By Jessica Chilián
Photography by “Epopeya del pueblo mexicano” (1935). National Palace of Mexico.
By Diego Rivera.
Reading Time: 3 minutes
European geographical explorations
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks cut off the trade routes between Asia and Europe. Not wanting to do without silks, porcelains, spices and other merchandise brought from the Indies – as the regions of Southeast Asia were called at that time – the Europeans set out in search of new routes. The kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, with coasts in the Atlantic Ocean, were the cradle of the main discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries: Portuguese navigators explored the coasts of Africa until they reached India. Meanwhile, the Spanish ventured westward, and in their search for the Indies they traversed vast oceans and discovered a continent.
After several decades of exploration, new routes were established to travel to South Asia, but the magnitude of the discoveries made along the way overshadowed the initial objective; the Portuguese engaged in the lucrative slave trade and Spain became a world power possessing vast territories. The geographical discoveries meant much more than economic benefits. More important was the expansion of human knowledge. The round-the-world tour by Hernando de Magallanes and Sebastian Elcano demonstrated the roundness of the earth, the discovered territories and oceans doubled the extent of the world until then known to Europeans. Plants and animals whose existence was unknown enriched the diet and facilitated the work of millions of people both in the old continent and in the New World.
The Spanish military occupation
The voyages of the navigators were followed by the exploits of the conquerors, warriors moved as much by religious fervor as by the ambition for fame, power and riches. Their purpose was to spread the Christian faith among the indigenous kingdoms, increase the number of subjects of the King of Spain, and obtain for themselves fame, resources, power, and titles of nobility. With better weapons and warrior techniques than the native peoples of America, a few hundred soldiers managed to subdue millions of indigenous people. In their favor was the audacity of captains like Pizarro and Cortes, and many times luck and skill saved them from dying at the hands of their enemies.
In the conquest of Mexico – Tenochtitlan, the Spanish soldiers had two invaluable allies: the hatred that many peoples felt towards their Mexican oppressors and infectious diseases unknown to the indigenous people were the most deadly weapons of the Europeans. Against smallpox and measles there was no defense possible, and they caused far more deaths than all military actions combined. The conquest of Mexico meant the disappearance of the old pre-Hispanic dominions, but by no means the total destruction of the ancient Mesoamerican civilization; the old indigenous kings and the new Spanish lords became related to each other, and within a new political order they governed their peoples alongside Christian priests, messengers of a new religion that would be shared by all the inhabitants of New Spain.
According to Hernan Cortes himself, the reason for the conquest was the implantation of the Christian faith among the indigenous people, which is why he requested the sending of friars to the new conquered lands. In 1524 a group of twelve Franciscan friars arrived in New Spain, and shortly afterwards Dominicans and Augustinians arrived. In 1540 there were already more than a hundred missions scattered throughout all the conquered territories. The dioceses of Tlaxcala, Mexico, Michoacan and Oaxaca were founded. Each friar, upon arrival, set himself two tasks: to learn one or more indigenous languages and to know the local customs related to the worship of the ancient gods. The main task of the missions was to implant the Christian faith among the natives through preaching, the preparation of catechists, the writing of doctrines or catechisms and the administration of sacraments such as baptism and marriage.
Their work did not stop there: they congregated the natives in new towns, built convents, chapels and churches, built roads, bridges and aqueducts, created hospitals and schools where various trades were taught, defended the new Christians from the abuse of the encomenderos and they recorded the customs and history of the ancient indigenous peoples. But to achieve their purpose they also destroyed indigenous images and books, and persecuted those who continued to worship their gods. The evangelizing work of the friars was carried out with enormous enthusiasm, many died from exhaustion and the austere life they led. In little more than forty years they had transformed the mentality of millions of indigenous people, who converted to Christianity created the largest Catholic nation of their time.
Source: “Viaje por la historia de México”
Author: Luis Gonzalez y González
Publisher: FCE – Fondo de Cultura Económica