The History of Henequen
Henequen (Agave fourcroydes Lem.) is an agave whose leaves yield a fiber also called henequen which is suitable for rope and twine, but not of as high a quality as sisal. Alternative spellings are Henequin and Heniquen. It is the major plantation fiber agave of eastern Mexico, being grown extensively in Yucatan. It is also used to make Licor del henequén, a traditional Mexican alcoholic drink.
The plant appears as a rosette of sword-shaped leaves 1.2 to 1.8 meters long, growing out of a thick stem that may reach 1.7 meters (5 ft). The leaves have regularly-spaced teeth 3-6 mm long, and a terminal spine 2-3 cm long. Like the sisal, A. fourcroydes is a sterile hybrid; the ovaries never produce seeds. The plant does produce bulbils that may be planted, but commercial growers prefer to use the frequent suckers, which develop more quickly. The first to document the plant and its usefulness for ropes and other naval utensils was Jose Maria Lanz, a Mexican-born engineer in service of the Spanish Navy, who studied henequen in Yucatan in 1783.
Henequen represents slavery, rope, the conquest, heavy labor, and haciendas. It is, of course, the plant and fiber produced on most of the the huge haciendas of Yucatan. Henequen, a type of agave, is uniquely suited to northern Yucatan’s rocky, torrid terrain. It takes at least five years for a henequen plant to mature on its own (there are chemical ways to accelerate this) to the point that the leaves are fibrous and useful. The plant is sterile; it does not reproduce on its own. As it is dying, at about the age of twenty, it shoots off seven baby plants, which are gathered and cultivated.
The Maya, of course, were using henequen hundreds of years before the Spanish got to Yucatan. They used the fibers for string and clothing. But the Spanish mechanized production and shipped henequen products and fiber all over the world, making Yucatan one of the wealthiest states of Mexico by the early 1800s.
Maya towns were built up to serve the haciendas. Haciendas were similar to American southern plantations in that they had closed monetary systems and horrendous work practices. Owners supplied housing (so to speak), access to medical care (truly so to speak) and other amenities, to keep workers close. The company store sold food with “money” earned from field labor. If a man incurred a debt, such as a medical one, upon his death, the debt was transferred to his son. This was slavery, or at the very best, indentured servitude.
These haciendas are the origin of the old money of the Yucatan. They were hugely profitable.
The hacienda plantations were owned by a group of about 650 families. Tiring of life in the campo, these fabulously wealthy people moved to nearby Merida and built huge French-style mansions, like the ones on the Paseo Montejo. This windfall came to an abrupt end after the Mexican revolution. President Lazaro Cardenas had the haciendas appropriated and divided into peasant-owned ejidos and small farms in 1937. Prices of henequen shot up and markets for it disappeared. The advent of plastics didn’t help either. By 1950, abandoned hacienda buildings were ubiquitous. Up until about twenty years ago, you could buy one for ten thousand dollars – complete with Casa Principal, machine shop, other outbuildings and a few acres.
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