A Study of Mexico/Chapter III

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A Study of Mexico  (1887)  by David Ames Wells
Chapter III

CHAPTER III.


Spanish colonial policy in Mexico—How Spain protected her home industries against colonial competition—Origin of the War of Independence—Portraits of the Spanish viceroys—The last auto-da-fe in Mexico—Portraits of distinguished Mexicans in the National Hall of Embassadors—Ingratitude of the republic—The American war of invasion and the spoliation of Mexico—Injustice of the war.

The Spanish rule over Mexico lasted for just three hundred years, or from 1521 to 1821; and, during the whole of this long period, the open and avowed policy of Spain was, to regard the country as an instrumentality for the promotion of her own interests and aggrandizement exclusively, and to utterly and contemptuously disregard the desires and interests of the Mexican people. The government or viceroyalty established by Spain, in Mexico, for the practical application of this policy, accordingly seems to have always regarded the attainment of three things or results as the object for which it was mainly constituted, and to have allowed nothing of sentiment or of humanitarian consideration to stand for one moment in the way of their rigorous prosecution and realization. These were, first, to collect and pay into the royal treasury the largest possible amount of annual revenue; second, to extend and magnify the authority and work of the established Church; third, to protect home (i. e., Spanish) industries.

Starting with the assumption that the country, with all its people and resources, was the absolute property of the crown in virtue of conquest, the accomplishment of the first result was sought through the practical enslavement of the whole native population, and the appropriation of the largest amount of all production that was compatible with the continued existence of productive industries. With the civil power at the command of the Church, the attainment of the second result was from the outset most successful; for, with a profession of belief and the acceptance of baptism, on the one hand, and the vigilance of the Inquisition and a menace of the fires of the auto-da-fe on the other, the number of those who wanted to exemplify in themselves the supremacy of conscience or the freedom of the will was very soon reduced to a minimum. And, finally, the correctness or expediency of the principle of protection to home (Spanish) industry having been once accepted, it was practically carried out, with such a logical exactness and absence of all subterfuge, as to be worthy of admiration, and without parallel in all economic history. For, in the first instance, with a view of laying the axe directly at the root of the tree of commercial freedom, all foreign trade or commercial intercourse with any country other than Spain was prohibited under pain of death; and this ordinance is believed to have been kept m force until within the present century. No schools or educational institutions save those of an ecclesiastical nature were allowed, and in these, instruction in almost every branch of useful learning was prohibited. Certain portions of Mexico were admirably adapted, as they yet are, to the cultivation of the vine, the olive, the mulberry, and of fiber-yielding plants, and also for the keeping and breeding of sheep; but, as a colonial supply of wine,[1] oil, silk, hemp, and wool might interfere with the interests of home producers, the production of any or all of these articles was strictly prohibited; neither was any manufacture whatever allowed which could by any possibility interfere with any similar industry of Old Spain, When Hidalgo, a patriotic Catholic priest, about the year 1810, with a desire to diversify the industries of his country and benefit his countrymen, introduced the silk-worm and promoted the planting of vineyards, the authorities destroyed the one and uprooted the other; and through these acts first instigated the rebellion that ultimately overthrew the government and expelled the Spaniards from Mexico. All official posts in the country, furthermore, were filled by Spaniards, and the colonial offices were regularly sold in Madrid to the highest bidder.

In the National Museum in the city of Mexico is a nearly or quite complete collection of the portraits of the fifty-seven Spanish viceroys who successively governed the country, and were endowed with royal prerogatives. The series commences with a portrait of Cortes, which is said to be an original; and, according to Mr. Prescott (who prefixed an engraved copy of it to the third volume of his "Conquest of Mexico") has been endorsed by one of the best Spanish authorities. Don Antonio Uguina, as the "best portrait" of the conqueror that was ever executed. It is an exceedingly striking face, full of character, and more quiet, contemplative, and intellectual than might have been expected from his stirring and eventful career; and, as the picture is neglected and apparently in a state of decay, a copy of it ought at once to be acquired by our national Government and placed in the Capitol at Washington; or, in neglect thereof, by some one of our historical societies. For, whatever may be the opinion entertained concerning the man and his acts, there can be no question that he was one of the most conspicuous characters in American history, and has left his mark indelibly upon what is now no small part of the territory of the United States. Of the long series of portraits of his successors, as they hang upon the walls of the museum, the majority depicted in gorgeous vice-regal robes, and with stars and orders of nobility, there is this to be said—that, with few exceptions, they represent the most mediocre, unintellectual, and uninteresting group of faces that could well be imagined. They convey the idea that nearly all of the originals were men past the prime of life, whose business had been that of courtiers, and who had won their appointments either by court favoritism or from the supposed possession of qualities which would enable them to extort from the country and its people a larger revenue for the Spanish treasury than their predecessors. Among the few exceptions noted are the portraits of Don Juan de Acuña (1722—1734), the only Spanish viceroy born in America (Peru), and the Count de Revilla-Gigedo (1789-1794), both of whom were unquestionably rulers of great ability, and who might also well be represented in the national galleries of the United States; and the portraits of occasional ecclesiastical viceroys—bishops or archbishops—conspicuous among their neighbors by reason of their more somber vestments. The faces of these latter are not devoid of intellectuality, or indications of mental ability; but they are—one and all—stem, unimpassioned, and with an expression of grim malevolence and bigotry, which as much as says, "Woe betide any heretic, or contemner of Church supremacy, who dares to question my authority!" To which may be properly added that, during nearly all the long period of Spanish rule in Mexico, the Inquisition, or "Holy Office," wielded a power as baleful and as despotic as it ever did in Old Spain, and held its last auto-da-fe and burned its last conspicuous victim—General José Morelos—in the Plaza of the city of Mexico, as late as November, 1815!

In 1810, Mexico, under the lead of Hidalgo—whom the modern Mexicans regard as a second Washington—revolted against its Spanish rulers, and, after many and varying vicissitudes, finally attained its complete independence, and proclaimed itself, in 1822, first an empire, and two years later, or in 1824, a republic. From this time until the defeat of Maximilian and his party in 1867, the history of Mexico is little other than a chronicle of successive revolutions, internecine strife, and foreign wars. In the National Palace, in the city of Mexico, is a very long, narrow room, termed the "Hall of Embassadors," from the circumstance that the President of the Republic here formally receives the representatives of foreign nationalities. Upon the walls of this room, and constituting, apart from several elaborate glass chandeliers, almost its only decoration, is a series of fairly painted, full-length portraits of individual Mexicans who, since the achievement of independence of Spain, had been so conspicuously connected with the state, or had rendered it such service, as to entitle them, in the opinion of posterity, to commemoration in this sort of national "Valhalla." To the visitor, entering upon an inspection of these interesting pictures, the accompanying guide, politely desirous of imparting all desirable information concerning them, talks somewhat after this manner:

"This is a portrait of the Emperor Iturbide, commander-in-chief of the army that defeated and expelled the last Spanish viceroy; elected emperor in 1822; resigned the crown in 1823; was proscribed, arrested, and shot in 1824. The next is a portrait of one of the most distinguished of the soldiers of Mexico, General Mariano Arista" (the general who commanded the Mexican troops at the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma), "elected President of the Republic in 185 1, was deposed and banished in 1853, and died in exile in 1855. His remains were brought home at the public expense, in a ship of war furnished by Spain, and a special decree commemorative of his services was declared by Congress. The next is General So-and-so, who also, after rendering most distinguished services, was shot"; and so on, until it seems as if there was not one of their conspicuous men whom the Mexicans of to-day unite in honoring for his patriotism and good service, but who experienced a full measure of the ingratitude of his country in the form of exile or public execution. In the same gallery is also a good full-length portrait of Washington, but, very appropriately, it is far removed from all the other pictures, and occupies a place by itself at the extreme end of the apartment.

Since the establishment of her independence in 1821, Mexico, down to the year 1884—a period of sixty-three years—has had fifty-five presidents, two emperors, and one regency, and, with some three or four exceptions, there was a violent change of the government with every new administration. The year 1848 is noted in Mexican annals as the first time when the presidency was transferred without violence and under the law—General Arista peaceably succeeding General Herrera. But Arista was deposed and banished in the next two years, and in the next three months there were four presidents of the republic! Of the original and great leaders in the War of Independence—namely, Hidalgo, Morelos, and Matamoros—all were shot. The same fate befell both of the emperors, and also two of the more noted presidents—Guerrero and Miramon. Of the other presidents, nearly all at one time or other were formally banished or compelled to flee from the state in order to escape death or imprisonment.

In 1846 came the American war and invasion, when the United States, with "one fell swoop," as it were, took from Mexico considerably more than one half of all its territory—923,835 square miles out of a former total of 1,663,535. It is true that payment was tendered and accepted for about one thirty-fourth part (the Gadsden purchase) of what was taken, but appropriation and acceptance of payment were alike compulsory. For this war the judgment of all impartial history will undoubtedly be that there was no justification or good reason on the part of the United States. It may be that what happened was an inevitable outcome of the law of the survival of the fittest, as exemplified among nations; and that the contrasts as seen to-day between the life, energy, and fierce development of much of that part of Old Mexico that became American—California, Texas, and Colorado—and the stagnant, poverty-stricken condition of the contiguous territory—Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila—that remained Mexican, are a proof of the truth of the proverb that "the tools rightfully belong to those who can use them."

But, nevertheless, when one stands beside the monument erected at the foot of Chapultepec, to the memory of the young cadets of the Mexican Military School—mere boys—who, in opposing the assault of the American columns, were faithful unto death to their flag and their country, and notes the sternly simple inscription, "Who fell in the North American invasion"; and when we also recall the comparative advantages of the contending forces—the Americans audacious, inspirited with continuous successes, equipped with an abundance of the most improved material of war, commanded by most skilled officers, and backed with an overflowing treasury; the Mexicans poorly clothed, poorly fed, poorly armed, unpaid, and generally led by un-educated and often incompetent commanders; and remember the real valor with* which, under such circumstances, the latter, who had received so little from their country, resisted the invasion and conquest of that country; and that in no battles of modem times have the losses been as great comparatively as were sustained by the Mexican forces—there is certainly not much of pleasure or satisfaction that a sober-minded, justice-loving citizen of the United States can or ought to find in this part of his country's history. And, if we are the great, magnanimous, and Christian nation that we claim to be, no time ought to be lost in proving to history and the world our right to the claim, by providing, by act of Congress, that all those cannon which lie scattered over the plains at West Point, bearing the inscriptions "Vera Cruz," "Contreras," "Chapultepec," "Molino del Rey," and "City of Mexico," and some of which have older insignia, showing that they were originally captured by Mexican patriots from Spain in their struggles for liberty, together with every captured banner or other trophy preserved in our national museums and collections, be gathered up and respectfully returned to the Mexican people. For, to longer retain them and pride ourselves on their possession is as unworthy and contemptible as it would be for a strong man to go into the street and whip the first small but plucky and pugnacious boy he encounters, and then, hanging up the valued treasures he has deprived him of in the hall of his residence, say complaisantly, as he views them, "See what a great and valiant man I am, and how I desire that my children should imitate my example!" If it is peace and amity and political influence, and extended trade and markets, and a maintenance of the Monroe doctrine on the American Continent that we are after, such an act would do more to win the hearts and dispel the fears and suspicions of the people of Mexico, and of all the states of Central and South America, than reams of diplomatic correspondence, and endless traveling trade commissioners and formal international resolutions. Society is said to be bound by laws that always bring vengeance upon it for wrong-doing—"the vengeance of the gods, whose mills grind slow, but grind exceeding small." What penalty is to be exacted of the great North American Republic for its harsh treatment and spoliation of poor, down-trodden, ignorant, superstitious, debt-ridden Mexico, time alone can reveal. Perhaps, as this great wrong was committed at the promptings or demand of the then dominant slave-power, the penalty has been already exacted and included in the general and bloody atonement which the country has made on account of slavery. Perhaps, under the impelling force of the so-called "manifest destiny," a further penalty is to come, in the form of an equal and integral incorporation of Mexico and her foreign people into the Federal Union. But, if this is to be so, the intelligent and patriotic citizens of both countries may and should earnestly pray that God, in his great mercy, may yet spare them.

  1. "The grape-culture is destined to become one of the most important of Mexican industries. A very large area of the republic, with its volcanic soils, will be found most admirably adapted to this industry, while as a matter of fact the vine will grow in every valley and place that can be irrigated. The two most important wine-growing regions of the republic are that of Paso del Norte, in Chihuahua, and that of Durango and Coahuila, of which Parras, in the latter State—a name meaning grape-vines—is the best-known point. The wine of Parras, in spite of the difficulty and expense of transportation, has gained a good reputation outside of Mexico. Connoisseurs say that it is worthy of comparison with the best of sherry." The value of the wine and brandy produced in Mexico was returned in 1883 at $3,711,000.—"Report on the Agriculture of Mexico," U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, 1884.