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A general history of Mexico from the Spanish Conquest to independence

(Although this page is dedicated to the history of Baja, I thought it might be useful to begin this historical journey at its inception, in order to create a backdrop from which the history of Baja emerges.)

It was Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, a Spanish overlord of Cuba, who first laid the foundations for the conquest of Mexico. In 1517 & 1518 he commissioned explorations of the Yucatan coast and the Guf of Mexico. These explorers returned with tales of great wealth in the area; tales that prompted Velazquez to outfit Hernan Cortes to a voyage of conquest. Cortes left Havana in November 1518 and landed in Mexico where, having broken with Velazquez, he founded the city of Vera Cruz and established a town council which, in turn, empowered him to conquer all Mexico in the name of Charles I.

Conquering Mexico was no easy chore for Cortes however, for he had not accounted for the might of Moctezuma, the feared Aztec lord who ruled over one of the most powerful military forces in the Americas, as well as one of the most significant cultures in the history of civilization. Nevertheless, Cortes pushed into central Mexico with only 500 Europeans and several thousand Indian allies as soldiers and porters. In an incredible campaign lasting more than 2 years, the conquistador took the capital city Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) on August 13, 1521

With the fall of the Aztec empire, the Spaniards quickly defeated and subjugated most of the other Indian tribes in southern Mexico. The only area where effective Indian resistance was encountered was Yucatan, then inhabited by the Maya tribes. Francisco de Montejo undertook the conquest of this region in 1526, though it was nearly 20 years before the Spaniards won control of the northern end of the Yucatan.

The occupation of northern Mexico, less populated and largely arid, took longer than that of central and southern Mexico, requiring intensive fighting with nomadic tribes. Some Indians living in the interior, retained their independence, for another century and a half. Those living in mountain, desert or forest country however, were left largely undisturbed. The first non-warring Spanish settlers there were principally Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries who established Indian missions.

The American and French revolutions ushered in an era of political liberalism by challeging the concept of "the divine right of kings". It took, however, the turmoil of Napoleonic Europe to create the immediate background that led to Mexican Independence. Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain in 1808. He imprisoned the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, and attempted unsuccessfully, to install his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, to the Spanish throne. This did not sit well with the Spaniards. In 1812 they rebelled and created a liberal constitution. This document provided for a constitutional monarch, voting rights, a representative government, and other features taken from the U.S and French constitutions.

Those events in Spain had a significant effect on Mexico. Sporadic rebellions sprang up demanding some form of self-government. The most important revolt was sparked by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a parish priest in Dolores, Michoacan, who had been the center of a group of "enlightened" reformers. On September 16, 1810, Hidalgo issued the "Grito de Dolores" (Cry of Dolores) calling for the end of Spanish rule, equality of races, and for redistribution of land. Mexican Independence Day commemorates this event.

Warning the Spaniards would deliver Mexico to the godless French, Hidalgo exhorted his followers followers to fight and die for the Mexican Virgin, Our Lady of Guadalupe. When Hidalgo left his tiny village, tens of thousands flocked to his banner and followed him to Guanajuato, a major colonial mining center, peopled by Spaniards and Creoles. There the leading citizens barricaded themselves in a warehouse that was eventually captured by Hidalgo on September 28. Most of the Creole elite were massacred, and the town was ransacked.

The Guanajuato massacre caused moderate and undecided supporters to back the government's efforts to crush the Hidalgo rebellion. Government forces defeated Hidalgo at the Bridge of Calderon on January 18, 1811. Two months later he was captured along with other major insurgent leaders. He was subsequently executed, thus ending the first of the political civil wars that would wrack Mexico for three quarters of a century.

Hidalgo's cause was taken up by his assoicate, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon, another parish priest who won control of substantial sections of southern Mexico. In 1814 he issued a formal declaration of independence and drafted republican constitutions for the areas under his military control.

About this time Napoleon's troops were withdrawing from Spain, and in 1814. King Ferdinand VII returned from involuntary exile. One of his first acts was to nullify Spain's 1812 constitution. The departing French army freed up Spanish troops to crush the Morelos revolution in Mexico. Captured and defrocked, Morelos was shot as a heretic and revolutionary. Yet scattered guerrilla bands, though dwindling, kept alive the populist, republican, nationalist tradition of Hidalgo and Morelos.

Mexican independence came about almost by accident when Spanish constitutionalists rebelled, leading a rebellion that forced Ferdinand VII to reinstate the liberal constitution of 1812. Conservatives in Mexico, concerned anti-religious liberals would threaten their religious, economic and social privileges, saw independence from Spain as a means of sparing it from similar changes. They found a spokesman and able leader in Agustin de Iturbide, a first generation Creole and the son of moderately wealthy Spaniard. Iturbide, who had served as a loyal royalist officer against Hidalgo and others, had been given command of royal troops to snuff out remnants of the rebel republican movement, then headed by Vicente Guerrero, in southern Mexico.

But while seemingly fighting Guerrero, Iturbide was, in fact, negotiating with him to join a new independence movement. In 1812 they issued the Plan de Uguala, a conservative document of 23 articles which declared that the Mexican nation was to be independent, its religion Roman Catholicism, and its citizens united, without distinction between Mexican and European. It further stipulated that Mexico would become a constitutional monarchy under Ferdinand VII, and that he, or some Spanish prince would occupy the throne in Mexico City. In the meanwhile the junta would draw up regulations for the election of deputies to a congress, which would write a constitution for the monarchy.

United as the Army of the Three Guarantees (independence, union, preservation of Roman Catholicism) the combined troops of Iturbide and Guerrero controlled most of Mexico by the time Juan O'Donoju, recently appointed Spanish captain general, arrived in the capital. Without money, provisions or troops however, O'Donoju felt compelled to sign the Treaty of Cordoba on August 24, 1821, thus officially ending New Spain's dependence on Old Spain. The convention provided that the Mexican nation, now called the Mexican Empire, was to be recognized as independent. Under the treaty, the new empire's congress was to elect an emperor if no suitable European prince could be found.

Although Spain at first disavowed O'Donoju's actions as unauthorized, the date now recognized as that of separation of New Spain from Old Spain is in fact, August 24, 1821.

The first Mexican Empire spanned only a short transistional period from colony to republic, but its independence had been the point upon which both republicans and conservatives alike could agree.


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