A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEXICO
By Tim Lambert
THE AZTEC EMPIRE IN MEXICO
The ancestors of the Aztecs settled on a marshy island in Lake Texcoco in either 1325 or 1345. According to legend the Aztecs settled at a place where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. They took this as a sign from their god that they should settle there. The Aztecs called the place Tenochtitlan, which means place of the cactus. At first they were an unimportant people but in the 15th century the Aztecs gradually built up a large empire.
However the Aztec empire was not an 'empire' like the Roman Empire, which was ruled from one city. The Aztecs conquered the surrounding peoples. However the Aztecs did not usually rule other nations. Instead they forced them to pay tribute (goods like gold, feathers, weapons and precious stones). The Aztec 'empire', was more like a collection of states dominated by the Aztecs. Furthermore the conquered people had to send soldiers to serve the Aztec emperor when they were needed.
Meanwhile the Aztecs built up the island in the lake by driving wooden stakes into the bed of the lake then laying earth and rocks. They turned Tenochtitlan into a great city, with a population of over 100,000. The city was laid out in a grid pattern with marketplaces. In the centre was the emperor's palace and the great temple, which was a step pyramid.
Tenochtitlan was intersected with canals for moving goods. The streets of Tenochtitlan were regularly cleaned and their were public lavatories. The sewage was used for fertiliser. Furthermore the great city on an island was joined to the mainland by four causeways. Two aqueducts brought water into the city.
In 1492 the Spaniards discovered the new world. The end for the Aztec Empire came when the governor of Cuba sent an army under Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) to conquer Mexico.
Cortes only had about 600 men yet he managed to conquer the Aztecs. The Spaniards had several advantages. They had guns. They also had horses (animals unknown to the Aztecs). The sight of a Spanish cavalry charge was terrifying. Also the Spanish had steel armour and weapons (steel was unknown to the Aztecs). Furthermore the Aztecs were handicapped by their unwillingness to kill the Spaniards. They wanted to capture, their enemies not kill them in battle, so they could be sacrificed later. Worse, the people the Aztecs ruled hated their masters. They were willing to join the Spaniards in order to destroy the Aztecs.
Most of all the Aztecs were handicapped by their beliefs. They believed that their god Quetzalcoatl had once left Mexico by sea and promised to return one day. According to legend Quetzalcoatl would return from the east in the year one reed. (The Aztecs measured time in cycles of 52 years. One year of the cycle was one reed). By an astonishing coincidence one reed fell on 1519 - the year Cortes arrived.
The Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma feared that Cortes was Quetzalcoatl. He dared not attack a god and so took no action against the Aztecs. By the time the Aztecs realised the truth it was too late.
Motecuhzoma sent Cortes presents including gold and warned him not to approach Tenochtitlan. However the rich gifts merely whetted the Spaniards appetite. They made Cortes determined to capture the capital and take its treasures.
When the Spaniards arrived Motecuhzoma welcomed them as friends and housed them in a palace in the city. However after a week Cortes took the emperor hostage. Cortes demanded that Motecuhzoma come with him and stay with the Spaniards - or face death. The emperor gave in and from that moment he was a Spanish puppet.
Although the Spaniards were very impressed by the engineering and architecture of Tenochtitlan they strongly disapproved of the idolatry and human sacrifice. Cortes ordered the Aztecs to stop the sacrifices, which made them very angry.
Then the governor of Cuba sent a force to Mexico to arrest Cortes. So Cortes went to the coast to meet them. Cortes managed to deal with this threat but meanwhile in Tenochtitlan Spanish soldiers provoked a rebellion when they tried to stop an important ceremony.
Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan and he found the Spaniards there besieged in their palace. Cortes made Motecuhzoma go out to talk to his people but they stoned him. The Conquistadors were forced to retreat from the city at night. So many Spaniards died in the retreat that they called it la noche triste (the night of sadness). However the Spaniards eventually reached the coast.
Cortes gathered reinforcements then marched on Tenochtitlan again. When he reached lake Texcoco Cortes built boats and armed them with cannons. The boats then sailed across the lake to attack the city (which was built on an island). The Spaniards were also helped by smallpox, which broke out among the Aztecs. (The Spaniards brought European diseases to which the Aztecs and had no resistance). Eventually the Spaniards captured Tenochtitlan and burned it.
The Spaniards were now in control of Mexico, which they called New Spain. Cortes was appointed its first governor.
Following the conquest of Mexico the Spaniards became the new ruling class. However they were a very small minority. Indians remained the vast majority of the population.
Under Spanish rule the natives were ruled by Spanish encomenderos who were supposed to protect the natives and in return received tribute from them.
However during the 16th century European diseases such as smallpox, typhoid and measles (to which native peoples had no resistance) continued to reduce the population of Mexico.
The Spaniards also destroyed temples and idols. However it took a longer to convert the natives of Mexico to Christianity. Spanish friars tried to teach them Christian doctrines and carried out mass baptisms. (Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach).
However the native people kept many of their old pagan beliefs and practices under a veneer of Christianity. In 1571 the Spanish Inquisition came to Mexico. The first execution was held in 1574.
In the mid 16th century deposits of silver were discovered in Mexico. The city of Zacatecas was founded in 1546 after silver was found in the area.
During the 17th century Mexico prospered. The Spanish aristocracy created great country estates called haciendas. However things changed in 1700 when a member of the Bourbon family became king of Spain. The Bourbons introduced absolute monarchy to Spain and her colonies.
Spanish officials were appointed to posts in Mexico, much to the annoyance of the local people. The Mexicans were also forced to pay high taxes, partly to pay for wars between Spain and other European powers.
Furthermore the Bourbons undermined the church. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico.
Discontent gradually grew worse and in 1692 food shortages led to rioting in Mexico City. Meanwhile the American Revolution of 1776 showed how colonies could successfully rebel against their mother country.
MEXICO IN THE 19TH CENTURY
Rebellion finally broke out in Mexico in 1810. A priest called Miguel Hidalgo led the rebellion. He called on the people to rebel (this was called the Grito de Dolores) on 16 September 1810. The poor heeded his cry and they marched on Mexico City but a royalist force stopped them. The rebels retreated but as they did so they were routed by another royalist force at Queretara. The rebels were defeated again in January 1811 and Hidalgo was captured in March. He was then executed.
However another priest named Jose Maria Morelos continued the fight. Morelos was captured in 1815 but the rebellion continued.
Finally a Spanish general named Augustin de Iturbide changed sides and declared the plan of Iguala on 24 February 1821. Mexico was to be a constitutional monarchy. Iturbide won over the soldiers in Mexico and in September 1821 he became president of an independent Mexico.
On 18 May 1822 Iturbide became Emperor Augustin I. However he quickly alienated his people and he abdicated on 23 march 1823.
However from the start Mexico was divided into two camps. The conservatives wanted a strong central state, and perhaps a monarchy and supported the church. The liberals wanted a federal state and were anti-clerical.
In 1829 Spain sent an army to re-conquer Mexico. However the Spanish army was affected by malaria and they were defeated by the Mexicans under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
In 1833 Santa Anna became president. However in 1835 American settlers in Texas rebelled. Santa Anna took the mission station of El Alamo, killing all the defenders. However the Mexican army was defeated at San Jacinto on 21 April 1836. As a result Texas became independent.
In 1840 the Yucatan rose in rebellion hoping to follow Texas. However the rebellion failed.
Then in 1845 the USA annexed Texas. However the USA then demanded that Mexico sell other parts of its territory. In 1846 there were clashes between US and Mexican troops. Eventually US troops crossed into Mexico. In September 1847 a US army captured Mexico City. In 1848 Mexico was forced to surrender half her territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
In 1857 Mexican liberals introduced a new constitution, which removed the privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church. However conservatives would not accept the new constitution and in 1858 civil war began.
By 1861 the liberals had triumphed. Unfortunately Mexico defaulted on debts to Britain, Spain and France. The three nations sent troops to occupy Veracruz. The British and Spanish soon withdrew but the French had other ideas. French emperor Napoleon III intended to turn Mexico into a satellite state. He wanted to place Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the throne of Mexico as a puppet ruler.
The French army were defeated at Puebla on 5 May 1862. However the French eventually captured Mexico City in 1863. In 1864 Maximilian became emperor. However the Mexicans began a guerrilla war.
In 1865 the US civil war ended and they US govt demanded that France withdraw its troops from Mexico. The French were also threatened by the growing power of Prussia and they were forced to leave. Without French troops to support him Maximilian was in a hopeless situation. His army was defeated in battle at Queretaro in 1867 and he was captured and shot.
Mexico became a republic again under president Juarez. In 1876 Porfirio Diaz staged a coup and became dictator.
Under Diaz some economic progress was made and the population grew rapidly. (By 1910 it was 15 million). Railways were built and mining boomed. Mexico exported sisal, rubber, cochineal, coffee and sugar.
However in the late 19th century many Mexicans continued to live in great poverty and their resentment eventually boiled over into revolution.
MEXICO IN THE 20TH CENTURY
The Mexican Revolution
In the early years of the 20th century Diaz lost support. In 1910 a Presidential election was held. Francisco Madero stood as a candidate against him. However Diaz imprisoned Madero and won the election with a huge majority. Madero escaped to Texas where he denounced the election as fraudulent and called for a rebellion.
Insurgencies began led by Pascual Orozco, Francisco 'Pancho' Villa and Emiliano Zapota. In February 1911 Madero crossed the border into Mexico and became leader of the rebellion.
Eventually Diaz was forced to resign and new elections were held in October 1911. However in February 1913 General Victoriano Huerta led a coup. Madero was killed (he was probably murdered).
The result was civil war. Armies led by Pablo Gonzalez, Alvaro Obregon and Pancho Villa fought against Huerta.
The American president Woodrow Wilson disliked Huerta and in April 1917 he sent warships to Veracruz and US troops occupied the city until November.
Meanwhile Huerta's forces were losing the war and he resigned in July 1914.
However the rebels then started fighting amongst themselves. Carranza fought Pancho Villa and Zapata.
Gradually Carranza's forces prevailed. In 1915 they defeated Pancho Villa. Both he and Zapata were pushed back. Finally in 1919 Zapata was killed and Villa gave up the struggle.
Meanwhile in 1917 Carranza and his supporters drew up a new constitution for Mexico. Church and state were separated and religious education was abolished.
In the 1920s the Mexican government began a campaign to reduce illiteracy. They also tried to restrict the power of the church and that led to rebellion. In 1927 peasants rose to defend the church. The insurrection was called the War of the Cristeros because the rebels shouted Viva Cristo Rey! (Long live Christ the King!). Eventually the Mexican government was forced to back down and in the 1930s was, to a certain extent, reconciled to the church.
During the 1930s the government attempted land reform. Some land was redistributed.
Then in 1938 President Cardenas nationalised the oil industry.
Meanwhile in 1929 the Revolutionary Party was formed. It ruled Mexico for decades.
In the late 20th century Mexico began to industrialise rapidly. Mexican industry was helped when oil was discovered off the coast in 1976.
During the 20th century more and more Mexicans moved to towns. In 1910 about 80% of Mexicans lived in the countryside. By 1951 about 57% lived in towns. By 1991 73% of the population lived in towns. By the 1990s about 45% of the population lived in cities with a population of over 1 million.
There were some big improvements in life in Mexico in the late 20th century. In 1960 life expectancy was only 55 years. By 1991 it had risen to 70. Literacy also became far more common. By 1990 87% of the population were literate.
In 1985 Mexico City suffered a terrible earthquake that killed many people.
Unfortunately in 1982 Mexico faced a severe economic crisis. Mexico had fallen heavily in debt and was now unable to afford the interest repayments. The debt repayments were rescheduled but only at the price of an austerity programme. There was rapid inflation (at its peak it was over 100%) and wages rose much more slowly than inflation, cutting living standards. In the 1980s unemployment in Mexico was very high. In 1985 it stood at 25% of the workforce. However by 1991 it had fallen but the figure was still very high at 17%.
Inflation in Mexico also fell. By 1992 it had fallen to 12%.
Support for the Revolutionary Party fell and although their candidate won the 1988 Presidential election it was with a much smaller majority than usual. President Carlos Salinas de Gotari adopted a policy of privatising industry and he managed to reschedule Mexico's debts. The economy began to recover.
In 1994 Mexico formed the North American Trade Agreement with the USA and Canada.
In 2000 for the first time for decades the Revolutionary Party lost a Presidential election. Then in 2007 Felipe Calderon became president of Mexico.
Today one of the main industries in Mexico is tourism. Mexico suffered badly in the recession of 2009 but it soon recovered. There is every reason to be optimistic about the future of Mexico.
Meanwhile in modern Mexico many people have left the Catholic Church. Many have become Protestants.
In the late 20th century the population of Mexico grew rapidly. Today the population of Mexico is 116 million.
A Brief History of Guatemala
A Brief History of Nicaragua
A Brief History of Belize
A Brief history of Costa Rica
A Brief history of Jamaica
A Timeline of Mexico
Last revised 2013