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Colonial Mexico

Updated on October 15, 2019
James A Watkins profile image

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

The Aztecs

Mexico is named for the Aztec god of war. The Aztecs were an aggressive, imperialist people, who had come from somewhere in the north to conquer Mexico about two hundred years before the Spanish came and conquered them.

As the Aztecs conquered territory they preferred to take live prisoners for ceremonial human sacrifices to their bloodthirsty sun god Huitzilopochtli, symbolized by the hummingbird.

The Aztecs ruled over perhaps five million Amerindians. Their rule was punctuated by civil disorder and rebellion from the people they had conquered.

The Aztecs were a primitive people in that they had not yet entered the Iron Age, nor discovered the wheel, nor created a written language; which means they were well over two thousand years behind the Europeans in what Darwin would call evolution.



Hernando Cortes founded the first Spanish city in Mexico, Veracruz, the "City of the True Cross," in 1519 on Good Friday. The next year, he marched 200 miles through difficult mountain passes with 600 men to present day Mexico City. Cortes was accompanied by tribes of Amerindians that hated the Aztecs who had oppressed them.

Hernando Cortes subjugated the Aztecs in what has to be one of the most remarkable feats in human history. Cortes told the Aztecs: "We Spaniards have a disease of the heart that only gold can cure." The emperor of the Aztecs, Montezuma, was stoned to death by his own people. The former subjects of the Aztecs simply became subjects of the Spanish.

In 1521, the Spaniards tore down what Cortes described as the most beautiful city in the world, the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Cortes set about to build a great new city on the same spot, and named it Mexico. Within twenty years, the Spanish had established an empire larger than that of ancient Rome.



The Spaniards surely believed they were bringing salvation to the lost pagans of Mexico. God must be on their side since He had so blessed their endeavors in the New World. It is amazing that a small band of men could have conquered such an enormous area, filled as it was with millions of Amerindians.

When the Spaniards would encounter a new group of Indians, they would read the Requerimiento to them. This was a statement that recited Christian history from creation to the present. It called on the Indians to accept the authority of the Spanish Crown. Failure to do so would result in subjugation, loss of property, and death, which the statement said would be "your own fault," not that of the Conquistadors, since proper warning had been given.

While the Amerindians used dugout canoes, the Spanish had circumnavigated the globe in heavily armed, seaworthy vessels. The Spaniards frightened the Indians to death with their steel swords, firearms, explosives, and armor. Gunpowder brought the little girl out in the bravest Indian warrior.

Another great advantage was the horses the Spanish introduced to the New World. Not only did they give the Spaniards a decided edge in speed on the battlefield, the Amerindians were terrified of them. Even more feared were the Greyhound dogs the Spaniards brought to Mexico. They were incredibly fast and would tear the limbs off an Indian who didn't surrender peacefully.



The Black Legend refers to anti-Spanish propaganda that was spread in the early modern period by European rivals of Spain. In particular, its purpose was to demonize the conquistadors by grossly exaggerating their misdeeds. The Black Legend spread the idea that the Spanish slaughtered millions of Amerindians—which is not true.

The catastrophic decline in Indian populations—estimated at up to 90%—was not from mass genocide, but from European carried diseases for which the Indians had no immunity—especially the smallpox virus. The effects of the Black Legend color our perception of the Spanish conquest to this day.

The other great and misleading myth is that of the Noble Savage, which is used to inculcate in modern minds an image of Amerindians as a peaceful, loving people living in utter harmony with nature and each other. The truth is far different. The Aztecs ruled over an immense number of tribes, with which they were in constant conflict. Many of the Amerindians loved and revered Cortes, whom they saw as liberating them from the oppression of their former Aztec rulers.


The Conquest of Mexico

It took the Spanish until 1575 to conquer the west and northwest parts of Mexico. They were in search of precious metals.  They came to serve God and serve the king, but also to get rich. 

Silver was found at Taxco in 1534 and Zacatecas in 1546.  Guadalajara was founded in 1549.  In the 16th century, 35 million pesos worth of silver was shipped from Mexico to Spain, making Spain the wealthiest nation in Europe.

As the conquistadors would establish control in each new area, land and booty were divided up according to the contributions to the conquest by each member of the company.  Foot soldiers could count on land grants of 100 acres, as compared to 500 acres for horsemen.  Some conquistadors chose to return to Spain with their new wealth. 

The elite among them would receive encomiendas from the Spanish Crown.  Encomienda, which means to entrust, granted a person control over the Amerindians in a specific area, for which this person had the responsibility to protect, teach the Spanish language, and instruct in the Catholic faith. 

The Spanish conquest of Mexico was a combined effort of the Spanish Crown and adventurous individuals.  The Crown and the Catholic Church became the twin sources of authority in New Spain—originally defined as all land north of Panama.  


New Spain

The chief ruler of New Spain was the Viceroy of Mexico City, whose job it was to execute decrees from the Spanish Crown, administer justice, supervise finances, and safeguard the spiritual and material welfare of the native population. The Crown received 20 percent of all precious metals found in New Spain. 

The Spaniards established their towns inland primarily, because the coastal areas were rife with disease, such as malaria.  At the center of a new town was a rectangular area, or plaza, around which would be the church, the residence of the governor, the administrative office, and the prison.  This nucleus served to transmit forms of civil order.

Only Spaniards would live in the town; Amerindians remained in their own villages.  The closer to the town center you lived the more prominent a citizen you were.  Eventually, natives moved to the outskirts of towns in what became known as barrios. 

The Viceroys were sent from Spain, and history shows they were upright and conscientious.  Below them, lower government officials were prone to corruption, starting a pattern that carries on today in Mexico and Latin America.  The lower officials were poorly paid, and thus felt obliged to use their small authorities to supplement their incomes with bribes. 

The first Viceroy of New Spain was appointed in 1535.  He was Antonio de Mendoza, a member of one of Spain's foremost families and a trusted diplomat for the King of Spain, Charles V.  Mendoza is widely credited with bringing law and order to Mexico during his sixteen years as Viceroy of New Spain.

Queen Isabella expressly forbade the enslavement of the Indians. She declared them free and equal subjects of Spain.  The Crown and the Viceroys were committed to protect Amerindians from the Spanish settlers, and passed copious legislation to that effect.  The natives were viewed as innocents who required special care and protection until they could be civilized. 


Spanish Missionaries

The Spanish people saw Mexico as a land God had revealed to them so they would spread the Gospel there. Twelve Franciscan friars landed at Veracruz in 1524, with hopes that they could evangelize the simple souls of the childlike Amerindians; and recreate the purity and simplicity of the Apostolic Church. Twelve Dominicans came in 1526, the Augustinians in 1533, and the Jesuits in 1568.

The missionaries faced the daunting task of preaching Christ to millions of people speaking countless unknown languages. The Franciscans concentrated on northwest Mexico; Augustinians the northeast; Dominicans the south; and the Jesuits central Mexico.

The missionaries saw the native religions as "tools of Satan," what with their macabre sacrifices of multitudes of human beings and all. They set out to destroy the idols, temples, and codices of these pagan beliefs; to build churches; and to teach and baptize into the Christian faith.

The missionaries were very brave men indeed. They ventured into remote areas, without weapons or protection, and often suffered martyrdom for their efforts.

Juan de Zumarraga became the first bishop of Mexico in 1527. He founded a college for Amerindians, at which they were taught Latin, philosophy, rhetoric, and logic. Zumarraga also translated the Bible into several native languages.

The missionaries did more than evangelize. They taught Indians new agricultural methods, and how to use tools to their benefit. They built aqueducts and irrigation systems for the Indians.

The Catholic religion as practiced in Mexico was different from that in Europe. In Mexico, Catholicism incorporated pagan beliefs and rites into a new syncretism. The Indians were greatly attracted to Catholicism because of its sacramental character; its rituals; the opulence and splendor of its art, architecture, and music; and most of all the Cult of the Virgin (and saints).

The missionaries worked very hard for the humane treatment of Amerindians; relieved their suffering; and promoted their dignity. The natives were encouraged to retain the parts of their culture that did not directly conflict with Catholicism.

The Church provided education, social services, and health care for all the people in Mexico, which required the majority of the income and manpower the Church had at its disposal. The Church provided hospitals, hospices, homes for the mentally ill, homeless shelters, and orphanages. Sumptuous churches were built, complete with lavish, costly art and ornamentation.

Church services, festivals, and processions became the focal point of life in tribal villages.


Mexico in the 16th Century

In the 1560s, enormous quantities of silver began to be shipped from Mexico to Spain.  To protect these shipments, Spain confined this shipping to twice a year, under heavy guard by Spanish Galleons.  While silver dominated these shipments, there was also some gold, as well as sugar and hides.

Spain conquered the Philippines in the 1560s, which begat transpacific trade between Acapulco and Manila. 

Besides settlers, Spain shipped large quantities of animals, grain, seeds, oil, and wine to Mexico.  The most important item sent to the New World was mercury, also known as quicksilver, which was essential to the extraction of silver.  Because shipments of mercury were closely accounted for, the Crown could accurately predict the amount of silver it could expect in return. 

Mining towns sprang up that had to be supplied with food, clothes, tools, animals, and building materials.  The pack mule was the chief animal required. 

The Spanish Crown did not countenance disloyalty.  In 1566, a conspiracy to make Hernando Cortés's son Martin the Emperor of Mexico was crushed. 

Around 1600, the demand for labor in Mexico, coupled with the dwindling Indian population due to disease, caused an influx of African slaves.  Besides mining, great building projects were underway—ports, roads, fortifications, mansions, palaces, and churches. 

Things changed after Spain went bankrupt three times in the late 16th century. 


Mexico in the 17th Century

 Spain's European enemies sought to interrupt the shipments of silver from Mexico.  The English, the French, and later the Dutch governments quietly backed pirates who plundered the Spanish ships.  The greatest such plunder came in 1628, when the entire Spanish treasure fleet was seized by the Dutchman Piet Heyn. 

Silver mining required massive capital, technical expertise, a high level of organization and infrastructure, and a large labor force.  The Valenciana mine had shafts 2,000 feet deep and 200 feet in circumference, while it employed 3,000 people.   A shortage of mercury after 1635 led to a sharp downturn in the production of silver in Mexico. 

The Spaniards settled mostly in central and north-central Mexico.  North-central Mexico was where most silver mines were located.  The primary mining areas had never been highly populated by Amerindians. 

Indian communities in southern Mexico generally held on to their land.  In fact, two-thirds of agricultural lands in Mexico, mostly devoted to maize and beans, were owned by Indians in the year 1800. 


The Hacienda

A new development in 17th century Mexico is the Hacienda. A Hacienda is a sprawling estate that came to be the powerful economic unit of Mexico, and the source of social status. The Hacienda would include a mansion with numerous servants, horses, cattle, and varieties of agricultural crops.

A hacienda was a theatre where a man of authority could put on a social performance to exhibit the level of his social status by his number of dependents, visitors, servants and workers; and show his nobility through acts of generosity, conspicuous consumption, and displays of honor and gallantry.

Haciendas were in perpetual financial trouble. The proprietors begat many offspring, which begat many more offspring in the next generation, and all of them had to be kept in high style and grandeur for social prestige.

The owner of a hacienda was also expected to be the major benefactor of the local churches. Profits were low, expenses were high, and the haciendas were mortgaged to the hilt. One poor harvest spelled disaster. Inheritance laws required that upon the death of a paterfamilias, the hacienda was divided up amongst all of his children.

As the Hacienda system waned, Spaniards changed the criterion of social status from land to racial purity. Those Spaniards with 100% European ancestry—with white skin—were known as Creoles. Whiteness distinguished the conquerors from the conquered in Mexico. Any taint of Indian, African, or even Jewish blood, moved you down the social ladder. Distinguished families forged alliances through marriage.


Slavery in Mexico

Approximately 30,000 African slaves were brought to Mexico in the early 17th century, mostly to coastal areas. The enslavement of inferior peoples was accepted worldwide at the time, including in Europe. The Catholic Church saw slavery as the unfortunate lot in life of some people, and condoned the enslavement of savages as a means of bringing them to the knowledge of the true faith, as long as they were treated humanely.

Africans born in Mexico who were thoroughly Hispanicized were elevated eventually to Negro Creole status. Newly imported Africans were the lowest caste in Mexico, Negroes bozales, which meant savage, violent, unbroken animals requiring a muzzle (bozal).

By the 18th century, blacks had upgraded to become free subjects of the Crown and sons of the Church.  They could own property, enter into legal contracts, obtain an education, and strive for prosperity. But they continued to occupy the lowest end of the social scale.


Race in Mexico

Small numbers of women from Spain ever migrated to Mexico.  Inevitably, this led to mixed breeding of the races, which led to a caste system according to racial blood.  The offspring of a Spaniard and Indian was a mestizo; of a Spaniard and a Negro a mulatto; of an Indian and a Negro a zambo.   

Only Spaniards were allowed to hold public office, become a priest, or study at university.  The social status then from top to bottom was: Spaniards born in Spain; Spaniards born in Mexico; Amerindians; mestizos; mulattos; negro creoles;  zambos; negroes  bozales. 

As society developed and blood became more and more mixed, social status was decided by color, but also by social behavior.  There were deep divisions between races and classes, and as always, those toward the bottom seethed with resentment toward those toward the top.  There was also a high degree of cultural diversity. 

In the 17th century, Indians came to be seen as lazy, dirty, ignorant, and given to habitual drunkenness.  As a result, they began to slide down the social scale past the mestizos, and perhaps even the mulattos. 


Arts & Society in Colonial Mexico

Mexico City acquired its first printing press in 1535 and first university in 1553. The theatre became extremely popular in the 17th century. Mexico produced its first renowned dramatist in the hunchback Juan Ruiz de Alarcon (1581-1639); its first famous composer, Francisco Lopez Capillas; its first great musician, Manuel de Zumaya (1678-1755).

Mexico City developed a late afternoon ritual in which the upper classes would stroll the streets dressed in all their finery. The society was gregarious, pleasure loving, and sexually lax.

The beauty and charm of Mexico City rivaled that of cities in Spain by the 17th century. Great attention was focused on science, economics, commerce, agriculture, and education.

In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain and destroyed the Catholic monarchy. Spain no longer had the power to control Mexico. It was time for Mexican Independence. And that is where we will take up our story next time.

My sources for this article include: The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson; America by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi; and Latin America: A Concise Interpretive History by E. Bradford Burns and Julie A. Charlip.


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