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by Jennifer Gwillim
Don Antonio de Mendoza was influential in his roll as the first viceroy of New Spain.
Some consider him to have been one of it's greatest leaders. He led from 1535-1549. In
order to fully understand and appreciate what was accomplished under Mendoza one must have
some knowledge of the viceroy system and the establishment of the system.
The viceroy system was first used under Columbus. The viceroalty proved to be the most important administrative unit in the Indies. (Bethell, p. 293) The system was revived when Don Antonio de Mendoza was appointed as the first viceroy in 1535. The viceroy was defined as the king's alter ego. He held court in his viceregal palace and even carried with him some of the ceremonial aura of kingship. "He combinded in his person the attributes of governor and captain-general, and he was also, in his role as president of the audencia,regarded as the principal judicial representative of the crown." (Bethell, p.294) Many consider Mendoza to be responsible for the beginning of the viceroys and the colonial courts. "He was a man of integrity, well fitted to initiate the viceregal regime in the New World." (Crow, p. 169) Mendoza's reputation preceded him. At this point he had already received honors as a soldier and diplomat. Mendoza served first in Mexico and later in Peru.
The viceroys served the King yet they were allowed some freedom and discernment as they ruled. For example, there were many times that statues would come down from the King that the viceroy felt was unecessary or unbeneficial for the colony. It became a common practice for the viceroy to hold the statue up and say, "Se acata, pero no se cumple". Simply stated, "It shall be respected, but not enforced." This satisfied the King and the colony.(Crow, p.175)
The viceroys were always greeted with great dignity and splendor. The cities would decorate the streets and prepare for his coming. Many times the people dressed in their ceremonial regalia. Due to the great expense of these ceremonies, the King later limited the amount that could be used on these such events to eight thousand dollars.
When Mendoza arrived in Mexico, the country was in turmoil. There was already a definite problem brewing between the Indians and the encomenderos. They were on the verge of revolt. Mendoza came in and worked quickly and swiftly. He was able to defeat the Indians and later when the opportunity presented itself, Alvarado was slain. Mendoza soon appointed his men and established his position. Mendoza was wise and made excellent decisions throughout his time in Mexico. Mexico benefited in several ways from his presence and position.
He was able to spare Mexico from a civil war and able to gain the respect of many of the encomenderos. He is said to have shown great generosity and hospitality to the encomenderos thus winning many of them to his side. He was also successful with the Indians. He established one day a week as an opportunity for the Indians to come and express their greivances. Hundreds of Indians took advantage of this opportunity. Mendoza was quoted as saying, "I made a habit always to hear the Indians; and although they very often lie to me, I do not show them any displeasure for it, for I do not believe them and I do not decide anything until I have found out the truth. There are some [Spaniards] who think that I make them [the Indians] more addicted to lying because I do not punish them; but I believe that it would be more harmful to make them afraid of coming to me with their troubles than for me to bear the trouble which their childish affairs causes me. I recommend you to hear them also."(Madariaga, p. 48) Actually after Mendoza's retirement the custom continued and a General Indian Court was established. (Crow, p. 170)
Mendoza was also known for his interest in education. He supported the education of the Indians and the development of schools. Many schools were established for young Indian boys and girls. The purpose of the schools for the boys was to teach them Spanish and manual arts. The girls would be trained for motherhood. Mendoza eventually started a school for the unclaimed mesitzos. The mestizos were a group of children from mixed marriages. His school was called the San Juan de Letran and survived for more than three hundred years. (Herring, p. 209)
Another attribute of Mendoza was his desire to maintain the system of free elections. He studied and examined the new system but eventually decided to abolish the habit of appointing friars and settlers. He chose to maintain free elections and was quite out spoken on the issue. "He was particular about the freedom to be left to the electorate: Y que esta eleccion se la dejen hacer libremente." (Madariaga, p. 47)
Mendoza was successful in industry and agriculture. He is responsibe for developing silk, olive trees, wheat, cattle breeding, and many other industrial activities. He was rewarded by the Crown for his ingenuity and hard work. The prize consisted of two bars of silver of three hundred ducats a piece.
Mendoza's length of service was exceptional and after the system was estblished a viceroy could expect to serve a six-year term of office. Mendoza died shortly after taking office in Peru and would never have a direct hand in the future of Peru, but what he had accomplished in Mexico was nothing short of outstanding. Mexico had been changed for the better due to the hard work of Mendoza. Mexico went from a struggling and disorganized colony to a well-organized colony. Indian resistance was ended and the power of the conquistadores was broken. The territory had been carefully explored with the adding of the Philippine Islands. Silver had been discovered and they were already enjoying the benefits.
Much of the success of the viceroy system can be credited to Mendoza. He was truly a successful viceroy. He was the first but he also was one of the greatest.
Bethell, Leslie: The Cambridge History of Latin America, Vol.1 Colonial Latin America:
Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Crow, John A.: The Epic of Latin America: Berkeley, University of California Press, 1946.
Herring, Hubert: A History of Latin America; New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1965.
Madariaga, Salvador de: The Rise of the Spanish American Empire: New York, The Macmillan Company, 1947.