June 7, 2009
A wonderful aspect about having generation upon generation of an Irish diaspora is that the Irish have been almost everywhere. When Jovani – my guide in the jungle by the ancient Mayan city of Copan – heard I was Irish, his face lit up, and he asked me whether I had heard of John Gallagher.
When I said no, he was visibly disappointed. ‘‘But John Gallagher discovered us,” he said.
In 1834, an Irish adventurer and soldier called John Gallagher was fighting as a mercenary for the Honduran independence movement. In the early part of the 19th century, Latin America was full of Irish adventurers; many fought in the Latin American wars for independence and most of them stayed on (if you are interested in this fascinating part of our history, visit www.irlandeses.
org).Gallagher was one such privateer, fighting in Central America. He was posted with a raggle-taggle regiment to the far north-west of this beautiful country. When he heard the locals talking about the lost city in the jungle, he decided to find out what they were talking about, probably in the hope of finding the buried treasure of the ancient civilisation, the Mayans.
Instead of gold, Gallagher discovered, deep in the rainforest, the most striking city-state of the Mayans. It was almost totally preserved and was the capital of the southern part of the vast, pre-Columbian Maya empire. Gallagher was spellbound by what he saw – the huge pyramids, the enormous acropolis and no less than 28 palaces – all hidden away in the jungle. In 1835, he began telling the world about his vast discovery.
The story of the lost cities in the jungle, which had sustained the Spaniard conquistadors for centuries, grabbed the public imagination.
Gallagher, hardly heard of in his own country, became a hero in Central America, and he is the only non-Mayan to be buried in the city-state and the first to be buried there since the day when the people rose up, burned their own kings and evacuated the great Mayan cities, leaving them to the jungle.
The collapse of the Mayan civilisation has fascinated scholars for years. Why did this vast empire disappear? When you are here, looking at the distinctly Mongol faces of the kings and their ornate statues adorned with hieroglyphics, the question is begged: what happened?
This society was the most advanced in the world 1,100 years ago. The Mayans processed knowledge of mathematics and astronomy far surpassing anything in Europe’s Dark Ages at the time. Their farming methods could sustain much larger urban populations than we could, despite the fact that they did not locate their cities beside freshwater. Their systems of canals and storage allowed them to feed huge populations relying on rainwater alone.
For example, Copan in Honduras had an urban population of 27,000 in the 7th century, when most major European centres hadn’t even been founded. Whatever cities we had contained populations that were fractions of the size of the Mayan metropolises.
Their alphabet was phonetic, and their system of trade linked an empire that stretched more than 1,000 miles over what is now Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala.
This empire lasted for more than 1,000 years and thrived, peerlessly, for 500 years. Then it disappeared.
The last that was seen of the Maya kings and temples was a huge pyre, upon which the peasants burned the noblemen because they believed that the noblemen and priests could no longer hold any sway over the gods. How could they, when children were starving?
The Mayans simply ran out of resources. They cut down all the trees to transport rocks from the quarries to make their ornate temples.
Competing nobility, with each chief trying to show he was the biggest, got involved in what could only be described as an ‘‘arms race’’ to build the most splendid palace. This involved huge amounts of labour, which were taken from the farms and massively reduced the amount of farmers available to keep their agriculture going.
They also cut down huge amounts of wood, causing massive soil erosion and flooding. The mad dash to build the most ornate palace used up enormous quantities of materials. To support this madness, the cities needed to produce enormous amounts of food and water, and they needed to pay for it.
This was the ancient equivalent of people consuming far more than they could afford and getting into a monumental ‘‘keeping up with the Joneses’’ battle, which would ultimately bankrupt them. Interestingly, the Mayan currency was devalued during all this.
They had created an intricate financial system based on the valuable feathers of the wonderfully colourful macaw. The hieroglyphics tell of this system being abandoned during the decline.
So the Mayan society collapsed because there were simply too many people abusing their world’s precious resources, unable to see that in their headlong dash for more luxuries and frivolous spending, they were ensuring the depletion of their resources and sowing their own destruction.
At the time, I am sure, the high priests, atop the sacrificial pyramids, were cheerleading the drive for ever-bigger palaces and penning sycophantic odes to the great men who were building these monuments.
The same thing happened here in our building boom. We used all the resources of the country to build useless monuments fuelled by the vanity of our oligarchs. We imported labour to build houses we didn’t need, and deployed other people’s money to finance these schemes, which we could never sell and now cannot pay back.
We too had our ‘‘arse-kissing’’ high priests in the media, the vested interests network and, of course, our political class, who led the cheer, despite the fact that our country’s resources were being wasted.
As a result of all the hype, the Mayan building continued until the very last brick possible was laid by starving builders, driven by deluded noblemen who were paying everyone in IOUs rather than hard currency. Realising the game was up, the people revolted.
One of the last hieroglyphics shows the noblemen and the high priests waving skulls, surrounded by peasants with torches. This scene was supposed to depict what happens when the peasants finally understand the emperor has no clothes.
Apparently, waving the skulls of previous victims was the traditional way in which the noblemen kept power, warning the unruly peasants that if they came any closer, ‘‘you end up like the last malcontent, with your skull hanging on a thread’’. In the end, the peasants saw through this bluff, and slaughtered the kings and their propagandising high priests. The Mayan empire crumbled.
And the moral of the story is . . .