Some of the most remarkable visual records of colonial Mexico are the series of paintings called “caste” paintings, illustrating every racial combination of Spanish, mestizo, black, Native American, and other types thought possible in the New Spain of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Casta paintings were always created in a series, and each picture usually contains a male-female couple and at least one child. Occasionally more than one child and even other animal or human figures are depicted. At the top or bottom of the painting is an inscription that explains the racial mix shown in the image. At least 50 groups of these paintings have been identified, although very few survive today in complete series.
De Espanol y Negra, Mulato (From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto), attributed to Jose de Alcibar, c. 1760 Denver Art Museum: Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer Photo (c)James O. Milmoe
In the course of the fifteenth century, the Aztecs conquered an empire centered in the Valley of Mexico (present-day Mexico City, after the drainage of most of the valley) but encompassing Mesoamerica from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. The resulting state, far more centralized than the preceding Teotihuacán and Toltec city-states, commanded a large extent of territory and thrived on the trade in raw materials that were brought in from both coasts of their empire. Bernal Díaz, born in 1492 in Spain, would join the Spaniards in the “conquest” of Mexico, but he also left behind vivid eyewitness accounts of occupied Aztec society in the sixteenth century. Among them is this description of the market in Tlatelolco, one of the central cities at the heart of Aztec imperial power.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), 232–234.
John A. Hobson
John Atkinson Hobson (1858–1940) grew up during an economic depression in England that ultimately shifted his intellectual interests from literature to economics. One of his major contributions is the theory of under-consumption, which argues that low consumer demand and high supply of goods will lead to a sluggish economy. Hobson also held that imperialism could be stripped down to economic interests by the mother country: it was no more than a search for new capitalist markets. This selection explores Hobson’s observed relationships among economy, international struggle, imperialism, and nationalism.
From John A. Hobson, Imperialism and the Lower Races. New York: James Pott and Co., 1902, part II, chapter IV.
Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 marked the climax, and the most dangerous point, of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. When US spy planes discovered the presence of missile launching pads in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy demanded their immediate destruction and followed up this demand with a naval blockade of the island—and continued reconnaissance missions in Cuban airspace—to prevent the arrival of Russian reinforcements. The world held its breath for several days as Soviet ships, bearing nuclear missiles, sailed steadily for Cuba. The globe teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation, and this exchange of letters reveals, from the Soviet and Cuban side, how very close to that brink the world actually came.
The Inquisition was well established in Spain at the time of Cortés’s conquest in the 1520s. A tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition came in the conquistadors’ wake, ultimately established at Mexico City in 1571 with authority to regulate Catholic morality throughout “New Spain.” Most of the Inquisition trials concerned petty breaches of religious conduct, but others dealt with the much more serious crime of heresy. In November 1598, the Inquisition became alarmed about the rise of a group who believed that the Day of Judgment was at hand. Among the group denounced to the Holy Office was Marina de San Miguel, a Spanish-born woman who held a high status due to her mystical visions. Her confessions, offered between November 1598 and January 1599, reveal the degree to which confessions of “deviance” could be extorted from a victim. In March 1601, Marina was stripped naked to the waist and paraded upon a mule. Forced to confess her errors, she was sentenced to 100 lashes with a whip.
Jacqueline Holler, “The Spiritual and Physical Ecstasies of a Sixteenth-Century Beata: Marina de San Miguel Confesses Before the Mexican Inquisition,” in Richard Boyer and Geoffrey Spurling, eds., Colonial Lives: Documents on Latin American History, 1550–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 79–98.
Abstract and Key Words
As in all societies where lineage serves political purposes, the Maya kept dynastic lists in varied forms, including architectural elements, sarcophagi, and ceramic objects. This vessel is from the Late Classic Period. With its calligraphic hieroglyphs and restricted palette of red and brown-black on cream, it is part of a tradition called "codex style" because it mimics the appearance of Mayan books. Most painted vessels of this type deal with mythological topics, but this example appears to deal with historical information. The vase records the names and dates of rulers associated with the city-state of Calakmul in the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico.
Antonio López de Santa Anna
Santa Anna (1794–1876) is recognized today by Americans, and especially by Texans, primarily for his successful siege of the Alamo in March 1836. However, he also epitomized the caudillo type in nineteenth-century Mexico, dominating his country’s political life and weathering a series of highs and lows throughout his long career. Although he served as president for 11 nonconsecutive terms (some of only a few months) over a period of 22 years, Santa Anna is more famous for his military achievements and losses—including some extraordinary adventures. For example, in an 1838 battle against the French at Veracruz, Santa Anna’s leg was shattered by a cannon volley. The leg was amputated and buried with full military honors. Exiled multiple times, to Cuba, Jamaica, Colombia, and even the United States, Santa Anna devoted his final years to compiling his memoirs, an excerpt of which is translated below. This passage details his turbulent political career—at least from his perspective—in the early 1840s.
Antonio López de Santa Anna, The Eagle: The Autobiography of Santa Anna, ed. and trans. Ann Fears Crawford (Austin, TX: Pemberton, 1967), 65–69.
After the conquest of the Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, Spaniards turned their attention to the productive farmland in the surrounding countryside, which was inhabited by Nahuatl-speaking native people. By the late sixteenth century, Spaniards began to expand rapidly into this territory. They acquired estates in a variety of ways, from royal grants to open seizure of property. Nevertheless, the purchase of plots of land from individual Nahuas was also common—although sometimes the sellers came to regret the transaction and petitioned higher authorities for redress of their grievances.
Rebecca Horn, “Spaniards in the Nahua Countryside: Dr. Diego de León Plaza and Nahuatl Land Sale Documents (Mexico, Early Seventeenth Century), in Richard Boyer and Geoffrey Spurling, eds., Colonial Lives: Documents on Latin American History, 1550–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 102–103, 108–109.
With a handful of untrained and poorly equipped soldiers, Hernán Cortés overthrew the powerful Aztec civilization between 1519 and 1520. Born in Spain around 1485, Cortés decided to inform the king of Spain (and Holy Roman emperor) Charles V of his achievements, in a series of written updates. Despite their ostensible purpose, these “letters” were designed for more than the edification and delight of the emperor. Like Julius Caesar’s dispatches from the Gallic Wars of the 50s BCE—in which at least one million Gauls were killed and another million enslaved—these accounts were designed for broad public consumption. Each letter was sent to Spain as soon as it was ready, and it seems likely that Cortés’s father, Martín, arranged for their immediate publication. Over the course of these five published letters, although Cortés developed a persona for himself as a conquering hero and agent of imperial power, he also exposed the ruthlessness and brutality of his “conquest” of Mexico.
Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, ed. and trans. Anthony Pagden (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 72–74.
Bartolomé de las Casas
A Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas (ca. 1484–1566) wrote his Short Account to open the eyes of King Philip II of Spain as to the atrocities committed in newly discovered Latin America. For this early devotion to the protection of what would be called “human rights,” de las Casas was appointed “Protector of the Indians.” The text itself can be difficult to read—the crimes against the indigenous populations are recounted with a matter-of-fact tone that seems at odds with the level of horrific detail provided. De las Casas argues that this inhumane activity must cease for two reasons: first, because “Indian” souls would not be saved through conversion; second, because Spain would suffer God’s wrath as a result of these sins.
From Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Trans. Nigel Griffin. London: Penguin Classics, 1993, pp. 9–13, 15–7, 127–8.
Toussaint L’Ouverture was the founder of the second independent nation in the New World and the leader of the most successful slave revolt in Western history. He was born on a plantation in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and lived his first thirty-four years as a slave. His experience in bondage was less brutal and more fortunate than that of most slaves in Haiti, and in 1777 he was granted his freedom. When the slave revolt broke out in 1791, Toussaint first helped his former master to escape before he joined the attacks on other plantations. He soon emerged as a principal leader among the former slaves and was determined to preserve their liberty from slavery.
The readings from the Haitian Revolution selected here cover a seven-year time span that highlights the tension between Toussaint’s idealistic principles and the pragmatic policies he felt compelled to adopt. In the short Proclamation of 29 August 1793, Toussaint makes clear his goals and attempts to encourage others to join him. In his letter to the French Minister of Marine (13 April 1799), Toussaint further explains his goals and actions to the French government now controlled by the more conservative Directory, which viewed Toussaint with suspicion and disfavor. In a similar letter to the Directory (28 October 1797), Toussaint attempted to reaffirm his commitment to the ideals of liberty while also exposing the double standards by which colonial nations have condemned the actions of the colonized. The last document, the Forced Labor Decree of 1800, contains the essence of Toussaint’s social and economic policy, which was centered on the militarization of Haitian society.
George Tyson, ed., Toussaint L’Ouverture. Prentice-Hall 1973): 28, 30–31.
Abstract and Key Words
At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, the Taino were one of the major indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. They were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (presently Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. Within decades after Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean, however, they had been nearly wiped out by disease and enslavement. Preserved pre-Columbian duhos (ceremonial wooden stools) from the Caribbean region, such as this example from the island of Hispaniola are thus exceedingly rare. Scholars differ as to the function of the stools. Some believe they represented seats of authority. Others think they served as altars for votive offerings. Still others argue that the Taino peoples used them as ceremonial trays for making "cohoba," a hallucinogenic snuff prepared for shamanistic rituals.
Library of Congress, Jay I. Kislak Collection
Abstract and Key Words
As part of the annihilation of the Aztec civilization after Cortés conquered Montezuma's empire, the Spaniards burned the Aztec archives. Surviving examples of Indian codices are thus rare. Although this manuscript claims to date from the early 1500s, it is part of the so-called "Techialoyan" land records created in the seventeenth century using old methods to substantiate native land claims with the Spanish regional authorities. These "titulos primodiales" were essentially municipal histories that documented in text and pictures local accounts of important events and territorial boundaries. The text on the right page, written by an Aztec notary, is in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and still widely spoken throughout Mexico and Central America.
Chichén Itzá was founded during a period of renewed urbanization in the Mayan states around 650, and a remarkable state flourished in its vicinity between 850 and 1000. The population was composed of local Maya, as well as Maya-speaking peoples from the Gulf of Mexico coast. It owed its prosperity to long-distance trade, both overland and in boats along the coast. Around 1000, the ruling-class factions abandoned Chichén Itzá for unknown reasons, and the city-state dwindled in size to the level of a town.
Dreamstime/©Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes (top); Shutterstock/Danilo Ascione (bottom)
Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) is known as “the Liberator” of South America from Spanish colonial rule. “The Jamaican Letter” (1815) is one of his earliest and most important political essays on the course of South American independence. It was written during his self-imposed exile in Jamaica (then a British colony) after a major military defeat in Venezuela. Historians are uncertain to whom the letter was addressed, but they speculate that the recipient was the English governor of the island. The letter affirms Bolívar’s unfailing dedication to the cause of independence and the ideals of liberty and freedom. But Bolívar also reveals his anti-liberal, authoritarian leanings. Believing that the masses lacked the experience and “virtue” for a democracy, Bolívar advocated an oligarchic government with power concentrated in the hands of a strong, paternal executive and a hereditary legislature.
Simón Bolívar, “Reply of a South American to a Gentleman of this Island [Jamaica],” in Selected Writings of Bolívar,Vol. 1 (1810–1822), ed. Harold Bierck; compiled by Vincente Lecuna; transl. Lewis Bertrand. New York: Colonial Press (1951): 103–22.