The Conquer and first Years of Mexico during Its Colonial Period (Fall 2012)

Historical Background

The territory that today is Mexico was once ruled by different tribes all throughout the territory. The principle (or at least biggest) tribes were the Aztecs (also called Mexicas) in the center of Mexico, what now is Mexico City and the Estado de Mexico, and the Mayans who where in the south of Mexico expanded all throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and its surroundings. The Aztecs had a main city called Tenochtitlan. They were a very powerful tribe; they had a lot of other tribes under control and made them pay tribute.

Spanish war technology was far more advanced that the simple wooden and stone weapons Aztecs and Mayans used. The weapons Indians used were basically obsidian or jade stones attached to wooden sticks. The conquistadors that were getting ready to come to America had guns and cannons; they also had horses which were unknown to the Indians. When the conquistadors get to the beach in Veracruz, Mexico, an Indian that saw it described him as a god, since he was riding his horse and the Indian couldn’t understand they were two separate bodies with their own life. At the first battle in which the Spanish were engaged, their weapons were described as roaring animals that spitted fire.

Hernán Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, was the one in charge. He sailed to Mexican territory (1519) with the mission of conquering it and letting it in Spain´s hands. I think the conquering started when he took a wise decision and decided not to go for Tenochtitlan directly but to make allies with other tribes which didn’t like the Aztecs because they made them pay tribute. His strongest ally was the Tlaxcaltecas. It is important to mention that the Tlaxcaltecas were not part of the tribes suppressed by the Aztecs. They would defend themselves with everything they had. They lived in a constant war against neighbors which were Aztec allies. When the Spanish came to their territory they defended it, but after several battles and negotiations, they became allies and the Tlaxcaltecan ruler made an agreement of giving to Cortes a big part of his army to confront the Aztecs. Something important that happened in the first battle against the Tlaxcaltecas was that because of the type of terrain, the Tlaxcaltecas managed to capture a horse and kill it, proving a theory saying that they were just domestic animals.

When the Spanish were entering Aztec territory, they were gracefully received by the ruler at that time, Moctezuma. They were given a lot of gifts like gold and women and accommodated at the Axayácatl palace. After some days Cortes had to go to Veracruz with some troops to solve some political conflicts he had been having with the Spanish crown and he left Pedro de Alvarado in charge. One night, the Aztecs were having a ritual and Pedro de Alvarado took advantage of it and ordered a complete attack over the Aztecs. A lot of Aztecs died but they counterattacked and the Spanish had nowhere to take shelter but the Axayácatl palace having almost no food or water supply. They took Moctezuma as a hostage. All the Spanish that were captured by the Aztecs were sacrificed and in the remaining narrations they described how they could hear the screams of the ones that were being sacrificed. Moctezuma was badly injured and died. When Cortes returned and saw all the mess that was going on he asked to be let in the palace with his troops without engaging in a battle. The Aztecs let him through without hurting anyone. The Spanish had to get out of there to get food and water, so one night they tried to flee cautiously without making any noise but someone spotted them and some of them were killed.

After that, Cortes decided to site Tenochtitlan, the Spanish cut the food and water supply causing many deaths, but actually the main cause of deaths were the different sicknesses and viruses that the Spanish had brought with them that were unknown in the new continent, like smallpox. Finally when they enter to the city most of the Aztecs were already dead; the date that is considered the official of the conquering of the tribes is the 13th of August, 1521, when Tenochtitlan was taken as well as Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec ruler. Hernan Cortes became Governor (which meant he dictated the laws there) and General Captain (which meant he had power over all the military forces there) of “New Spain”. His rule was that of suppression and assimilation of the tribes. He founded Mexico City over the ruins of the once great and beautiful Tenochtitlan. His idea was to transform the whole society into a European style one. The Spanish crown had the philosophy of territorial, political and religious unity under all the territory that was in their hands. They wanted a big city where people would speak only Spanish and be part of catholic religion. After conquering all the central area of Mexico, he distributed arbitrarily the territory to his soldiers according to their merits; the only exception Ecatepec, which is located in Mexico City, which was given to Leonor, who was daughter of Moctezuma (previous Aztec emperor). He did all that without previous royal consent. Without losing any time, he sent his lieutenants to go in every direction to conquer more territory. After many years, they expanded all the way from New Mexico to the Patagonia in Argentina. It was such a big territory that they had to divide it. The portion of Mexico and New Mexico were in a portion called “New Spain”.

Names of the viceroyalties, date when they were established, and territory it occupied:

  • New Spain (1535) – Mexico, Central America, South of United States
  • New Castilla or Viceroyalty of Peru (1543) – Peru
  • New Granada (1739) – Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panamá
  • Silver River (Rio de la Plata) (1776) – Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia

In his attempts of expansion, Cortes himself went to what today is Honduras. That campaign lasted for two years and he took Cuauhtémoc as a hostage with him in order to prevent the Aztecs from rising in arms. Something went wrong in the expedition and Cortes hanged Cuauhtémoc for treason. Still nowadays historians don’t agree in a reason why Cortes took that decision.

While Cortes was in his expedition, his enemies in the colonies and Spain started putting his capacity to rule in doubt. In the colony, legislative laws were being broken every day, the conquerors were asking for more and more territory exceeding what the law established, they were producing more income and, they had under their power more Indians and slaves than what was permitted. The king of Spain, Carlos V created the Indies council which would be in charge of the administration of Spain’s colonies and the western hemisphere. Three years later, the first audience against Cortes took place. In the audience, the “oidores” (kind of judges which had wide executive and legislative powers) decided to revoke Cortes absolute power in the colonies and he was ordered to return to Spain by the spring of 1528. By 1530, Hernán Cortes returned to New Spain as the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, he had now just 25000 square miles under his control. Even though he had a lot less power than before, his enemies continued conspiring against him. In order to try to regain the trust from the crown, he sailed back to Spain, but he failed. He eventually felt sick and died in 1547. Some years later his remains were returned to Mexico and laid to rest in the Niño de Jesus Chapel that is very near from the Zócalo (Main Square) in Mexico City.

The audience had fallen in hands of Nuño de Guzmán who was very corrupt. He would manipulate the audience and made all decisions made in it fall into his benefit. In Spain nobody knew about his deeds because he would intercept all letters that criticized him. Finally word reached the king of Spain. When Nuño de Guzmán heard the king knew about his deeds, he gathered some mercenaries and went to an expedition where a lot of blood was shed. It took a several years before he was arrested and taken back to Spain. This was under orders of the second audience.

The first person to be considered viceroy of New Spain was Antonio de Mendoza. He would be the first of 61 viceroys that would rule for 300 years. The viceroy had power over all the military forces, the political and the administrative officers.

Social, Political, and Economical Changes

I think the biggest transition that Indians had to go by was the evangelization. The Spanish crown and the Catholic religion thought it was their mission to bring their culture and their way of understanding the world to the Indians in order to transform them form almost “animals” to civilized people, this was because after they had manage to expel the Muslims from the Iberian peninsula, the Pope gave the Spanish crown authority over the church. These brought a lot of internal problems within the culture. The first thing Cortes banned was the human sacrifices, which was part of Aztec tradition. Indians would learn the Catholic ways but would practice their own religious rituals in secret. Some other Indians were discriminated by the same Indians by adapting to the Spanish language and religion. The secular clergy worked with the civil authorities while the common friars went to towns and lived with the Indians, that is why the friars and normal priests had more influence over the people. The first mission to arrive to New Spain was the Franciscans, around 1523 and 1524. All though their main goal was to convert the Indians to Catholic religion, first they tried to blend in the culture in order to be accepted by the Indian society and trying to assimilate both cultures so the transition wouldn’t be as tough, it was tough though.

Geographically, Tenochtitlan was mainly an isle surrounded by canals. The conquerors being used to a paved street and a drier climate were having a hard time getting used to a more humid weather and having to use the canals as streets in their daily lives. Their solution was to practice a constant desiccation of the lake, but still many years later some canals survived and were still used to transport food and resources to the city.

A caste system was implemented were the Spanish were at the top of the pyramid, followed by creoles which were sons/daughters of Spanish parents but born in New Spain, then the mestizos which were descendants of one European parent and one which was Indian, and after the mestizos a lot of castes existed which were mixtures of other castes and blacks just followed at the end by the slaves. This “mixture” was produced because at the first half century of Spanish occupation, almost no Spanish women came to America, just men, and to that you should add the black people who were brought from Africaas slaves and a couple Asians that stayed in New Spain territory while practicing commerce with Spain.

The territory that Spain had conquered in America was attractive because of two main reasons, because of the natural resources, mainly gold and silver, and because it could work as a checkpoint for the commerce from and to Asia. There were ships that would arrive from China (Nao de China) with their products which would be taken all through Mexico to Veracruz to ship them to Spain. Only some of its products would stay in Mexican territory. The exploitation of the land in search of gold and silver was the motor that moved society, politics and the economy in the New Spain. Spanish people sought for those precious metals so desperately that they devastated forests and many slaves and Indians died. They did find some gold mines and many silver mines. They would exploit them with their slaves and send most of it to Spain. This tremendous and exponential exploitation form Mexican silver made the world´s supply of silver doubled in less than two centuries.


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