The history of Mexico’s discovery and colonization by Europeans is a complex one that spans centuries. Various expeditions sought to explore the lands that are now known as Mexico beginning in the early 1500s, but the exact details of who first encountered this region and when are still debated by scholars. Nonetheless, through gradual conquest and colonization over time, Spain exerted control over Mexico and much of Central and South America. Let’s explore some key questions around Mexico’s discovery and the establishment of New Spain.
When was Mexico first discovered by Europeans?
While the precise date is difficult to pin down, most historians point to 1517 as the first confirmed contact between Europeans and Mexico. This was when an expedition led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba landed on the Yucatán Peninsula. However, it’s possible earlier expeditions encountered parts of Mexico without knowing it at the time. Some potential firsts include:
– In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, thinking he had reached the East Indies. Some scholars think part of this landing may have actually been in the eastern Yucatán region of what is now Mexico.
– In 1502, Columbus sent his brother Bartholomew to explore further. He may have reached parts of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and Gulf coast.
– There is some evidence that in 1510, Spanish conquistadors reached the tip of Baja California, which would later become part of Mexico. However, no record exists of significant exploration inland.
So while 1517 is considered the first fully documented and acknowledged encounter, it’s quite possible earlier navigators had unknowingly reached the edges of this region. But they lacked the geographic knowledge at the time to recognize it as a “new” land.
What were the key expeditions and settlements?
Here are some of the key expeditions and earliest Spanish settlements in Mexico:
– 1517 – Francisco Hernández de Córdoba’s expedition lands in Yucatán. He names the region “New Spain.”
– 1518 – Juan de Grijalva builds first Spanish settlement at Veracruz.
– 1519 – Hernán Cortés arrives and begins conquering the Aztec empire based in Tenochtitlán (modern day Mexico City).
– 1521 – Aztec empire falls to Cortés and the Spanish after bloody two-year campaign. Mexico City established over the ruins of Tenochtitlán.
– 1524 – Spanish Crown names Cortés as first Governor of New Spain.
– 1535 – First Spanish viceroy takes office to govern New Spain. Start of 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
So in the span of less than 20 years, Spain established settlements, overthrew the indigenous civilizations, and began governing Mexico as a colony. Conquest expanded to areas like northwest Mexico, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Colima over the next decades.
What native civilizations occupied Mexico?
When the Spanish arrived, central Mexico was dominated by the Aztec empire based at Tenochtitlán, today Mexico City. Other major civilizations included:
– Mayans – Built great cities and temples across the Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemala from around 2000 BC to 1500 AD.
– Toltecs – Powerful empire ruling central Mexico from the 10th to 12th centuries AD.
– Zapotecs – Inhabited Oaxaca region from 500 BC to 800 AD. Excelled at architecture, arts, and astronomy.
– Teotihuacan – Ancient city near Mexico City and home to over 100,000 people at its peak in 450 AD.
While conquered by Spain, influences from these great pre-Hispanic civilizations still define Mexican art, architecture, culture, and identity today. The Spanish used political alliances with groups like the Tlaxcalans to help overpower the Aztecs. This enabled rapid conquest of an empire of 25+ million people by just a few hundred Spaniards.
Why were the Spanish exploring and colonizing?
The Spanish had several motivations driving their dangerous voyages and attempts to colonize faraway lands:
– Spread Christianity – Spain had recently unified around Catholicism and felt compelled to convert native peoples in the name of God.
– Seek gold and riches – Tales of grand empires filled with treasure lured adventurers and conquerors seeking fortune and glory.
– Strategicinterests – Spain and Portugal competed for Atlantic trade routes and territory. Colonies provided resources, ports, and prestige.
– Curiosity – Ambitious explorers like Christopher Columbus wanted to find unknown lands and new routes to Asia. They hoped to discover and name never-before-seen places.
Of course, native peoples like the Aztecs had their own complex political, religious, and economic systems before the Spanish arrived. Sadly, these empires quickly collapsed in the face of superior Spanish weapons, a torrent of new diseases, and internal political frictions that Cortés exploited in his conquests.
Spanish Conquest (1519-1521)
Now let’s look closer at the key events and figures of the initial Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire:
Cortés was a Spanish conquistador and central architect of the campaign against the Aztec empire in 1519. After early explorers brought back tantalizing tales of golden treasures, strange new lands, and potential riches, Cortés was determined to launch his own expedition. King Charles I appointed him to lead an expedition to Mexico in 1519.
Some key facts about Hernán Cortés:
– Born in Medellín, Spain in 1485. Arrived on Hispaniola island in 1504 to seek his fortune.
– Held various posts as a colonial administrator and built personal wealth before embarking on his Mexico expedition.
– In 1519 assembled crew, ships, and supplies in Cuba in preparation for his mission despite a temporary cancellation by the island’s governor.
– Led force of approximately 500 soldiers, 100 sailors, 16 horses, some cannons, and 10 metal workers.
– Used shrewd negotiation tactics, strategic alliances with native peoples, sophisticated weapons, and months of extensive planning to conquer the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1521.
– Ruled “New Spain” as its governor on behalf of the Spanish Crown until 1525. Died in Spain in 1547 a wealthy man.
Cortés was ruthless, ambitious, paranoid, and obsessively driven to achieve fame and success. But he was also an adept strategist, organizer, and opportunist who laid the foundation for 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
The Aztec Empire
The Aztecs were a powerful civilization centered around the magnificent capital city Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico. Their empire controlled large swaths of central Mexico when Cortés arrived in 1519. Key facts about the Aztecs:
– Dominant ethnic group was the Mexica people, who migrated to the Valley of Mexico in the 1200s and founded Tenochtitlán in 1325.
– Empire expanded forcefully under rulers like Itzcoatl and Motecuhzoma I in the 15th century. Used war, politics, and alliances to control surrounding city-states.
– Tenochtitlán was a marvel of engineering and urban planning with 60,000-200,000+ inhabitants, causeways, aqueducts, monuments, and floating gardens.
– Religion focused on worship of numerous gods and regular human sacrifices to ensure order in the world.
– Advanced in arts, architecture, astronomy, and agriculture. But vulnerable to European diseases like smallpox.
– Emperor Montezuma II ruled when Cortés arrived in 1519 with an estimated 200,000-300,000 Aztec subjects in Tenochtitlán alone.
Though initially stunned by the Spanish “gods,” Montezuma II was taken hostage and the Aztecs ultimately overwhelmed by Cortés’ cunning tactics and firepower.
The March to Tenochtitlán
After landing on the Gulf coast, Cortés marched his army and new indigenous allies inland towards Tenochtitlán over several months:
– Began march from Veracruz in August 1519 with 15 horsemen, 300 soldiers, hundreds of porters and warriors from Totonac, Tlaxcala, and other tribes.
– Defeated Tlaxcala city-states in battle before making key alliance with them against their Aztec rivals.
– Arrived at Tenochtitlán in November 1519 and was greeted by Montezuma II, believing Cortés was the god Quetzalcoatl.
– Initially allowed to peacefully stay in the capital as Montezuma II’s “guest” while plotting takeover.
– Attacked Jewish “Marranos” members of his crew he suspected of disloyalty along the way.
– Added thousands of indigenous allies by the time he reached Tenochtitlán, outnumbering the Spanish soldiers.
This long march displayed Cortés talent for diplomacy, deceit, and military strategy. He entered Tenochtitlán in late 1519 nearly unopposed with a formidable force.
The Fall of Tenochtitlán
After months residing in the capital with Montezuma II as his puppet, tensions escalated and Cortés was forced to flee the city in June 1520, losing many men. He started preparing a siege.
– Returned with a massive force of Spanish soldiers, ships, cannons, and over 100,000 native allies in May 1521.
– Laid siege to Tenochtitlán for 8 months, ravaging the city’s supplies, buildings, and people.
– Final battle saw raging hand-to-hand combat in the city streets as the Spanish and their allies eventually prevailed.
– Montezuma II was stoned to death by his own people in 1520, and new ruler Cuauhtémoc captured trying to flee the wreckage in 1521.
– Tenochtitlán was left devastated – 140,000-240,000 Aztecs likely died from violence, starvation, and disease.
With the fall of its magnificent capital and Emperor Montezuma II’s death, the Aztec empire was vanquished in 1521 after 23 months of conflict. Cortés and his lieutenants quickly consolidated Spanish control.
New Spain Colony (1521-1821)
The 300 years that followed Cortés’ conquest saw Mexico developed into the wealthy colony of New Spain, fueling the vast Spanish empire.
Administration and Governance
After the Aztec capital was vanquished, the Spanish Crown set up an administrative structure to govern the colony of New Spain:
– Hernán Cortés served as the first governor from 1522-1524.
– The Viceroyalty of New Spain was established in 1535 with its first Viceroy or royal governor Antonio de Mendoza. This helped systematize Spanish rule.
– Mexico City was founded on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, becoming the seat of colonial government.
– Regional governors and local officials were appointed to control far-flung towns and cities.
– The Catholic Church played a key role in colonial administration, accumulating vast wealth and power.
This extensive bureaucracy helped Spain effectively govern most of Central America and parts of the US southwest for nearly 300 years.
Economy and Trade
The colony of New Spain was immensely profitable for the Spanish Crown thanks to its rich sources of gold, silver, tropical crops, ranching, and trade:
– Vast silver mines established in Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru provided huge amounts of currency for Spain.
– Massive agricultural plantations produced cash crops like cacao, indigo, sugar, and cochineal dye for export.
– Mexico City became the hub of Spanish trade networks in the Americas with goods flowing through Veracruz, Acapulco, and other ports.
– The Manila Galleon trade route opened in 1565, linking Acapulco with Spanish colonies in the Philippines and Asia.
– Cattle ranching flourished in Mexico’s north with products like hides, tallow, and jerky feeding Spanish and European markets.
New Spain’s natural riches and strategic location produced enormous wealth that lined the pockets of Spanish aristocracy and merchants for generations.
Society and Culture
Spanish conquest led to a complex multi-ethnic society in Mexico with stark divisions:
– Europeans from Spain settled at the top as the ruling class holding most wealth and status.
– Mestizos of mixed European-indigenous blood formed an urban working class and lower clergy.
– Indigenous peoples and slaves from Africa remained at the bottom doing rural and plantation labor.
– Tensions brewed as the Catholic Church tried converting natives to Christianity and stamping out their religions.
However, rich cultural mixing also occurred with language, religion, architecture, and traditions blending European and Mesoamerican influences. This fusion continues to shape Mexico today.
Growing Unrest and Independence
Over time, unrest simmered and eventually boiled over in New Spain:
– Strict racial hierarchy and exploitation of natives sparked periodic revolts like the 1692 indigenous Pueblo Revolt.
– Wealth inequality between Spanish elites, Creoles (Spanish-blooded Mexicans), and the masses worsened over the centuries.
– American Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution inspired dissidents to question Spanish authoritarian rule.
– Napoleon’s 1808 invasion of Spain created a political crisis in New Spain.
This laid the groundwork for Father Miguel Hidalgo’s Grito de Dolores call for Mexican independence in 1810, sparking a bloody 10+ year struggle before Spain finally recognized Mexican independence in 1821.
The history of Mexico’s discovery and conquest was a turbulent clash of civilizations that shaped the nation and region’s destiny for generations. ambitious Spanish explorers and conquerors seeking gold, slaves, and souls unleashed horrific violence but also brought together Native American, European, and African cultures, religions, languages, and bloodlines in new ways that still define the diverse Mexican people today.
Mexico’s pre-Hispanic civilizations were extraordinary in their achievements but ultimately no match for Spanish military technology, political cunning, additional deadly diseases, and unbridled greed. The consequences were centuries of inequality and exploitation. Yet Mexico also gained beautiful new architecture, customs, dishes, and art from the synthesis of cultures.
The long struggle for independence allowed the descendants of both the conquerors and the conquered to unite under a shared national identity as Mexicans. But the scars of oppression remain, seen today in indigenous rights movements and ongoing fights against corruption and inequality with roots dating back hundreds of years. Examining Mexico’s history helps explain the complex nation of today.