Xuxub Must Die: The Lost Histories of a Murder on the Yucatan


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Xuxub Must Die: The Lost Histories of a Murder on the Yucatan

“Xuxub Must Die” by Sullivan Paul primarily seeks to establish factors that led to the 1875 murder of the Stephen Roberts, an Irish-American plantation manager, together with his farm workers by Maya rebels. Over the generations, no exact reason for this has been unraveled. Most are just varying theories on the same issue. Some of these theories reasons point toward a conflict related to love, while others blame it on the backlash of Maya slavery. In this essay, the major events that led to the murder of Stephens Robert will be addressed, together with the implications of the caste war in Yucatan on this event, from the perspectives of Sullivan Paul in his book, “Xuxub Must Die.”

In October 1875, a group of the Mayan Caste War rebels attacked the sugar plantation, Xuxub, which is located in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. These war rebels were responsible for the murder of the owner of this plantation, who was Irish-American. Robert Stephens was murdered together with his plantation laborers, who comprised both men and women. It is believed that the attack this triggered the government troops to hunt down members of this rebel group the next day and managed to kill some of them. However, Sullivan thinks this was a fallacy, and that the government did nothing to investigate into the murder of Stephens, since it was indirectly behind this attack.

Sullivan, in this book attempts to establish the main reasons behind the caste war, by putting all the events in perspective. He questions why this has to be dug up again. In his opinion, the Maya remember this war as a victorious event on their side. However, its counterparts, the Americans and Mexicans do not remember this. Nonetheless, Sullivan holds that, by going back in history, through studying the events underlying this war, we might end up with useful discoveries about this event, which were not made back then. Sullivan however understands that not everyone will benefit from this knowledge. Nevertheless, there is a lesson anyone can learn from Xuxub. Sullivan impeccably employs factors such as personal, political, and cultural, to break down the events in the war. This good read can be immensely beneficial to those people interested in long history.

In this book, Sullivan condemns the war and thinks it was a fight or resistance to progress. The victim, Robert Stephens is portrayed as a highly skilled man, who goes to live in Yutican, a foreign land to him in order to employ his skills and expertise in the development of a country, which according to him, is in dire need of that kind of civilization. Sullivan therefore thinks that Robert and his wife Mary were exceptional to have thought of doing that. According to Sullivan, Robert did not have making profits as his main intention when he made this decision. In Cuba, Stephens mainly applied his engineering skills on the sugar plantations, as well as railroads. Therefore, such a good man with good intentions did not deserve to die in a brutal way.

From this book, a reader realizes that Roberts lived in an era where Cubans were still under colonization from the Spaniards. The Americans in Cuba desired that the Cubans get their independence in order to run their country well. It was however not the duty of Stephens to fight for the independence of Cubans. Stephens was however compelled to be part of the events around Cubans, fight for independence, because he was among the few influential Americans in Cuba at that particular period. This saw him witness the Cuban revolutionaries wage war with their Spanish garrisons, and this sometimes turned brutal.

What made Roberts vulnerable to attacks in Cuba is the fact that he had befriended Napoleon Arango, a top member of the Cuban revolutionary groups responsible for independence struggle. The Spanish soldiers murdered Augusto, who was Arango’s brother while attempting to forge peace talks with them. Arango was with Roberts when the Spanish seized him. He was as well captured, after he tried to plead Arango’s innocence. Amid all these, the Spaniards destroyed Arango’s plantation and estate, but he did not retaliate. This conflict and war situation saw Stephens abandon Cuba and move back to the USA.

From the States, Stephens moved to the peninsula of Yucatan, as fate led him. There he was appointed as an engineer in a new port project. After eight months, his appointment was accomplished, and Stephens had the option of returning to America. However, he was hired again in a sugar plantation to install sugar-milling equipment. While here, Stephens came to close contact with the Yucatan elite group, including the Urcelays.

Stephens, as it appears, had a variety of experiences in conflicts wherever he settled. Here in Yucatan, the relations between the Yucatans and the Indian population was the cause of a lot of tension, as the Yucatans believed that they could only progress economically if they got rid of the Indians. The Mayan Indians were agriculturalists who supplied food for all the Yucatans in towns and cities. Yucatans believed in the role of foreigners in their economy, and so accommodated many foreigners in their industries, including Stephens.

An important aspect in Stephen’s life in Yucatan was the agreement he struck with Aznar, a wealthy merchant, to purchase Xuxub, a plantation estate. The former owner sold this to Aznar and Stephens, who retained the field laborers, who were mainly the Mayan Indians. Stephens managed this plantation well and it was a success for him. However, trouble started showing up when some wealthy and powerful Urcelays, who owned an adjacent sugar plantation, Solferino, attempted to murder him for reasons unknown to him. The Urcelays used an ex-convict, Montilla to get to Stephens.

Sullivan clearly states that the relationship between the Urcelays and Robert Stephens primarily contributed to the events that led to his murder. These first came in contact when they hired Stephens to install a processing equipment on their sugarcane plantation. During his work period with the Urcelays, Stephens was involved in some mishap where he made great loses, which he had to pay for. In addition, the Urcelays did not pay half of his salary, claiming it was a compensation for the losses. Stephens however, successfully compensated the equipment damaged, and from then the Urcelays did not like him, and so were jealous of his progress in Xuxub.

The main argument presented in this book about the causes of Stephen’s murder is the strained relationship between him and the Urcelays. The Urcelays were hostile plantation managers who mistreated their workers, while Stephens was the most liked manager. He treated his workers well, even the workers who fled from the Urcelays sought refuge in Xuxub on Stephen’s plantation, where they were accommodated, and enjoyed better working terms. All these aggravated Urcelays’ hate toward Stephens. Urcelays also had a conflict with Mayan Indians, from whom they tried to grab land and other property. This led to a series of wars between these two groups. However, the Urcelays employed hostile Indians to join them in their fight against their enemies, including Stephens.

The Caste war in Yucatan was because of feuds between foreign investors, and the locals. The government in Yucatan did not resent the injustices on the Americans there. Instead, the evils of Montilla on Stephens were justified in the local dailies, while condemning Aznar and Stephens’s attempts to protect themselves. It is clear that the Yucatans did not like the progress of Americans in their land. Commandant Montilla was responsible for the murder of Stephen Roberts in October. They however blamed this on the hostile Indians. The Urcelays and Montilla were therefore falsely termed innocent in this.

Conclusively, this story by Sullivan describes a dark and compelling history. The events are unraveled in a way that integrates ethnography and journalism. Jealousy from the locals is the basis of all events that transpire in this war. Racism, forced labor, importation of foreign technology and capital, characterize the plantations in Yucatan. This war and the invasion on Xuxub however played a vital historical role as it marked an important incident in the shaping of Mexico during the age of initial globalization.


Works Cited

Sullivan, Paul. “Xuxub Must Die: The Lost Histories of a Murder on the Yucatan.” University of

Pittsburgh Press. 2006.

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