Showing posts with label south america. Show all posts
Showing posts with label south america. Show all posts

Potosí (Silver Mines of Colonial Peru)

The extensive silver mines of the mountain of Potosí (in the highlands of contemporary Bolivia, at an altitude of 4,800 meters) proved among the most important sources of wealth in all of Spain’s New World holdings, fleetingly filling the coffers of the Spanish treasury for more than two centuries while relegating thousands of Indian laborers to a hellish work existence.
Potosí (Silver Mines of Colonial Peru)
Potosí (Silver Mines of Colonial Peru)

Silver ore was serendipitously discovered at Potosí by an Indian yanacona (servant) named Diego Gualpa in 1545. Within a few years there had commenced a vast silver rush, which peaked in the 1590s, after which silver production underwent a gradual decline, though the mines continued to be worked throughout the colonial period.

In 1545, the population of Potosí and its environs stood at around 3,000. Thirty-five years later, in 1580, the numbers had swelled to around 120,000, and by 1650 to around 160,000, making the remote mining center one of the largest urban concentrations in the world.

Crucial to the stupendous growth of Potosí and its mining economy was the introduction of the smelting process.

The first mercury mines at Huancavelica were discovered in 1559; others came into operation soon after. In 1571, after numerous trials, the Spanish perfected the techniques for refining Potosí’s silver ore with Huancavelica’s mercury, prompting Viceroy Francisco de Toledo to gush that the union of the two mines would create the world’s greatest marriage.

Illustrative of the enormous quantities of wealth extracted from colonial Peru’s “mountain of silver,” the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote changed the phrase “worth a Peru” (describing Francisco Pizarro’s plunder during the conquest of Peru) to “worth a Potosí.”

Official figures show a quadrupling of silver exports to Spain from Potosí from 1571–75 to 1581–85 (from 4.6 million to 19.1 million pesos), to a peak of around 5 million pesos annually in the 1590s.

By 1650, the number had dropped to around 3 million pesos annually, after which it continued to decline until the early 1700s, when the mining economy underwent a gradual resurgence, though it never reached its former heights.

Potosí’s burgeoning mining economy also had important local and regional ripple effects, sparking the growth of commerce, agriculture, and specialized craftwork in surrounding communities, and in regional economies as distant as Río de la Plata, Chile, and northern Peru.

Working conditions in the mines were exceedingly brutal. “Some four years ago,” wrote the Spaniard Domingo de Santo Tomás to the Council of the Indies in 1550, in a typical description, “to the complete perdition of this land, there was discovered a mouth of hell, into which a great mass of people enter every year and are sacrificed by the greed of the Spaniards to their ‘god.’

This is your silver mine called Potosí.” Another Spaniard, Rodrigo de Loaisa, described the typical weeklong stint in the mines: “The Indians enter these infernal pits by some leather ropes like staircases ... Once inside, they spend the whole week in there without emerging, working with tallow candles. They are in great danger inside there ... If 20 healthy Indians enter on Monday, half may emerge crippled on Saturday.”

According to another Spaniard, Alfonso Messia, Indian laborers descended hundreds of feet into the mines, “where the night is perpetual. It is always necessary to work by candlelight, with the air thick and evil-smelling, enclosed in the bowels of the earth.

The ascent and descent are highly dangerous, for they come up loaded with their sack of metal tied to their backs, taking fully four or five hours step by step, and if they make the slightest false step they may fall seven hundred feet.”

The great silver mines of Potosí thus became symbolic not only of fabulous wealth, but of Spain’s oppression and exploitation of Indian laborers, and Indian resilience and survival in the face of the extreme brutality of colonial rule.

Popul Vuh

In 1908, Lewis Spence, one of the foremost scholars of myth and religion of his day, said of the Popul Vuh, “There is no document of greater importance to the study of the pre-Columbian mythology of America than the Popol Vuh.
Popul Vuh
Popul Vuh

It is the chief source of our knowledge of the mythology of the Kiché [the modern accepted form is the Quiche] people of Central America, and it is further of considerable comparative value when studied in conjunction with the mythology of the Nahuatlacâ, or Mexican peoples.” Popul Vuh means “Record of the Community” and is literally translated as “Book of the Mat,” perhaps because the earliest versions were delivered orally as people sat together on their woven mats.

The Popul Vuh is one of two sacred texts of the Mayan Indians of Mesoamerica, Central America, and Mexico that have survived. While the Popul Vuh belongs to the Quiche Maya of Guatemala, the Chilam Balam was written among the Maya of Yucatán in Mexico.

Mesoamerican history has been divided into distinct periods by historians and archaeologists for purposes of study. These are the Preclassic Period of history (2000 b.c.e. to 300 c.e.), the Classic Period (300 c.e. to 900 c.e.), and the Postclassic (900 c.e. to 1520 c.e.), the year before Hernán Cortés crushed the last major indigenous kingdom, the Aztec Empire, thus ending the rule of Mexicans.

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, today’s Mexico City, succumbed to Hernán Cortés in 1521. The Mayas of Yucatán defied Spanish conquest until 1528, when they were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado, perhaps the most brutal of Cortés’s conquistadores.

The Popul Vuh can be dated from after the Classic Period among the Maya. The Mayan people existed in two communities, one in the northern Yucatán and the other in the Guatemalan highlands. The Chilam Balam owes its origin to the Mayas of Yucatán, and the Popul Vuh to those in Guatemala.

Today, although their kingdom has long since vanished, the Quiche Maya still exist in Guatemala as a definable tribe proud of the Popul Vuh, despite a brutal government campaign against them. Indeed some historians of Mesoamerica maintain that Guatemala was in fact the first home of the Maya people. What most scholars agree about is that the area influenced by the Maya was great.

In the aftermath of the Spanish conquest, there was a massive destruction of ancient Aztec and Mayan texts by the missionaries who accompanied the Spanish in their conquest of Mesoamerica.

Having seen the human sacrifice on a large scale by Aztec priests in the temples in Tenochtitlán (many victims were captive Spanish they had known), they determined such a culture could only be demonic and thus consigned the Mayan and Aztec books, or Mesoamerican Codices, to the flames.

Diego de Landa, who became the bishop of Yucatán, burned 27 hieroglyphic manuscripts in 1562; despite the criticism de Landa received as a result of his actions, historians believe that other missionaries probably followed suit. Three Mayan codices were known to have survived in Paris, Madrid, and Dresden, Germany.

However, both the Popul Vuh and the Chilam Balam appear to owe their survival to the direct intervention of missionaries who felt that the cultures that had been conquered were worthy of preservation.

After the conquest, missionaries set about to teach sons of the Maya and Aztec nobility Spanish to help them preserve their ancient culture in writing. It is Francisco Ximénez, who came to Guatemala in 1688, who played a pivotal role in the discovery of the Popul Vuh.

For a time after Ximénez’s death, it appeared the Popul Vuh had been lost, but it was recovered in library of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. Researchers learned that Ximénez had placed it in his convent’s library, and it passed to the university library in 1830.

The Popul Vuh itself is a fascinating document that belongs in the category of creation myths, in which people record their understanding of the creation of the world. Dennis Tedlock, editor of a recent edition of Popul Vuh, records that its writers begin “their narrative in a world that has nothing but an empty sky above and a calm sea below.

When the gods of the sky and earth meet, ‘they conceive [of] the emergence of the earth from the sea and the growth of plants and people on its surface.’ After three failed attempts, the gods are successful in creating the first real human beings out of corn, a symbol of the importance of corn in all the indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South America.”

First, four men are created, and then four women to keep them company on the earth. “From these couples,” Tedlock explains, “come the leading Quiche [Maya] lineages.... Other lineages and peoples also come into being, and they all begin to multiply” to populate the face of the earth.

Francisco Pizarro

Ranking with Hernán Cortés as one of the most ruthless and effective of all the Spanish conquistadores, Francisco Pizarro was the principal force behind the conquest of Peru and subjugation of the Inca Empire in the 1530s.
Francisco Pizarro

Along with his brother Gonzalo and half brother Hernándo, Francisco successfully suppressed a rebellion launched by his erstwhile partner in conquest Diego de Almagro in 1537–38, only to have disgruntled Almagrists acting under the nominal authority of Almagro’s mestizo son, Almagro the Younger, slay him in his palace in Lima on July 26, 1541.

An illiterate swineherd as a youth and the illegitimate son of a minor nobleman, Francisco Pizarro was born in Trujillo, Estremadura, Spain, around 1476. He arrived in the Americas in 1510 and participated in the expedition across Panama led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa that led to the European discovery of the Pacific Ocean in 1513. After the first two exploratory expeditions along the Peruvian coast, in 1528, Pizarro returned to Spain to seek the Crown’s sanction (capitulación) for an expedition of conquest.

He received it, along with the title of governor and captain-general of Peru, to the dismay of Almagro, who received a much less exalted title. One of his most memorable and consequential acts was in July 1533 when he decided to execute the Inca Atahualpa in Cajamarca to the chagrin of King Charles V, provoking an outcry among Spaniards.

He is also credited with founding numerous towns, including the colony’s capital city along the coast, Ciudad de los Reyes (City of the Kings, founded on January 6, 1535), which by the late 1500s had become known as Lima, a corruption of its indigenous name; Cuzco (1534); the coastal city of Trujillo (1535); and San Juan de la Frontera, later known as Huamanga (1539).

He was also responsible for allotting Indians in encomienda and repartimiento to reward his followers and supporters, a tactic he also used to buy off potential adversaries, including members of the Inca royal family such as Manco Inca’s half brother Pallu, to whom he granted a repartimiento of more than 5,000 Indians in 1539.

This was the same year that the Crown granted him the title of marquis and his own coat of arms, which depicted a chained Atahualpa reaching into two chests laden with treasure.

His most consequential political error, in the judgment of many scholars, was to sow the seeds of the Almagrist war by his own extreme greed and his niggardly allotments to Almagro, whose supporters slew him in 1541.

His many descendants ranked among the richest and most powerful members of Peru’s colonial society. An imposing statue of the legendary conquistador astride his steed can be found in the town of his birth, facing the palace built by his brother Hernándo.

Conquest of Peru

Conquest of Peru
Conquest of Peru

Following on the heels of the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean, conquest of Mexico, and conquest of Central America, the conquest of Peru was a long, complex, and bloody process marked by recurrent civil wars among factions of Spaniards and fierce Native resistance against Spanish efforts to subjugate them.

The conquest’s beginnings in 1532 with the first Spanish incursions into the Andean highlands are easier to mark than its ending, which is conventionally dated to 1572 with the destruction of the remnant Inca state of Vilcabamba and the execution of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru.

Some scholars maintain that the conquest was never fully completed, as Peru’s indigenous peoples resisted Spanish domination throughout the colonial period, sometimes in armed rebellion, more often in less violent and more subtle ways, including the retention of many cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Few would disagree that the conquest of Peru represents one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of the Americas.

In the early 1520s, with the conquest of Central America well under way and a launching-off point at Panama City on the Pacific side of the isthmus, the Spanish were poised to turn their attention to the Pacific coast of South America.

The first exploratory expedition was in 1522 under Pascual de Andagoya, who sailed 200 miles south along the Colombian coast in search of a people called the Viru or Biru, a name later corrupted to Perú. Further expeditions followed.

In November 1524, Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro, and the priest Hernando de Luque sailed as far south as the Port of Hunger along the Colombian coast before turning back. A second Pizarro-Almagro expedition sailed two years later and discovered tantalizing hints of an advanced civilization in the interior. Pizarro returned to Spain to seek royal authority for an expedition of conquest.

His arrival coincided with Hernán Cortés’s return from his dazzling successes in Mexico, which whetted the appetite of the Crown and drew many adventurers to Pizarro’s side. On July 26, 1529, the queen granted Pizarro the authority he had sought, along with the title governor and captain-general of Peru.

Almagro was named commandant of Tumbez, a lesser title that sowed the seeds of future conflict between the two men. Pizarro and Almagro returned to Panama and launched their third expedition on December 27, 1530.

After a slow and cautious beginning, on November 8, 1532, Pizarro began his march into the Andean mountains. By this time, much of the Andean population had been ravaged by virulent European diseases, especially smallpox, that had spread overland from Central America and northern South America years before the Spanish set foot in the Andes.

By weakening the Inca Empire, these diseases proved to be one of the Spaniards’ most important allies. Pizarro’s turn into the mountains could not have been more propitiously timed.

The recent death of the Inca Huayna-Capac from an unknown disease had created crisis of dynastic succession and civil war among the Inca, leading his sons Huascar and Atahualpa to contend for supremacy. Huscar headed the Cuzco faction of the Inca royal family; Atahualpa, the Quito faction.

By stunning good fortune, Atahualpa’s 7,000-strong army was camped in the mountain valley of Cajamarca, near Pizarro’s line of march. Pizarro and his 150 men boldly marched straight into the valley.

After some initial friendly interactions with the Inca, Pizarro launched a surprise attack on November 16, 1532, and slaughtered the Inca’s entire force. As was the case throughout the Peruvian campaign, Inca weaponry proved no match for Spanish steel, armor, and horses.

The arquebus, the most sophisticated firearm in the Spanish arsenal, played little role in the conquest. Swords, pikes, and horses proved their most valuable weapons. Time after time, small numbers of Spaniards proved able to defeat vastly larger native armies.

With the Inca Atahualpa now his prisoner, Pizarro demanded a huge ransom of gold and precious objects for his release. Over the next eight months, trains of native porters carted massive amounts of treasure into Cajamarca.

Meanwhile, convinced that the Spaniards represented no threat to the empire, Atahualpa arranged for the murder of his brother Huascar, thus eliminating his brother’s claim to the Inca throne. Pizarro had no intention of honoring his part of the bargain. On July 26, 1533, after a month of melting down and distributing the loot among his men, he executed Atahualpa.

One of the signal events of the conquest, Atahualpa’s execution remained a key moment in divergent Spanish interpretations regarding the morality of the conquistadores’ actions. Almagro’s force of 150 men arrived soon after the division of spoils, of which they received a small share. The unequal distribution of loot generated lasting animosities between the Almagro and Pizarro factions.

By this time, Pizarro’s scouts had probed the vulnerabilities of the Inca capital in Cuzco. Recognizing the need for a puppet Inca to invest political legitimacy into the Spaniards’ anticipated domination of Peru, Pizarro arranged the crowning of Huascar’s younger brother, Tupac Huallpa, as Inca.

It was a pattern repeated numerous times in the coming years. Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro’s brother Hernando returned to Spain with the Crown’s requisite “royal fifth” of the treasure.

News of the events spread quickly throughout Spain and Europe. Recruiting drives for additional soldiers saw great success, while also planting the seeds of future conflict between Spaniards who had profited from the initial successes and fresh arrivals whose hunger for treasure would go unfulfilled.

Back in Peru in August 1533, Francisco Pizarro, Almagro, and their men began their march toward Cuzco, 750 miles south along the Inca road. En route, in October, the puppet Inca Tupac Huallpa died.

After numerous battles in which the vastly outnumbered Spanish roundly defeated their Inca attackers, Pizarro’s force of several hundred men entered Cuzco on November 15, 1533. Two days earlier the same day that Pizarro burned alive the leading Inca general Chalcuchima, a second puppet Inca presented himself—Manco Inca, son of Huayna-Capac.

In Cuzco on November 16, 1533, one year after executing Atahualpa, Pizarro appointed Manco Inca as Inca. In December, he was officially crowned. Presenting themselves as liberators, backers of the Cuzco faction in the civil war, the Spaniards quickly took over the city’s most important buildings and palaces.

From this point, divisions among and between Spaniards combined with a series of mass Indian uprisings against the invaders. Almagro, still stinging from the paltry share of treasure received in Cajamarca, was sent south into Chile in search of further riches. Pedro de Alvarado, fresh from his successes in Mexico and Central America, arrived in Ecuador in February 1534 and headed toward Quito.

Hoping to head off Alvarado’s unauthorized invasion, Pizarro’s captain Sebastián de Benalcázar marched on Quito, took the city, and defeated the remaining Inca armies in the north. With looted treasure he bought off Alvarado, who returned to Guatemala, though many of his men remained.

Soon after, in January 1535, Francisco Pizarro founded a new capital city on the coast, Ciudad de los Reyes, later known as Lima, a corruption of its indigenous name.

Meanwhile, disillusioned by the invaders’ avarice and violence, Manco Inca escaped from Cuzco and in early 1536 led a mass uprising against the Spanish, laying siege to Cuzco with some 100,000 troops. The siege faltered as the rainy season began and his army began drifting away.

Manco Inca retreated into the jungle fastnesses of Vilcacamba, where a rump Inca state resisted Spanish incursions until its selesai destruction in 1572. Soon after Manco Inca lifted the siege of Cuzco in early 1537, Almagro’s expedition returned from Chile, exhausted and empty-handed. Open civil war soon erupted between the Almagro and Pizarro factions.

Almagro was defeated in the Battle of Las Salinas near Cuzco in 1538, after which Hernándo Pizarro executed him, but the war raged on under Almagro’s son, also named Diego de Almagro. In 1541, the Almagrists killed Francisco Pizarro, while a year later Pizarro loyalists under the king’s newly appointed governor Cristóbal Vaca de Castro defeated and killed Almagro the younger.

That same year of 1542 the Crown issued its New Laws, designed to limit the abuses of the encomienda system and prevent the encomenderos from becoming an independent aristocracy beyond royal control. Bridling against these new restrictions on their authority, many encomenderos gravitated toward Gonzalo Pizarro, who violently opposed the New Laws.

After killing the king’s viceroy Blasco Núñez de la Vela in 1546, Gonzalo Pizarro effectively ruled Peru until royalist forces captured, tried, and executed him in 1549. The new viceroy, Pedro de la Gasca, effectively staunched further major challenges to royal authority.

Meanwhile, enormous deposits of silver were discovered in Potosí in 1545, which soon became one of colonial Peru’s main economic pillars. By this time, most Indians had acceded to Spanish authority, though numerous pockets of resistance endured through the 1550s and 1560s, most notably the rump state of Vilcabamba.

In 1572, the new viceroy Francisco de Toledo finally found and crushed Vilcabamba. On September 24 of that year, in the central square of Cuzco, Toledo oversaw the execution of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru.

His execution effectively ended this first phase of organized armed resistance against Spanish domination, though more covert forms of resistance continued for nearly 300 years, while a new round of rebellions, inspired by the first and led by Tupac Amaru II, erupted in the 1780s.

It is not known how many Indians died during the 40 years between the executions of the Incas Atahualpa and Tupac Amaru, though the most conservative estimates range from 3 to 5 million, from a preconquest population of around 7 to 9 million.

As elsewhere, the combination of warfare, atrocity, forced labor, enslavement, and disease caused a precipitous demographic decline, from which populations did not begin to recover until well into the 18th century. As the conquests of the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America that preceded it, the conquest of Peru represents one of the most horrifically violent and destructive episodes in the history of the world.

Viceroyalty of Peru

The largest and second most important political jurisdiction in Spain’s American empire after the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Viceroyalty of Peru came into being in 1542 during the civil wars that wracked the Andes during the conquest of Peru.
Viceroyalty of Peru

Originally comprising all of South America west of the demarcation line established in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the viceroyalty extended from Panama in the north to Patagonia in the south, and from the Pacific Ocean eastward to a longitudinal meridian at roughly 44 degrees west, excluding parts of northern South America (contemporary Venezuela), which were under the jurisdiction of New Spain. In the late colonial period the Crown carved two new viceroyalties out of the Viceroyalty of Peru: New Granada (1739) and Río de la Plata (1777).

Following the civil wars of the period of conquest, and the major reforms of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in the 1570s, Peru emerged as a major source of silver bullion, especially from the “mountain of silver” at Potosí.

As elsewhere in the Americas, Spain imposed across the Peruvian Andes a rigid castelike race-class hierarchy in which subordinate Indians, toiling under a modified version of the preconquest mita labor system, provided labor and tribute to Spanish civil and ecclesiastical authorities, and to native kurakas, or community chieftains, who occupied an ambiguous middle ground between the Spanish elite and the masses of Indian laborers.

The violence of conquest and its aftermath prompted a millenarian nativist backlash in the 1560s: the Taki Onqoy movement. Aiming to expel the despised invaders and reestablish a pan-Andean indigenous state, this popular rebellion reproduced many of the divisions and fractures of preconquest indigenous society and was crushed by the 1570s. Popular memories of Taki Onqoy endured throughout the colonial period, however, reerupting in a different form in the major Andean rebellions of the 1780s.

As elsewhere in the Americas, demographic declines in colonial Peru were very steep, though on the whole of a lesser magnitude than those in New Spain (though, as elsewhere, the numbers will never be known with any degree of precision). From an estimated population of 9 million in 1520 for the Andes as a whole, the number of surviving Indians is estimated to have dropped to 1.3 million by 1570, and 600,000 by 1630.

Following a major series of epidemics in 1718–20, the population hovered at around this number to the mid-1700s, climbing gradually thereafter. In a characteristic pattern, highland dwellers on the whole experienced a lesser population decline than inhabitants of the more disease-prone lowland valleys of the Pacific Coast.

Despite the ravages of warfare, forced labor, forced conversion, disease, and the violence of colonial rule, Peru’s indigenous peoples and communities displayed a remarkable resilience, retaining many features of their preconquest cultures and lifestyles.

Despite prodigious efforts, Spanish authorities were never able to extirpate the religious beliefs and practices of Peru’s Indian peoples, while Quechua, Aymara, and related tongues remained the dominant languages among the vast majority.

Centuries-old traditions of planting, harvesting, cooking, eating, herding, weaving, and, in general, conceiving of and acting in the world endured through nearly three centuries of Spanish colonial rule and after, as remains plainly apparent to the present day. The English-language historiography on colonial Peru, like that for colonial Mexico, is exceptionally rich.

Pernambuco (Recife, Brazil)


Pernambuco is a state in the northeastern part of Brazil and is the closest South American land to Europe. This area of about 38,585 square miles with a population close to 8 million in the late 20th century was the first area of South America occupied by the Portuguese.

Its geography consists of a coastal plain and a dry semiarid plateau. Pernambuco was originally a captaincy or province. For centuries, Brazil’s main exports were the sugar and cotton of this province, making the area important in Brazilian politics.

The name Pernambuco derives from a tree valued for its lumber, brazilwood, and the red dye it produces. The Native Americans of the area prized the red dye and made their weapons from the tree. The Brazil tree is now endangered, although its wood is still used to make violin bows.

The first European settlers from Portugal called the area Nova Lusitania, meaning “New Portugal,” and a capital was established called Olinda. It was a prosperous area, despite a high incidence of malaria.

The production of sugar and cotton required large numbers of slaves from Portuguese colonies in Africa to supplement the Native American laborers. The prosperity of Recife caused English adventurers to capture and plunder it in 1595.

Throughout the history of the area, landowners have formed an oligarchy that has maintained its own armies and strictly controlled the lives of those who work their lands. Education of the people was never a priority and transportation developed for the convenience of the landowners, not the people at large. Resentment of this toward the Portuguese-born officials grew in this area among the wealthy.

In 1630, the forces of the Dutch West India Company captured Pernambuco and other Portuguese colonies. They moved the capital to Recife on the coast of Pernambuco at the mouth of two rivers. This low-lying area reminded the Dutch of their homeland.

Canals and bridges were built and Recife became known as the Venice of South America. By 1640, Pernambuco sent 24,000 tons of sugar to Amsterdam. The Dutch prince Maurice of Nassau traveled to the area to govern it. Under the Dutch regime many mercantile buildings and homes were build in Recife in the Dutch style.

During the period of Dutch control, the first synagogue in the Americas was built in Recife, Pernambuco. At one time during this period, the Jewish population in Recife was larger than the Jewish community in Amsterdam, Holland. The Jewish presence in Pernambuco disappeared when the Spanish Inquisition of the Catholic Church came to the area with the return of Portuguese power.

Many Jews from Recife fled to New York City, then New Amsterdam. Others fled to the interior of Brazil, where they practiced their religion in secret. In 2000, the Jewish population of Recife sponsored an excavation to uncover the remains of the first synagogue built in the Americas in Recife.

The Dutch remained in power only until 1649. The Dutch forces were ousted not by the armies of the Portuguese monarchy, but by the local peoples themselves. The Mascate War took place in 1710 between the business class of Recife and the wealthy owners of the sugar mills around Olinda.

Later Pernambuco was the location of a revolution, which briefly set up a Republic of Pernambuco in the 19th century. Though the republic lasted only two months, the flag of the republic remains the state’s flag.

Juan de Oñate - Spanish Explorer

Juan de Oñate - Spanish Explorer
Juan de Oñate - Spanish Explorer
On April 20, 1598, Spanish captain-general Don Juan de Oñate approached the Rio Grande, then known as the Río del Norte, the River of the North. Oñate led an expedition that represented the first determined attempt by Spain to colonize the region explored by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado more than 50 years before, in 1540–42.

Oñate led a large expedition consisting of more than 100 families, almost 300 single men, numerous wagons, and 7,000 cattle. An advance detachment was led by Oñate’s nephew, Captain Vicente de Zaldívar. Unlike many other explorers who were peninsulares, those who were born in Spain, Oñate himself was a criollo, a Spaniard born in the New World.

Oñate was born to Cristóbal de Oñate and Catalina de Salazar in about 1550. He made an important marriage, which certainly aided his rise to power and influence. His wife was a descendant of both the conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. Oñate and his wife had a son and a daughter together.

On September 21, 1595, Oñate was awarded a contract by King Philip II of Spain to explore the region north to the Rio Grande and settle what became New Mexico, but numerous delays forced his departure to be held back until 1598. The cost of the expedition was entirely Oñate’s, with the king’s receiving a percentage of the wealth expected to be generated by the new colony.

So on April 30, 1598, Oñate in a formal ceremony took possession of the region in the name of King Philip II. The most important part of Oñate’s expedition was the military contingent, probably led by Capitan Zaldívar, since he held the position of sergeant-major of the Oñate forces.

The main weapon of the Spanish soldiers was the matchlock musket. Crossbows like the ones used by the Spanish in Cortés’s conquest of Mexico in 1519–21 were still in use by the Spanish but were apparently left behind in Mexico City when Oñate embarked on his march north.

However, in the heat of Mexico and the Southwest United States, many Spaniards wore cotton padded armor adopted from the Aztecs (Mexica), which gave good protection against the arrows the hostile Indians used against them. Curiously enough, Spanish troops carried heart-shaped shields called adargas well into the 18th century. Sidearms were long Spanish rapiers and for the cavalry, a pair of matchlock pistols.

Coronado had experienced some fierce fighting with the Pueblo Indian tribes of the Rio Grande valley, and Oñate was fully conscious that his entrance could be marked by combat with the native inhabitants.

Therefore, he followed strict military discipline throughout his expedition. After they reached the North Pass on the River (El Paso del Norte), they faced a trip of some 60 miles through a region so arid and hot that ever after the Spanish would call it El Jornado del Muerte (Route of Death).

Once among the Pueblo Indians Oñate used the feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24 to stage a sham battle with the intention of intimidating them with his Spanish cavalry and infantry.

New Mexico Established

Apparently, Oñate’s show of force worked, because on July 28, without interference, he established New Mexico’s first capital at the pueblo of San Juan de los Caballeros of the Tewa tribe, which he named in honor of the men who had ridden north with Coronado years before.

Ultimately Oñate began the construction of San Gabriel as a more permanent capital, perhaps feeling uneasy about the dangers of a surprise attack at night if he remained in the Tewa village.

Although Christianization of the Indians was always noted as a reason for Spanish expeditions, the vast treasures that Cortés had found in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru guaranteed that the search for gold and silver would always be a paramount reason for any expedition, and Oñate’s was no different.

He was determined, however, to keep all exploration and mineral discovery under his own personal control and carried out severe punishments against those who disregarded his orders. With the nearest Spanish forces hundreds of miles to the south, such strict discipline would be the only thing that would keep such an expedition together and safe while surrounded by potentially hostile Indians.

Oñate’s grim emphasis on discipline soon proved to have been justified. In December, Juan de Zaldívar, Vicente’s brother, and some soldiers accepted the hospitality of Chief Zutucapan at the pueblo of Acoma. Once they were settled in their quarters, Zutucapan sprang a trap, and Zaldivar and some 10 Spanish were slaughtered.

In January 1599, Oñate sent Vicente on a punitive expedition against Acoma, his infantry and cavalry supported now by two pieces of Spanish artillery known as culverins. When the Acomans refused to submit, Zaldivar attacked. Although he was heavily outnumbered, his artillery slaughtered the Acomans. Captives were taken before Oñate, whose punishment was severe.

With the danger from hostile Indians behind him, Oñate spent more time in an illusory search for gold and silver mines. In December 1600, he embarked on a long expedition.

His search for riches took his attention from the settlement of the colony and many people who were disillusioned with his rule returned to Mexico, then called New Spain. Although his search for gold and silver proved fruitless, he became the first Spaniard since Coronado to explore as far north as Kansas to the settlement that Coronado knew as Quivera.

At some point, his love of exploration eclipsed his lust for gold. Even as disgruntled former colonists were spreading rumors of vice and brutality against him, Oñate undertook a tamat journey of exploration as far as the Gulf of California.

Although ordered back by the new king, Philip III, in 1607 to face charges, Oñate remained until Sante Fe was built. When in 1608 a new governor was sent to replace Oñate, he finally returned to Mexico City.

Obrajes in Colonial Latin America

Obrajes in Colonial Latin America
Obrajes in Colonial Latin America
Obrajes (roughly, workshops) were key enterprises in the developing economies of Spain’s American colonies, principally as sites where wool, cotton, and other fibers were carded, spun, and woven into textiles. While indigenous peoples had woven cloth for millennia, the obraje was an exclusively Spanish imposition.

From modest beginnings in the 1530s, obrajes developed over time into quasi-industrial enterprises, some with several hundred laborers, mostly Indian, under their roofs.

Working conditions were typically harsh, with long hours, poor ventilation, frequent physical abuse, and low or nonexistent pay (Indian labor and tribute were required under encomienda and related institutions). Most obrajes were thus more akin to penal sweatshops than to workshops, as conventionally understood.

The earliest known descriptions of obrajes date to the late 1530s in New Spain (Mexico). By the early 1600s, from 98 to 130 obrajes were scattered across central New Spain, clustering around the urban centers of Puebla, Mexico City, Texcoco, and Tlaxcala.

By 1600, most obrajes averaged around 50 laborers, making the total number of workers engaged in obraje production in New Spain around 6,000, though there was a spectrum from large to small; the latter were often called trapiches.

Scholars have traced the origins of private or non-state-mediated Spanish-Indian labor relations (i.e., non-encomienda, non-repartimiento) to such early colonial period obrajes—labor frequently supplemented by prisoners and convicted criminals.

Captured English sailor Miles Philips was sentenced to work in an obraje in Texcoco around 1570. “We were appointed by the Vice Roy to be carried unto the town of Texcuco ... in which towne there are certaine houses of correction and punishment for ill people called Obraches ... into which place divers Indians are sold for slaves, some for ten years, and some for twelve.”

Philips’s companion, Job Hortop, described his experiences carding wool in Texcoco’s obrajes “among the Indian slaves.” Their descriptions of “Indian slaves” corresponded with Spanish custom and law, in which obraje laborers were frequently called slaves.

The development of obrajes was encouraged by both the Crown and the highest levels of colonial government, with authorities such as New Spain’s first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, actively promoting sheep herding, wool production, and manufacture of cheap cloth within the colonies.

By the late 1600s, obrajes had become an important pillar of the colonial economy in New Spain and elsewhere, generating textiles and other goods mainly for internal consumption. In the 17th and 18th centuries, opposition to royal support for obrajes by Spain’s textile manufacturers mounted, though it remained insufficient to retard the growth of colonial production and exchange.

Similar developments unfolded in colonial Peru. As in New Spain, obrajes emerged in the decades after the conquest with official encouragement and support, especially around Quito, which by the early 17th century had become South America’s leading textile manufacturer.

Quiteño cloth, prized for its high quality, was produced by both indigenous “community obrajes” that employed ancient techniques for carding, spinning, and weaving wool (some housing upward of 200 full-time workers) and smaller, privately owned obrajes similar to those in New Spain.

Overall, obrajes illuminate key aspects of colonial Latin American history, including land and labor relations, the intersections of Spanish and Indian worlds, and the role of the state in promoting specific types of production and exchange within the colonies.

Conquest of Northwestern South America

Conquest of Northwestern South America
Conquest of Northwestern South America

Before the Spanish invasions of the early 16th century, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean littoral of northern South America were divided into a number of polities and a host of ethnolinguistic groups.

Their states and material culture were not as advanced as those in highland Peru or Mexico, so the native peoples of this variegated land had no large cities, used stone tools, produced fine gold work and pottery, and cultivated potatoes, quinoa, maize, beans, squash, and many fruits and vegetables, combined with hunting, gathering, and fishing. Native populations are estimated to have been in the millions.

One major population center was in the mountain valleys surrounding present-day Bogotá and extending northeast to the coast near present-day Caracas, the homeland of the Muisca or Chibcha peoples, divided into two large confederations. Other villages, settlements, and communities were spread across the region.

The first European contacts with the region came in 1498 when the third expedition of Christopher Columbus skirted the Venezuelan coast. Over the next two decades, Spanish encounters with the local inhabitants consisted of slave raiding and trading expeditions.

The most important consequence of these early encounters was the implantation of deadly European diseases, which rapidly spread west across Colombia and south into the Andes, causing millions of deaths. By the late 1520s, only a few small permanent settlements had been established between the isthmus of Panama and the mouth of the Orinoco River.

In 1528, Charles V contracted with the Wesler banking house of Ausburg for exploration and settlement of the mountainous region of Venezuela and Colombia. After six expeditions inland, the Wesler incursions found no large cities and very little gold.

Nor did they found any towns, while committing many abuses against the natives. In 1548, the Crown cancelled the contract. In 1530, two years after the Wesler agreement, Diego de Ordas, a former captain of Hernán Cortés, received royal authority to explore the Orinoco Basin, whose mouth lay far to the east of the northern Andes. His expedition of some 600 Spaniards also ended in failure.

In 1535, the discovery of golden objects in native tombs prompted further Spanish interest in the region. Several expeditions followed. The most important was led by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, who in 1536 led his 800-strong force up the Magdalena Valley.

By the time he reached the Chibcha settlements, fewer than 200 of his men survived. Subjugation of the zone took more than a year, as native arrows, slings, and clubs once again proved no match for Spanish horses and steel.

Combining warfare and threats with diplomacy and subterfuge, by 1538 Quesada had largely subdued the Chibcha. The loot proved substantial: some 150,000 pesos of gold, hundreds of emeralds, and other precious objects, divided unevenly among Quesada and his men, the governor of Santa Marta, and the Crown.

Toward the end of the Chibcha campaign, two other expeditions converged on the zone: a Wesler-financed expedition led by Nikolaus Federmann and the remnant of the Andean force of Sebastián de Benalcázar, leader of the Quito expedition under Francisco Pizarro in the Conquest of Peru.

Quesada called the region New Granada and founded a town, Santa Fé de Bogotá, on the site of the former Chibcha capital. Meanwhile, most of the interior lay unexplored. A akibat series of expeditions took place in the 1540s and 1550s, most in search of the mythical kingdom of El Dorado.

The year 1541 saw three such efforts: one headed by Gonzalo Pizarro, another by Hernán Pérez de Quesada (brother of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada), and a third by Philip von Hutten, the last of the Welser explorers.

Benalcázar followed in 1543. All ended in failure. One result of this string of failed expeditions was the journey and journal of Francisco de Orellana, one of Gonzalo Pizarro’s lieutenants, who floated down the Amazon River to its mouth. A akibat expedition in 1559 under Pedro de Ursúa ended in mutiny and a failed rebellion against the Spanish Crown under commoner Lope de Aguirre.

Caracas was founded in 1567, while the region did not become a viceroyalty (the largest colonial-era political jurisdiction, as in Mexico and Peru) until the Crown created the Viceroyalty of New Granada, with its capital at Santa Fe de Bogotá, in 1739.

Throughout the colonial period, Spanish, Dutch, and English settlements in the region were limited mainly to the Caribbean littoral and the northwestern Andes, while vast areas of the interior remained terra incognita and outside the orbit of European control.

Viceroyalty of New Spain

For 300 years (1521–1821), the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the richest and most important political jurisdiction in Spain’s American holdings, expanded from its original boundaries in central Mexico south and west to the Pacific Ocean; south and east to include the Yucatán Peninsula, Florida, the Caribbean, northern South America, and Central America to contemporary Panama (the latter in a jurisdictional subdivision called the Kingdom of Guatemala); and north to include significant portions of what later became the U.S. Southwest.

At the political, economic, and demographic center of this vast colony was the Basin of Mexico, at the heart of which lay Mexico City, built atop the ruins of the aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.

Consequences of Colonial Rule

Three hundred years of colonial rule bequeathed to New Spain an enduring legacy whose consequences remain amply apparent in Mexico and Central America today. Most fundamentally, the new colonial order created new social and racial hierarchies, with Spaniards dominant, Indians subordinate, and, as time passed, mestizos (“mixed-race” Spaniards and Indians) occupying a widening middle ground.

During the first century of colonial rule, the colony’s major social institutions can be identified as the following: the colonial state and its byzantine administrative apparatus; the Roman Catholic Church, both its “regular” and “secular” branches; encomienda; Indian communities; and the patriarchal family.

From around the mid-1600s, hacienda, generally accompanied by debt peonage, displaced encomienda as the principal institution governing land-labor relations between Spaniards and Indians, largely in consequence of steep population declines among Indians resulting from the ravages of epidemic diseases, which effectively rendered encomienda obsolete.

Secular Church's Power Grows

During the same period, the so-called secular church (the ecclesiastical hierarchy emanating from Rome, with the pope at its head) grew in power relative to the regular church (composed of quasi-independent missionary or “mendicant” orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Jesuits, and others, each governed by specific reglas or rules).

This growing power of the secular church, densely entwined with the colonial state, was especially apparent in the most densely populated core regions, while the missionary orders remained strong in the colony’s peripheral zones, such as Yucatán, the northern deserts, and elsewhere.

The overall animo of the colonial period was for the regular church to initiate the process of conversion in peripheral areas, and, over time, as populations grew and the state extended its reach, to cede ecclesiastical authority to the encroaching secular church.

Far from a monolithic institution, the colonial church was wracked by division and conflict, both within and between its major branches. By the end of the colonial period, the Roman Catholic Church, both regular and secular, was not only one of the colony’s most important social institutions, but also far and away its largest landowner.

Contrary to a popularly held view, surviving Indian communities in New Spain and elsewhere retained various forms of collective (or “corporate”) landownership throughout the colonial period. This too became a crucial colonial legacy, especially evident in liberal efforts to privatize landownership in the decades after independence in 1821, efforts fiercely resisted by both the church and Indian communities.


The Basin of Mexico became and remained the colony’s breadbasket and major source of grain, meat, and other foodstuffs, as well as domestic industry such as obrajes, with expanding market relations especially important in the fertile and well-watered zones north and west of Mexico City.

In the 1540s, the discovery of large deposits of silver northwest of the Basin of Mexico, centered on the province of Zacatecas, provided the colonial state with a steady supply of silver bullion, fueling a price revolution in Iberia and the rest of Europe and transforming the regional colonial economies of Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and other mining regions.

By the mid-1600s, the sprawling colony sank into what one scholar dubbed “New Spain’s century of depression,” though the nature and extent of that “depression” remain the subject of scholarly debate. Compared to the thriving colonies of British North America and elsewhere, however, New Spain did experience a prolonged period of relative economic stagnation.

The imperial state’s efforts to redress its colonies’ relative economic decline, launched after the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13), are known collectively as the Bourbon Reforms, named after the ruling dynasty that assumed power in Spain after the fall of the Habsburgs.

In a process similar to that unfolding elsewhere in the Americas, as time passed, the “creoles” (or criollos, i.e., Spaniards born in the Americas) became an increasingly important and powerful group, despite its relatively small size—a gradual shift that by the late 1700s led to a growing sense of American identity and the first stirrings for independence from Spain.

Indian and “mixed-race” rebellions and uprisings occurred throughout the colonial period, but most remained local and regional and focused on redress of specific grievances relating to colonial governance or perceived abuses by individual authorities.


The demographic makeup of the colony changed markedly over time, from its initial overwhelming preponderance of Indians and tiny number of Spaniards, to steep Indian population decline, to increasing number of mestizos and others of “mixed race,” Africans, and a small but growing number of creoles.

New Spain’s population at the end of the colonial period is estimated at around 6 million—around 50 percent Indian, 30 to 40 percent “mixed race,” 10 to 20 percent Spanish and creole, and less than 1 percent African.

In sum, 300 years of colonial rule left a profound and lasting legacy across New Spain, in every realm of society. Grappling with the nature of that legacy remains one of the most challenging and central tasks facing scholars of postconquest Mexico and Central America.

Colonial Administration of New Spain

Colonial Administration of New Spain

In order to administer their vast holdings in the New World, the Spanish Crown devised an exceedingly intricate bureaucratic system intended to exert royal authority, to protects its economic and political interests, to maintain order and stability, and to prevent the formation of cohesive interest groups that might challenge royal authority. In theory, all political and legal authority in Spain’s overseas holdings ultimately derived from the Crown.

This system of what has been called “Hispanic absolutism” stood in sharp contrast to the situation in British North America, where various forms of local authority, including colonial and town assemblies, mingled with and effectively limited the exercise of royal authority.

Not so in Spain’s dominions, at least in theory, although in practice there quickly emerged substantial self-rule. Nor was there any legal or functional separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While some bodies were more concerned with judicial matters, others with legislative and executive, effective distinctions among these functions did not exist.

Nor was there a clear separation between royal and ecclesiastical authority, though in theory the Crown was the supreme authority in the colonies in consequence of the Patronato Real (Royal Patronage), which derived its legal basis from papal bulls of 1501 and 1508.

Habsburg Spain’s political culture was highly legalistic and placed a premium on the generation of paperwork, demonstrated by both the quality of the paper (still crisp after more than four centuries) and its quantity, most housed in the massive Archive of the Indies in Seville.

A key characteristic of the byzantine administrative hierarchy that governed Spain’s New World holdings was the functional overlapping of jurisdictions, as discussed later.

Some have proposed that the confusion and conflicts thus generated were part of an intentional strategy of “divide and rule” on the part of the Crown, a mechanism meant to ensure that subordinate administrative bodies would squabble among themselves, thus permitting the Crown to stand above the fray and act as the ultimate arbiter whenever serious conflicts arose. If this was not an intentional strategy—and opinion is divided on this point—it nonetheless worked in practice to that effect.

Hierarchical Structure

At the pinnacle of authority stood the king. Directly subordinate to him in the royal chain of command was the Council of the Indies (Consejo de Indias), established in 1524, modeled on the Council of Castile, and exercising supreme executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the day-to-day running of the American “kingdoms.”

The Council of the Indies, which comprised a dozen or so members, drafted and issued laws, interpreted laws, and nominated appointees to secular and religious offices, all subject to the king’s tamat approval. “Its tendency was meticulous and bureaucratic. It operated through lengthy, deliberative sessions surrounded by massive quantities of reports, laws, opinions, briefs, and other types of contemporary record.”

Within the colonies, the highest royal authority was the viceroy, conceived as the direct representative of the Crown in the colony. Viceroys were responsible for enforcing law, collecting revenues, administering justice, and maintaining order—virtually everything having to do with governing the viceroyalty. The viceroyalty was the largest administrative unit.

Until 1717, all of Spain’s American holdings fell under the jurisdiction of two viceroyalties: the Viceroyalty of New Spain (created in 1535, capital Mexico City, embracing all of Southwest North America through Central America to Panama, with much of Central America under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Guatemala), and the Viceroyalty of Peru (or New Castile, created in 1542, capital at Lima, embracing all of South America not claimed by Portugal).

In 1717, a third viceroyalty, that of New Granada (Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador), was carved out of the Viceroyalty of Peru, and in 1776, a fourth, the Viceroyalty of La Plata (Argentina).

Partially subordinate to the viceroy were the audiencias, established before 1550 in Santo Domingo, Mexico City, Guatemala, New Galicia (in New Spain), and Panama, Lima, and Bogotá (in Peru), with more added later, and with much shifting of boundaries, jurisdictions, and status over the next 250 years. Judicially subordinate only to the Council of the Indies, the audiencias served as a kind of appellate court and legislative body, subject to royal approval.

Described as “the most durable and stable” of the many branches of colonial government, audiencias were composed of the colonies’ most prominent men: ecclesiastics, captains-general, encomenderos, merchants, landowners, and others, appointed by the council and king.

The boundaries between viceregal and audiencia authority were never clearly delineated, resulting in much disagreement between them. A similar situation obtained for local officials subordinate to the audiencias and viceroys, most notably alcaldes mayores, corregidores, and gobernadores, among whom leading authority Charles Gibson has discerned “no appreciable functional distinction.”

Each exercised administrative, judicial, and some legislative authority within its districts. Alcaldes were superior to regidores, while municipal councils (ayuntamientos and cabildos) were generally associated with corregidores.

Municipal councils were the only form of collective self-governance in the Spanish American colonies. There was nothing akin to colonial assemblies of British North America, for example. All authority was vested in individual officials and corporate bodies directly subordinate to royal authority.

The other major cor porate body charged with overseeing Spain’s New World colonies was the House of Trade (Casa de Contratación), founded in 1503 and located in Seville, which was to trade, commerce, and finance what the Council of the Indies was to politics, law, and governance.

The Crown, through its Seville-based mercantile guild (consulado), worked to maintain a royal monopoly on a wide variety of goods, from precious metals to tobacco to many other export commodities.

But despite the Crown’s efforts to maintain a relationship of mercantilism with the colonies, in everyday practice smuggling, contraband, and similar efforts to avoid royal monopolies and royal controls became very common.

Absolutist System

At no level of government did there exist any degree of democratic decision making. In theory, the system was absolutist: All authority flowed from the top down, and nothing but compliance from the bottom up.

In practice there existed a substantial degree of local self-governance by individual authorities, and considerable deviation from royal laws and decrees, most commonly expressed in the phrase obedezco pero no cumplo (“I obey but I do not fulfill”).

In other words, officials universally acknowledged the Crown’s supreme authority while very often balking at the enforcement of specific laws, usually premised on the belief that it was necessary to respond sensibly and pragmatically to realities on the ground.

Selective enforcement of the New Laws of 1542, intended to place limits on the institution of encomienda, ranks among the most prominent examples of this strong tendency to disobey or only selectively enforce royal laws and decrees.

Scholars continue to debate the consequences of this structure and style of colonial governance for postcolonial Spanish America. Key questions include the longterm implications of the institutionalization of endemic conflict among various branches of government, with the many claimants to political authority vying for supremacy, as expressed in the abundant lawsuits, appeals, and related forms of litigation that marked the entire colonial period.

Another concerns the cultural legacy bequeathed by the structural tendency toward disobedience to royal authority and the formation of a political culture in which practical deviation from the letter of the law became the norm.

Another key area of investigation focuses on the ways in which subordinate individuals and collectivities, particularly Indian communities, learned to use this elaborate legal structure to defend and advance their interests, as they did throughout the colonial period.

Some scholars argue that the Spanish American tradition of vesting local authority in individual officials, combined with the absence of substantial collective authority and democratic institutions, over time generated a political culture that emphasized executive authority far more than legislative or judicial authority, provoking sharp conflicts and diverse syntheses with republican and representative forms of governance and Enlightenment notions of citizenship in the postcolonial period, with many variations in time and space.

Moctezuma II - Aztec Emperor

Moctezuma II - Aztec Emperor
Moctezuma II - Aztec Emperor

High priest and eighth son of Mexica emperor Axayácatl (d.1481), Moctezuma II, succeeding his uncle Ahuítzol, was selected as the new emperor by a gathering of some 30 Aztec lords in 1502.

Popularly remembered as a weak and indecisive ruler who failed to perceive or resist the threat posed by the invading Spaniards, Moctezuma (or Montezuma, meaning “he who angers himself”) was a key actor in the conquest of Mexico.

Ample historical evidence supports the interpretation that Moctezuma’s vacillation and political paralysis were crucial in giving the Hernán Cortés and the Spanish the strategic and tactical edge they needed to defeat the mighty Aztecs.

Like all seven Mexica rulers who preceded him following the establishment of the royal house in the late 1300s, Moctezuma II was considered semidivine in a culture saturated with state-sponsored religious symbols and practices.

During his tenure as emperor, he also earned a reputation as a stickler for probity, propriety, and solemnity in public and religious affairs and for ruthlessness in military matters. He has been described as dark, having wavy hair and communicating in stern but eloquent speech.

His weaknesses as a ruler became apparent only after his spies reported the arrival of strange, white-skinned, bearded men, accompanied by imposing four-legged “deer ... as high as rooftops” (horses) in large floating vessels off the Caribbean coast in April 1519.

His indecisiveness from this point forward is commonly attributed to his belief that the strangers’ arrival represented the fulfillment of a prophecy regarding the return of the god Quetzalcoatl—an assertion that continues to provoke controversy among scholars.

Regardless, it is clear that the Mexica emperor did almost everything in his power to appease and placate the Spaniards, especially Cortés. Most often cited in this regard are his decisions not to attack but to welcome the armed strangers into the capital island-city of Tenochtitlán, against the counsel of many of his advisers, and to submit willingly to being kept as Cortés’s prisoner for seven months, from mid-November 1519 until his death the following June.

Extant documentation demonstrates many instances of his paralysis, indecision, fear, and anxiety, even as it offers a detailed portrait of him as a ruler and human being.

Also controversial is the manner of his death; whether he was slain by his Spanish captors, or by the stones hurled by his own subjects following his efforts to quell their violent revolt against the invaders, the sources agree that he died on June 30, 1520, and that his death marked the end of the initial, relatively peaceful phase of the conquest and the beginning of the war without quarter that would result in Spanish victory and the onset of 300 years of colonial rule.

Mita Labor in the Andean Highlands

For many centuries prior to the Spanish conquest, the indigenous peoples of the Andean highlands had employed a system of reciprocal labor exchange known as mita (MEE-ta). Literally translating as “turn work” or a “turn” of labor, mita was integral to the system of ayllus, which in the absence of markets constituted the principal mechanism by which individuals, families, and communities exchanged goods and services.

Mita was also the principal way in which pre-Columbian Andean states, including the Inca, secured the labor necessary for the construction of roads, agricultural terraces, warehouses, temples, and other public works.

In the aftermath of their conquest of the Inca, the Spanish came to employ a modified version of the mita labor system, which by convention is generally referred to as mita (rather than mit’a) labor. The differences between the two systems were profound.

In the preconquest mita system, even the lowliest peasant could be assured of a minimal level of subsistence, just as highland communities were ensured an adequate number of workers even after local notables (kurakas) and the imperial state had siphoned off the specified number of mita laborers (mitayos).

Under Spanish rule, the mita system was essentially shorn of much of its reciprocal qualities, while demands for labor intensified dramatically. Especially after the reforms instituted by Viceroy Francisco de Toledo in the 1570s, the mita labor system became, in effect, a system of forced labor in which the state demanded that communities (now called repartimiento) contribute as many as one-seventh of their able-bodied labor force at any given time to work in the silver and mercury mines, in workshops (or obrajes), in agriculture and ranching, and in many other capacities.

Combined with the devastation wrought by the violence of conquest and the epidemic disease that raged throughout the highlands, causing precipitous population declines for which periodic censuses failed to account, the mita labor system emerged as one of the most fearsome and brutal institutions of the entire colonial period.

Overall, the Spanish state was less concerned with fostering conditions under which individuals, families, and communities could reproduce the conditions of their own existence than with extracting the greatest quantity of labor in the shortest possible time.

Mita Labor
Mita Labor

The results of this transformation, for ordinary Andeans, were horrific. Communities were drained of their most productive workers, who were gone for months at a time, making it far more difficult for them to meet their tributary quotas “in kind” (e.g., in corn, textiles, and sundry other goods).

This presented a new imposition, since before the conquest the Inca state and its agents had required communities to contribute mita labor exclusively, not goods. Mitayos, often accompanied by their wives, children, and other relatives, were often subjected to the most brutal working conditions imaginable, especially those assigned to work in the silver and mercury mines.

Females who accompanied mitayos during their turn at labor became vulnerable to rape and other abuses, while other family members were frequently assigned to secondary tasks by colonial authorities, further depleting the quantity of labor available to the larger community.

The abuses of mita labor continued throughout the colonial period and were a major contributing factor in the many revolts and uprisings that rocked the Andean highlands in the decades and centuries after the consolidation of colonial rule in the 1570s.

Conquest of Mexico

Conquest of Mexico
Conquest of Mexico

The conquest of Mexico represents one of the most ofttold and epic sagas in the European conquest of the New World. Our knowledge of the defeat of the Aztecs (Mexica) is based on a rich array of firsthand accounts, both Spanish and native.

The first conquest of a major indigenous polity in the Americas by a European power, the conquest of Mexico fueled the European imagination while providing a template for the violent subjugation of the rest of Mesoamerica and large parts of South America in the decades to follow.

With the conquest of Cuba complete and much of the Caribbean under Spanish dominion, the first explorations along the coast of modern-day Mexico were in 1517 under captain Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. This initial exploratory foray was followed in 1518 by an expedition under Juan de Grijalva that further probed the easternmost fringes of the Aztec domain.

Both were under the authority of the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez. In a series of sometimes violent encounters with the native inhabitants along the coast, the Grijalva expedition learned that a great city lay somewhere in the interior.

The stage was thus set for a third expedition, also under Governor Velázquez’s authority, to ascertain further the nature of these mysterious lands and peoples. After much behind-the-scenes political intrigue and deal making within Cuba, the governor selected Hernán Cortés as the expedition’s leader—a choice he would soon come to regret.

Setting Sail

The 11 ships under Cortés’s command set sail from Cuba in December 1519 with some 530 European men, several hundred Cuban Indians (including women), 16 horses, and numerous dogs.

They were exceedingly well armed with artillery, cannons, swords, cutlasses, lances, crossbows, arquebuses, and other weaponry, and well stocked with bread, meat, and other provisions, including trinkets for use as gifts to friendly natives. Officially this was to be an expedition of discovery only. Governor Velázquez had not granted its leader the authority to conquer or colonize.

Making initial landfall at Cozumel Island, Cortés learned from the natives that two Christians were held captive in the interior. One of them, Jerónimo de Aguilar, had shipwrecked off the coast of Yucatán in 1511 and lived among the local inhabitants for the past eight years. His knowledge of Chontal Maya and native customs would prove crucial in the events to follow.

The expedition continued north and west, past Yucatán and along the coast of present-day Tabasco state. On March 25, 1519, at the village called Potonchan, after one in a series of violent encounters with coastal peoples, Cortés was given 20 young native women as a peace offering.

One of these women, Malinali, baptized Marina, became one of the key actors of the conquest, acting as Cortés’s interpreter, confidant, and later mistress, bearing his child—reputedly the first mestizo (Spanish-Indian) child. She spoke both Maya and Nahuatl, the latter the language of the Aztecs, and had intimate knowledge of Indian people’s customs and practices.

To Mexicans she was later known as La Malinche (Doña Marina), or worse, La Chingada (the violated one) and conventionally has been viewed as a traitor to her people, an interpretation challenged by more recent feminist scholarship.

The expedition reached San Juan de Ulúa, an island off the coast of modern-day Veracruz, on Maundy Thursday 1519. Reaching the mainland on Good Friday, Cortés established friendly relations with the local Totonac chieftain, an Aztec subordinate named Teudile.

On Easter Sunday, Cortés undertook a characteristically theatrical gesture when he staged a mock-battle on the beach, firing cannon and racing his horses, to the astonishment of his hosts. He also asked for gold, which he portrayed as medicine for sick comrades.

Within days, Aztec emperor Moctezuma II was informed of the strangers’ activities via oral reports and painted renderings. Scholarly debates continue regarding whether Moctezuma and his priests viewed the bearded strangers as gods, particularly whether Cortés was the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl returning from the east as prophesied.

In order to circumvent the authority of Governor Velázquez and establish his own authority to wage a campaign of conquest, Cortés pulled a legal sleight of hand, founding a town called Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, appointing its officials, and resigning his office.

His men in turn elected him the town’s principal judicial and military authority. In accordance with Spanish law, he now derived his authority directly from the Crown. The maneuver is often cited as a prime example of the conquistador’s political cunning.

Inland Expedition

With their base at Villa Rica, the expedition inland began. Soon a pattern developed, whereby Moctezuma politely denied Cortés the right to enter the Aztec capital, and Cortés politely insisted on visiting the sovereign as an ambassador of King Charles I. The campaign that followed demonstrated Cortés’s masterful ability to perceive and exploit the political and ethnic divisions between the Aztecs and their subordinate polities.

Events in Cempoala—in which Cortés tricked the Cempoalan cacique into an alliance—are often cited as exemplary of this ability. So too is his decision to scuttle his ships, along with other actions that worked to instill a sense of purpose, unity, and loyalty among his men.

After winning the alliance of the Tlaxcalans—one of the few polities the Aztecs had proved unable to subdue—and slaughtering some 6,000 Cholulans in an infamous surprise attack, the expedition reached Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519. Entering the magnificent city, the Spaniards were greeted graciously by the indecisive Moctezuma.

A few days later on November 14, Cortés boldly took the Aztec emperor hostage, holding him as prisoner within his own capital city. After some six months in this uneasy state, Cortés learned that Governor Velázquez of Cuba had dispatched an expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez to arrest him (Cortés) for violating his orders.

Leaving his second in command Pedro de Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlán, in early May 1520, Cortés hastened back to Cempoala, defeated the Narváez force on May 28–29, and won over its survivors. Returning to Tenochtitlán, the Spanish force under his command now more than 1,000 strong, Cortés learned to his chagrin that Pedro de Alvarado had slaughtered hundreds of Mexican nobility during a religious celebration.

Trapped for several days, the Spanish force barely escaped the city in its withdrawal of La Noche Triste (The Sorrowful Night) of July 1, 1520, in which an estimated 400–600 Spaniards were killed. During the fighting, the emperor Moctezuma was slain, by which side remaining a matter of debate. Regrouping his forces near the coast, Cortés decided to lay siege to the great city.

In an audacious and monumental undertaking, he supervised the construction of 13 brigantines, which were then carried in sections over the mountains, assembled, and launched on Lake Texcoco. By this time, his forces numbered some 900 well-armed Spaniards, 86 horses, and thousands of Indian allies.

The siege of the island city of Tenochtitlán began in May 1521. Meanwhile an epidemic, probably of smallpox, was laying waste to the Aztec capital. Even before the siege had begun, an estimated one-third of the city’s inhabitants had succumbed to European diseases against which they had no immunity.

After three months of furious fighting, the Spanish invaders and their Indian allies reduced Tenochtitlán to rubble. Leading the city’s defense was Cuauhtemoc, Moctezuma’s cousin, whom much Indian lore later came to memorialize as a hero. The city fell on August 13, 1521—some two and a half years after the invaders’ first landfall at Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.

Scholars have emphasized various factors that made possible the defeat of the mighty and war-hardened Aztecs by a few hundred Spanish invaders. Near the top of all such lists is Cortés’s political brilliance, combined with his unshakable will to conquer, acquire riches, and spread the Christian faith. His ability to perceive and exploit preexisting divisions within the Aztec polity, and success in gaining thousands of loyal Indian allies, are often cited as sine qua non of the conquest.

Also emphasized in this vein is that no native inhabitants could have known that Cortés was but the advance guard of an aggressive and expanding kingdom, accustomed to campaigns of conquest, inspired by an exclusive and highly militarized religion, determined to create an overseas empire.

Other major factors most often cited in making the conquest possible include Spanish superiority in the technologies of warfare, especially their horses, swords, and armor; the invaders’ skills in the arts of war, steely resolve, unity of purpose, and loyalty to each other and their leader; the adversaries’ very different cultural conceptions of warfare, with the Spaniards focused on killing the enemy, and the Aztecs more concerned with capturing prisoners for later sacrifice; the Spaniards’ advantage of language, thanks to Jerónimo de Aguilar and La Malinche; the weak and indecisive leadership of Moctezuma; the role of myth, legend, and fatalism in weakening Aztec resolve; and the role of disease in weakening the Aztec capacity to resist once the selesai siege had begun.

Atop the smoldering ruins of Tenochtitlán the Spaniards built a new capital city—Mexico City—often using the same blocks of stone they had just toppled, and foundations already in place, using the labor of the vanquished Indians to realize their vision of the Spanish Christian kingdom spread to the New World.

For the next 300 years, New Spain would be Spain’s most important colony. Soon many of the victorious conquistadores and their countrymen began looking beyond Mexico, as New Spain served as a launching point for further campaigns of conquest.