Mexico, Past And Present

JUST as in order to understand modern Mexico one must know something of her past, so in order to fully appreciate Mexico’s fascinating history, which has been so graphically related in the pages of Prescott, one must stand upon the historical ground where the drama of the country was unfolded. Gazing on the spot where once stood the great temple of the Mexican gods and the palace of Montezuma, upon the identical place where the Spaniards were butchered by the Aztecs during the “sorrowful night” of their flight from the city, upon the tree beneath which Cortes wept over this defeat, the stranger cannot help but feel emotion, however lethargic his interest may previously have been. Fully as thrilling are the events which followed the War of Independence in 1811, when Spanish rule came to an end in Mexico, the series of revolutions which followed, and the incidental wars of invasion; for twice during the past century the Mexican capital has been occupied by foreign armies and its streets have resounded, in turn, to the strains of Yankee Doodle and the Marseillaise. The present is the child of the past, and the influence of all these strange events may be traced in greater or lesser measure in the development of the Mexican people today.

Mexico’s earliest history is unfortunately shrouded in profound mystery. The native records, which might have thrown some light upon it, were ruthlessly destroyed at the time of the Spanish conquest, when ignorance and bigotry were active in stamping out all traces of native culture.

After the conquest, several Spanish chroniclers collected the oral traditions of the conquered people, while certain native writers who had learned Spanish wrote what purported to be a history of their country. This great mass of material, which has been so fascinatingly condensed and presented by Prescott in his “Conquest of Mexico,” is a curious blending of fact and fiction. On one point, however, all narrations agree, namely, that Mexico is a country of great antiquity and has been peopled by a succession of races. Of these early inhabitants almost nothing is known.

Scattered all over Mexico are the ruins of cities, temples and palaces built in remote periods, and which were probably in much the same condition ages before the Spaniards came. The mystery which surrounds their prehistoric builders is deepened by the strange relics of the past which are being constantly unearthed. Jade beads which undoubtedly came from China are found with stone idols and statues of marked Egyptian appearance; while inter-mixed with pyramids which recall those of early Egypt are ruins of temples and palaces, the architecture of which bears a singular resemblance to that of Japan. Among the Indian races of Mexico today certain customs exist which seem to have had their origin in the Far East; and there is much resemblance between the religion of the early inhabitants and that of China and India. These facts have led many historians to believe that some connection was actually established between ancient Mexico and the Orient.

According to native traditions, the whole of Mexico was originally known as Anahuac, and was inhabited by a succession of highly cultured races who built the vast temples and palaces, the ruins of which still exist. The most advanced of these were the Toltecs, who were said to have come from some unknown land. Prescott represents them as having arrived in Anahuac in the seventh century; other authorities believe that they entered the country fully five thousand years earlier. The Toltecs are said to have built a wonderful city called Tula, and an attempt has been made to identify this prehistoric city with a little village of adobe huts and magnificent ruins not far from the capital. This is but one of many instances in which Toltec names of towns and districts still survive.

It was at Tula, according to ancient legends, that Quetzalcoatl, a mysterious messiah, known as the Fair God, made his appearance. He was a white man with a long, flowing beard who taught the Toltecs the arts of civilization, agriculture and war, then sailed away to the west to return to his own country. After his departure he was deified by the Toltecs, who represented him in their sculptures as a winged serpent. He had promised to return after many years, and this pledge was handed down from generation to generation.

All traditions agree that the Toltecs were a people of wonderful culture; that they were peaceful and temperate, had reached a high moral plane, and had a form of religion which was largely nature-worship. Fruit and flowers were offered in their temples, which were never stained with human blood as in later Aztec times. Castes existed among them, and as in the case of some races of the Far East, they had two written languages, one of which was used when addressing superiors, the other for inferiors. Their social classes were divided into priests, warriors, merchants and tillers of the soil. They also had an elaborate feudal system.

The empire of the Toltecs was eventually overthrown by an invasion of fierce tribes who swept down through Mexico from the north, followed in turn by races of higher civilization, perhaps akin to the Toltecs, whose language they appear to have spoken. The Toltecs gradually relinquished possession of the country and retired southwards, while the invaders apparently acquired some of the culture of the people whom they had displaced. Some of them, notably the Tezcucans, eventually made great progress in the arts of civilization. Some of these tribes developed a system of picture-writing resembling somewhat that of the North American Indians.

Chief among the invading tribes were the Aztecs, who are supposed to have come from northern California and made their way southward. According to Aztec legends, they were told by an oracle that they should build a great city on a site that would be indicated by an eagle perched on the stem of a cactus or prickly pear with a serpent in his talons. In 1325, so tradition says, they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, where the capital now stands, led by their high priest, Tenoch, a sort of Aztec Moses, whose name meant ” the stone cactus.” As they approached the lake, the site of the present city, they beheld a golden eagle Standing on a prickly pear, holding in his talons a serpent, as had been predicted. In obedience to the sign, the Aztecs settled at the lake, built their temple and founded a great city, which they called Tenochtitlan, after the holy sign and their priestly guide, the word meaning “the place of the cactus.” The legend of the eagle, the serpent and the prickly pear is now preserved in the Mexican arms, and is perpetuated on the coins and the national banner.

In later years the city was called Mexico after Mextili, the Aztec God of War, and this name was eventually given to the entire country.

The ancient city of the Aztecs bore some resemblance to Venice, some of the houses resting on piles, others being built on the numerous islands, with canals intersecting the various parts of the city. Massive stone structures, resembling those of Egypt, were reared, including the great Teocalli or Temple of the Aztec gods, in pyramidal form, over a hundred feet high, with one hundred and fourteen steps, reaching from the ground to the esplanade, broad enough for thirty horsemen to march abreast. Great paved causeways led from the city to the surrounding villages.

The Aztecs, at first, were a fierce, migratory people; but after their arrival in Mexico they seem to have acquired the civilization of the tribes by whom they were surrounded, who had inherited the arts and civilization of the Toltecs or other races whom they had succeeded. Having made great advancement in the arts of war, the Aztecs gradually subjugated the surrounding nations and extended their sway over a large part of Mexico. The empire of their great king, Montezuma I, was established about 1460. Under this monarch their power and prestige greatly increased.

The Aztecs and other races inhabiting Mexico at this time were largely sun-worshippers, their religion being distinguished by the most cruel and terrible ceremonies. Prisoners of war, slaves and other victims were slaughtered by thousands in the temples. When the great temple of Tenochtitlan was dedicated, twenty thousand are said to have been sacrificed in four days. In the centre of this temple stood the sacrificial stone now in the Mexican National Museum. On this the victim was stretched, when his body was cut open by the officiating priest, and his heart being torn out was offered to the sun and the ferocious God of War. The bodies of the sacrificed were afterwards devoured by the populace. Thousands of skulls, the result of this butchery, were formed into a huge pyramid in the temple, the walls and floor of which ‘reeked with blood.

Apart from their terrible religious ceremonies, the Aztecs were a remarkable and cultured race. Even in their religion they recognized a supreme being, and some of their prayers which have been handed down are remarkable for their lofty sentiments and the beauty of their language.

They were learned in astronomy ; were good lapidaries and potters, workers in silver and gold and weavers of cotton and silk. They cultivated the land thoroughly, and had developed elaborate systems of irrigation. Commerce was organized; towns and villages were connected by roadways; and law and order prevailed. They had an ingenious method of picture-writing and a regular system of education for the young.

The doom of the Aztec empire and its neighbors was sealed in 1519, when Hernando Cortes landed in Mexico on his expedition of conquest. He had a fleet of 11 ships carrying 110 sailors, 16 cavalrymen with their horses, 553 foot-soldiers, 200 Cuban natives, a battery of 10 small cannon and 4 falconets. To check mutiny among his Spanish followers and to prevent them from seizing the ships and retreating, Cortes burned his vessels at Vera Cruz, then marched inland to the capital of the Aztecs. Montezuma II then reigned in Tenochtitlan. He had been informed of Cortes’ arrival by spies who had been sent down to the coast. By relays of runners it was possible for a message to reach the Aztec capital (265 miles from the coast) in twelve hours. It is said that fish caught at Vera Cruz in the evening was served at the dinner of Montezuma the following day. This would be as fast as the railway train travels to-day. The Spaniards were astonished at the rapidity with which news of their movements was spread. By these runners the Aztec monarchs kept in communication with all parts of their empire.

Montezuma and his priests were convinced from their official reports that Cortes was none other than the Fair God, Quetzalcoatl, the child of the sun, whose return had been promised ages before. They recalled a prediction that Quetzalcoatl was to overturn the Aztec empire. Montezuma sent the supposed god lavish gifts of gold, and endeavored to dissuade him from coming to the capital; but the gold only whetted the appetite of the Spaniards for more and hastened their march to the interior.

Cortes was greatly aided in his conquest of Mexico by Marina, a beautiful young slave who had been presented to him by a Tabascan chief. She was an Aztec, but having learned various dialects when in Tabasco, she was enabled to communicate indirectly with Cortes, who became infatuated with her beauty and made her his mistress. She eventually learned Spanish, and acted as interpreter between himself and Montezuma. Marina told the Mexicans glowing stories of the greatness and splendor of the Spaniards, and it was undoubtedly through her influence that the natives went in such great awe of these strange beings who had come to them from over the seas.

Soon after his arrival, Cortes invaded the country of the Tlascalans, one of the powerful tribes, who had a republican form of government and were at war with the Aztecs. After conquering them, Cortes gained them as allies, and a large force of Tlascalans accompanied him on his march through the country. He next marched into the kingdom of Cholula, which he subjugated, destroying all the temples and public buildings, and slaughtering thousands of the inhabitants. The natives were terror-stricken by the cannon and firearms of the Spaniards, and as they had never seen a horse, the animal and rider were supposed to be one being, and were regarded as superhuman. Marching over the mountains, Cortes pressed on to Tenochtitlan, passed over the causeways and entered the city on November 8, 1519.

Montezuma came out to meet the conqueror and, under the influence of superstition, regarding the Spaniards as gods, the Aztecs made no attempt to prevent their entry. The Spanish leader took up his residence in the old palace of Montezuma, where much treasure was discovered and divided among the invaders.

Early the next year (1520), owing to the cruelty of a body of Cortes’ soldiers, who robbed and murdered a number of Aztec nobles, the people rose in revolt. Montezuma, who had been seized and held prisoner by the Spaniards, was killed while attempting to quell the uprising. On the night of July 1 (afterwards known as “la noche triste” or “sorrowful night”) the Spaniards attempted to secretly evacuate the city, but were detected and pursued, many of them were killed or taken prisoners and thousands of their Tlascalan followers were slaughtered. With the remnant of his force, Cortes retreated to Tlascala. In the meantime, Cuautlahuac, brother of Montezuma, was crowned king, but dying four months later, was succeeded by Guatemotzin or Cuauhtemoc, Montezuma’s nephew, who proved to be a brave and able leader. Cortes, refusing to acknowledge defeat, recruited his forces at Tlascala, and won the support of all the tribes who had suffered from Aztec oppression. From mountain forests he brought timber sixty miles overland to the shores of Lake Texcoco, built thirteen brigantines, crossed the lake and once more appeared before the walls of Tenochtitlan with two hundred thousand allies.

The siege began on December 3, 1520, and continued until August 13, 1521, when the garrison was starved into submission and the Spaniards entered the city. Before it fell, all the Aztec treasure was destroyed or concealed. Guatemotzin was cruelly tortured by having his feet held over a glowing fire, but he refused to disclose the secret. The lake and canals were dredged several times, but only a small part of the treasure was recovered. The unfortunate young monarch was afterwards compelled by Cortes to go with him on an expedition into Honduras. In the depths of the jungle Cortes had him hanged to the branch of a ceiba tree. Thus perished the last of the Aztec kings.

Cortes destroyed the temples in the city and ordered the erection of churches and convents, the first church — now the cathedral — being built upon the site of the great temple of the Aztecs. The Spanish priests, with fanatical frenzy, destroyed nearly all the Aztec picture records or codices, making huge bonfires of them. Of those which escaped destruction a few are preserved in European museums, notably at the Vatican, and some are in the Mexican National Museum. The Aztec houses and public buildings were gradually torn down and replaced with Spanish houses, but the formation of the city was generally observed. In 1634 there was an earthquake, and the waters of the lake suddenly disappeared and the canals gradually dried up. After the Spanish occupation the native population of the city decreased until in 1600 there were only about ten thousand natives and about the same number of Spaniards. From that time the increase in numbers of Spaniards and mixed population was very rapid, until at the end of the next century there was a population of nearly one hundred and twenty-five thousand.

Cortes became the first governor of Mexico, acquired vast estates, was created Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, and subjugated the rest of Mexico. Many of his followers found wives among Aztec women of noble birth.’

Warlike enough before the Spaniards came, the Aztec masses seem to have been subdued at one blow, and were soon reduced to the position of mere serfs. The Spanish priests, too, having gained a great influence over the natives, taught them to obey those whom God had sent to conquer their country. Chiefs who would not submit quietly were won by bribery. Thus by means of force, religion and every corrupt means that could be employed, the spirit of the people was crushed and all resistance to Spanish rule was overcome. Then followed a great building period. The cities throughout Mexico were rebuilt according to Spanish ideas; and great churches and cathedrals were erected by Indian workmen on the grandiose designs of Spanish architects.

Thereafter, for three hundred years, Mexico was under the dominion of Spain. During this time there were five governors, two councils of three to five members each, and sixty-two viceroys, the first of whom was appointed in 1535. The rule of some of the viceroys was wise and able, and the country made great progress ; but as in all Spanish colonies, there was great corruption, oppression and misgovernment. All public offices were held by Spaniards, while the natives, even those of Spanish descent, received no recognition.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon had overturned thrones and marched an army into Spain, the spirit of revolution spread to Mexico. The newly acquired independence of the United States of North America also served to arouse a desire for freedom among the Mexicans. Several insurrections started at this period, but were speedily stamped out. The first important uprising took place in September, 1810, when Miguel Hidalgo, curate of the village of Dolores in the State of Guanajuato, began the first great movement for independence by ringing the bell of his church, calling his people together and starting a war for freedom. Raising a sacred banner bearing the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the priest organized a little army of three hundred men, armed with clubs, swords, knives and bows and arrows. At the head of these insurgents, he marched to Guanajuato, the people of the country everywhere flocking to his aid. The Spanish garrison at Guanajuato was defeated and the city captured. After successful battles at Morelia and Valladolid, Hidalgo marched towards Mexico City, but when almost within sight of the capital was defeated, driven back, and his army dispersed. Hidalgo and his chief officers, Allende, Aldama, and Jiminez, were betrayed, captured and executed.

After the death of Hidalgo, a desultory struggle against the Spaniards continued for ten years, and then a new leader, also a priest, Jose Maria Morelos, who had been a student under Hidalgo, entered the field. Organizing a small army, Morelos for two years waged war against the Spaniards, but was at last defeated by an overwhelming force, betrayed and captured. He was tried by an ecclesiastical tribunal and degraded from the priesthood, then handed over to the military authorities, by whom he was condemned to death and shot near the capital in December, 1815. To-day he ranks next to Hidalgo as one of the heroes of Mexico.

The next prominent leader in the fight for freedom was Augustin Iturbide, a Mexican of Spanish descent, and a former royalist officer, who had been largely responsible for the defeat of Morelos. Deserting from the Spanish army, Iturbide gathered all the insurgent leaders around him and issued a proclamation, pledging the support of his party to the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church, to the exclusion of all others; the independence of Mexico, with a monarchical government under a Spanish prince; union and equality of Spaniards and Mexicans. His army thus became known as the Army of the Three Guarantees. A number of Spanish regiments deserted and joined Iturbide, who in 1821 marched through Mexico, capturing city after city, and at last occupied the capital. This practically ended Spanish rule in Mexico, and after a year or two of negotiations, the independence of the country was at last recognized by the Spanish government.

After the revolution, Iturbide forced the Mexican Congress to select an emperor, and by threats and bribes managed to get sufficient votes to secure his own election. He and his wife were crowned in the cathedral as emperor and empress of Mexico. His title was Augustin I. He ruled unwisely, dissolved the Congress in less than four months, sent several members to prison and created so much discord that uprisings were of frequent occurrence. A successful revolution was led by General Santa Ana; the empire was overturned, and a republic established, with Santa Ana as president. Banished from Mexico, Iturbide was given a pension of $25,000 a year for his past services. He went to England for a time, but unwisely returned to Mexico in 1824 to lead a new revolution, when he was arrested, condemned to death and shot. Some of his descendants are still living in Mexico and enjoy a good deal of social distinction.

From 1824 until 1846 there were constant revolutions as the result of disputed elections. In the latter year troubles arose with the United States over Texas, which had formerly belonged to Mexico, but had seceded, and after a few years as an independent republic had been annexed by the Americans. War was forced on Mexico by the United States, and two American armies were marched into Mexican territory, one coming down from Texas southward, the other landing at Vera Cruz. After a series of battles, in which the Mexicans were defeated and sustained heavy losses, the Americans entered the capital. A treaty was then signed which gave the United States a vast territory, including New Mexico, Arizona, and California, the Mexican government receiving fifteen million dollars compensation. General Grant, who was then a lieutenant in the United States army, once declared that the war with Mexico was the most unholy and unjust war ever waged by a strong nation against a weaker one,

ollowing the American war there were more revolutions, which continued until 1861. Benito Juarez, a full-blood Mexican Indian, called the George Washington of Mexico, then became President. A great struggle between church and state had been in progress for several years, and it came to a climax at that time. The church, which had burdened the Mexican people with such a vast number of priests, friars and nuns, and had acquired most of the wealth of the country, clung tenaciously to its privileges and property. After adopting a new constitution, declaring for separation of church and state, the Mexican Congress passed a law confiscating church property, closing the monasteries and convents and restricting the power of the church. This resulted in civil war between the clerical and liberal parties. Juarez personally commanded the liberal forces, and in 1860 entered the capital. The Liberals, in the meantime, were excommunicated by the church, and in retaliation the Papal Delegate and several bishops were ordered by Juarez to leave Mexico. The country was then in a terrible condition. Bandits committed depredations everywhere, and many foreigners were robbed and murdered.

In 1861 the Mexican Congress passed a law suspending payment of interest on the bonds of the Republic held by foreigners. This gave the European powers an excuse for intervention. The French government claimed $600,000 damages suffered by French subjects during the civil war. No doubt damage had been suffered ; but many of the claims were ludicrous, as, for example, one item of $60,000, the value of pies alleged to have been stolen from a French cook by the Mexican soldiers. In 1862, a combined British, French and Spanish fleet arrived at Vera Cruz, and an allied force was landed for the purpose of enforcing payment of Mexican obligations. President Juarez met the representatives of the powers at Orizaba, and signed a treaty acknowledging the claims and promising payment. Great Britain and Spain then withdrew their forces. Encouraged by the clerical party, the French remained ; and Napoleon III, who was anxious to increase his prestige by establishing a monarchy in the Western Hemisphere, readily entered into a scheme of conquest.

Four thousand French troops eventually landed in Mexico and advanced to Puebla, where they were defeated, on the 5th of May, 1862, by the Mexican troops under General Zaragoza. This date, so important in Mexican history, is annually set aside for national celebration, and nearly every city has a street named Cinco de Mayo (5th of May). On the 17th of May, however, Puebla was captured by the French forces. On June 9 they entered Mexico City. A so-called Assembly of Notables was then called together and a declaration made that Mexico should be governed by a constitutional monarch and that a Catholic prince should be selected. At the suggestion of the French representatives, the throne was offered to Maximilian, Arch-duke of Austria, who was also a representative of the ruling house of Spain. Maximilian accepted the throne on condition that he should be elected by popular vote, and that the Emperor Napoleon should give him military aid as long as it was necessary. He arrived in Mexico City June 12, 1864, with his wife Carlotta, daughter of Leopold I, King of the Belgians.

After his accession, Maximilian aroused the opposition of the clerical party by enforcing the laws of church reform. Juarez, in the meantime, had crossed the border into Texas, and from there continued to direct the movement for driving out Maximilian and the French. Maximilian, at this time, under the influence of Marshal Bazaine and other evil counsellors, made a fatal mistake. He issued a decree declaring the civil war at an end, and that all persons in arms would be treated as bandits and shot when captured. The execution of the Liberal generals, Arteago, Salazar, Villagomez and Felix Diaz followed. At this time the Civil War in the United States was drawing to a close, and the American government, regarding the French aggression in Mexico as a serious breach of the Monroe doctrine, in-formed Napoleon III that the United States would not tolerate the establishment of a monarchy on the western continent. On receipt of this note, Napoleon abandoned Maximilian and recalled the French forces in November, 1866. The collapse of the empire speedily followed. As soon as the French left, President Juarez entered Mexico, gathered his forces and marched southward. He defeated Maximilian’s general, Miramon, who retreated to Queretaro, where he was joined by the emperor. In the meantime, General Porfirio Diaz, who commanded the republican forces in the south, had captured Puebla, defeated Maximilian’s troops in several battles and had commenced the siege of Mexico City. After a siege of several weeks, Juarez captured Queretaro. Maximilian and his generals, Miramon and Mejia, were tried by court-martial on charges of filibustering, of treason and of issuing the decree of October 3,1865, under which the Liberal generals had been executed. Senor Riva Palacio, the emperor’s counsel, and other distinguished lawyers, defended Maximilian, but without success. The emperor and the two generals were found guilty and sentenced to death.

After the trial, Senor Riva Palacio went to the neighboring city of San Luis Potosi to plead with President Juarez for a modification of the sentence, and Princess Salm Salm rode across the country one hundred and twenty miles on the same errand. Although personally inclined to show mercy, Juarez considered it necessary to strike a decisive blow for the maintenance of the Republic. A protest from the United States government was received, but that was of no avail. Maximilian sent in an appeal on behalf of his companions, but this met with no better success. On the morning of June 19, 1867, the emperor and his two generals were shot on the hill outside Queretaro. Carlotta, his unfortunate consort, who was in Europe at the time, had endeavored in vain to get the Emperor Napoleon to send another army to rescue her husband, and had also pleaded with the Pope without success. Grieving over Maximilian’s death eventually shattered her mind. The story is one of the most pitiful in modern history.

A few days after Maximilian’s execution, General Diaz captured Mexico City, and President Juarez returned to the capital after an absence of five years to reestablish his government. He died in 1872, and after a brief revolution in 1876, General Diaz became President, and has served almost continuously since that time.