The Spanish Borderlands: End of an Era

Between 1492 and 1821, Spain held dominion over vast regions of the New World. Being the first Europeans to establish a stronghold, being first to claim territory, being rich, and being a naval and military powerhouse had their advantages. By the time of Napoleon, however, Spain’s fortunes had shifted dramatically.

Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was in an almost continuous state of turmoil beginning with the French Revolution and continuing with the Napoleonic Wars. Spain interjected herself into these conflicts, sometimes as an ally of France and at others as an enemy, causing serious interruptions to her revenue sources from the Americas and leaving her with mounting war debts. In order to address the growing economic crisis, Spanish rulers demanded greater revenues from her colonies. An 1804 royal decree set into motion a sequence of events that ultimately contributed to Spain’s losing her North and Central American colonies. The decree called for the confiscation of certain church assets and reassigning them to the crown, which in turn, caused the church to call in loans and mortgages. Without the church as a source of credit, the already teetering economic dominos began to fall in Mexico. The aforementioned trade interruptions coupled with a series of bad harvests and a deepening economic crisis brought on by the lack of sources of credit created a climate ripe for revolution. All that was needed was a push and Mexico and New Spain would rise up. The push came when Napoleon invaded Spain, forced King Ferdinand VII to abdicate, and placed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne.

new_spain_viceroyalty 1786-1821

New Spain 1786-1821

As disenchanted as New Spain had become with the demands of their king, having a usurper on the throne was not to be borne. Political uncertainty led to unrest and armed rebellion. In Mexico, a struggle for dominance and control of the government arose between two factions of the wealthy elite, the Mexican born criollos (children of parents born in Spain) and the peninsulars (persons born in Spain). Criollos proposed a provisional government functioning in the name of Ferdinand VII. The peninsulars, who held most of the important colonial positions, supported the local viceroy, Jose de Iturrigaray. Unfortunately, Iturrigaray sided with the criollos, believing them to be the more powerful faction. This miscalculation resulted in his being sent packing back to Spain, the criollo leaders being arrested, and the elderly Spanish Field Marshall, Pedro Garibay, being named viceroy. No one had given a thought to the desires and ambitions of the native peoples and mestizos, the largest portion of the Mexican population by far.

In 1809, Mexico City was relatively calm, but life in the rural areas had become much harsher. Continued disruptions to trade and crop failures resulted in economic hardship and famine. Times were particularly difficult in the area around the small agricultural town of Dolores. There, the local criollos conspired to wrest power from the Peninsulars and decided to recruit the local Indians and mixed blood peasants for use in their cause. The local parish priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo, was deeply involved in the conspiracy. When it was uncovered, he mounted the church steps on September 16, 1810 and called for revolution against unresponsive, incompetent government and Spanish control.


An idealized depiction of the beginnings of the Mexican War for Independence

Revolt erupted in varying parts of the northern areas, including Texas, throughout the following years. Father Hidalgo and his leadership were ultimately captured and executed, to be replaced by another priest, José María Morelos y Pavón. Morelos was a more capable leader. He was able to articulate a clear vision of Mexico’s future and possessed excellent organizational and political skills. Under his command, a declaration of independence was made and a constitution drafted, but he still lacked the support of the criollos. Morelos was captured and executed by loyalists in November, 1815. With his death, the rebellion disintegrated into local skirmishes and guerrilla actions, nothing that truly threatened Spanish control until 1820.

The final chapter in Mexico’s War for Independence did not begin in Mexico, but rather in Spain itself. Spanish citizens had rid themselves of French rule and adopted the 1812 Constitution of Cadiz in Ferdinand VII’s absence while he was being held captive by Napoleon. Bonaparte released Ferdinand in 1813. Upon his return to the throne, reactionaries among his advisors urged Ferdinand to return Spain to its former state of  absolute monarchy by abolishing the 1812 Constitution and by undoing its work. He promptly agreed and went a step further in trying to reestablish control over the Americas. In January, 1820, an army assembled at Cadiz for the purpose of retaking control of Argentina mutinied. Rebellion erupted among other army units throughout Spain. The military was joined in their revolt by all and sundry who were opposed Ferdinand’s style of absolute rule. They forced the king to restore the 1812 Constitution, but they were shortsighted when it came to the American colonies.

The rights and privileges granted to Spanish citizens through the constitution were not extended to the colonials. Tensions grew in Mexico until Agustin de Iturbide, a royal officer, deemed it best to come to terms with the revolutionaries led at the time by Vicente R. Guerrero. On February 24, 1821, they proposed the Plan de Iguala laying out the path to Mexican independence. The plan contained three guarantees: the Catholic Church maintained its position, Mexico would be a constitutional monarchy, and Spaniards and criollos would be equals. By July, 1821, the loyalists held only Mexico City and Veracruz. The new viceroy, Juan Donoju, recognized the futility of continuing to try to exert control over Mexico. On August 24, 1821, he met with Iturbide at Cordoba and signed the treaty granting Mexican independence. What remained of Spain’s North American colonies were now part of an independent Mexico. The Spanish Borderlands would change hands again within a few short years as the United States fulfilled its policy of Manifest Destiny.


This map illustrates the size of Mexico’s holdings at the time of the Texas Revolution.

Some unfamiliar with Mexican history mistake Cinco de Mayo festivities as celebrations of Mexico’s independence from Spanish colonial rule.  While it is a celebration of independence, it was freedom from imperialism that Mexico achieved on May 5, 1862.


Further Reading Elizabeth A. H. John. “A View from the Spanish Borderlands,” 1991.

Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821. University of New Mexico Press, 1974.