Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Rule of the Spanish Viceroys

Spain has the credit—the ill credit, we should say—of treating her heroes with shameful injustice and neglect. This was the case with the two greatest and most famous of them, Columbus and Cortes, both of whom were treated rather as malefactors than as benefactors, and were basely robbed of the reward of their brilliant services. It was the fate of Cortes the Conqueror to find his enemies stronger at the Spanish court than himself and to be left to die in bitter disappointment, while another was given the position in the New World which he had so brilliantly won. He had reason to regret his cruel treatment of the emperor Montezuma when he was removed from the government of Mexico and replaced by Antonio de Mendoza, Count of Tendilla, the first of the long line of viceroys who reigned over Mexico and its people during nearly three centuries.

Mendoza proved to be one of the ablest and noblest of the viceroys, and governed the country with a just and generous spirit that few of his successors showed. He manifested a warm regard for the welfare of the Indians, protected them from the rapacious spirit shown by many of the Spanish settlers, and gave them earnest encouragement in the pursuit of agriculture. Sheep of fine breed were brought from Spain, the silk industry was encouraged, and the economic development of the country wisely fostered.

Priests of the Franciscan order had already reached Mexico and founded convents, and they began earnestly the work of converting the natives from idolatry to Christianity. The ablest and most zealous among them was Fray Pedro of Ghent, whose holy life endeared him to the Emperor Charles V, then reigning also as Charles I, king of Spain. Charles chose him for governor and aided him greatly in his work by gifts of money and grants of land. The viceroy and the missionaries worked diligently in promoting the prosperity of the country and in protecting the people from unjust treatment, and had much to do with placing the government of Spain in Mexico upon a firm and enduring basis.

The capture of Guatemoc.


Before continuing the story of the viceroys one must briefly return to the exploits of Cortes, who had made himself master of the Aztec empire and was soon lord of all the tribes of Anahuac. One of his first acts was to build a Spanish city on the site of the Aztec one. Before doing this, however, the vast treasures supposed to belong to the Aztec crown were widely sought in the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Not finding them, Cortes permitted a shameful act to be performed. His noble captive, Guatemoc, was questioned about these treasures, and on denying any knowledge of them was subjected to dreadful torture by thrusting his feet into boiling oil. The same was done to the King of Tlacopan. This cruel deed was without effect. They either knew not or would not tell what had become of these treasures. The bottom of the lake was explored for them, but equally in vain, and these coveted treasures have never been found.

The country was put under military rule by its conquerors, Cortes taking the titles of Governor, Captain General and Chief Justice. He soon began to extend the scope of his conquests. One important addition to his dominion was the strong kingdom of Michoacan, which the Aztecs had failed to conquer. This was invaded and taken by Cristobal de Olid. Being afterward sent to Honduras, Olid tried to make himself king, but lost his life in the attempt. Cortes himself then set out for that country, taking with him his royal captive Guatemoc, whom he put to death during the journey. The excuse for his execution—or murder—was that the Aztec monarch had endeavored to excite a rebellion against the Spaniards. The unhappy captive, who had remained a cripple since his former torture, was hung head downward from a tree.

"Ah, Malintzin [the Aztec name for Cortes], I ever know it vain to trust in your promises," sadly said this last of the Aztec monarchs.

In addition to Honduras, Cortes added Guatemala to his conquests, Alvarado being his agent in this exploit. He also introduced the culture of the sugar-cane, orange and grape into Mexico. But enemies were working against him in Spain, the execution of Guatemoc was disapproved by the king, and the conqueror was removed from his post as governor of Mexico, though the military control was left in his hands. The acts of his enemies obliged him to go more than once to Spain, his final visit being in 1540, on which occasion he found himself treated with neglect and indifference. Deeply wounded by this reception, he lived but a few years longer, dying a bitterly disappointed man in 1547. So passed away the greatest of the Spanish conquerors of the New World.

Cortes had made other attempts than those mentioned to extend the empire of Spain in North America. A vast country lay to the north of his new dominions, and it was from this region that the Indians told him most of their gold had come. They pointed to the northwest as the seat of the gold-yielding land, and the conqueror sent several expeditions in that direction. These explored the country, gave it its present name of California, but failed to find the golden treasures it held.

Meanwhile Spanish adventurers were seeking other Indian empires in the northern country, Ponce de Leon in Florida, Panfilo de Narvaez farther north, and Fernando de Soto in the valley of the Mississippi. Cabeza de Vaca, one of the followers of Narvaez, succeeded in making his way far westward among the Indians, finally reaching California, whence he was taken to the city of Mexico.

Here he told of settled kingdoms to the north, and in 1540 Francisco de Coronado, inspired by hopes of finding a new seat of Indian empire, set out in search of the fabulous "Seven Cities of Cibola." There gold and silver were said to exist in profusion. Far north he led his covetous followers, but found none of the fabled cities nor of the golden treasures he sought. His eager thirst for conquest and treasure led him far into what is now the United States, ending at a stream which is supposed to have been the Platte River of Nebraska. In 1582, another explorer reached New Mexico and founded there the city of Santa Fe. Still later the great domain of Texas was occupied. Thus the possessions of Spain in North America spread far and wide to the northward, that country gaining an imperial dominion in the south-west before the English and French began their work of settlement and conquest in the north and east.

Though these journeys of exploration brought back no treasure for the coffers of Spain, rich veins of silver were quickly discovered in the conquered realm of Anahuac, the Aztec treasure house. Mines were opened in various places and the great work of delving into the rocks for their hidden wealth was begun. The conquest had cost the lives of many thousands of the Indians; this arduous labor was to prove as terrible and cruel. Throughout most of the long period of the rule of the viceroys of Spain the natives were cruelly treated, being seized as slaves, forced to the most exhausting labor in the mines, and mercilessly exploited for the purpose of filling with wealth the coffers of their pitiless taskmasters. The mine workers were even branded with hot irons like so many cattle, an outrage which had to be stopped by legal edict. Others of the adventurers from Spain succeeded in obtaining vast landed estates, on which they dwelt in baronial pomp and pride, while thousands of the natives were forced to labor in their fields, the work often exhausting, the wages poor, the life one of degrading ignorance and poverty. As for Spain itself, its demands for revenue from its American provinces were large and frequent, and for three centuries a great part of the New World was harried to the utmost for the benefit of a land beyond the seas.

Such is a general glance at the career of the Spaniards in their Mexican realm. Some more detailed description needs now to be given. From the period of the conquest in 1521 to that of throwing off the yoke of Spain, in 1821, three centuries passed away. During this long period sixty-four viceroys ruled in New Spain. Some of these were honest and competent, others dishonest and oppressive; some strong, others weak; some vigorously repressing wrong doing, others leaving the people to the oppressive control of the treasure seeker and the land baron. There was little progress, little that can be called history. The land lay in great measure aside from the current of the world's development, and remained in a state of torpid apathy.

Mendoza, the first viceroy, appointed in 1535, did much for the advancement of his dominion. Two cities were founded by him, Guadalajara, now one of the most flourishing cities of the country, and Valladolid (now Morelia), a state capital of importance. His management of the natives was wise and judicious; they yielded willingly to his gentle and capable management. Under the influence of the priesthood they proved ready to transfer their allegiance from their brutal deities to the gentler and more humane Christian faith.

In 1550 Mendoza, after fifteen years of rule, was succeeded by Luis de Velasco, also a just and wise ruler and a sympathetic friend of the Indians. His first decree ordered the liberation of a number of Indians who were being held as slaves by the mine owners and others. This led to an indignant protest from the treasure seekers, who hotly declared that such a step would paralyze their industry. Velasco firmly replied that human freedom was of more significance than the product of their mines; and as for the rents due the crown, they were not important enough to set aside the rights of humanity. He favored the Indians in every way available, though he encouraged in other ways the development of the country, and especially of the mines, several of which were discovered during his term of rule. He actively pushed the building of the Cathedral of Puebla, a city second in importance to Guadalajara, and it was during his period that an expedition sailed westward from Mexico which in 1564 discovered and took possession of the Philippine Islands, so called from Philip II, then King of Spain. In that year Velasco died, mourned alike by Indians and Spaniards. They dwelt with affection upon his wise and just rule, and gave him the honored title of Father of the Country.

There is little of special importance to be said for the viceroys who ruled in later years. There were good and bad ones alternately, but few of them made any decided mark upon the history of the country. While some were kindly and benevolent, others had all the inhumanity of Cortes and his followers. Thus Munoz, a cruel successor of Velasco, put a son of Cortes to the torture, while jails were filled and blood was freely shed for political purposes. In 1571 the Inquisition, much more dominant and cruel in Spain than in any other country, was introduced into Mexico, where in the centuries that followed it found many victims, though it attained no such terrible development as in the mother country.

One mischance arising from the insular position of Mexico City began early to give trouble, that of the flooding of the city by a rise in the waters of the surrounding lake. A flood of this kind came in 1553, and at several successive periods plans to drain the highest of the group of lakes were made. In 1607 work for this purpose first began, 15,000 Indians being set to bore a tunnel four miles long, eleven feet wide and thirteen high. This was completed within the year, but it proved too small, and schemes for enlarging it were subsequently planned and tried. In 1614 Martinez, the engineer who had excavated the tunnel, closed its mouth, perhaps to rouse the people to the importance of improving it. The effect was disastrous. The lake water at once flooded the city, the people having for a long time to go about in boats.

Martinez, imprisoned for his foolish act, was set free when the flood continued and ordered to reopen the tunnel. This he did, but the relief afforded was not sufficient, inundations taking place at intervals. It was finally decided to replace the tunnel by an open canal of sufficient capacity. This was begun in 1767 and completed in 1789. Its result has been to cause a considerable fall in Lake Texcoco, so that the former island on which the city was built is now a section of the adjoining plain, some miles away from the shores of the lake. For the final completion of this task see page 75.

Other events that took place during the period under review were the operations of the buccaneers or sea rovers against the treasure ships and the coast cities of the Spanish domain. Among these was the daring Morgan, famous for his capture of Panama. As a result of the assaults of these freebooters the cities on the Gulf coast were fortified. In 1680 one of them, the town of Campeche, was taken and sacked by British war ships. Vera Cruz was also taken and looted, this by Agrimonte, a piratical leader, who imprisoned the greater part of the population in a church while he sought for treasure.

Spain had its wars with England after 1700 and its treasure ships from Mexico were more than once taken by English cruisers. On one occasion Admiral Anson captured a galleon laden with treasure valued at two and a half million dollars. As a result of these losses, and the costly wars of Spain, her colonists were subjected to frequent exactions in the way of increased taxation, a cause of active discontent. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico; in 1785 the Gulf of Mexico was cleared of the buccaneers who had long infested it, and from 1789 to 1794 work went on for the reorganization and improvement of the city of Mexico.

This work was done by the viceroy Padilla, one of the last in the long roll, who found the city in a wretched state from lack of draining, paving, lighting, and other necessaries. Even part of the palace had been invaded by Indian women, who had stalls there for the sale of tortillas and other eatables. All this was put an end to and the city was brought into a greatly improved condition, both physically and morally. Humboldt, the famous scientist and traveler, who visited Mexico in 1803, found much worthy of commendation in the city, especially the Academy of Fine Arts, which had a spacious building and a valuable collection. He found much else to praise, both in the city and country, but the methods of mining were said by him to be very antiquated, and in no sense improved from those used in the sixteenth century. The Indians carried the ore from the mines in heavy bags, going in long files up and down hundreds of steps, some of these being men of seventy, others boys of ten or twelve. Mexico had not yet learned that methods at once more humane and more efficient existed for bringing up metal from mines.

Mexico had now reached the early years of the nineteenth century, one in which great changes in her condition were to take place. Spain for years had been growing weaker, its government in the New World was poorly administered, and the desire was widely growing in America for the independence which the English colonies had won years before. It was the period when Napoleon was disturbing all Europe. In 1808 his soldiers invaded Spain, the king and court fleeing before them from Madrid with the intention of taking refuge in Mexico. This was not done, the king abdicating in favor of his son Ferdinand. But the new king had to bide his time for ascending the throne, upon which the conqueror placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

This state of affairs, as may be imagined, weakened the hold of Spain upon Mexico, and gave encouragement to those who were dreaming of independence. There were probably many such, for Spain's treatment of the Mexicans had been of the same type as that of England's treatment of the Americans. The industries and trade of the country had been neglected in favor of powerful monopolies and arbitrary acts of repression. Thus the culture of the grape, which had greatly flourished, was forbidden, and valuable vineyards were uprooted and destroyed. Grape culture was an industry at home, and the American province was forbidden to compete. Spain also prohibited a trade which had grown up between Mexico and China, lest it might injure that from Spanish ports.

And while industry and commerce were thus hindered in Mexico, the oppression of the natives in the mines and on the great estates continued, and political rights in general were restricted or denied. The policy in this direction was voiced in the proclamation of one of the viceroys, who said to the people, "Learn to be silent and to obey, for which you were born, and not to discuss politics and have opinions."

Opinions could not be banished by proclamation. The spirit of revolution was in the air. The American colonies had fought for and won independence from Great Britain. The French people had thrown off the yoke of tyranny and oppression. Napoleon was in the saddle and the monarchs of Europe were trembling on their thrones. There was a stir in the Spanish colonies, and the people of Mexico felt strongly the impulse to strike for liberty. The steps first taken toward this may be briefly stated.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century a new viceroy, de Iturrigaray, took control. He belonged to the class of public-spirited rulers, and did much to protect commerce, encourage industry, build public works and develop the army. But the viceroys had not complete power in Mexico. There was also the Audiencia, an administrative council, appointed by the king and given a share in the management of affairs. The Audiencia  then existing did not approve of Iturrigaray's army measures, thinking that it was his purpose to seize the government for himself. Supported by many of the Spanish citizens, they took possession of the palace, seized and imprisoned the viceroy, and soon after sent him back to Spain. An old army leader, Marshal Garibay, was appointed to succeed him, and he was soon replaced by the Archbishop of Mexico.

All this created a feeling of nervous tension that ran throughout the country. The act of deposing the viceroy showed the Mexicans that the thing was easy to do. This act had been done by the pure-blooded Spaniards. Why should not the common people take a similar course? The taxes were heavy. The people at large were at the mercy of the viceroys, with no voice in the government, no part in the making of the laws. The agitation grew and spread, the authority of the Archbishop was opposed, and in 1810 he was replaced by Don Francisco Venegas. He took control of the office at a critical time, one in which the demand for liberty had grown insistent.

Throughout the Americas the spirit of revolution was then everywhere manifesting itself. The voice of Bolivar was ringing through the Andes and the people of Peru, Chile, and Argentina were growing eager for independence. The "Holy Alliance," a compact between the despotic powers of Europe, was viewing with cupidity the Spanish realm in America. The time for action had come. Delay might double the difficulties in the way. Spain had grown weak, and, as if by a concerted movement, a struggle for liberty began throughout the Spanish dominions in the New World, Mexico being one of the first to act.