In 1542, the Council of the Indies, through Viceroy Mendoza, promulgated its liberal New Laws of the Indies. They rested on high moral ground: the only Christian justification for New Spain was the souls and welfare of the indigenous people. Slavery was outlawed and the colonists’ encomienda rights over land and the Indians were to eventually revert to the crown.
Despite near-rebellion by the colonists, Mendoza and his successors kept the lid on New Spain. Although some encomenderos held their privileges into the 18th century, chattel slavery of native Mexicans was abolished in New Spain 300 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Peace reigned in Mexico for 10 generations. Viceroys came, served, and went; settlers put down roots; friars built country churches; and the conquistadores’ rich heirs played while the natives worked.
The church, however, moderated the Mexicans’ toil. On feast days, the natives would dress up, parade their patron saint, drink pulque, and ooh and aah at the fireworks.
The church nevertheless profited from the status quo. The biblical tithe—one-tenth of everything earned—filled clerical coffers. By 1800, the church owned half of Mexico.
Moreover, both the clergy and the military were doubly privileged. They enjoyed the right of fuero (exemption from civil law) and could be prosecuted only by ecclesiastical or military courts.
In trade and commerce, New Spain existed for the benefit of the mother country. Foreign trade through Mexico was completely prohibited. As a result, colonists had to pay dearly for often-shoddy Spanish manufactures. The Casa de Contratación (the royal trade regulators) always ensured the colony’s yearly payment deficit would be made up by bullion shipments from Mexican mines, from which the crown raked 10 percent off the top.
Despite its faults, New Spain was, by most contemporary measures, prospering in 1800. The native labor force was both docile and growing, and the galleons carried increasing tonnages of silver and gold to Spain. The authorities, however, failed to recognize that Mexico had changed in 300 years.
Nearly three centuries of colonial rule gave rise to a burgeoning population of more than a million criollos—Mexican-born European descendants of Spanish colonists, many rich and educated—to whom power was denied.
High government, church, and military office had always been the preserve of a tiny minority of peninsulares—whites born in Spain. Criollos could only watch in disgust as unlettered, unskilled peninsulares, derisively called gachupines (wearers of spurs), were boosted to authority over them.
Although the criollos stood high above the mestizo, indígena, and negro underclasses, that seemed little compensation for the false smiles, deep bows, and costly bribes that gachupines demanded.
Upper-class luxury existed by virtue of the sweat of Mexico’s mestizo, indígena (native or indigenous), and negro laborers and servants. African slaves were imported in large numbers during the 17th century after typhus, smallpox, and measles epidemics had wiped out most of the indígena population. Although the African Mexicans contributed significantly (crafts, healing arts, dance, music, drums, and marimba), they had arrived last and experienced discrimination from everyone.