Dr. John F. Chuchiak
© Dr. John F. Chuchiak

Dr. John F. Chuchiak IV

University of Bonn
Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies
Niebuhrstr. 5
D-53113 Bonn


Academic Profile

Dr. John F. Chuchiak IV is currently the Dean of the Honors College and the Director of the Latin American, Caribbean and Hispanic Studies program at Missouri State University.  He a Distinguished Professor of Colonial Latin American History, and the holder of the Rich & Doris Young Honors College endowed professorship.  He received his bachelor’s degree in History from Virginia Polytechnic and State University and his Master's and Ph.D. from Tulane University's Roger Thayer Stone Center for Latin American Studies where he held the France V. Scholes Fellowship for Colonial Latin American History. A corresponding member of both the Mexican Academy of History and the Guatemalan Academy of Geography and History, he is a scholar of the colonial encounter between the Yucatec Maya and Spanish colonization. His research interests include both Spanish colonization in the region, and Maya reactions and resistance to the religious, cultural, social, legal, and economic imposition of Spanish normative practices in the region.  From work on the specialized Inquisitorial-style court of the Provisorato de Indios (which held jurisdiction over Maya heterodox religious practices), to studies on Maya reactions and resistance to colonial governing institutions, his research interests have now turned to the nature of Maya concepts and asymmetrical relationships of dependency in terms of pre-contact and early colonial Maya servitude, slavery, and forced concubinage.

Research Project

“Human Plunder: The Role of Maya Slavery in Postclassic and Early Conquest Era Yucatan, 1450-1550”

This current project examines the topics of institutions, norms and practices of asymmetrical dependency, especially as they pertain to the cultural conflicts that occurred in the early contact and conquest of the Maya of Yucatan.  The violent encounter led to forced adaptations on both sides in their interactions in terms of cultural and economic concepts of forced servitude and asymmetrical labor practices. Maya cultural practices and concepts influenced local Spanish adaptations of forced servitude models that violated their own cultural and legal conceptions of forced enslavement, but which allowed them to engage in reciprocal relations with Maya nobles that gave them access to large quantities of Maya slaves that they could not legally take in war. Both Mayas and Conquistadors were changed by these encounters, and Francisco de Montejo and his expeditions’ violations of Spanish customs and laws in terms of Indigenous Maya slavery, led to both “top-down” and “bottom-up” changes in Spanish normative practices in the asymmetrical relationship of the evolving economic and social labor of the Maya in Colonial Yucatan.

For the Maya nobles in the Post-classic and early contact economy, slaves served as currency and property. The moral economic basis of Post-classic Maya slavery focused on the enslavement of certain acceptable internal and external members of their own or neighboring Maya communities. The principle of exchange of slaves in this Maya economic system viewed these slaves as property and currency to be taken, used, bought, sold, or traded as a commodity. This use of slaves by the Maya as a type of currency or portable wealth demonstrates as Graeber noted the global nature of “how the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence--that the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption.” (Graeber, 2021, 14)  At a time when their traditional claims to the collection of tribute and labor had come under attack from the Spanish authorities, Maya nobles used their acquired slaves as their only means of currency which lay outside of the Spanish colonial economic market system imposed upon them. As late as 1550, Maya slaves remained a plentiful and important means of wealth, so much so that they came to function as a type of currency among both Mayas and Spaniards.  As Graber mentioned, most of the scholars on the history of currency, money and debt, have failed to study this phenomenon to any extent.  

This phenomenon of the use of certain enslaved segments of Maya society as currency and wealth by both Mayas and Spaniards in the contact era is the topic of this research proposal. The Spaniards engaged in this Maya moral economy of enslavement during the conquest with the capture, trade, sale and exchange of Maya slaves with the Maya nobles they encountered, perpetuating this system of human bondage as a means of the acquisition and exchange of things of value, or wealth (the real meaning of currency or money). As this project will show, Spanish conquistadors’ appropriations of the Maya moral economy of enslavement came to violate the very basic nature of Maya cultural norms in terms of who could be enslaved, and how and to what extent those enslaved either possessed or forfeited certain rights and obligations; and at the same time, their actions violated their own Spanish cultural and legal norms.

The project will begin by examining the pre-contact Maya concepts of the social hierarchies and dependencies involved in forced servitude and the Maya concepts of “debt” and “slavery.”  By examining the linguistic, artistic and documentary evidence of Maya slavery in combination with surviving documentation in both Yucatec Maya and in the earliest Spanish colonial legal documents of the encounter, this research will attempt to uncover the cultural conceptions and normative practices of slavery and servitude (including forced sexual servitude), as well as the concepts of debt, wealth and dependence in late Post-Classic Maya culture.

After examining the late post-classic Maya institutional and cultural regulations on forced servitude, slavery and asymmetrical social dynamics and hierarchies, this project proposes to examine the early colonial Spanish contact with these Maya realities and their clash with the Spanish culture, legal norms, and hierarchical asymmetries involved in the early conquest and colonization of the Maya region of Yucatan.  By means of examining these processes of how the Maya and Spaniards negotiated their social and cultural practices of slavery, this second goal of the project will look to unravel the mutual effects of the clash of norms relating to the asymmetries of Maya slavery. Examining the effects of the Spanish adaptation of Maya practices during the conquest, the project intends to analyze how violations of Castilian law had the effect of leading to the creation of new Spanish legislation to correct abuses. These reforms in effect re-oriented the social interactions of Maya individuals and their labor away from the personal control of the Maya nobles and the Conquistadors with the formal organization of new normative practices in a colonial system of free and forced labor (through debt) controlled by the Crown and its colonial representatives in the new colonial order.

          This research project suggests that a clash of cultural understandings of forced servitude and hierarchical asymmetries involved in the conquest not only occurred between the Maya and Spaniards; but also between the Conquistador Francisco de Montejo and his soldier’s violations of even Spanish normative practices in terms of the asymmetrical and dependency nature of forced servitude. In part, due to the Montejo clan’s many abuses of Spanish understandings of legal enslavement of rebellious and “rescued slaves,” Spanish Royal law itself would have to adapt during the encounter and institutionalize and establish new laws and rules in terms of colonial asymmetrical relationships. Eventually outlawing indigenous Maya slavery completely (even for rebellious Maya), the Crown re-legislated the nature of extractive colonial labor practices within a new colonial legal system that freed Maya slaves, but allowed for their forced labor and other extractive practices, like the repartamiento system, which created new social and economic dependencies outside of the legal limits of enslavement. These new colonial legal dependencies, focusing on labor services for debts (both forced and willing) reoriented the Maya labor market toward a system similar to “debt-peonage,” actually falling more in line with pre-contact Maya practices of non-reciprocal forms of prehispanic forced labor. The new extractive labor practices met with less outright resistance on the part of the colonized Maya. At the same time, by taking away the legal possession of Maya slaves, the Spanish laws removed the major source of wealth of both the Maya nobility, and the Spanish conquistadors, effectively removing both groups from power within the colonial governing institutions while also removing their effective labor control after 1610. 

Selected Publications

  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2021). El castigo y la reprensión: el juzgado del Provisorato de Indios y la extirpación de la idolatría maya en el obispado de Yucatán, 1563-1763, co-edition of the Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Universidad Anáhuac Jalapa, 2021, 2 Volumes, (812 pp.)
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2021). “Sapientia et Doctrina: The Structure of Franciscan Education in the Province of San José and the Teaching of Alphabetic Literacy among the Maya of Yucatan, 1545-1650” published in Jay Harrison, David Rex Galindo, & Thomas Cohen, The Franciscans in Mexico: Five Centuries of Cultural Influence, Academy of American Franciscan History, University Press of Oklahoma, pp. 127-155.
  • Chuchiak, J.F. (2021) (with Antonio Rodríguez Alcalá, Hans B. Erickson, Pierlorenzo Ballicu “Preserving Cultural Heritage with VR Simulations: Bishop Francisco Marroquín’s 1554 Auto de fe in Santiago de los Caballeros,” 41–46, 64,” in Mexicon: Journal of Mesoamerican Studies, Vol. XLIII (June 2021), No 3, pp. 41-46, & 41 & 64 (Cover images).
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2020). “El derecho prehispánico Maya: evidencia documental acerca de los procedimientos en materia de derecho civil, criminal, y fiscal entre los Mayas Yucatecos.” In Alonso Guerrero Galván and Luis Rene Guerrero Galván (Ed.), Construcción histórico-jurídica del derecho prehispánico y su transformación ante el derecho indiano (ed., vol. Manuales para entender el derecho prehispánico e indiano, Serie Doctrina Jurídica), Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, pp. 27-49.
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2020). "Ah Mak Ikob yetel Ah Pul Yahob: Yucatec Maya Witchcraft and Sorcery and the Mestizaje of Magic in Colonial Yucatán, 1550-1790" in Jeremy Coltman (ed.) Magic and Witchcraft in Mesoamerica, University Press of Colorado, pp. 135-166.
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2020). "Corruption and Careerism in New Spain: Don Alonso de Peralta y Robles, Creole Inquisitor, 1594-1610." published in Colonial Latin American Review, Vol. 29, No. 2, (September, 2020), pp. 376-397.
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2019). "Procedimientos y conflictos jurídicos en el uso de los testimonios indígenas por la comisaria de la Inquisición en Yucatán colonial, 1570-1770". In Yanna Yannakakis, Martina Schrader-Kniffki, and Luis Arrioja (eds.), Los indios de ante la justicia local: Interpretes, Oficiales y Litigantes en la Nueva España (Siglos XV I-XVIII), Zamora: Colegio de Michoacán, pp. 79-110.
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2018). “Translator Acquisition Strategies in Spanish Military Campaigns: Indigenous Slave Interpreters in the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan, 1517–1542,” in Tiempo detenido, tiempo suficiente: Ensayos y narraciones mesoamericanistas en homenaje a Alfonso Lacadena García-Gallo, edited by Harri Kettunen, Verónica Amellali Vázquez López, Felix Kupprat, Cristina Vidal Lorenzo, Gaspar Muñoz Cosme and María Josefa Iglesias, Ponce de León, Universidad de Valencia, Spain, Wayeb, (2018), pp. 915-936.
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2018). “The Burning and the Burnt: The Transformative Power of Fire, Smoke, and Flames in Conquest and Colonial Maya Ritual, Warfare, and Diplomacy” published in Smoke, Flames, and the Human Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice, edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrew Scherer, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, pp. 151-188.
  • Chuchiak, J. F. (2007).  “Forgotten Allies: The Origins and Role of Native Mesoamerican Auxiliaries and Indios Conquistadores in the Conquest of Yucatán, 1526–1550” in Indian Conquistadors: Native Militaries in the Conquest of Mesoamerica, Michel Oudijk and Laura Matthew (eds.), University of Oklahoma Press, 2007, pp. 122-197
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