Colonial Mexico Illustration

Colonial Mexico

The Pre-Independence Mexican Indian Uprisings
Did They Help or Hinder Mexico's Drive to Independence?

Events Leading to Mexican Independence

Mexican Indian Uprisings

Independence from Spain!


What was life like in Mexico, in the early 1800's? Well, for one thing, back then, this country was not called Mexico. It was called New Spain. And things were a mess.

Was Mexico (New Spain) ready for independence from Spain? Most scholars agree that by the early 1800's, Mexico was ready and that independence was inevitable. There were many reasons for this:

  • The inequalities of life under the caste system

  • The flow of wealth out of New Spain to Spain

  • The inability of New Spain to feed its own people

  • The confusion and division in the governments of both Spain and New Spain

  • The flow of new ideas on government and peoples rights arriving from America and France, both of whom had recently undergone revolutions of their own

The inequalities of life under the caste system

People in New Spain were organized into a caste system, by law. This caste system was based on race. Those at the top lived very well. Those at the bottom lived very harsh lives.

Who's Who in the Caste System: The Peninsulares or Gauchapine, (European born whites) considered themselves superior to the Criollos or Creoles (Colonial born whites) and were supported in this belief by royal decrees from Spain. Both castes were, by law, politically and socially above the mixed bloods, the Mestizo and Mulattos, who were socially and legally superior to the Indians, who were socially superior to the Negroes.


European born whites
Criollos Colonial born whites
Mestizo Mixed blood (Spanish-Indian)
Mulattos Mixed blood (Spanish-Negro)
Indians Natives
Negroes African

In New Spain, when a baby was baptized, it was assigned for life to a caste by the baptismal priest. This made the baptismal priest very important since he decided and declared at the baptismal to which caste the baby belonged. This led to corruption in the priesthood as a well placed bribe to a priest could improve your child's standing for the rest of its life. If you angered or upset the priest, he could decide that your child belonged in a lower caste.

The social stratification created by the caste system was rigidly enforced. Since it was based on race, it was impossible to move from ones birth caste into a higher caste. A woman could improve her social standing by marrying up in caste, but neither men nor women could move out of the caste into which they were baptized. This caste system led to many problems and hatreds between the castes.

Parents wanted their children to marry into a higher caste if possible, or at least within their own caste. As a result, many Criollo women (Colonial born whites) married Gauchipine men (European born whites). This caused a shortage of wives for Criollo men in their own caste, and forced them to marry women from lower castes, which affected their children. The Criollo men (Colonial born whites) were already angry, as they were prevented by law from holding the highest ranking positions in the church and the government, positions their parents held, simply because their parents had been born in Europe and they had been born in New Spain. This created a great deal of jealously and discontent.

The Indians and Blacks, for most of the colonial period, were subject to the "Tribute", which was a tax placed on every Indian or Black. This tribute was normally paid by an individual's village or employer. If the tribute was not paid, that individual could be thrown in jail. The tribute was one way for the empowered class (the top guys) to keep the lower castes under control.

The affect of the inequalities of the caste system was to cause great dissatisfaction in every caste level, except perhaps the highest. The Criollos and the Mestizos blamed the Spanish government for policies that limited their ability to socially advance. The Indians and Blacks blamed the government of New Spain for the harsh life they were forced to live.

The flow of wealth out of New Spain to Spain

Meanwhile, back in Spain ....The Spanish government was seemingly unaware of colonial dissatisfaction. They had problems of their own. Spain was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. To raise money to fight these wars, the Spanish government increasingly demanded more money from its colonies. Of all Spain's colonies, New Spain had the most wealth. From New Spain, Spain expected the most.

When the government of Spain found that raising taxes was not generating enough needed income to fund their wars, it decided upon a different course of action. In addition to raising taxes, the Spanish government passed the Consolidacion de Vales Reales, often called either the Consolidation decree or the Sequestration decree. The purpose of this decree was to appropriate the wealth of the Church in New Spain.

The middle class & the priesthood: What the Spanish government did not seem to realize was that the church did not have much actual money, but had its capital tied up in loans to the colonists. To pay the government of Spain, the church was forced to call in those debts.

The extremely wealthy could and did pay off their debt, but most people did not have enough capital to redeem their notes. This resulted in the seizure and forced sale at auction of many properties, the bulk of which belonged to the middle class, which was mostly made up of Criollos (Colonial born whites) and Mestizos (mixed blood Spanish/Indian). Many people lost fortunes.

Since the priests did not receive as much money from auctioned properties as they had loaned on those properties, they could not pay their debt. The priesthood was the hardest hit by the Consolidation decree. Many priests lost everything. In response, the priesthood began to act.

The priesthood had almost total control of the spread of information in the provinces. At this time, few people could read or write. Printed material was the jurisdiction of the priesthood. The local priest was usually the individual who read public announcements and governmental decrees to the population after the sermon. Therefore, the local priests could control how and when their congregations heard the news. The local priest could and did use his sermon itself to slant public opinion. The local priest was a powerful force in the community, anyway, due to caste assignment at baptismal. They were believed. Since many of these local priests had lost everything they owned, many were soon preaching the ills of the money grabbing Spaniards.

The inability of New Spain to feed its own people

There was another problem. In 1808, and again in 1809, New Spain suffered severe droughts. The harvest was poor. The price of maize (corn), which was one of the staple foods for most of the lower castes, was skyrocketing. People could not afford to buy enough food to feed their families. Some people were starving, especially those who lived in the cities. The government of New Spain tried to regulate the price of maize to control this problem. To avoid the controls, farmers simply removed the sale of their crops from controlled markets and sold them in the flourishing black market. This forced prices even higher. By 1810, famine descended on New Spain.

The confusion and division in the governments
of both Spain and New Spain

Back in Europe, in Spain .... these problems went unheard. Spain's attention was still focused at home. Here's what was going on:

  • Spain had lost its fight against Napoleon Bonaparte's France in 1808.

  • King Charles IV of Spain decided to abdicate the throne (give his throne) to his son, Prince Ferdinand.

  • A short time later, King Charles IV changed his mind, and took the throne back, which did not make his son at all happy.

  • Napoleon invited King Charles and his son, Ferdinand, to France. It was a very nice invitation, a sort of "Come on over. We'll work this out." So they went.

  • When they arrived, Napoleon had them seized and imprisoned.

  • Napoleon put his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne of Spain as king.

  • The Spanish people did not accept Joseph Bonaparte as king, and revolted in 1808. Several cities in Spain proclaimed Juntas (an independent local government).

  • In 1809, these Juntas dissolved themselves and turned power over to the Cortes (the Spanish parliament; the word Cortes means "court officers")

  • In 1810, the Cortes met and officially proclaimed Spain's independence from Joseph Bonaparte. The Cortes then drafted a constitution, which they completed in 1813.

  • In 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in Spain, and forced to release Ferdinand from prison.

  • Upon his release, Ferdinand returned to Spain and proclaimed himself King.

  • The Spanish people said - Okay, you can be king provided you honor the new constitution which the Cortes just finished writing.

  • Ferdinand promised he would do so.

  • Upon his resumption of the throne, King Ferdinand suspended the constitution. He wanted to turn back the clock and become the autocratic ruler of the Spanish Empire.

In the colony of New Spain, these events caused great confusion. The colonists were torn in their allegiances. Should they support King Charles? Where was King Charles anyway? Should they support Prince Ferdinand, who wanted to be king? Should they support Bonaparte, or the Cortes, or go their own way? Various factions in New Spain supported all of these ideas.

Father Miguel Hidalgo

Amongst this background of hatred and dissatisfaction and confusion and famine, revolt broke out in New Spain. The first of these was the revolt led by Father Miguel Hidalgo. Father Hidalgo is known as the father of Mexican Independence.

Father Miguel Hidalgo does not appear to be the type of person to lead a revolt. He was quite elderly for his time. He was in his 50's, in a place and time when many people died in their 30's. He was a well entrenched priest who appeared to really care about the people to whom he was ministering. He was a respected member of the upper class. He was a property owner, from which he received a nice income in rents. But, Father Hidalgo held deep seated resentments against the Spanish government.

  • He had lost a lot of money through Spain's consolidation decree, a total of 7000 pesos in lost hacienda rents.

  • He had been replaced as rector of the San Nicolas Obispo College in Valladolid, a place where he had been very happy. (This replacement was rumored to be due to his embezzlement of church funds to pay his gambling debts.)

  • He was very upset at the mistreatment of the Indians.

Deep in the countryside of the Bajio, Father Miguel Hidalgo plotted revolution.

Father Hidalgo had talked about an uprising with several other men, including a captain of the militia, Ignacio de Allende. They planned to organize and lead an uprising that would give Mexico (New Spain) independence from Spain, and give power to the Indians. This was not unusual. Talk of independence and what course that independence should take was common in New Spain at this time. What was unusual was that Father Hidalgo and his trusted advisors had directed the Indians in the parish to begin manufacturing weapons, composed mostly of machetes, spears, bows and arrows.

If it had not been for several errors on the part of the Royalist government in New Spain, Hidalgo's short lived revolution might never have made the history books. One of these errors was the government's decision to arrest many of these small time plotters. This decision was reached due to the nervousness of the government of New Spain who feared an Indian uprising. The second mistake was allowing word of these impending arrests to get out. Many plotters went into hiding, but not Father Hidalgo. Instead, he gathered his sympathizers in the village of Colores and bid them to arm themselves. The following morning, September 16, 1810, instead of giving morning mass, Hidalgo gathered his followers in the village of Dolores and gave his famous "Grito de Dolores", a cry for independence from Spain and power to the Indians, and set the wheels of revolt in motion.

At this point, there was a possibility that Father Hidalgo might have become more than just the leader of a short-lived Indian uprising. He could have become the leader of a unified revolution against Spanish rule. Most Mexicans were ready for independence. Spain was in chaos. The government of New Spain was indecisive and divided. The middle class was frustrated, angry, and jealous. The lower castes were starving. But Father Hidalgo made a mistake.

Emboldened by his early successes, he led his Indian followers in an attack on Guanajuato, which was, at that time, the second largest city in Mexico. After a short battle, Father Hidalgo and his men captured the city. Father Hidalgo lost control of his Indian followers. Instead of assuming control of the town, his followers looted and burned it. They massacred all the whites and mixed breeds they could find. This one act united the whites and mixed bloods against him. As General Calleja, one of the generals of the Royalist Army, put it:

"Natives and even Europeans themselves are convinced of the advantages that would result from an independent government; and if the absurd insurrection of Hidalgo had been built upon this base, I should think it would have suffered very little opposition."

Through the church, the government of New Spain had an avenue of effective communication. Using this monopoly on communications, they started a propaganda campaign against Hidalgo. This campaign included items such as having the bishops pronounce that all priests working for or with Hidalgo were excommunicated, and that any mass they gave was a false unconsecrated mass. This propaganda also capitalized upon the atrocities committed by Hidalgo's followers on Indians, as well as on whites and mixed bloods. Since the priests were believed, this caused the Indian population around Mexico City to fear Hidalgo.

The government's propaganda campaign was most effective. When Hidalgo neared Mexico City with his army, instead of rising up to support Hidalgo, the Indians in this area either fled or actively opposed him. The Indians around Mexico City would not allow Hidalgo and his army to restock provisions.

Hidalgo's army met the Royalist Army in battle at Monte de las Cruces. This was the first time Hidalgo's army had fought trained troops. Hidalgo's army numbered approximately 100,000 men. The Royalist Army had 12,000 men, but these were trained men. They were better armed and equipped. They had powerful weapons, including cannons, and they knew how to use them.

Hidalgo's army won the battle, but their losses were huge. Actual casualty numbers are unknown because during the battle and immediately thereafter, large numbers of Hidalgo's army deserted. This reduction in forces, as well as the approach of General Calleja, with additional Royalist troops, caused Hidalgo's army to retreat from Mexico City.

The next time Hidalgo and his supporters met the Royalist Army in battle, near Guadalajara, Hidalgo and his army were defeated. Hidalgo led his followers in flight towards Zacatecas, where he hoped to continue his fight. On March 21, 1811, Father Miguel Hidalgo was captured by the Royalist Army. On July 31, 1811, Father Hidalgo was executed by firing squad. As a warning to other revolutionaries, Father Miguel Hidalgo, Ignatio Allende, and two others of Hidalgo's trusted lieutenants, had their head cut off and placed on stakes outside the walls of Guantanano at the site of their original massacre.

This insurrection surprised almost everyone, both with its initial vigor and growth, as well as its rapid collapse. Father Hidalgo has been glamorized by some historians. For example, Fisher talks about "Hidalgo and his brave followers"(2) , and Lynch refers to "the Heroic Father Hidalgo with his armies of the downtrodden".(3) There are countless statues of Father Hidalgo in Mexico, as well as several biographies written about him. Father Hidalgo is known as the father of Mexican Independence. But, in fact, instead of leading a well planned uprising of the masses, whose purpose was to give freedom and independence to New Spain, the Hidalgo led uprising was a poorly organized, poorly executed disaster.

The Hidalgo revolt accomplished little except to unite the rest of Mexico against it. It did bequeath a couple of catchy slogans to the cause of independence, such as the "Grito de Dolores" and the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but in concrete physical results, it accomplished nothing and only existed for about 6 months.

Father Jose Maria Morelos

In contrast to the short explosive nature of the revolt led by Father Hidalgo is the revolt led by Father Jose Maria Morelos. Morelos and his followers fought for several years in the southern part of Mexico, with similar results to Hidalgo's in the end.

Morelos was also a priest, and a man of property. He could have supported the establishment, but he didn't. Morelos had studied at San Luis Obispo while Father Hidalgo was rector. This may have influenced his decision to rebel against the authority of the Royalist government.

Father Morelos was leading a quiet life when he heard of Hidalgo's revolt. He immediately quit his parish and traveled north to meet Father Hidalgo. He offered his services as a priest to Hidalgo's army. Hidalgo refused this offer as he felt he had enough priests. Instead, Father Hidalgo instructed Morelos to go back to the south and lead the rebellion on the Pacific Coast.

Morelos was a much better general than Hidalgo. At one point, in 1813, his forces controlled Acapulco and most of Southwest Mexico. They even surrounded and cut off Mexico City from reinforcements and supplies. However, the Royalist army, which had focused its attention on the destruction of Hidalgo, was now free to focus its attention on Morelos.

With attention focused on his forces, Morelos realized that he could not defeat the Royalist army of New Spain in direct combat. He altered his strategy, and turned his attention to instructing his followers in the art of guerrilla warfare. His followers became masters of small group engagements. They did not fight unless they could win. They took small towns. They ambushed supply wagons and convoys. They made life miserable for the establishment.

Father Morelos was not just a warrior. In the early days of his revolt, Morelos gave every consideration to the interests of the whites and mixed bloods in the area he controlled. He constantly stated that he wanted and needed Criollo support to bring about an independent New Spain.

He consistently demonstrated his interest in the governing of an independent New Spain. He helped to create a Revolutionary Congress, whose purpose was to draft a constitution and to design laws for the new country. In 1813, Morelos traveled to Apatzingan to meet with the revolutionary congress, and was a signer of the new constitution produced by this congress.

He also showed interest in International Diplomacy. He sent several delegations to the United States to seek assistance for his revolution. These delegations met with failure. At the time, the United States was embroiled in its own little piece of the Napoleonic wars, a period known in United States history as the war of 1812.

As the conflict wore on in New Spain, the government's armies became vicious in their attempts to destroy Morelos and his followers. The Royal militias executed farmers who supported Morelos. They burned crops and destroyed the property of anyone who gave Morelos support. In retaliation, Morelos instructed his followers to do the same to all whites and mixed bloods. Thus, what began as a noble cause, concerned with the civil rights of all people, degenerated into a vicious killing circle.

All this death and destruction led to a waning of support for Morelos. His revolution was dying. Morelos, and the rest of his revolutionary congress, was forced, time after time, to flee before the forces of the Royalist Army.

Morelos was finally captured on November 5, 1815 at Tesmalaca. He was sentenced to death, and executed on December 22, 1815, at San Cristobal Ecatepec, a village just to the north of Guadalupe. His followers continued the struggle for about a year more, but finally gave up. A small group of bandits, composed mostly of Indians, used the name of Morelos, and continued to commit atrocities for several years afterward.

Independence is Achieved!

Morelos was a much more effective leader than Hidalgo, and had greater success and impact. Yet neither actually brought about independence for Mexico. Instead, they caused much shedding of blood, the loss and destruction of countless amounts of property, and most importantly, the distrust towards Indians by whites and Mestizos. This dark legacy of distrust would influence Mexican politics throughout its history.

Thus, these early revolts against the government of New Spain did not help the actual movement for independence, with one possible exception. These revolts did bring about the unification of the middle class, the Criollos and mixed bloods. It showed these groups that they had more in common with each other than they did with the Indians or with the Europeans.

The Criollos and Mestizos had suffered from the Indian revolts, led by Hidalgo and Morelos, for several years. The thought of a successful Indian led revolution was alarming. They also realized that European whites would never voluntarily give up power. This newfound consensus amongst the Criollos and Mestizos, along with a realization that there was popular enthusiasm for independence, finally brought about actual independence. But, it was the Criollos and the Mestizos, not the armed insurrection of the Indians, who brought about the actual declaration of independence by New Spain from Spain in 1821.

By Don Donn, USA

Lesson Plans About Mexico
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Anna, Timothy E., The Fall of the Royal Government in Mexico City, Lincoln, NE., University of Nebraska Press, 1978

de Lara, L. Gutierrez and Pinchon, Edgcumb, The Mexican People: Their Struggle for Freedom , Arno Press & The New York Times, New York, 1970

Fisher, Lillian Estelle, The Background of the Revolution for Mexican Independence , Russell & Russell, New York, 1934 (2) pp 58

Hamnett, Brian, "The Appropriation of Mexican Church Wealth by the Spanish Bourbon Government", Journal of Latin American Studies , November 1969

Johnson, John J., "One Hundred Years of Historical Writing on Modern Latin America by United States Historians", Hispanic American Historical Review , Duke University Press, 1985

Kandell, Jonathan, La Capital, the Biography of Mexico City , Random House, New York, 1988.(1) pp 274-275

Lynch, John, The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 , W.W. Northon & Company Inc., New York, 1973 (3) pp 306

MacLachlan, Colin M., and Rodriquez O., Jaime E., The Forging of the Cosmic Race, A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico, Expanded Edition , University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, California, 1990

Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo, Triumphs and Tragedy, a History of the Mexican People , W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1992

Timmons, Wilbert H., Morelos Priest Soldier Statesman of Mexico , Texas Western Press, El Paso, 1963