A Brief History of Mexico

By Tim Lambert

The story of modern Mexico began with the conquistadores. In 1492 the Spaniards discovered the new world. The end of 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 armor and weapons (steel was unknown to the Aztecs). Most important the people the Aztecs ruled hated their masters and many were willing to join the Spaniards to destroy the Aztecs.

When the Spaniards arrived at the capital, Tenochtitlan Montezuma allowed them. However, after a week Cortes took the emperor hostage. 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. Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan but 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 and then marched on Tenochtitlan again.

Quetzalcóatl an Aztec god

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 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.

Colonial Mexico

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 the Spanish 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 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. n 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.

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 Queretaro. 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 Augustine I. However he quickly alienated his people and he abdicated on 23 March 1823.

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 reconquer 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. The 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 was 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 the 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 a 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

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 Zapata. In February 1911 Madero crossed the border into Mexico and became the 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 a 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 among 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 nationalized the oil industry. Meanwhile, in 1929 the Revolutionary Party was formed. It ruled Mexico for decades. On 22 May 1942, Mexico declared war on Germany and Japan.

Modern Mexico

In the late 20th century Mexico began to industrialize 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 program. 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 Gortari adopted a policy of privatizing 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 in 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. Meanwhile, the manufacturing industry in Mexico is growing rapidly. Mexico is gradually developing economically. Meanwhile, In the late 20th century and early 21st century, the population of Mexico grew rapidly. In 2020 the population of Mexico was 126 million.

Last revised 2024