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A Brief History of Mexico
Part Three: Independence
By Steven Alexander
The conquest of Mexico had been an expensive endeavor for the king and queen of Spain. They were determined to recover their losses, pay off their debts and turn a profit on their venture. To accomplish this, the Spanish exploited Mexico in every way possible. They held Mexico tight in an iron fist and squeezed it hard for the entire 300 years of colonial rule, a period sometimes referred to as the “Rape of Mexico.”
Although treasures of gold turned out to be an elusive dream for the Spaniards, they discovered huge deposits of silver in the mountains of Mexico. The surviving conquerors were rewarded with large grants of native land, where they built ranchos to raise cattle and sheep. Mexican sugar cane and tobacco fed the rum distilleries and cigar factories in Cuba. These Mexican treasures eventually made Spain the richest country in Europe.
The Spaniards created an idyllic life in Mexico…for the Spaniards. They lived pampered lives in ornate cities and in fortress-like haciendas on the ranchos while native slaves worked the silver mines night and day and black slaves broke their backs in the sugar cane fields. The ranchos were ruled by the “encomienda” system, a set of strict regulations which allowed native peasants to live on their ancestral lands in exchange for their hard labor in behalf of their new lords, the Spanish dons. In the cities, natives were only allowed to do menial labor or work as domestic servants. For most of them, there was no work at all. Hunger, poverty and homelessness were the realities of day-to-day life for millions of Mexican peasants for hundreds of years.
vA strict race-based caste system was put into place in order to maintain the privileged lifestyle of the upper classes. At the top of the social order were the “peninsulares,” people who were born in Spain, on the Iberian Peninsula. One step below them were the “criollos,” native-born Mexicans of Spanish descent. Below them were the mixed races of “mestizos” (mongrels) and “mulatos” (mules). And at the bottom were the native people and the black slaves. They were called “bestias” (beasts) by the upper classes and often treated accordingly.
The Catholic Church acted hand-in-fist with the Spanish rulers in creating this brave new world. Catholic priests and missionaries came to the Americas from Spain at a time when the Inquisition was raging, where people who refused to convert to Christianity were routinely hung or burned alive. The Catholics would accept no less in Mexico. Whole villages, whole tribes, whole civilizations of native people who refused to accept Christianity were slaughtered by the Spaniards or sold into slavery. But even under threat of death, the natives were reluctant to convert.
The Catholics received a godsend on December 12, 1531, when a 55-year-old Aztec convert known by the Christian name of Juan Diego had a vision on a hilltop in Tepeyac, now part of Mexico City. A beautiful dark-skinned woman appeared and told him, in Nahuatl, that she was the Virgin of Guadalupe, mother of Jesus. She instructed Juan Diego to build a Christian shrine on the hilltop. At first, the Catholic priests were offended at the idea of the Holy Virgin Mother having dark skin and speaking Nahuatl. But eventually they allowed the shrine to be built. Over time, as the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe grew among the native people, the Catholic priests were overwhelmed by millions of natives wishing to convert.
Rebellions against the Spaniards popped up in the mines, on the ranchos and on the native reservations all the time. But these little insurrections were quickly and brutally suppressed by the Spanish army and the private militias maintained by the dons. In the cities, the criollos, jealous of the power and influence of the peninsulares, plotted rebellion as well. It was a frequent subject of debate among barroom patrons in Mexico. Some were hung for speaking too freely.
Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a 57-year-old parish priest, belonged to one of the more serious barroom debate groups. In fact, his was a genuine conspiracy. This small group of criollo intellectuals envisioned a democratic republic for Mexico, modeled after the American example. They met weekly in the barrooms of Queretaro during the year of 1810, spurred on by Napoleon’s conquest of Spain and the corresponding uncertain status of the colony. When their plot was exposed to the Spanish authorities and warrants were issued for their arrests, the time had come for the drinking buddies to put up or shut up.
So, on the night of September 15, 1810, Father Hidalgo delivered the call to rebellion in a short speech at his church in Dolores. This is known as “El Grito” (The Cry). The following day, September 16, the message went out to all of Mexico. Here’s the English version of El Grito de Dolores:
My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen 300 years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once. Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the Spaniards!
A Catholic priest might seem to be an unlikely candidate to lead an armed rebellion. But, with two girlfriends and five children, Father Hidalgo was by no means a typical Roman Catholic priest. His outspoken views against the Spanish monarchy, against slavery and against the cruel treatment of the peasant population were well known throughout Mexico. He had won over the hearts and minds of the common people as well as their unwavering loyalty. Within days of issuing El Grito, thousands of mestizos and natives, armed mostly with machetes and pitchforks, gathered in Dolores to await Hidalgo’s command. They would die for him…literally.
Although Hidalgo had no military experience, it was agreed that he would be general of this ragtag army. Under his command, and under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, they quickly captured Celaya, San Miguel, Guanajuato and Queretaro. Mob rule prevailed. Rape and pillage were commonplace. In Guanajuato, 700 peninsulare and criollo civilians were executed. This event was the main reason that the criollos wound up siding with the Spanish through most of the War of Independence. Although his military commanders and political advisors implored Hidalgo to exercise control over this unruly mob, he refused. Hidalgo was on a roll and didn’t want to dampen the enthusiasm of the men under his command. If there were to be spoils in this war, his men would have them. If there was to be revenge for 300 years of oppression, they would have that too. And if the criollos decided to remain loyal to the Spanish…so be it.
Emboldened by his early successes, Hidalgo headed toward the capital, Mexico City. The peasant army swelled in number every step of the way. By the time Hidalgo reached the mountains just north of Mexico City, he had 80,000 poorly armed and poorly disciplined troops under his command. They met a much smaller but very well-equipped and well-trained Spanish army at the Battle of Monte de las Cruces on October 30, 1810. Although the Spanish artillery took a heavy toll on Hidalgo’s peasant army, the charging mob managed to defeat them in battle.
At that point, just 45 days after issuing El Grito, Hidalgo had won both the battle and the war. His military advisors told him to chase down the retreating Spanish troops in order to prevent them from regrouping and to occupy the undefended capital. Instead, Hidalgo ordered a retreat that brought him all the way to Guadalajara, from where he sought to negotiate a political settlement with the Spanish viceroy. In response to Hidalgo’s entreaties, the viceroy sent his regrouped army to hunt him down and kill him. On January 17, 1811, Hidalgo’s peasant army was defeated at the Battle of Puente Calderon, near Guadalajara. Hidalgo was captured while trying to escape to refuge in America. He was killed by a firing squad. His corpse was decapitated and the head was placed on display in a public plaza in Guanajuato, where it remained until the War of Independence ended ten years later.
Historians continue to debate why Hidalgo ordered the retreat from Mexico City. In military terms, Hidalgo’s peasant army had suffered heavy losses and may not have been capable of holding the capital against a regrouped Spanish army. Some 2000 peasant soldiers were killed the day of the battle at Monte de las Cruces and maybe an equal number died later from the wounds they received. Perhaps the sight of so much bloodshed made Hidalgo lose his taste for warfare. Perhaps the image of his angry and vengeful mob of an army loosed in Mexico City played on his mind and in his nightmares. In any event, by ordering the retreat, Father Hidalgo made the conscious choice to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He was, after all, a lover not a fighter.
The rebellion didn’t die with Hidalgo. New leaders emerged to replace him, including Jose Maria Morelos. Like Hidalgo, Morelos was a Roman Catholic priest. But unlike the criollo Hidalgo, he was of mixed Spanish, native and black bloodlines, and much more representative of the racial makeup of the men in the rebel army. Also unlike Hidalgo, he proved to be a competent military leader. Morelos fought a brilliant war against the Spanish for three years, placing most of southern Mexico under rebel control. But Morelos’ army suffered a big defeat 1813. Morelos was captured and executed by a firing squad. His army regrouped under the command of Vicente Guerrero, another mestizo with a racial background similar to that of Morelos. Guerrero continued to fight a guerrilla war against the Spanish army and royalist criollo forces for the next eight years.
While the War of Independence dragged on, conditions in Spain changed dramatically. Napoleon had been defeated and a liberalization movement arose in his wake. As a condition for being returned to his throne, the king of Spain agreed to a constitution that diminished his absolute authority and liberalized Spanish society, giving legal equality and some basic civil rights to the general population of the country. The constitution did not apply to the colonies. This was unacceptable to the criollos, who came to believe they would be better off creating their own constitutional monarchy in a Mexico independent from Spain.
In early 1821, Agustin de Iturbide, commander of the criollo royalist army, met with the rebel commander Guerrero to discuss the situation. Although they had been fighting each other for years, and although they had differing visions for an independent Mexico, they both agreed that the Spanish had to go. They drew up a written agreement called the Plan of Iguala, which set forth a basic framework for forming a constitutional monarchy in Mexico once the Spanish were defeated. Three things were guaranteed in the plan: Mexico would be independent from Spain, the assets of the Catholic Church would not be seized and there would be equality among the classes. The combined army of royalists and rebels was called the Army of the Three Guarantees.
Under the command of Iturbide, the combined army marched on the capital. Once again, tens of thousands of peasants joined along the way. This time the mob was put under military command. This time there would be no retreat. As expected, the Spanish army put up a good fight. But they were eventually overwhelmed by the rebels. Following his army’s defeat, the Spanish viceroy was compelled to sign the Treaty of Cordoba on August 24, 1821, which recognized Mexico as a separate nation independent from Spain. The Mexicans made an attempt at finding an unemployed monarch in Europe to head their new constitutional monarchy but, finding no takers, appointed Iturbide emperor. The reign of Agustin I, Emperor of Mexico, did not last long.
Next Month: Part Four: Revolution
Steven Alexander is a former journalist and award-winning sports writer. He is retired and lives in Ajijic.