Mendoza, Don Antonio de: Viceroy of New Spain
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
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