Immediately after the surrender of Tenochtitlán the government of Mexico fell into the hands of the conquistadores who, being purely military governors, administered the affairs of the land by means of military law. The conquest of the Aztec empire required an enormous effort and a tremendous sacrifice by Cortés's army, and after their victory, the soldiers demanded what they had come for: prestige and wealth. The spoils from the city largely had been lost; Cortés had to resort to some other strategy to provide for his men. The conquistador had already surveyed all Aztec records related to tributes and tributary towns, and on the basis of this information, he decided to distribute grants of people and land among his men. This practice had already been tried in the Caribbean, and Cortés himself had received encomiendas , grants of land and people, in Hispaniola in 1509 and in Cuba in 1511. Granting encomiendas became an institution throughout New Spain to ensure subordination of the conquered populations and the use of their labor by the Spanish colonizers, as well as a means to reward Spanish subjects for services rendered to the crown.
The encomienda was a Spanish institution of Roman origin, and in the New World, the Spanish government established a series of rights and obligations between the encomendero (grantee) and the people under his care. The indigenous people were required to provide tribute and free labor to the encomendero , who was responsible for their welfare, their assimilation into Spanish culture, and their Christianization. Political and social stratification among the encomenderos was easily achieved by the simple fact that there were communities of different sizes. The larger the grant, the larger the amount of tribute and labor available, and thus the greater the potential wealth and prestige of the assignment.
Gradually the large cities were granted local government similar to that of Spain and the province was divided into districts controlled by the central government in Mexico City. In 1528 auditors (oidores) were introduced to keep a check on the captain-general, Cortés. They soon succeeded him and continued to govern the country until 1535, when Antonio de Meridoza became the first viceroy. He was a very earnest and capable man and at once proceeded to replace with an orderly and settled form of government the haphazard methods of the oidores and military leaders.
The people of Mexico experienced an epidemic disease in the wake of European conquest, beginning with the smallpox epidemic of 1519 to 1520 when 5 million to 8 million people perished. The catastrophic epidemics that began in 1545 and 1576 subsequently killed an additional 7 million to 17 million people in the highlands of Mexico. Recent epidemiologic research suggests that the events in 1545 and 1576, associated with a high death rate and referred to as cocoliztli (Nahuatl for "pest"), may have been due to indigenous hemorrhagic fevers. Tree-ring evidence, allowing reconstructions of the levels of precipitation, indicate that the worst drought to afflict North America in the past 500 years also occurred in the mid-16th century, when severe drought extended at times from Mexico to the boreal forest and from the Pacific to Atlantic coasts. These droughts appear to have interacted with ecologic and sociologic conditions, magnifying the human impact of infectious disease in 16th-century Mexico. In absolute and relative terms the 1545 epidemic was one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history, approaching even the Black Death of bubonic plague, which killed approximately 25 million in western Europe from 1347 to 1351 or about 50% of the regional population.
Although disease and hardship decimated the indigenous population, increasing numbers of Spaniards arrived with great expectations of new wealth. Along with this flow of Europeans came the African slaves, who were directed to the central areas of New Spain. In 1549 the Spanish government ended year-long labor obligations, as well as payment of tribute. To compensate for this loss, the crown instituted a new system of forced labor allotments (repartimientos ) of forty-five days a year, for which every person was to be paid in wages. The repartimiento became a source of abuse by employers who would pay wages in advance and then obligate workers indefinitely as repayment.
In reality, the native population was accustomed to a similar organization of tributary towns under the Aztec. In time, the encomenderos became the New World version of Spanish feudal lords. This new source of political power came to worry the Spanish authorities because of the dangers of a local nobility capable of contending peninsular authority.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, royal control of the granting of encomiendas became more strict. On November 13, 1717, a royal decree abolished encomiendas, an act that was confirmed by other decrees in 1720 and 1721. However, in the most remote areas, encomiendas were often kept throughout the colonial period in complete defiance of the royal decree in order to populate these regions.
One important arm of Spanish rule was the Catholic church. In New Mexico, the Franciscans were responsible for missionary activity. Both the Franciscan practice of building churches and missions for Indians in Indian settlements and the encomienda system which legally prohibited the encomendero from living on his encomienda meant that Hispanic and Indian communities in New Mexico were spatially distinct.
Curiously, most Indians willingly converted to the Catholic religion that was forced upon them by the landowners. A big reason for this is the miracle of Guadalupe. In 1531 an Indian by the name of Juan Diego claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, but she had dark skin, like his own. The story goes that he brought roses from the Virgin to the Bishop in his cloak. When he stood in front of the Bishop and dropped the roses from the cloth, the portait of a dark-skinned Mary had appeared on it. The event was recognized as a miracle by the Catholic Church and the cloak is still on display in the new Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. This cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe by Mexican literary men during the latter part of the 16th and all of the 17th centuries presents two interesting phases. In Guadalupe there was, in pre-Columbian days, one of the most popular of native shrines. This shrine, a few years after the Conquest, was suddenly changed into a Christian sanctuary, on account of the reputed miraculous appearance, near the sacred well of the Aztecs, of the Virgin herself, to Juan Diego, an Indian, whom she commissioned to bear a message to the archbishop of Mexico, stating that she desired erected, on the hill top, above the well, a chapel dedicated to her worship. This chapel was duly built ; and, since that day, the thousands of Indians who flock to it annually have made of it a most interesting depository of the mingled faiths of the aboriginal races and their Spanish conquerors. The literature that grew up around this historic shrine was, therefore, further removed in form, spirit and execution from that of Spain than any other class of writing emanating from Mexican sources.
The encouragement of literature and art, the beautifying of the cities and towns, the extension of great highways of commerce, the improvement of harbors, the establishment of high schools, colleges and a provincial university and the practical eradication of the native religion with its human sacrifices were far-reaching benefits which Spain bestowed upon Mexico. But the evils of her administration outran the good. The establishment of peonage and the concentration of the Indians in centres, towns, camps or ranches under the pretense of civilizing and Christianizing them soon destroyed all the machinery of the native civilization. The masses of the population, their aboriginal laws and codes of morality gone by the board, soon lost their pride of race and descended to a condition of slavery bringing with it debauchery, a loss of interest in life and a consequent loss of ambition.
These and scores of other abuses created discontent throughout the viceroyalty, which was destined to show itself in vigorous protests and insurrection against Spanish authority. An unsuccessful revolutionary plot in the capital in 1808 was followed by the uprising of Hidalgo, the patriot priest of Dolores, on 16 Sept. 1810. Hidalgo, after a wonderfully successful initial campaign which brought him, with an army of 100,000, almost to the gates of the capital, was finally defeated, captured and executed the following year. The war of liberation dragged on with varying success until 1821, when the life of independent Mexico began.
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