For three centuries New Spain was one of the great jewels of Spain’s colonial empire, producing wealth for immigrants and the Crown. The brunt of the labor was performed by indigenous Mexicans, often under duress, but natives also succeeded in seizing opportunities to promote their interests. It is tempting to portray the economic history of Mexico as a simple story of domination of colonial subjects by their European rulers, and indeed historians have often resorted to this straightforward rendition. This article, while certainly presenting the conventional wisdom, presents a more complex story, highlighting debates among historians on a wide range of issues, from the experiences of indigenous people to the profitability of colonialism. What follows is a general presentation of New Spain’s economy.
The very nature of Spanish colonization meant that New Spain brought together people from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and attitudes. Mexico City was the meeting place of all these various populaces. Before the conquest, Tenochtitlan had neighborhoods composed of residents from various parts of the empire. Apart from the many indigenous cultures, colonization also meant the addition of Spaniards, Africans, and Asians, some of whom were enslaved and others simply migrants. The result was a culture that expressed itself both in high and popular culture with a melding of elements—a joyous cacophony that reflected its mestizo nature. This culture was played out not only in institutional settings such as the viceregal court, ceremonies, the theater, and in church but also in the streets, parks, and taverns that dotted towns and cities. Although culture, to a certain extent, reflected New Spain’s hierarchical nature, separation between high and low was never absolute. In the cathedral, as in many other institutions, popular pursuits and music infiltrated the formal singing. This pattern of cultural slippage prevailed within many areas of daily life as the colonial world of New Spain layered pastimes and pursuits from its many constituents.
James A. Garza
The history of foreign travel to Mexico has been dependent on the country’s political, economic, and social conditions. Travel restrictions, banditry, the condition of transportation routes and ports, political stability, revolution, and the development of a tourist industry have all played a role in how travelers have written about Mexico. Despite periodic challenges, Mexico has proven to be an alluring destination for foreign travelers since the colonial era. Men and women have journeyed to Mexico for different reasons, some on official business and others for pleasure or to escape their lives back home, and in turn have produced numerous accounts that have served to attract more visitors and have functioned as a valuable source of information on the everyday life of Mexico’s peoples. Still others have traveled to Mexico for conquest, and while their motivations were violent, their journals have served as a guide for those interested in retracing the same routes. Travelers have depicted landscapes, communities, peoples, and practices; offered insight into important historic periods; and depicted Mexico as exotic, bountiful, primitive, or dangerous.
This historical topic is divided into three distinct eras: the colonial period, the 19th century, and the 20th century. The Spanish Crown restricted foreign travel to Mexico during the colonial era (1521–1821), resulting in the relative scarcity of accounts from the period. Foreign travelers during this period were conquistadors, clerics, officials, or explorers, all with varying degrees of literacy. During the 19th century, foreign travelers came in three overlapping waves: the early republic era (1821–1840), when most were either investors or diplomats; the middle period (1830–1870), an era dominated by soldiers, travelers, and archeologists; and the Porfiriato (1876–1911), when investors and wealthy tourists flooded Mexico. The 1910 Mexican Revolution marks the beginning of Mexico’s 20th century and two distinct periods of foreign travel, both influenced by state power and violence. The revolutionary and state-building era (1910–1946) saw foreign travelers as primarily war journalists and writers exploring the effects of the revolution’s social and cultural measures. After World War II, foreign travelers encountered the tourism era (1946–1968), a period under the influence of a burgeoning state tourism industry. Despite this challenge, travelers, many of them writers, carved out their own niches.
The epistemic assumptions, methods, and rhetoric employed by colonial indigenous intellectuals in Latin America were based on preconquest intellectual labor and literacy systems. These practices were deeply impacted by collaborative projects and historical scholarship undertaken in the 16th century, as indigenous elites embraced European literacy and scholarly models. This merging of diverse traditions led to a “golden age” of indigenous intellectual achievements in the 17th century, and to a diversity of genres cultivated by native scholars in late colonial times. Indigenous historical actors were intellectuals not only because they recorded and disseminated historical, religious, or political knowledge, but also because they were inserted in culturally hybrid social networks through which collective knowledge circulated. While the works of Chimalpahin, Guaman Poma, Garcilaso de la Vega, and don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl are relatively well known, this small sample of native and mestizo intellectuals must be expanded considerably to examine works produced through co-authorship arrangements with friars and priests, and to address clandestine works composed exclusively for native audiences by less known, or even anonymous, indigenous scholars.
When Mexico became independent in 1821, the first choice for a political system for the new country was a monarchy. In fact, the Plan of Iguala, which prompted the separation from Spain, called for Ferdinand VII or any member of his family to come rule over the novel nation. While such efforts did not prosper then and in fact precipitated a failed attempt for a national empire, the monarchist option remained alive for several decades, until a French intervention sponsored the enactment of Habsburg archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. When that attempt was defeated in 1867 it marked the end of monarchism there.
One of the main promoters of such a political system was Lucas Alamán. A member of a miner’s family from Guanajuato, he became an important and influential statesman of independent Mexico. From 1821, when he first participated in the Spanish congress, until his death in 1853, Alamán, like other thinkers who lived through a transitional period, held paradoxical views; while he promoted industrialization and economic development, he maintained more-traditional views on politics and rather ancestral conceptions regarding the treatment of Indian communities. Either as minister of foreign relations, congressman, or advisor to various governments, he defended his ideas, and more than once they aimed for a monarchist option. His career illustrates the quandaries and dilemmas that the officials of Hispanic America and Old Spain as well confronted in modernizing their societies. As he got involved in public office, he also became the administrator of the Duke of Terranova and Monteleone’s state in Mexico; such a position provided him—through the British agents of the Neapolitan-Sicilian nobleman—with a regular source of information on the European scene. Thus, Alamán was one of the most learned public officials of his time. He also wrote historical works that granted him recognition in academic institutions, such as the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia.
On August 13, 1521, the Spanish conquistadors and their native allies seized Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. The Spaniards succeeded because they had forged alliances with the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous self-governing communities (altepetl) to fight the Aztecs. After the conquest these communities continued their traditions, and the Spaniards largely replaced Aztec leadership with their own. In addition, the friars and the secular church converted the natives to an extent, and together with the crown they foiled the conquistadors’ attempts to become liege lords with jurisdiction. The process culminated in the New Laws of 1542, which curbed the encomienda, a grant to Spaniards that comprised several Indian towns paying tribute. A society of social bodies evolved, composed of municipal councils, lay brotherhoods of churches, and others, complete with their own laws and jurisdictions. Then a series of silver strikes beginning at Zacatecas in 1546 drew settlers into the Bajío north of the former Aztec and Tarascan empires. The local natives resisted initially, and when peace came, they and the settlers created a dynamic early capitalist economy that invigorated other regions. The frontier expanded when animal herds moved further north beyond the mines, and the zone of Spanish influence grew to the south as well.
In 1540 Spanish conquistadors and their indigenous allies began occupying the northwestern Yucatan Peninsula, and they took Tiho/Mérida in 1542. The Yucatan, the Bajío, and the other regions that composed colonial Mexico successively integrated into a global commercial network spanning Europe, Africa, and Asia. The crown and the merchant guild (consulado) in Seville sought to capture the burgeoning Atlantic commerce within the fleet shuttling between Seville/Cadiz and Veracruz and restrict the silver flowing from Acapulco to Asia via the Philippines. Yet market forces defied most of the rules they put in place. Merchants from Asia settled in Manila; Peruvians docked in Acapulco; and the Dutch, French, and English competed with fleet merchants or operated contraband trade from the Caribbean islands to New Spain. In the 18th century, the crown loosened trade regulations within the empire and continue curbing the autonomies of social bodies. A series of investigations (visitas) shook New Spain, and more compliant viceroys and officials appeared, while the friars lost over one hundred parishes (doctrinas) during the mid-century. The king expelled the Jesuits in 1767; registered ships sailing individually replaced the fleet in 1778; and in 1786 José de Gálvez introduced the intendants in New Spain. As the empire transitioned toward a territorial state, Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king (1808). In 1810 Miguel Hidalgo and a popular following unleashed the War of Independence. As the conflict unfolded, the legitimacy of the old order crumbled, and the empire dissolved in 1821.
The Spaniards had little idea of what to expect when they set foot in North America. Mexico, as the region is known today, was in the 16th century a vast territory with a grand history. Inhabited by diverse peoples for millennia, great civilizations had risen and then fallen, only to be supplanted by others.
The term “Mesoamerican” aptly describes the majority of peoples who lived in or near Mexico, for they shared many culture traits that depended not only on local resources but also on their ingenuity in exploiting all that was available. Food, technology, ball courts, monumental architecture, calendars, and record keeping are practices that characterize Mesoamerica. And in most instances, trade, whether local or long distance or by foot or canoe, served to join different groups across the land through an exchange of commodities, ideas, and the people themselves. Best known, and it might be said the first among many, are the Maya and the Aztecs.
European empires would have not existed absent private enterprise both licit and illicit. Private traders, in the first instance, sustained colonies by conveying the labor and merchandise that planters required in exchange for the exports that colonies produced. Moreover, those colonies would not have existed in the first place absent private initiatives since European states in the 16th and 17th centuries customarily lacked the administrative and fiscal resources and often the inclination to oversee such projects. Individual or corporate adventurers, though, did possess such resources and inclination; legitimate operators secured government authority for their activities pursuant to charters that drew upon medieval forms and granted extraordinary powers to their recipients. Under the terms of these documents, grantees pursued public purposes—as they would be called today—that their activities entailed in conjunction with their pursuit of profit. The results of this practice included the establishment of colonies that spanned the Atlantic basin from the Madeira Islands to Newfoundland to Brazil; the emergence of colonial leaderships who pursued their own agendas while they ingratiated themselves into trans-Atlantic political cultures; and incessant conflict over territorial and commercial agendas that involved indigenous people as well as Europeans. Other operators did not bother with legitimacy as they pursued smuggling, piracy, and colonizing ventures that also contributed profoundly to imperial expansion. The domestic and international friction generated by these activities ultimately brought increased state involvement in overseas affairs and increased state ability to direct those affairs.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico.
At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.
Mexico had an exceptionally diverse population during the 16th and 17th centuries, including Indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who related to one another in complex ways. Society—a group of people living in a community—was configured differently in each place, based on geographical location, local customs, property distribution, and a myriad of other factors. Faced with such different contexts, historians have tended to generalize about social organization (the way people interacted) from the perspective of the men who produced the most sources. Colonial statutes and official correspondence convey the attempts of Hapsburg officials to maintain a hierarchical social order, but property records reveal a more fluid reality. The acquisition of wealth and achievement of social status by non-Spaniards frustrated colonial ideals for a stratified society that correlated to ethnicity. The success of imperial governance, to the degree it was achieved, depended on its flexibility and how it allowed people to benefit from the colonial economy and to achieve social mobility.