When Columbus dropped anchor off the Bahamas in October 1492, he was convinced that he had reached a landfall near the coast of India. The goal of his expedition was, after all, to reach the fabled Spice Islands by sailing west, and, with no understanding that any land interposed itself between the Atlantic shores of Europe and the eastern shores of Asia, he was certain that the great cities and rich commodities he was seeking would soon be found nearby. Although three further expeditions of his own failed to locate more than modest coastal villages of half-naked savages, it was not until seven years after his death that his illusion was totally destroyed when Balboa stumbled up the heights of Darién and gazed out over the "Southern Sea". In 1513 it became clear that Europe was not only separated from Asia by an ocean but by two oceans and an intervening continent as well!
Now, the Spanish faced a new challenge: how to find a strait that led through or around the landmass of America that would take them to their preferred destination in Asia. By this time, their chief base of operations in the New World had become the island of Hispaniola, where Columbus had founded the first European city in America at Santo Domingo. From there, Pinzón had reached both Jamaica and the mainland of Yucatán by 1506 and two years later Cuba had been proven to be an island. In 1511 a ship dispatched by Balboa from Darién (in present-day Panama) was driven by storms onto the rocks of the Yucatán coast where most of the survivors were either enslaved by the Maya or sacrificed to their gods. In 1517 Francisco Hernández de Córdova rounded Cabo Catoche at the northeastern tip of Yucatán and entered the Gulf of Mexico, skirting the coast as far south as Champotón where he put ashore to fetch fresh drinking water, only to be met by a force of Maya warriors who killed 50 of his men. The following year Juan de Grijalva followed much the same route but avoided Champotón and continued charting the coast as far north as Tamiahua, where contrary winds and current forced him back. Thus, by the time that Hernán Cortés started out on his voyage in 1519, Spanish navigators had already mapped a major portion of the Yucatán and Mexican coasts.
The Gulf coast of Mexico affords few protected anchorages of any kind, due to the fact that it is constantly buffeted by the trade winds blowing onshore from the east. Not until Cortés had reached the lee of a little island known as San Juan de Ulúa did he go ashore to take possession of the land in the name of the Spanish sovereign. Only sometime later did his navigator discover that about a dozen kilometers to the north a small river broke through the coastal sand dunes into the Gulf, so it was here, in the shelter of the first bend of the river, that Cortés founded the first Spanish settlement on the North American mainland -- a town which he called "La Villa Rica de la Veracruz", or "the Rich City of the True Cross."
After constructing a small fort to protect his toehold on the coast, Cortés started his march inland by way of the Totonac city of Zempoala. There he was apprised of the fact that not only were the local Totonacs chafing at their domination by the Aztecs but so too were the Tlaxcalans, whose city lay on the plateau hardly 100 km (60 mi) from the Aztec capital itself. The latter attempted to forestall his advance into their city in several pitched battles but without success, and so were finally obliged to welcome him. Cortés wasted no time in courting their favor and by the time he departed for Cholula, a large escort of Tlaxcalan warriors accompanied him. On approaching Cholula, however, only his own company of Spanish soliders and his Totonac bearers were allowed to enter the city, while his escort of five thousand Tlaxcalans was obliged to camp outside. It soon became apparent that an ambush was in the works, and Cortés quickly rounded up the local chieftains and locked them in a room while he had his troops surround and fall upon the unsuspecting warriors assembled in the plaza. At this point the Tlaxcalans rushed in to deliver the coup de grace, and in little more than two hours over 3000 Cholulans had been massacred.
Following this bloody encounter, the Totonacs decided to return to the coast, no doubt fearing the vengeance of the Aztecs, whereas, heartened by this costly blow to their enemies, about four thousand of the Tlaxcalans opted to continue with Cortés and his 400 men over the lofty volcanic ridge between Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl into the basin of Mexico. Amicably received by Montezuma and his lords, they were quartered in the old imperial palace. Within the week, however, Cortés had effectively turned Montezuma into a hostage-administrator, and a short time later, when news reached Cortés that the settlement at Veracruz had been attacked, he charged Montezuma with having ordered the assault and completed his denigration of the emperor by placing him in chains.
During the next five months Cortés and his lieutenants attempted to learn as much as they could about the size and extent of Montezuma's domains and where its treasures of gold and silver came from. With guides provided by Montezuma, Spanish officers succeeded in visiting the four main mining centers of the empire, bringing back with them not only nuggets of precious metals but also valuable military intelligence regarding the regions through which they passed. With this information in hand, Cortés had Montezuma assemble all of his vassals in Tenochtitlán and instruct them that henceforth they would owe their allegiance and their tributes to the Spanish emperor instead.
Once he felt he had the political situation under control, Cortés decided the time had come to put an end to the Aztecs' abominable religious practices. To the horror of Montezuma and the priestly caste, he personally demolished some of the bloody idols in the main pyramid, ordered that the temples be cleansed of their gore, and directed that crosses and images of the Virgin and the saints be erected in their place. These actions caused such outrage among the Aztec leaders that they demanded that Cortés immediately leave their country or face a popular uprising of the people. In the face of these demands, Cortés promised to do so as soon as he could build some ships.
Ironically, just as this confrontation was coming to a head, Cortés received word that Spanish ships had arrived in Veracruz, not to bring him reinforcements, however, but instead to arrest him for exceeding his authority in carrying out this expedition into Mexico. After first writing a letter of welcome to his countrymen, he then dispatched a priest with several bags of gold to buy them off. But leaving nothing to chance, he put his lieutenant Alvarado in command of the garrison in Tenochtitlán and then led about 300 of his men in a surprise attack on the Spanish contingent on the coast, quickly defeating and capturing them. Fast-talking, aided and abetted by appetites whetted by gold, soon had Cortés marching back to the plateau with unexpected reinforcements of men, munitions, and horses.
Alvarado, however, had nervously watched as the Aztecs prepared for one of their major religious festivals of the year, and believing that an insurrection was in the making, he had his men attack the worshippers in the main plaza. After hundreds of defenseless Aztecs had been killed, Alvarado and his men were driven back and besieged in the palace that they shared with Montezuma. At this dramatic moment, Cortés and his reinforcements returned to the capital, along with three thousand Tlaxcalan warriors. The Aztecs made no effort to challenge their entry into the city; indeed, their intended strategy was to let the Spanish return to their residence in the palace and bottle them up on the island by cutting the causeways to the mainland. Scarcely were the Spanish back in the palace when the Aztecs launched their attack. For about a week it was all that Cortés and his men could do to keep the Aztecs from overrunning the palace, and, finally in desperation, Cortés sent Montezuma out on the roof in an attempt to quell the raging mob. But by this time, the hapless monarch was in so low regard amongst his subjects that he himself became the target of their slings and arrows, and was struck in the head by a stone. Although the official Spanish account attributes his death to this wound, other sources state that when his body was found, it had been stabbed five times with a Spanish dagger.
Once his subjects learned of the death of Montezuma, his brother Cuitláhuac was named emperor in his place, and now Cortés realized that the only course open to him was to leave the city and try to get back to his allies in Tlaxcala. But getting his Spanish force of a thousand men and his four thousand Tlaxcalan allies off of an island with only three causeways would be no mean accomplishment, especially when they hoped to carry away all the gold and jewels they had amassed during their stay as well.
The dash for the mainland was to take place on the evening of June 30, 1520 -- no doubt chosen because the moon would be full and would help to light their way. As Cortés' army started for the Tacuba causeway, the Aztecs launched an attack from all sides -- hand-to-hand along the causeway and from hundreds of canoes aligned beside it. Although the Spanish had prepared a portable wooden bridge to be used in spanning the openings in the causeway, they soon realized there was no need for it; the gaps in the roadway were quickly filled with the corpses of soldiers, the bodies of horses, and the jettisoned baggage the Spanish had been carrying. The five kilometers (3 mi) to shore was one continuous torrent of arrows, stones, and spears, and, when the combatants came to close quarters, to a fury of slashing obsidian swords and steel sabers as well. At least five hundred Spanish soldiers died on the spot or were captured and later immolated on the altars of the gods. Probably 1000 of the Tlaxcalans also met their death that evening, and most of the loot of gold and jewels the greed-crazed Spaniards were carrying disappeared into the mud of the lake bottom. All of the cannon were also lost and only about two dozen of the horses made it alive to shore. Cortés himself suffered a wound in the head and was badly cut in one hand. Small wonder that as he staggered to safety on the mainland he collapsed beneath a tree and wept; this was a night in history that Mexicans would forever more refer to as La Noche Triste, or "the sad night”.
As Cortés' decimated columns straggled toward Tlaxcala around the north edge of the lake, the Aztecs regrouped for another attack at Otumba, but once again the Spanish triumphed by killing the Aztec chief and putting his disorganized hordes to rout. In the safety of Tlaxcala, while his men recuperated from their wounds, Cortés spent a couple of months busily planning a new offensive to recapture the Aztec capital. By both military intimidation and diplomatic cajolery he first managed to pacify the tribes to the south and east of Tenochtitlán, in order to secure his vital supply lines to Veracruz. At the same time, he also directed the cutting of timber on the eastern slopes of the mountains that he then had carried back to Tlaxcala by Indian porters. There he had thirteen brigantines constructed and in May 1521, they were dismantled, carried across the mountains, and reassembled on the eastern shore of the lake at Texcoco. Each ship measured thirteen meters (42 ft) in length and was equipped both with sails and oars and armed with cannons, so Cortés was confident that the fragile little canoes of the Aztecs would be no match for the naval force with which he would surprise them.
His army numbered about 900 soldiers, and was divided into three columns -- one to advance along each of the three causeways leading into the city. And, as usual, his troops were accompanied by thousands of bloodthirsty Tlaxcalans bent on defeating their hated Aztec overlords. But, perhaps most frightening of all was an invisible "ally" which was itself spreading rapidly through the city at the time. Even Cuitláhuac, the emperor, had succumbed to it, so that the defense of the capital had now fallen to Montezuma's nephew, Cuauhtémoc. This was smallpox that had arrived in Veracruz along with Cortés' would-be captors and was running rampant through the native populations who had no immunity to it. Indeed, while Cortés and his armies found themselves cutting down Mesoamericans by the thousands, imported diseases like smallpox ultimately resulted in cutting them down by the millions.
During the eighty-day siege of Tenochtitlán the catastrophic effects of the plague were exacerbated by both famine and the lack of drinking water. Yet, hard-pressed as they were, the Aztecs refused to surrender, and at the height of the carnage both they and their Tlaxcalan enemies resorted to eating the remains of the fallen warriors. At one juncture the Aztecs managed to capture over sixty of the Spaniards alive and then proceeded to offer their hearts to their war-god as Alvarado and his men looked on helplessly from a distance. To make matters worse, many Tlaxcalans saw this as a sign that the Spanish attack would fail, and promptly broke ranks and started for home.
With every advance of his army, Cortés had the buildings of the city razed to fill in the causeways and deny the Aztecs cover to continue their resistance. By the end of the siege only a small fraction of the metropolis remained intact, causing Cortés to later lament that he had been obliged to destroy "the most beautiful city in the world." The Aztec metropolis had been reduced to a smoldering mass of rubble and glowing embers, its streets littered with thousands of corpses, its canals running red with blood. Cuauhtémoc ("the fallen eagle") -- the god-king himself -- was in chains, and his empire was in ruins. After what had been a slow and faltering journey that had taken more than three millennia, indigenous civilization in North America had abruptly and violently reached the end of its road.
True, it had been an uneven struggle from the outset: a stone-age society pitted against a metal-age invader. But this was not only an invader in possession of a superior technology but also one accompanied by invisible and deadly microbes to which the natives had no immunity. Moreover, in what has to be one of the most dramatic coincidences in all of human history, these unwelcome guests had arrived on the coast of Mexico in the very year that the Aztec calendar itself had prophesied the return of the great god-king Quetzalcóatl, or "Feathered Serpent", paralyzing them with fear and indecision. Perhaps the sacred calendar proved to be the greatest irony of all, because, according to Maya calculations, the Mesoamerican world traced its origins to August 13, 3114 B.C., whereas the chance capture of Cuauhtémoc took place on the afternoon of August 13, 1521, spelling not only the end of Aztec resistance but also the passing of one world and the dawn of a new one
Hardly had the dust settled and the embers cooled when Cortés set about rebuilding his own capital city -- for the colony he now named "New Spain" -- on the same site. Laid out on a rectangular grid pattern inherited from the Roman conquerors of Spain, Mexico City has as its focus a great plaza -- the Zócalo -- along whose north side a modest church first replaced the twin pyramids of the Rain- and War-Gods and which is now occupied by the Cathedral. On the east side the National Palace was constructed, and on the south, the city's Municipal Palace, or Town Hall. Thus, the primary political, administrative, and religious functions of both the city and the colony remained geographically concentrated within a stone's throw of where these same activities had been carried on since the Aztecs founded their island abode nearly 200 years earlier.
The site of Tenochtitlán, and now of Mexico City -- i.e., the actual plot of ground on which it was built -- has never been a wholly desirable one for an urban agglomeration. To begin with, scooping mud out of the shallow lake bottom to form its foundations had been no easy task. On the other hand, once built, the city had the advantage of being easily defended and, as soon it had politically annexed the adjacent lakeshores, it functioned as a "central place" to which staple foodstuffs could easily be transported by water from the surrounding hinterland Yet, when confronted with a prolonged siege, such as that launched by the Spanish, the impossibility of maintaining both adequate food and water supplies ultimately worked to the city's disadvantage.
Moreover, as the Spanish began to build their new city on the ruins of the old, both the withdrawal of water from the subsoil and the crushing weight of their masonry construction began to cause new problems as buildings started sinking into the spongy bottom of the former lakebed. Following the advent of the industrial and automotive revolutions, the city's site has served to exacerbate further problems, both of access and environmental degradation. Today air quality in the lofty mountain basin has grown so poor than Mexico City ranks as one of the most smog-plagued cities in the world, and, especially during the drier winter months, when climatic inversions are common, health advisaries are issued with ever-increasing frequency.
But, problematic as its site may be, Mexico City's situation -- its relationship to the wider economic and political hinterland beyond the Valley of Mexico -- remains one of unchallenged superiority. Just as it served as the nerve-center of empire for two centuries under the Aztecs, so had the Valley of Mexico served as the heart of Mesoamerican culture and culture for seven centuries under the aegis of Teotihuacán. Although the Toltecs, too, had recognized the centrality of the Valley of Mexico, their attempt to build a capital near its southern end was aborted in favor of a site closer to the desert whence they had come, but even then they had located Tula a scant 80 km (50 mi) to the northwest. Thus, for the better part of a millennium and a half the head and heart of the Mesoamerican realm had lain in the Valley of Mexico, a fact of which Cortés may not have been aware but one which has been even more strongly reinforced in the nearly 500 years since he drew up the plans for Mexico City. This critical piece of real estate continues to serve as the focal point of the Mexican nation to this day, constituting what is no doubt the largest single urban node on our entire planet and embracing more than one-quarter of the country's total population.
Once Cortés had gotten the construction of Mexico City underway, he immediately turned his attention back to the grander Spanish design of reaching the Spice Islands. Balboa's discovery of the "Southern Ocean" had shown that a great sea lay beyond the American mainland to the west, so one of Cortés first objectives was to ascertain what the relationship of that sea was to Mexico. The lieutenants he had sent out in the company of Montezuma's guides to locate the sources of Aztec gold and silver also had as their mission to find the "Southern Ocean", and at least two of the search parties had come back with reports of its "discovery" -- one from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the other from the mouth of the Río Balsas. So, as soon as the Aztec empire had been vanquished, Cortés immediately sent out new expeditions to the west and southwest to construct shipyards from which maritime explorations of the "Southern Ocean" could be launched. At the same time, other expeditions were dispatched toward the northeast and the southeast in an attempt to learn if the rumored "Strait of Anian" did in fact exist between the Atlantic and the "Southern Ocean". In the process, the conquest of the Purépecha in the west and of the Zapotecs and highland Maya in the south were completed, but not without considerable brutality.
In the decades that followed, one Spanish expedition after another was launched to map the coasts of New Spain both in the east and in the west, while still others probed northward into the desert interior. One of the most epic of these expeditions was that headed by Cabeza de Vaca in 1528, who after being shipwrecked in Florida in 1530, managed to outfit a new vessel in which he skirted the coast of the Gulf of Mexico as far west as Galveston Bay and then wandered through the interiors of present-day Texas and New Mexico until finally reaching the Spanish outpost of Culiacán in western Mexico in 1536. The half-crazed survivors of this grueling trek brought back with them tales of rich and marvelous cities lying to the north, prompting Vásquez de Coronado to set off in 1540 in quest of the "Seven Cities of Cíbola" and the "Great Quivira". Although he succeeded in advancing a Spanish presence into the prairies of Kansas, Coronado returned from his arduous endeavor only to report that these marvelous cities did not in fact exist -- a reality which raised the further possibility that perhaps the fabled "Strait of Anian" was also a figment of the imagination. Indeed, Cabrillo's voyage up the west coast as far as the present boundary of Oregon in 1542 also failed to locate this elusive waterway.
However, within a year of the Aztec defeat, Magellan's crew had returned to Spain after circumnavigating the globe, so the possibility of reaching the Spice Islands from Mexico now appeared a feasible undertaking. As early as 1532 Cortés' nephew, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, made the first attempt, only to disappear in the "Southern Ocean". Although Ruy López de Villalobos succeeded in reaching the Spice Islands in 1542, once there he found it impossible to return to Mexico against the Trade Winds, and opted to continue on to Spain by rounding Africa instead. Nonetheless, by the time that Miguel López de Legazpi had conquered the northern Philippines from New Spain in 1563 and had established a base at Manila, it had been realized that the wind pattern in the Pacific was similar to that in the Atlantic, so the easiest trajectory back to Mexico lay northward around the Hawaiian High in the Westerly wind belt. In fact, so much simpler was this voyage than the long and difficult journey from Spain around Cape Horn that it was decided that the Philippines should be politically administered as part of New Spain, thus giving Mexico enhanced status as a way station to the Far East. In 1567 the first of the so-called Manila Galleons departed for the Philippines from Acapulco, initiating a lucrative trade in silk, spices, and sandalwood paid for in Mexican silver. However, when the English freebooter Thomas Cavendish captured one of the Manila galleons in 1586, Spanish efforts were redoubled to find one or more protected anchorages on the coast of California, along which the galleons were obliged to sail in their final approach to Acapulco. Ironically, for nearly two hundred years their efforts were thwarted by the prevalence of fog banks hanging over the cold waters of the California Current, and it was not until 1776 that the great natural harbor of San Francisco was discovered by an expedition traveling overland on horseback.
Mexico thus became not only the source of a rich supply of gold and silver for Spain but also a key entrepot for the resources of the Far East as well. Once landed at Acapulco, the spices and silk were sent on pack-trains up to the capital where they were joined by other pack-trains hauling bullion from the mines of the northern plateau and together they then made their way down to the port of Veracruz. Naturally only the highest value commodities warranted the investment of so much time and effort to transport them, but even on reaching Veracruz a long and hazardous sea-journey still lay between the colonies of the Indies and the coffers of the Spanish crown.
To ensure a steady flow of tribute from the mines of Mexico and Peru, Spain had quickly established an annual trans-Atlantic convoy system with armed men-of-war accompanying the richly laden commercial vessels. This flota sailed each spring from Sevilla carrying products that the Spanish crown had forbidden its colonies to produce, such as wine, olive oil, and various manufactured goods. Pushed along by the Trade Winds, the flota's first port of call after the Atlantic crossing was Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. There the fleet divided into two parts, one destined for the South American colonies and the other destined for Mexico. The former stopped next at Cartagena, where goods intended for Nueva Granada (i.e., Colombia and Venezuela) were unloaded and then continued on to Puerto Bello in present-day Panamá. Here commodities destined for trans-shipment to Peru were discharged and carried by pack-train through the jungle to Panama City where they were once more loaded aboard ships to be forwarded to Callao, the chief port of Peru. Awaiting the flota in Puerto Bello, of course, were the silver and gold taken from the Andean mines as well as specialized plant products such as balsam of Peru (which in reality came from El Salvador), the much-prized dyestuff, indigo, and quinine from the forests of Ecuador. When the Peru galleons were loaded, they sailed from Puerto Bello through the western Caribbean to the heavily fortified port of Havana where they awaited the return of the galleons from Mexico.
Once they had separated from the flota in Santo Domingo, the Mexico galleons had continued directly west to Veracruz to unload their welcome wares from the home country and to take on their exotic cargoes from the Far East, as well as precious metals from the mines, hides and skins from the ranches, and cochineal, sugar, cacao, tobacco, vanilla, and cotton from the plantations of New Spain. The Mexico galleons first sailed to Havana to rendezvous with the Peru galleons and when the flota was once more assembled, they began their long voyage home by sailing up the Florida Straits between the North American mainland and the Bahamas. This initial leg of the journey was the most hazardous, because English, French, and Dutch pirates soon discovered that the confined waters of these straits were the best place to lay in wait for the passage of the annual fleet. Thus, the Spanish were early prompted to find a protected anchorage along the Florida coast in which they might take refuge in case of attack, and this search led to the founding of Saint Augustine in 1565, the oldest city in what today is the United States. Once clear of Cape Hatteras, the fleet sailed with the Westerlies until it neared the coast of Galicia in northwestern Spain (where it could seek shelter in such ports as La Coruña) and then turned south along the Portuguese coast to Sevilla. Because of the great distances and the speed of the vessels involved, one round trip a year was about all that one could expect, and, if goods were being forwarded from the Far East, the total elapsed time between producer and consumer could well be two years or more.
In the decades following the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish were obsessed with the search for more precious metals. Initially their attention was directed to the placer deposits of gold that had been worked by the Indians. These were primarily located in the valleys to the south and west of the capital where rivers cut through areas of ancient igneous and metamorphic rock. But, as these quickly gave out, they intensified their quest for the actual veins from which these metals had been "flushed" -- the "mother lodes" from which they had been derived. Their discovery of rich veins of silver at Taxco was their first great bonanza, but not long thereafter similar veins were found at Pachuca, to the north of the capital, as well. Indeed, basic as their knowledge of geology was at the time, the Spanish soon came to realize that the prospects of finding other rich deposits of silver and gold were better in the diverse and fragmented terrain of the open plateau than they were in the folded limestone ridges that made up the Sierra Madre Oriental, or, for that matter, in the monotonously uniform outpourings of lava that formed the foundations of most of the Sierra Madre Occidental. What through all of Mexico's pre-Columbian history had been a marginal borderland inhabited only by nomadic hunters and gatherers -- the "Chichimecs", or "dog-people -- now became a "beckoning region" of some attractiveness, despite the serious challenges it likewise posed.
The latter were both environmental and human, for the aridity of the region meant that living off the land promised to be as difficult for the Spaniards as it had been for the Indians. As for the native peoples of the region, they could scarcely have been expected to welcome the white man into their niggardly domain to share what little sustenance it provided, so inevitably they countered the Spanish penetration in the only way they could -- with the force of arms. It was during a scouting expedition led by Captain Juan de Tolosa in 1546 that the first rich vein of silver was found at Zacatecas, and this triggered a flood of prospectors, soldiers, and ranchers into the northern deserts in the following decades. New discoveries were made at Guanajuato, San Luis Potosî, Fresnillo, Durango, and Santa Bárbara, leading to the construction of missions, forts, and roads into the area, as well as the establishment of farms and haciendas to supply the mining camps with food. To begin with, mule trains hauled in equipment, food, and other supplies from the south and soon thereafter began returning to the royal mint in Mexico City with ingots of silver and gold, both for coinage in New Spain as well as for export to the mother country. At the same time, more and more Indians were conscripted for work in the mines, but as the ravages of disease and mistreatment continued to exact heavy tolls, an increasing number of African slaves were sent into the mines as well.
To begin with, the only known method of reducing silver ores was by smelting. The ore had first to be crushed into a fine powder, which was carried out at stamp mills. The latter were powered by water wheels wherever streams could be harnessed but over most of the semi-arid meseta it was more customary to use animal power instead. Immediately adjacent to the stamp mills stood small rectangular furnaces constructed of adobe or stone where the smelting took place. Again, if there was an adequate source of waterpower nearby, this was employed to drive the goatskin bellows; if not, Indian or black slaves worked them instead. The only source of fuel for the smelters was charcoal, which was derived from locally available stands of acacia or oak until these were depleted, and thereafter it was hauled from the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental where pine and oak were both abundant. Timber for shoring up the shafts likewise came from the same region. The chemical reagents used in the process were lead and/or litharge (the monoxide of lead) and where these were not found locally, they were of necessity imported for the purpose. Thus, primitive as the early mining technology was, it nevertheless led to a much increased level of spatial interaction between the mining centers and their surroundings in terms of the movement of raw materials, fuel, labor, and the means of supporting the growing nodes of population.
The Spanish were quick to look to German miners from the Ore Mountains of Saxony for mining "know-how" and after the middle of the 16th century the so-called patio, or amalgamation, process was introduced into the silver mines of the meseta. This involved adding mercury, salt, and pyrite into a watery-sludge of finely powdered silver ores. It was then thoroughly mixed by driving mules -- and, not infrequently, human slaves -- through the sludge, after which it was allowed to "cure" for an appropriate length of time. Next, the sludge was carefully washed, leaving an amalgam of mercury and silver as a residue. Finally, the amalgam was heated in a retort, driving off the mercury as a vapor and allowing the residual silver to be cast into bars or ingots. Although the patio process permitted a more complete recovery of metal from the ore, it also required a greater volume of raw material movement as well. Whereas salt for the process was brought from playa lakes on the meseta and pyrites were usually available from the tailings of some of the nearby mines, the mercury had to be imported all the way from Spain during the initial colonial period or from Huancavelica in Peru after that source was discovered in 1572.
Had it not been for the revolution in agriculture and animal husbandry that occurred in the wake of the Spanish conquest, the development of the mining economy in New Spain would have been quite impossible. The crops and livestock which the Spanish introduced not only pushed the limits of the oekumene, or habitable area, of Mexico northward into the meseta where the bulk of the mineral wealth of the colony was discovered, but they also provided the necessary foodstuffs to support the region's growing population and the draft animals to work the mines and transport both the raw materials to the workings and the finished bullion down to the coast for export.
Even though the Spanish Conquistadores and their countrymen that followed them to the New World may have philosophically eschewed all forms of physical labor as being beneath their dignity, it is also true that they found the climates in most of the Indies enough different from those of their home country as to be somewhat oppressive. If we use the climate of Sevilla, the port from which most of them sailed to the New World as being representative of Andalucia -- the region of southern Spain from which fully 40% of all Spanish emigrants to the Indies came -- we find that its sub-tropical sub-humid climate had a Warmth Index of 5.48 and a Moisture Index of 0.56. (The Warmth Index is a measure of effective temperature for plant growth, values of 8.0 or above being capable of supporting tropical plants, 4 and above sub-tropical vegetation, etc. A Moisture Index of 1.0 and above will support tree growth, whereas 0.5 and above will be adequate only for grasslands or scrub forest, etc.) All of the tropical lowlands of Mexico experience Warmth Indices double in magnitude to that of Sevilla or greater, whereas those of the east coast are more than twice as wet as well. It was only in the uplands and on the plateau that the Spanish found the more equable temperatures of their homeland, but even there the 'seasons' were strangely 'reversed'. Whereas in Mediterranean Spain, most of the annual precipitation falls during the low-sun period, i.e., the winter months, in monsoon Mexico virtually all of the annual precipitation is received during the high-sun, or summer, rainy season. This 'curious' juxtaposition of seasons accounts for the fact that in most of tropical Central and South America, where little change in temperature is discerned at any time of the year, the Spanish insisted on referring to the high-sun rainy season as the 'winter'.
In pre-Columbian times, when maize formed 'the staff of life' for the indigenous peoples, high civilizations based on agriculture were geographically limited to those areas capable of supporting the cultivation of corn. This meant that the northern limits of Mesoamerica were essentially set by a Moisture Index of 0.8, beyond which maize could not be dependably sown and harvested, and that, similarly, above elevations in excess of about 2800 meters in the region of central Mexico (rising to about 3000 meters at the latitude of Guatemala), a Warmth Index of 2.0 likewise set the boundary for corn cultivation. This meant that, with few exceptions, all the major cultures of Mesoamerica were to be found south of the mouth of the Pánuco river on the east of Mexico and south of the mouth of the Río Santiago in the west of the country. On the intervening plateau, it was only in the warmest and moistest southernmost basins where sufficient food could be produced to support such ceremonial centers as Teotihuacán, Tula, and Tenochtitlán. Thus, had one attempted to define the geographic center of population in pre-Columbian times, it would most likely have been located near the junction of the boundaries between the present-day states of Puebla, Veracruz, and Oaxaca.
Geographically, the introduction of European (actually, Near Eastern and Mediterranean) crops had the effect of pushing the limits of cultivation both farther north into areas of increasingly marginal moisture and also higher into the mountains into areas of increasingly marginal warmth. Moreover, through the agency of domesticated livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, the human use of grasslands and semi-arid steppes also became possible for the first time for more than the nomadic practices of hunting and gathering. Indeed, it was in the more open expanses of the northern plateau that the more characteristically Spanish form of grazing and ranching life-style reached its fullest development. It was the farms and ranches on the northern frontier that fed the miners with wheat, beef and mutton: that supplied the horses, mules, oxen, and donkeys that ran the stamp mills and transported the supplies: and that produced the tallow from which the candles were made that lighted the mine shafts and the hides and skins from which were fashioned the sacks and ropes used in the mines.
The first areas of the meseta where large-scale wheat farming was introduced were around Atlixco in the Puebla basin -- producing bread grains for both Mexico City and Puebla -- and in the western basins of Michoacán and Jalisco to supply the towns of Valladolid (now Morelia) and Guadalajara. Sheep were introduced into the upper slopes of the Puebla basin and Tlaxcala, as well as in the area surrounding Querétaro farther north, eventually giving rise to a sizable woolen textile manufacture in both Mexico City and Puebla. As mining began on the plateau, the fertile soils of the basin known as the Bajío were taken under cultivation as were those surrounding Aguascalientes a short time later. However, as settlement spread farther northward into the drier plateau, the emphasis shifted from crops to livestock with the grassy foothills of western Zacatecas, central Durango, and southern Chihuahua soon giving sustenance to vast herds of cattle. Another belt of extensive grazing stretched along the back slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental from the vicinity of San Luis Potosí northward past Saltillo and into Texas. In specially favored pockets around Aguascalientes, Parras, and Saltillo as well as downstream from El Paso (i.e. Ciudad Juárez), vineyards were also planted.
Whereas in pre-Columbian times the principal agricultural implements were the digging stick and the coa, or hoe, a major technological change occurred with the introduction of the plow. The latter, of course, was not possible without a draft animal, so its use depended on access to oxen, horses, mules, or donkeys. Since
this initially ruled out most native peoples (Indians were prohibited from owning either oxen or horses), their traditional use of the digging stick and coa continued side by side along with the plow. Indeed, it soon became clear that, were it not to result in severe erosion, the plow could only be used in relatively level terrain, so the Spanish were quick to appropriate to themselves the more fertile alluvial lands along watercourses for their farms, relegating the native farmers to the stonier hillsides and uplands with poorer soils and less dependable water supply. Naturally, one of the consequences of this was that indigenous yields of traditional foodstuffs fell sharply. One of the saving graces of such an arrangement, however, was that even on slopes as steep as 45 degrees, the traditional milpa, or slash-and-burn, techniques of the Indian did not expose the soil to the torrential downpours of the summer monsoon the way the furrows of the plow opened the soils of the Spanish-cultivated areas. Whereas most of the mountain sides cultivated by indigenous techniques remain in various stages of re-growth and use even today after several millennia of repeated occupance, many of the areas expropriated by the Spanish farmers -- including some of the best the country had to offer -- have witnessed disastrous losses of topsoil as well as severe gullying. One of the worst examples of this can be seen in the upper reaches of what was Cortés' vast encomienda in the vale of Oaxaca near the settlement of Nochixtlán where erosion has turned the local landscape into an unusable region of dissected bad lands.
But, just as the plow was an innovation of mixed merit, so too, may this be said of the livestock which the Spanish brought with them. In the open, unfenced agricultural areas of indigenous cultivation, the trampling and foraging of cattle, sheep, and goats did severe damage to native crops, curbing output as well. Unfortunately, even the hillside milpas were not immune to such unwelcome incursions.
Thus, as the native peoples were pushed onto ever more marginal lands in an attempt to feed themselves, the Spanish seizure of the premium areas soon had them looking for labor both to cultivate the new plants they had introduced for their own consumption but also to produce specialized crops for export. Naturally, this meant that the Indians were often conscripted away from working their own corn patches at the very time that the demands for labor were the greatest, again resulting in decreased output of their basic foodstuffs.
In the drier, more sparsely inhabited regions of the plateau it was the nomadic hunters and gatherers who were challenged by the arrival of the Spanish land use systems. Though far fewer in number than the sedentary Indian farmers of the Mesoamerican core area, they quickly realized that their way of life was in as much jeopardy as was that of the farmer. On the other hand, the adoption of Spanish livestock and land-use practices by the "Chichimecs" had everything to recommend it and little to discourage it. The rapidly proliferating herds of cattle spreading through the grasslands provided a potential food supply far more dependable than the meager forms of game and plant life on which they have previously subsisted. Indeed, once in control of some of the wild horses that roamed through the region, they gained a mobility totally unparalleled by their forefathers, and with it, they became a military threat which, apart from the sheer numbers of individuals involved, provided the Spanish with some of the most serious and protracted resistance they encountered anywhere in New Spain.
Quite a different pattern of agricultural development took place in the tropical lowlands of Mexico. There, with few exceptions, the specialization was on crops for export, such as cacao from Soconusco and the super-humid foothills of Tabasco and Veracruz; indigo in the Yucatán; cochineal, a red dye-stuff made from insects that feed on the nopal cactus, originally found in such places as Oaxaca and later introduced into Puebla and Tlaxcala; and tobacco, the choicest varieties of which were cultivated near Córdoba and Orizaba in the lowlands of Veracruz. Sugar cane, grown around Cuernavaca and in Veracruz near the foothills of the Tuxtla Mountains, was destined both for the domestic market and for sale in the home country. In these more hot and humid regions, imported black slaves performed much of the labor and to this day it is in the Gulf lowlands that Negroes make their largest contribution to the ethnic mix of Mexico.
As mining and commercial agriculture became the lifeblood of the colony, a whole new urban hierarchy arose to serve as the foci of its economy. Coming from an Iberian tradition of town dwelling, the Spanish were quick to lay out new settlements as administrative, religious, and commercial centers for the territories they occupied. A glance at a map showing the distribution of towns that were founded during the colonial period clearly reveals the Spanish preference for the more temperate areas of the meseta for agricultural purposes and their attraction to the northern desert because of the occurrence of minerals in that region. The few settlements that they founded in the lowlands were almost invariably seaports. Thus, the Spanish occupance of Mexico not only reinforced the economic, political, and demographic importance of the plateau region but it likewise had the effect of moving the geographic center of gravity of the country increasingly to the north and west. Indeed, during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the Spanish obsession with gold and silver resulted in the first large-scale penetration of "la gran Chicimeca" -- an occupance that only the introduction of their more advanced technology based on Old World crops and livestock made possible.
The increased dimensions of spatial interaction necessitated by the development of mining, commercial agriculture, and urbanization depended primarily on the Spanish introduction of beasts of burden. The pre-Columbian peoples, interestingly enough, knew the wheel, but inasmuch as there were no suitable animals to pull wheeled vehicles within the Americas, its only use was for toys pulled by children. Once horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen were brought in, the situation changed dramatically, although the difficulties posed by the terrain still precluded the use of large two-wheeled Mediterranean-type carts everywhere but on the more level expanses of the meseta. Indeed, the only roads capable of being negotiated by ox-drawn carts were the so-called "Royal Road of the Interior ", or Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro, which led northwestward out of Mexico City to the mining centers of Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Durango, Parral, and on to El Paso and Santa Fé, and its branches that connected across the desert to San Luis Potosí, Saltillo, and Monterrey. Elsewhere, most colonial traffic continued to move over the well-worn footpaths used for centuries by the Indians. Indeed, in many parts of the country, Indian bearers with their carrying frames and tump lines continued to be utilized until at least the early 17th century when they were gradually replaced by mule trains driven by black or mulatto slaves. Because Spanish law prohibited Indians from either owning or riding horses or mules, if and when they could afford to buy a beast of burden, it was most often a lowly burro.
The traumatic confrontation of two worlds that began with Columbus' first voyage initiated a process of change that is still going on in Latin America even after more than five centuries. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexico where the demographic and cultural manifestations of this process are visible at every hand. A vibrant indigenous society continues to assert its identity in the face of intensifying economic, social, and political pressures. Never fully submerged by their colonial overlords, neither have the native peoples of Mexico ever been able to escape the terrible price of discrimination for looking, speaking, or thinking so differently than the Spanish who conquered them.
Though all of the European colonial powers reacted to the native peoples and cultures of the New World with arrogant and cruel condescension, the impact of the Spanish was especially violent and uncompromising. At the very moment of Columbus' discovery, Spain was emerging from a 700-year-long war against the Moors -- a religious crusade in which no quarter was either given or expected. A zealous bigotry nurtured against first the Moslem and then the Jew was now directed full-force upon Aztec, Maya, and Purépecha. A religious intolerance backed by an authoritarian legal system which recognized the divine rights of the Spanish monarch strongly discouraged any deviance whatsoever from either church or state.
At the time of the fall of Tenochtitlán, the Spanish had already been in the New World for almost three decades. In that time they had had ample opportunity not only to acquaint themselves with the lands and peoples of the Caribbean but also to formulate some fixed notions as how "best" to deal with them. When fair-skinned, Iron Age Europeans vanquished bronze-skinned, Stone Age aborigines, it was easy to conclude that skin-color and stage of development must have been inseparably linked, especially when the latter people were totally ignorant of Jesus Christ as well! Even though racism and religious intolerance were fundamental tenets of the cultural baggage the Spanish brought with them, this is no way impeded them from exercising their own lust and greed to the full, sanctioned as it was by their having been "Christians". When Spanish males came ashore in the Indies after several months at sea, one of their first imperatives was to find the solace of a woman. And it mattered not whether she was an underage daughter or a devoted wife, or if she herself was willing; as long as she found favor in his eyes, that was reason enough to take his pleasure with her. Thus, the sexual exploitation of the native women has been a fact of life since the first Spaniards set foot in the Americas, and inevitably led to a degree of miscegenation paralleled only in the colonies occupied by their Iberian brethren, the Portuguese.
Along with their genes and their inflated opinions of themselves, the Spanish brought with them sicknesses of various kinds, to most of which they had acquired some immunity but to which the Native Americans had none. Thus, within a decade of Columbus' arrival in the New World, Hispaniola, the main base of colonial Spain, had been so depopulated by war, disease, and sheer physical abuse that the Spanish welcomed the first slave ships from Africa to begin the process of replacing Indians with Negroes, totally altering the demographic complexion of the Caribbean region.
One reason the process was so rapid, of course, was that there were relatively few natives living on the islands in the first place -- most of them from a subsistence level of hunting, gathering, and slash-and-burn agriculture. That was why Cortés' conquest of the Aztec empire with its large population of sedentary farmers, its bustling market places, its grandiose capital, its widespread network of trade and tribute, and its immense riches was such a prize. Here, at last, was something remotely comparable to the great cities and opulent potentates of India that Columbus had been seeking.
Following a practice which had evolved during the Reconquest as new lands were wrested from the Moors, their ownership immediately passed to the crown, which then doled out those areas which could be cultivated to "deserving" individuals, most often to the conquering officers involved, but not without retaining all mineral and water rights for the king. In a feudal society such as that of Spain, it was the ownership of land that conferred wealth and prestige on an individual, and the larger the holding, the more prestigious the holder. When the subjugation of the Caribbean islands began, a modified form of this practice known as the encomienda was instituted, although it was not the land itself that had any intrinsic value. In the New World there was an abundance of land to be had for the taking, but little which promised the holder any great wealth or prestige in and of itself. Only if the native peoples living on the parcel of land in question could be coerced into providing the holder with tribute or labor in the form of personal service would the "owner" be assured of some measure of opulence, and the more vassals one controlled, the greater the potential wealth of the encomendero. So, once the subjugation of the Aztecs was complete, Cortés immediately set about dividing up the subject territories among his subordinate officers, but not, of course, without reserving some of the most populous parcels to himself, including not only rich areas surrounding Mexico City but also most of the fertile Valley of Oaxaca. To be sure, the lure of becoming an encomendero was one of the primary motives for pushing the Conquest as rapidly as possible into other areas because later-arriving officers saw this as the easiest manner in which to enhance their own wealth and status.
However, experience in the Caribbean isles had already shown that the encomienda system was anything but the civilizing force it was intended to be. In return for his encomienda, the encomendero was expected to protect the Indians who lived on "his" land and to Christianize them. In point of fact, more often the Indians were treated dishonestly, seriously overworked, and frequently physically abused. Indeed, the system had been such a fiasco that King Carlos V expressly forbade Cortés from issuing encomiendas, preferring that the Indians of Mexico become vassals of the Spanish crown instead. For his part, Cortés argued that his men not only deserved and expected such compensation for their services, but that it was the only manner in which the natives could be made good servants of the crown and members of the church, while at the same time being protected from the malicious influences of their former chiefs and shamans. Unable to rescind what had already become an accomplished fact, the king's only recourse was to limit as sorely as he could all future encomiendas awarded to individuals, but this did not preclude additional awards being made to the church and government itself.
Unjust as the encomienda system was in stratifying Spanish colonial society along racial lines by separating the white elite from the bronze under-class, perhaps an even greater source of injustice and inhumanity was the so-called repartimento system. Each week every Indian village was required to supply a quota of workers who were conscripted to carry out projects such as building and maintaining roads, erecting governmental or church buildings, and digging irrigation ditches. Although nominal payment was supposed to be paid for such labor, there was little guarantee that any money actually changed hands at the conclusion of a project. Somewhat later when plantations and haciendas had come into being, conscription for "public works" might include tilling land for the hacendado and when mining began in earnest, many an Indian who was conscripted into the mines "disappeared" as surely as though he were shipped off to a Soviet gulag.
Not only was the Spanish monarch disenchanted with the encomienda idea, but he also realized that unless careful scutiny was maintained in the rich new colony, his own "piece of the pie" -- the quinto, or royal fifth -- might not be fully forthcoming. Thus, as early as 1528 he appointed an audencia, or board of judges, to keep an eye on Cortés and to see that all the legal niceties were observed. As it turned out, one of the judges, Nuño de Guzmán, was himself a scoundrel of the first order who was particularly jealous of the wealth and prestige that had already accrued to Cortés. But, afraid that his own misappropriation of funds might come to the sovereign's notice, he abruptly decided to strike off with an army of his own in the following year to gain fame and fortune for himself. The brutal campaign he launched against the Indians of the Jalisco-Zacatecas borderlands was one of the bloodiest and most savage in the annals of colonial history. In the process, he laid the foundations of a second "kingdom" which he called Nueva Galicia and whose capital -- repeatedly relocated because of Indian counter-attacks -- became the present city of Guadalajara.
Probably because the audencia may not have been as successful a watchdog as the king had hoped, in 1530 he decided to appoint a loyal and trusted friend as his personal representative in the colony -- a viceroy. However, his appointee, Antonio de Mendoza, wanted to be certain that the perks of the position would be fitting to a man of his stature, and he demanded a palace of his own, the right to wear royal robes and to be treated deferentially, a guard of honor, and a handsome salary. Not until all of the above were in place, did he accept the position -- which, as it happened, was five years later! Even so, Mendoza turned out to be an effective office-holder, not only settling the war that Guzmán had begun in the west but also carrying out extensive voyages of exploration along the west coast and into the far Pacific. By the time he left office in 1550, he had immensely enhanced his personal fortune -- perhaps the first Mexican public official to do so but certainly not the last.
It is likely that the king learned something from this experience as well, because later appointees were audited both when they took office and when they left it. To ensure that nothing untoward happened between the arrival and departure of his bureaucratic underlings, he also dispatched royal spies -- more formally known as visitadores -- to conduct spot-checks on the colonial administrative apparatus, thereby maintaining a somewhat haphazard system of checks and balances between the local politicos and the power structure at home.
In religious matters the Spanish crown had already worked out a special modus vivendi with the Vatican as the colonization of the Caribbean got underway. This was known as the patronato real, or right of royal patronage. In return for Christianizing the natives and undertaking the construction of churches and monasteries to accomplish that purpose, the Spanish monarchs were given the right to nominate candidates for all ecclesiastical offices from cardinals on down, as well as to collect tithes, to allocate specific geographic areas to the missionary activities of individual religious orders, and to establish the geographic boundaries of the episcopal sees. Moreover, they exercised the right of veto over any papal bulls or decrees that might apply to the Indies and also censored any religious communications moving between the home country and the colonies.
During the lengthy war of attrition that the Spanish termed the "Reconquest", it was probably only natural that the role of the soldier should take on an importance virtually equal to or greater than that of the clergy. With the final collapse of Moorish resistance at Granada in 1492, feudal Spain stood ready to unleash its now-unemployed hordes of soldiers on new heathen enemies across the Atlantic. Indeed, in a rigidly stratified society where primogeniture was the foundation of inheritance and thus of wealth and prestige, the opportune opening of a New World provided the otherwise disinherited second, third, and fourth sons of Spanish families with a chance to secure fame and fortunes of their own. While these were opportunities much appreciated by the genteel 'hidalgos' -- "sons of somebody", i.e., noblemen, and by caballeros -- those who by reason of birth were entitled to ride horses as "gentlemen", they were perhaps even more appreciated by those whose lowly station in life qualified them as "peons", or "those who walked rather than rode". Had it not been such an advantageous means of elevating one's station, it is almost certain that a pig-herder by the name of Francisco Pizarro would never have entered the pages of history -- nor, for that matter, would many another "conquistador" who became known to later generations.
The Spanish colonial heritage was almost the complete antithesis of that of the English, who followed them into North America almost a century later. The Spanish conquest was almost exclusively a masculine venture, rather than the relocation of entire families to the New World as in the English experience. Whereas the latter were given to expelling their dissidents and ne'er-do-wells overseas, whether it be Pilgrims to Massachusetts, Catholics to Maryland, or convicts to Georgia, the Spanish took great pains to prohibit the emigration of any but those of unquestioned Catholic faith to their colonies. Moreover, besides their religious orthodoxy, so must they be 'politically correct' as well, for the divine rights and absolutism of the Spanish monarch were not to be questioned. Any notions of liberty, equality, and fraternity were so far removed from the social fabric of medieval Spain as to have been unthinkable. In the strict hierarchy of feudal Spain, one's place in life was largely predestined by one's birth, and one of the few ways to ever break out of such a "straight-jacket" was through glory attained in the service of God and King in the Indies.
Ironically, at the same time that Spanish clerics were philosophically arguing whether the "Indians" were actually people at all, since the Bible made no mention of them, or, if they were indeed one of the "lost tribes of Israel", which one they might be, the Spanish foot-soldier was finding out for himself how human they were. Yet, with a disdain for skin color inherent in virtually all Caucasoid peoples, even his cross-bred progeny were regarded as "less worthy" than their "pure white" fathers. As Spanish colonial society continued its interbreeding, not only with the native Americans but also with the African slaves brought in to replace them as they were decimated by war, disease, and sheer abuse, it came to recognize no fewer than sixteen "grades" of citizenship, depending on the degree of intermixture between the races. Indeed, as if to heighten the absurdity of it all, even after Spanish women arrived in the New World and gave birth to "pure white" sons and daughters, such progeny were consigned by place of birth to a rank one rung lower in the social hierarchy than those born in Spain itself. Perhaps most ironic of all, it was precisely these "second-class" criollos who eventually would lead the wars of independence against the peninsulares born in Spain to create the new nations of Latin America, no more democratic in any way than their colonial forbearers, except for one less repressive class at the very top. As early as 1537, Pope Paul III issued a series of encyclicals intended to ensure more humane treatment of the Indians. First and foremost he declared that it was heresy to believe that the Indians were not human beings and he affirmed they could be "saved" both by preaching and by example. Although he strictly forbade the enslavement of the Indians or the taking of their possessions under penalty of excommunication, the Spanish monarch viewed these encyclicals as an abridgement of the patronato real and summarily revoked the decrees the following year.
Nonetheless, similar efforts at humanizing the treatment of Indians were being led in Spain itself by a Dominican friar, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who succeeded in having the so-called New Laws enacted in 1542. These forbade the enslavement of Indians under any pretext whatsoever, abolished all personal service to encomenderos by Indians, prohibited any further encomiendas from being granted, obliged all royal and church officials to surrender their rights to tribute from the Indians, and specified that all existing private encomiendas would become the property of the crown upon the death of the present holder. As might have been suspected, when the royal emissary, Francisco Tello de Sandoval, arrived in New Spain to promulgate the New Laws, he was greeted with such hostility by both the encomenderos and the clergy that the viceroy decided he could not enforce them, and decided to suspend them instead. In the face of such opposition even the Spanish monarch backed down, and agreed that encomiendas could continue to be inherited, at least for the time being.
Following the conquest of the Aztecs, the task of converting the native peoples of New Spain to Christianity was soon taken up by various of the religious orders, the first mendicant Franciscan fathers arriving already in 1523. Their austere customs appealed to the Indians who by and large received them well. Architecturally, their churches and convents bespoke a still-unsettled time, for most of their edifices had the character of fortresses as well as places of worship. Geographically, most of their endeavors were concentrated in the more populous areas of the plateau in and around the Valley of Mexico, in the west, and in Yucatán.
Three years later the Dominicans arrived, bringing with them not only the Inquisition but also a much more richly ornamented building style. It is chiefly in the Oaxaca region where they left their strongest imprint. When the Augustinian friars arrived in 1533, they fanned out in all directions from the colonial capital, turning their attention southward to the peoples of Guerrero, northward to the Otomí, northeastward to the Huastecas, and westward to the Purépecha. It was not until considerably later (1572) that the Jesuits arrived to take up their work, much of it focussed in the then-recently conquered areas of the northwest.
By learning the native languages, the friars gained an insight into the beliefs, gods, ceremonies, and culture of the peoples with whom they worked and among their first efforts were the translation of the catechism, the Lord's Prayer, the Ave Maria, and other Christian rites into the various tongues. Although rejecting everything that had to do with the indigenous calendar as "diabolical", they made a special point of attempting to transform ancient festivities into Christian fetes, associating them with "Saint's Days". In this regard it is questionable as to how successful they were, for what are perhaps the two most prominent religious holidays in the Mexican calendar -- the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Day of the Dead -- can both be shown to have pre-Columbian roots.
It should not be assumed for one moment that the Indians embraced the teachings of their "white fathers" wholeheartedly. Indeed, they resisted them in many ways, including in some of the most rugged areas of the country, by force of arms. In fact, it may be that the open hostility of the Indians found a critical "ally" in the very dissected and isolated character of their homelands, for Spanish evangelization of the Cazcanes, the Acanxees, the Coras, and the Huicholes in the precipitous approaches to the southern Sierra Madre Occidental was all but given up in colonial times, as it was amongst the Mixe in the northeastern mountains of Oaxaca. Moreover, some of the most serious native uprisings against the Spanish and their teachings -- such as the Mixtón War of 1540-41 -- had their roots in the same remote areas.
Even though the Church came to recognize the Native Americans as "human", it never did recognize them as gente de razón -- "people of reason." Along with black slaves from Africa, the Indians were regarded as being incapable of rational thought, and therefore obliged to be paternalistically treated as children.
While many of the Spanish fathers tended to approach their would-be Indian converts in a spirit of "love" and "kindness", if this approach failed to have the desired results, they were not above using physical violence to drive home their teachings. There are numerous records of the Indians being imprisoned, flogged, and tortured in order to accept "salvation". That is why in the whole history of colonial Mexico, it is the rare padre indeed who earned the undying love and respect of his converts, among the chosen few being Bartolomé de Las Casas in Chiapas and Vasco de Quiroga in Michoacán.
Although Spain's European enemies were quick to challenge it on the high seas -- in fact, the French pirate Fleury managed to seize a couple of silver-laden galleons as early as 1523 -- a more direct assault on the colony of New Spain was not attempted until nearly half a century later. Spanish fears were especially heightened when French Huguenots arrived in the area of northern Florida to found a colony in 1565. They immediately dispatched an expedition to raze the settlement and to establish a protected anchorage at San Augustín (Saint Augustine) to provide shelter to their galleons on their way up the Florida Straits on their voyage back to Sevilla.
Three years later an incident of quite another nature took place: an English privateer by the name of John Hawkins was attempting to open trade with the Spanish colony when a hurricane forced him to take refuge in the port of Veracruz. Before he could leave, the arrival of a hostile Spanish fleet resulted in a battle that left over 100 English sailors stranded on the shore. Captured by the Spanish, they were taken to Mexico City to stand trial before the Inquisition as "heretics". Three of them were burned at the stake for being "unrepentant", whereas most of the others were condemned to serve as galley slaves for up to ten years. One of the survivors of this episode who escaped along with John Hawkins was Francis Drake, and he returned to plague the Spanish wherever and however he could, attacking their ports not only in their home country but also at Santo Domingo and Cartagena in the Caribbean. When he showed up to ravage the Pacific ports of Peru and New Spain some months later, the Spanish felt certain that he had discovered the elusive "Straits of Anian" which supposedly linked the two oceans, not suspecting for one moment that he had followed Magellan's route around South America. By the time he appeared in Alta California and tried to claim it for the English crown as "Nova Albion", the Spanish resolved to redouble their efforts to find the "Strait" and to fortify it against further English incursions.
The resultant expedition of Juan de Oñate through the northern interior ended up locating instead the Pueblo Indians and founding an outpost at San Juan, New Mexico, only to have the provincial capital moved to Santa Fe two years later. A concurrent expedition along the coast led by Vizcaino was scarcely any more successful, because although he found the bay of Monterey, he did not consider it a particularly safe anchorage for the Manila galleons because it lay quite open to the prevailing northwesterly winds.
The next challenge, again from the English, came in 1655, when by the force of arms they wrested the island of Jamaica away from the Spanish. Because the island contained no mineral wealth of any consequence, its loss was not considered particularly serious by the Spaniards, although it did become an unwelcome lair for privateers seeking to disrupt the galleon trade between Puerto Bello and Havana. To the English, however, its primary importance was as a colony in which to grow sugar, and to that end African slaves were quickly introduced. A few years later, when English freebooters and slave ships ended up on the rocks of eastern Yucatán, the roots of a yet-closer but less ominous colony were also laid there, in what eventually became British Honduras. But, throughout the Spanish colonial period, it remained more a refuge for shipwrecked slaves than it was an organized political entity.
Late in the 17th century the Spanish were given more reason to fear encroachment by their European foes. By 1682 the French explorer La Salle had not only penetrated the Great Lakes region but had portaged into the Mississippi and descended to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, when La Salle tried to find the Mississippi's mouth from the seaside two years later, he couldn't locate it and after a disastrous voyage along the bayous of Louisiana and Texas, his crew finally mutinied and murdered him in 1687. Not aware that the French "threat" was momentarily over, the Spanish set about searching for a protected anchorage along the north shore of the Gulf to checkmate any possible French incursion from that quarter. The result was the founding, in 1698, of Pensacola, on a great natural bay in what today is the northwestern corner of Florida.
The French, meanwhile, had gone directly to Hispaniola, the main Spanish base in the Caribbean, and captured the western end of the island in 1697. Again, thanks to African slave labor, in a matter of a few years they had managed to turn it into the richest sugar colony in the New World. Unable to expel them, the Spanish could only rue the fact that their critical shipping lanes had become even more threatened -- now from bases only a few scores of miles away from the heart of their New World empire.
As the eighteenth century dawned, the reality of the French presence along the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico became all the more apparent. In 1711 de Moyne founded Mobile on a great natural embayment only a few miles to the west of Pensacola, and for the next nine years it served as the capital of the territory of Louisiana. The Spanish countered by erecting a fort on a hill overlooking the bay from the east, a place still known as Spanish Fort. However, as good a harbor as it was, Mobile lacked access to the vast interior hinterland of the Mississippi valley, and in 1718 de Moyne founded the city of New Orleans at a strategic bend in the river about a hundred miles upstream from its mouth. This provocative move led to an immediate reaction from the Spanish, who proceeded to construct and fortify a small mission along the San Antonio River in Texas. Though the latter never experienced a challenge from the French and remained a remote and minor outlier of the Spanish empire for the next hundred years, New Orleans served as the capital of Louisiana from 1720 up until 1763, when the English expelled the French from North America. However, recognizing the imminent loss of its colonies both in America and in India, France ceded Louisiana to Spain -- to which it was dynastically linked through the Bourbons -- in 1762. Following the French Revolution, after Spain had unsuccessfully attempted to unseat the new French government, the latter in turn managed to reduce Spain to the status of vassal-state of France and in the secret treaty of San Ildefonso of 1800, Spain was forced to cede Louisiana back to the French. But, only three years later, due to the deplorable state of France's finances, Napoleon I sold the territory to the United States. Ironically, it was from this new American republic that both Spain and its prize colony, New Spain, would ultimately face their greatest challenges.
Before that day dawned, however, Spain had dispatched a new expedition into Alta California under the command of Portola to found settlements at both San Diego and Monterey and to reinforce the chain of missions which Padres Kino and Serra had established. It was on this expedition that the Spanish belatedly stumbled into San Francisco Bay from its landward side, having missed it from the sea for over two hundred years because of low-lying fog banks! Nevertheless, a renewed presence of the English on the Oregon coast in the 1770's and the planting of a Russian fur trading post at Fort Ross just north of San Francisco early in the 19th century managed to keep the Spanish nervous about the future of their overextended empire along the shores of the Pacific right up until the Mexicans threw off the yoke of colonialism in 1821.