giant lizards, vampire bats, and a wilderness of thorns and sharp spines. Also, Paraguayans could intercept messages in Spanish meant for the Bolivians, while the Paraguayans communicated over radio lines in Guaraní, the other official language of the country.

In his book At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay, John Gimlette wrote:

A pattern emerged. The Bolivians would be separated from their water and then the Guaranís would cut round the back to offer them dehydration or surrender. Behind these moves was a man with chilly blue eyes who played the war like chess, not theatre. General Estigarribia is often credit with genius, and later he would stand for [the] presidency. Had his propeller not come off over Altos, he might have spared Paraguay the Stronato [the nickname for the long presidency of dictator General Alfredo Stroessner] and the uncomfortable years ahead….

Bolivian morale slithered. The myth of Paraguayan invincibility took shape: the Guaranís lived on palm hearts and thin air, fought like wilcats and were everywhere.

PARAGUAY: a Stamp Printed in Paraguay shows Heroes of the Chaco War


When the war was over, the general thinking was that the war was fought for oil instead of a useless chunk of desert. In fact, there was no oil in the Chaco. The war was fought over a desolate area of no major import to either of the war’s participants.