Colonial period

As elsewhere in the Americas, the Spanish Conquest of New Spain was carried out by soldiers of fortune who operated with permission of the Crown but outside its control. This led to tension between the Crown and the conquerors, due to the Crown's fear of the rise of powerful rivals which wanted to secure its share of the new territories' wealth. Accused of corruption and misuse of royal funds, Cortés returned to Spain to present his case to the Spanish monarch Carlos V; though the charges were dismissed and he was granted the title of Marqués de Oaxaca, Cortés was deprived of power by the appointment of a viceroy to govern the territory on behalf of the monarch.

New Spain became one of the two great centres of the Spanish American Empire and of Spanish settlement, the other being Peru. Like Peru, it was attractive due to
the discovery of precious metals and the availability of a large indigenous labour force, without which the wealth of the colonies could not be exploited by the small group of European settlers. Immediately after the Conquest the key to controlling the natives was
encomienda
: under this system native villages and their inhabitants came under the control of an
encomendero
; in return for paying tribute and providing labour, the Indians were placed in the care of the
encomendero
who was supposed to ensure order and supervise their conversion to Christianity. Although many of Cortés' supporters had been granted
encomiendas
, this practice was opposed by the Crown which feared the growth of a powerful hereditary aristocracy, similar to that which had caused Carlos V so much difficulty in Spain. Throughout this period an important role was played by the Church, which supported the Crown, providing schools and hospitals, establishing missions and working to convert the Indians. The latter role brought the missionaries into conflict with the
encomenderos
who wanted control over the Indians as a labour force. In 1542 the Crown issued the New Laws, which restricted the continuance of the
encomienda
system, but these restrictions were not enforced until the 1560s, when they provoked a revolt led by Martín Cortés, the conquistador's son, which was quickly suppressed.

By 1650 the Viceroyalty of New Spain included much of Central America, the Spanish Caribbean islands as well as northwards into California and New Mexico. Although the Viceroy possessed enormous powers, these were restricted in several ways: the Viceroyalty was subdivided into
audiencias
, administered by judges; the Crown sent
visitadores
to carry out inspections and at the end of an official's term a royal investigation occurred. At the local level each municipality was governed by the
cabildo
(town council); though initially elected, seats on it were later sold by the Crown.

The Conquest devastated the indigenous population. Disease, harsh treatment (especially in the mines), and the disruption of traditional ways of life and belief systems all contributed to the decline of the native population of Central Mexico from an estimated 25 million in 1519 to around one million in 1650, after which a slow increase began. Miscegenation was widespread and a complex hierarchy of ethnic mixtures between the white, Indian and black African populations was established.

The economy was transformed by the discovery of large deposits of silver in the 1540s, which stimulated trade within the colony. By the 1650s the Bajío, the basins of Guanajuato and Jalisco, had become major grain-producing areas. Trade with Spain was hindered by distance and the danger of pirates; the defence against the latter, the organization of an annual fleet protected by warships, restricted trade and provided opportunities for smugglers to evade Spanish commercial restrictions. By the 18th century the economy had received a further boost with new discoveries of silver and the reduction of import controls on mercury, used in silver processing.

Along with the rest of Spanish America, the colony was affected by the decline of Spain in the 17th century; unable to produce the manufactured goods required in her colonies,
Spain was forced to spend the wealth from the New World on articles manufactured in northern Europe. Some improvement, however, took place in the 18th century and particularly during the reign of Carlos III (1759-1788). Attempts were made to improve colonial administration, the sale of government offices was ended and Creoles (whites born in the Americas) were replaced in the administration by Peninsulares (native-born Spaniard
s) since the latter were seen as being less corrupt. The administrative system was also reformed: New Spain was divided into 12 Intendencies, each headed by an Intendant appointed by the Viceroy. In 1767 the Jesuit order, considered too powerful, was expelled from Spain and the colonies, a move which led to rioting in New Spain. Restrictions on trade between the colonies were lifted and colonial defences were improved by the recruitment of regiments from the colonial population. To increase revenue, government monopolies were established over tobacco and mercury and new taxes were imposed on many goods.

While these changes benefited Spain, they alienated many Creoles. Further tensions were created by the growth of commercial agriculture in the Bajío which led to the expansion of haciendas at the expense of traditional farming communities. Despite these grievances, however, it was developments in Europe which would eventually produce the opportunity for independence.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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