The first and the best: Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

(Viceroy: 1530 – 1550)

The transition from military to civilian rule is not always an easy one. High ranking officers become entrenched in top positions of government and — as the 1989 fall of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile demonstrates — these politicized generals and admirals have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a system where the military plays a subordinate role to civil authority. It was undoubtedly with this in mind that the U.S.A. Founding Fathers decreed that the armed forces recognize a civilian president as their commander-in-chief.

Colonial Mexico faced the same dilemma shortly after the Conquest.

Hernán Cortés, whose skill and boldness as a commander ranks him among history’s great conquerors, had been made governor of New Spain in addition to holding the military rank of Captain General. But he had made enemies at the Spanish court. They considered him high-handed, which at times he was, and the Conquest was followed by a flow of civil officials from Madrid, all determined to undermine Cortés’s authority.

In 1528 Cortés sailed for Spain to plead his case before Charles V. What ensued was a classic good news-bad news scenario. Charles gave Cortés the title Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, along with enriching his landholdings and awarding him 23,000 Indians as vassals. But he failed to make him a Duke, which had been Cortés’s ambition, and confirmed him only as Captain General but not as Governor.

It was a sticky situation. Cortés was tremendously popular among rank-and-file colonists, many of them veterans of his campaigns, and they resented what they saw as the intrusion of envious little bureaucrats.

Charles and his colonial advisory body, the Council of the Indies, realized that the first civilian Viceroy would have to be an individual with outstanding qualifications — both in terms of administrativa ability and personal probity. After three high-ranking noblemen declined the appointment, it was accepted by the fourth nominee, don Antonio de Mendoza, count of Tendilla.

Mendoza was born in Granada, the last city in Spain to be reconquered from the Moors. A member of a leading Spanish family, he was distantly related to the king. Having served capably as Spanish Ambassador to Rome, Mendoza had a track record that qualified him for this more challenging appointment. Though he was commissioned as Viceroy in 1530, other commitments prevented him from leaving for Mexico until 1535.

The new Viceroy lost no time in demonstrating his activist style. One of his top priorities was exploration. A prevailing myth at the time was that of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, these supposedly located in a kingdom to the north, whose riches dwarfed even those of the Aztecs and Incas. Seeming confirmation came from a Franciscan friar named Marcos de Niza. Having traveled to what is today New Mexico, he told of a gleaming city that local Indians described as only the smallest of the seven.

Mendoza immediately organized an expedition under the leadership of his friend Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Again, it was a good news-bad news situation. Though Coronado’s voyage covered a fantastic amount of territory, ranging as far as what is today Wichita, Kansas, no trace of the Seven Golden Cities was ever found. And the claim of Marcos de Niza? While the good friar didn’t intentionally intend to deceive, it seems he was the victim of an optical illusion, mistaking pieces of reflective quartz in the sunset for buildings. Since one member of his party, a black slave named Estéban, had been killed by local Indians, de Niza was understandably cautious about coming any closer to their village.

The Vázquez de Coronado expedition began in 1540 and ended in 1542. In that latter year Mendoza also dispatched a party led by Juan Rodríguez de Cabrillo to California and another under Ruy López de Villalobos to the Philippines.

Mendoza didn’t limit his activities to exploration. Education was also very much on his mind. Unlike other colonists, who considered Indians mentally inferior to Europeans, he sensed their intellectual potential from the moment he arrived in Mexico. What galvanized him was an official greeting he received from an Indian boy — in classic Latin.

Mendoza was the guiding spirit in creating two celebrated educational institutions. One was the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlateloco, which he founded in 1536 along with Bishop Juan de Zumárraga. Students there were the sons of Indian nobles, who received instruction in such subjects as Latin, rhetoric, philosophy and music. The other was the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, also co-founded with Bishop Zumárraga. Modeled on the Spanish University of Salamanca, this institution trained young creoles for the clergy.

Mendoza’s enlightened policies caused the colony to thrive economically. He encouraged cattle raising and agriculture, repaired the royal road to Veracruz and began one to Guadalajara. Though sympathetic toward the Indians, Mendoza could be flexible when the all important issue of civil peace was involved. Thanks to the efforts of the great reforming clergyman Bartolomé de las Casas, the so-called New Laws of 1542-43 were decreed for the colonies. These were designed to ease the plight of Indians performing forced labor and were highly unpopular with the colonists because they undermined the encomienda system, whereby they received awards of lands and native workers. Hearing that attempted implementation of the New Laws in Peru had caused a civil war, Mendoza elected to withhold them. The situation was resolved in 1545 when the Crown modified the laws.

In 1550, after fifteen years of what both Crown and colonists considered a model administration, Mendoza was sent to take up the post of viceroy in Peru. But he had little time to continue his work, dying in 1552.

That Spanish rule in Mexico endured 300 years can be readily explained by the fact that Crown had at its disposal officials as talented and enlightened as Antonio de Mendoza.

Published or Updated on: October 9, 2008 by Jim Tuck © 2008


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