The roots of insurrection
If the natives couldn't be persuaded to provide free labor through religious proselytization, there was always the whip. After all, convents and cathedrals had to be built, one way or another. Forced labor in hacienda fields and on church edifices were not the only demands on the native people. Indigenous communities were also forced to pay mandatory tithes to the church as well as tribute to the secular authorities Over the centuries, resentment boiled over into periodic revolts. However, although sometimes violent, these uprisings tended to be localized reactions to especially egregious abuses and rarely threatened the foundations of Spanish rule.
The lack of Spanish women in the early years led the Spanish men to seek out indigenous women. Cortez himself took La Malinche, his Mayan translator, as a concubine and fathered children by her. While some of these unions may have been voluntary, others occurred when female war captives were shared out, or were random rapes. Over time, these couplings resulted in the creation of new social classes.
Mixed Spanish and indigenous were called mestizos. Mulattos resulted from unions between indigenous and Africans or, less often, African and Spanish. Each of these groups had a different social status. For example, the Africans arrived in the New World as slaves--the social rock bottom. While the Spanish had enslaved some of the native people, most were not, and some retained special status due to their linkage to the old nobility of the Aztec or other native kingdoms. On the other hand, all native people were subject to tribute, while mestizos were not. Again, mestizos were not the social equals of someone with two parents of Spanish lineage.
The Spanish divided themselves into nobles and commoners, as in the Old Country. Over time, a whole new class distinction developed. Spaniards born in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) were called peninsulares and stood at the top of the social scale. Criollos were Spaniards born in Nueva España (Mexico). They had a lower status and fewer rights than peninsulares. This distinction would have an important impact on Independencia as the criollos increasingly objected to the "glass ceiling" blocking them from lucrative political positions in colonial society.
The merchants were widely hated both as creditors, and because they were seen as greedy peninsulares who were often the only source of desirable imported products. The Crown restricted Nueva España's production of many of these items in order to protect business interests in Spain--to which many peninsulares were closely connected.
In addition, the Crown kept a monopoly on the sale of mercury, a key element in the silver smelting process. Periodic shortages of mercury caused mine shutdowns and mass unemployment, which severely disrupted the economies of important mining towns, such as Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosí. The resulting economic dislocations spread, in widening circles, throughout Nueva España. In the period leading up to Independencia, the supply of mercury was especially short because of British blockades during the on-going Napoleonic Wars.
In addition to short-term bouts of unemployment due to scarce mercury, the mine worker's overall economic situation gradually worsened as the 18th century wore on. This provided yet another source of friction. During the population crash of the 16th and 17th centuries, mine owners had had to offer incentives to get the labor they needed. One of these was called the partido, which was a share of ore a miner could keep for himself, in addition to his pay. The mine owners, who were often peninsulares, began to abolish the partido as the population recovered in the 18th Century and labor shortages eased. The miner workers saw this not only as a cut in compensation, but also as a loss of status.
population crash, and subsequent recovery, also affected agricultural workers. Grain cultivation required a large workforce but, during the crash, agricultural labor was also scarce. In order to recruit workers from the indigenous villages, hacendados (hacienda owners) offered a regular ration of maiz (corn) in addition to pay. This was important because, while grain prices rose during the 18th century, farm worker pay did not. The maiz ration somewhat insulated hacienda workers from food inflation. However, as the population recovered, hacendados--like the mine owners--felt less need to extend such benefits and began to abolish the maiz ration. This caused widespread outrage, as well as increased hunger.
In addition, the population increase meant that indigenous villages had to feed more people from their existing stock of communal land. At the same time, the increase in the available workforce caused the hacendados to shift from livestock to the more profitable grain crops. Eager to increase production, they began to cast covetous eyes upon indigenous lands. Illegal seizures of native fields increased. On the other hand, indigenous villagers sometimes forcibly occupied hacienda lands that they believed had been stolen from them in the past. These conflicts often ended in the colonial courts but sometimes resulted in violent confrontations.
In addition to these pressures, a series of great droughts caused crop failures four times in the century between 1710 and 1810. The fourth one (1808-1810) occurred just before the outbreak of Independencia. The crop failures caused famine, which in turn caused migrations to the cities in search of food, which then resulted in great epidemics. Thousands died. Further, huge numbers of mules and oxen starved during the grain shortages. Mines were powered by these animals, and all freight transportation and field plowing also depended upon them. The economic dislocations were far-reaching. Merchants and hacienda owners often hoarded grain during these episodes, seeking to exploit the crises. Such practices led to food riots in the cities.
Thus, slavery and oppression, social class tensions, a lack of circulating currency, conflicts between debtors and creditors, the impact of population changes on labor conditions and land use, and food hoarding by the elites during agricultural crises all converged to fracture Nueva España's colonial society.
The insurgent leaders
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was born a criollo in 1753, the son of a middle-class hacienda administrator in the province of Guanajuato. While living on the hacienda, he learned Nahuatl, Otomi, and Purépecha, the languages of his father's workers. This skill would prove crucial during Independencia. His father was affluent enough to pay for a good education and, at age 15, he was sent to Valladolid (today Morelia) in Michoacan to attend a Jesuit college.
When the Jesuits were summarily expelled from Spanish territories in 1767, protests broke out all over the country and Hidalgo was no doubt influenced by them. Since his Jesuit school was closed, he switched to the prestigious Colegio San Nicolás. After graduating, Hidalgo earned advanced degrees at the Royal and Pontifical University in Mexico City. In addition to Spanish, Latin, and 3 indigenous languages, he also learned French and Italian. At the University, the young man became familiar with the ideas of Europe's Enlightenment, another crucial step in his preparation.
After he became a priest, Hidalgo returned to Colegio San Nicolás to teach and became the dean of the school in 1790. However, his liberal ideas, along with mismanagement of funds, caused his removal. He was then assigned to a succession of parishes. This was occasioned not only by his ideas but his lifestyle. He fathered 5 children out of wedlock by two different women, liked dancing and gambling, and seemed a bit like an 18th Century hippie.
However, Hidalgo was sympathetic to the indigenous people and started various projects to help them become economically self-sufficient. Some of these projects violated the Spanish monopolies and he was angered when ordered to stop. In 1808, Hidalgo was the priest in Dolores, Guanajuato. When the crop failure occurred, famine hit his parish hard and his parishioners faced starvation. Hidalgo protested vigorously when the local Spanish merchants held grain off the market to push prices higher. Then, whispers circulated about a group in Querétaro who sought to oust the Spanish. Hidalgo quickly joined them..
Ignacio Allende y Unzaga was born in 1769, the son of a wealthy criollo trader in San Miguel el Grande, as the town was called before it was renamed for Allende after Indpendencia. He grew up in the sumptuous house which still faces the main plaza in San Miguel, across from the Cathedral. In 1802, Allende joined the Viceroy's army as a cavalry officer in the regiment stationed in his hometown. He rose to the rank of captain, but, at the same time, became involved in the Independencia conspiracy. In 1806 he was nearly arrested for it, but his social and political connections apparently shielded him. In spite of his close call, he began secretly meeting with Miguel Hidalgo and others in the city of Querétaro.
Up to this point, the conspiracy did not amount to much more than theoretical discussions among small, loosely connected groups. They were scattered around the country and largely made up of middle-class criollos. True, there was widespread discontent among mestizos and other castes for reasons I have already stated, but they were largely unrepresented among the various groups of conspirators. There had been strikes among miners, food riots in the cities, and violent clashes between hacendados and indigenous villagers. However these were episodic, localized, and were easily suppressed. No central issue connected the various groups among the castes with each other, or with the criollos.
Then, in 1808, everything changed. In that year Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, treacherously turned on his ally, the King of Spain. Napoleon deposed the weak King Charles IV, occupied the country, and installed Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor's brother, as the new King. Suddenly, the entire legitimacy of Nueva España's Viceregal government was called into question. To whom was loyalty owed? Napoleon's brother? Charles IV? His son Ferdinand, who now claimed the throne? Or was it at last time to break away and form a new country? The crisis of legitimacy caused confusion and disarray in Mexico City and provided the opportunity for the conspirators to act.
Still, a fundamental question remained. Was this to be a coup d'etat by the criollos, with the object of removing the hated "glass ceiling," but leaving all other social arrangements intact? Or was it to be a true social revolution involving the masses seething with discontent? From 1808 to the late summer of 1810, the conspirators worked feverishly to prepare their revolt but left this fundamental question unanswered.
"La Corregidora" through her marriage to Miguel Dominguez. He was the Corregidor (Magistrate) of Querétaro, an important city along the route between Mexico City and the silver towns of western and northern Nueva España. Like Hidalgo and Allende, she was a criollo, born in Vallodolid in 1769. Her father, a captain in the Viceregal Army, had been killed in action during her infancy. Ortiz was raised by her older sister after their mother died. Educated at the Colegio de las Vizcaines, she married Miguel Dominguez, a rising figure in Nueva España's society. The couple moved to Querétaro after the Viceroy appointed Dominguez to be its Corregidor.
La Corregidora soon developed sympathy with the plight of the castes and may, as well, have resented the limitations placed on her husband's career by their status as criollos. She began meeting with Hidalgo, Allende, and others to discuss the ideas of the Enlightenment and the possibilities for change in Nueva España. Her husband was aware of her activities but limited his own involvement because of his official position. Following the usurpation by Joseph Bonaparte, the disarray among the top ranks of Nueva España's leadership created a political vacuum. The conspiracy went into high gear.
The leaders in Querétaro secretly began to gather and store weapons. Hidalgo dispatched couriers to his many contacts among the leaders of mine workers, mule caravan drivers, hacienda workers, and local priests. All were directed to be ready when the call was given. Similarly, Allende contacted his friends among young criollo Army officers who might be sympathetic. He made preparations to seize command of his own cavalry regiment at the critical moment. The date was set for December 8, 1810.
Then, disaster struck. An informer tipped off the authorities, who happened to include the Corregidor, Miguel Dominguez. Fearing the exposure of his wife's involvement, and of his own guilty knowledge of the plot, Dominguez locked her in her bedroom so she couldn't warn her fellow conspirators and become further implicated. La Corregidora responded with typical resourcefulness. After tapping on her floor to alert her maid, she whispered instructions through the keyhole of the locked door. The maid quickly alerted a messenger. Whipping his horse into a lather, the man raced through the night to the town of Dolores to warn Hidalgo and Allende. Faced with a decision to flee or fight, they decided to launch the revolt two months early. The die was cast.
Launching the revolt
When La Corregidora's warning arrived in the late evening of September 15, 1810, Hidalgo acted quickly. First, he ordered Ignacio Allende to take a party of armed men and free 80 prisoners held in the local jail These included a number of pro-independence prisoners and thus their still-tiny force began to grow. Next, he dispatched messengers to mobilize sympathetic local leaders in the the mining towns, haciendas, mule driving groups, and pueblo churches all over central and western Mexico.
All this would take time, of course, and the Spanish authorities had already begun arresting identified conspirators. Doubtless Hidalgo's and Allende's names were high on the list. They needed to start building an army immediately, using whatever was at hand. For many criollos with property and careers at stake, theoretical discussions were one thing, risking everything was quite another. There was no time to form an army made up primarily of that very ambivalent group. Circumstances forced a choice between a criollo political coup d'etat from the top, or a social revolution from the bottom. In politics, war, and life in general, timing is everything.
Hidalgo decided to focus his appeal on the indigenous villagers, the hacienda peones, the impoverished mine workers, and the debtor classes of the cities. To rouse them, he aimed the revolt squarely against the gachupines, as the hated Spanish-born peninsulares were widely and derisively called. Since the largest group of potential supporters were the landless peones and the indigenous villagers, he would need to promise them land. In addition, Hidalgo was a priest of the Church, as well as a revolutionary. He clearly understood the usefulness of claiming God's support when launching a great armed struggle. Hidalgo also knew that the rural people he so vitally needed were fervently religious. A crusade for liberty and land, based on a religious appeal, would pull it all together.
Standing on the top step, flanked by Allende and the other leaders, Hidalgo appealed to the crowd in what, ever afterward, has been known as his grito (a loud cry or shout). What he actually said is unknown, and is much disputed among historians. It is likely that the grito went something like this:
"My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once... Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!"
In 1825, four years after Independencia was won, September 16 became a Mexican national holiday. Each year, in the nation's largest cities and smallest pueblos, this scene is re-enacted at 11 PM on September 15, the eve of Independencia. Whether it is the President of Mexico addressing hundreds of thousands massed in the famous Zocalo Plaza, or a local official of a tiny mountain town speaking to a few dozen, the scene is the same. The bell hanging over the balcony of the official building is rung and the presiding official issues a version of the grito. The crowd answers with lusty shouts of Viva! and sings the national anthem. It is a very moving ceremony.
Virgen de Guadalupe. He grabbed a long spear and hoisted the image in front of his army. Above is the actual banner used. It is currently on display in a Dolores museum.
Throughout history, flags have been very important, particularly in military operations. In the confused environment of a battlefield, with smoke and dust billowing about, soldiers needed some way to identify their own lines and those of the enemy. Everyone took heart when they could see their own flag. As late as World War II, the raising of the US flag on top of Iwo Jima's volcano had an electrifying effect on the troops watching below.
According to the legend, the Virgen de Guadalupe was encountered in the mid-16th century on the site of a ruined temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The person who reported it was a recently converted Aztec man who had taken the Christian name of Juan Diego. The event was especially significant because it was the very first time the Virgin had been encountered in the New World, and it was by an indigenous person! She is usually portrayed as dark-skinned and this, along with the story of the encounter and of various miracles attributed to her, soon had the native people flocking to convert. She became the patron of Nueva España's poor and downtrodden people, especially the indigenous. This is why Hidalgo's choice of that particular banner was so crucial.
He could not have picked a more powerful symbol to use in his grito or for his flag. By choosing this emblem, by denouncing the gachupines, and by calling for the return of "lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers," Hidalgo electrified the Mexican underclasses. The first stage of Independencia would be a mass uprising, an attempt at full-scale social revolution.
The wildfire of insurrection
Hidalgo quickly assembled 600 men in Dolores, and began a march through the Bajio area of present- day Guanajuato State. Everywhere along their route more recruits poured in from haciendas, pueblos, and indigenous villages. Their army seemed to grow by the hour. At its peak, it totaled between 80,000 and 100,000 men. However, it was actually less of an army than it was a people in arms, a huge mob with little discipline and no sense of tactics. In spite of these deficiencies, Hidalgo's army had enormous fervor and energy to match its colossal size. It seemed irresistible and, at first, overwhelmed all opposition it encountered.
While happy about their successes, Allende and the other criollo leaders were increasingly uneasy about the tendency of their troops to massacre hacienda owners in the countryside and merchants in the towns, after looting their stores. It seems that they took Hidalgo's words to heart when he said in his grito: "death to the gachupines!" Sometimes those killed included criollos, particularly if they had a reputation for abusing those under them. To the criollos helping lead the revolt, this was getting a bit close to home. Hidalgo seemed unwilling to restrain the excesses of his men, or perhaps he simply knew that with such an army it was impossible. There was too little capacity for control and too much pent-up anger. It would be well for those who sit at the top of any society to remember that the more tightly they clamp the lid over the discontent boiling under them, the more devastating the explosion will be when the it finally blows off.
It should be noted that similar revolts occurred over much of Mexico, as soon as word reached other parts of the conspiratorial network. This was particularly so in western and northern Mexico's silver towns, where the mine workers rose up and, with their criollo allies, seized control of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and many smaller mining towns such as Etzatlán in present-day western Jalisco. If they could hold these towns, it would be a huge blow to the Spanish authorities. The loss of the silver revenues would seriously cramp royalist operations, while the rebels could use the silver to finance theirs. However, the Spanish still controlled Guanajuato, one of the key silver towns near Dolores. It became the rebels' first major target.
The Spanish authorities in Guanajuato decided to stand their ground rather than flee Hidalgo's approaching army. Because of its large size, thick stone walls, generally small windows, and the store of food already present in the building, the Spanish authorities picked this site as their fortress. It was a sound military decision.
The royalist troops and all of the wealthy peninsulares and their families took refuge inside and prepared to withstand a siege. They brought along all the recently mined silver and their valuable personal belongings to keep them from rebel hands. Let the rabble sack the city and even burn it! They would still be safe. Only heavy artillery could knock down their walls and they knew Hidalgo's forces had virtually none. The Alhóndiga de Granaditas should have saved the Spanish. However, they didn't count on the bravery and ingenuity of one man.
When the rebel army marched into the city, the royalists were already safely ensconced in their granary fortress. For two days, a firefight raged between the well-armed Spanish inside and the few among the rebels who possessed guns. Several attempts to rush the stronghold came to naught. Spanish guns bristled at every window, and the heavy, iron-studded, wooden doors stood against every attempt to force them. Rebel casualties mounted. Something had to be done.
Then, El Pipla stepped forward with an amazing proposal. He planned to crawl across the open plaza through the intense royalist gunfire to the wall of the Alhóndiga. Once there, El Pipila proposed to set the building's cellar door afire. If it worked, the rebel forces could pour inside and seize the fortress. The miner set out with a large, flat piece of paving stone strapped on his back as a bullet shield. He carried a torch in one hand and a pot of flammable tar in the other. It is likely that few thought he would make it, but he did. Smearing the door with the tar, he set it alight. When it collapsed in embers, the rebels made their rush. Soon, with nowhere to go, the defenders surrendered. However, there was no safety in surrender.
Many criollos recoiled in horror, both within his army and among potential supporters. Allende and other key leaders gritted their teeth and remained loyal but, after all, what choice had they at this point? Many other criollos slipped back into neutrality and some swung their support to the royalist cause. Hidalgo desperately needed experienced criollo officers to train and discipline his army. so the massacre produced disastrous results in the longer term.
In fact, the deliberate killing of gachupines, particularly wealthy merchants, continued throughout this stage of the revolt. Hidago's forces eventually took Guadalajara and arrested the merchants and other royalist officials who had not already fled. During the two months he held the city, several hundred were summarily executed. Beginning on December 12, the feast day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, groups of prisoners were taken from their cells each night, 20 to 30 at a time. They were transported to the ravines just outside the city where they were killed with knives and machetes and their bodies dumped.
While all this is horrifying, it is also true that the Spanish had seized and held Nueva España through 300 years of torture, massacre, enslavement and theft. In fact, during the Independence War's 10-year duration, royalist forces committed innumerable acts of violence against rebel prisoners and unarmed civilians, including many summary executions. There were bloody hands on both sides.
decree ending slavery, eliminating indigenous tribute payments, and demanding the return of native lands seized by Spaniards. These acts forever endeared him to the underclasses. Hidalgo's anti-slavery decree pre-dated Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by more than 50 years.
In the mean time, the Spanish had at last overcome their disarray. General Calleja, one of their more effective officers, marched down from San Luis Potosí to challenge Hidalgo and his army. With only 6,000 men, Calleja's army was laughably small compared to Hidalgo's 80,000+. However, they were trained, disciplined troops, and possessed field artillery. The two armies clashed at Calderón Bridge, northeast of Guadalajara. At first, it looked like Hidalgo's forces would once again be victorious. However, Calleja's troops stood fast and a lucky shot by his artillery blew up Hidalgo's ammunition supply. The massive explosion panicked Hidalgo's undisciplined army and they fled the field.
The rebel leaders attempted to regroup, but it was over. They could do nothing but flee, hoping to reach the United States. Because of the catastrophic defeat, and the massacres that preceded it, the criollo leaders removed Hidalgo as head of the army and replaced him with Allende. In Coahuila, Hidalgo and other top leaders were betrayed and captured. Taken to Chihuahua, the rebel leaders were tried, executed by firing squad, and then decapitated. The heads of Hidalgo, Allende, and two other key leaders were sent to the Alhóndiga in Guanajuato and hung in iron cages on the four corners of the building. The social revolutionary phase of Independencia was over.
One of the revolt's surviving leaders was José María Morelos y Pavon. He carried on the fight from bases in Michoacan and Oaxaca. Morelos had observed the flaws of a huge, undisciplined army and his was a smaller, much better trained force. However, although talented, Morelos was a former priest and mule driver rather than a trained general. He made a series of strategic mistakes which prevented ultimate success and was himself finally defeated, captured, and executed in 1815. The war then devolved into a guerrilla insurgency. Sometimes these roving, independent bands were indistinguishable from bandits. A stalemate ensued for the next six years. The Spanish held the cities and towns of any size. The guerrillas dominated the countryside. Finally, exhaustion on both sides, along with continuing disarray in Spain, led to an agreement between Spanish General Agustín de Iturbide and rebel leader Vicente Guerrero. In 1821, they joined forces and ended the war. Independencia had at last succeeded.
NOTE: To learn about the heroic four-year siege of Lake Chapala's Mezcala Island during the independence struggle, click here.
This completes my posting on Mexico's Independencia. I hope you have enjoyed it and have, perhaps, learned something you didn't know already. If you'd like to ask a question or leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.
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Hasta luego, Jim