Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Antonio de Mendoza was given a really difficult job; one which he must have known could have resulted in his death. In this lesson, we'll see how he handled it and what role he played in Mexican history.

Antonio de Mendoza

Obedezco pero no cumplo.

''I obey, but I do not comply.''

What does that mean? This quote came from Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of colonial New Spain (Mexico). Mendoza had the extremely unenviable task of bringing the colony (which had been basically autonomous for years) under royal control. In the process, he proved to be perhaps one of the most skilled diplomats in the history of the Americas. Mendoza spent his career walking a razor's edge, balancing the often-contradictory interests of the Crown, the conquistadors, and the colonists of New Spain.

Antonio de Mendoza
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Early Life and Appointment

Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco was born into the Spanish nobility in 1495. He was raised as a courtly gentleman and warrior, and his family had the trust of the Spanish emperor, Charles V. This trust would later become important.

Spain at the time was transitioning. Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors grew up in a Spain still very much dedicated to its medieval culture, where the lords ruled as kings in their own rights, exercising nearly complete autonomy over their own lands but offering their armies and loyalty to the monarch. The conquistadors built New Spain as a colony of the Spanish Empire but expected to rule as kings of a nearly autonomous Mexico City, and basically did so for nearly a decade.

Charles V was not raised in Spain, (at least not exclusively). He came from Northern Europe, which was transitioning out of the medieval era and into what we call the Early Modern era, when the old ways of feudal power were abandoned. As emperor, Charles decided it was finally time to bring Spain out of the medieval age. He needed to assert his own authority and he needed someone he could trust to do that. That person was Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza was appointed the first viceroy of New Spain, making him the direct representative of the Crown.

Mendoza in New Spain

In 1528, Charles created a legislative council to counter the conquistadors' power, and appointed Cortés' main rival as its leader. So, when Mendoza, a direct symbol of royal authority, arrived in 1535, the situation was already tense.

Mendoza quickly established good will by sponsoring building projects across the colony. He opened the first official mint in New Spain, giving the colony control over its own currency. He also laid the foundations for Mexico's first two universities; one of which trained men in the clergy (thus making Mendoza popular with the leaders of the Catholic Church in New Spain), and one educated the noble sons of Aztec politicians (thus making him popular with the surviving Aztec aristocracy).

The Codex Mendoza, a book of pre-Spanish Mexican history and customs, was also likely commissioned by Mendoza
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Mendoza also brought the first printing press to New Spain around 1539. This was a big deal. This invention was less than a century old, and there were still major cities in Europe that didn't have one. By bringing one to New Spain, Mendoza encouraged the people to celebrate their cities as some of the most sophisticated in the world. This was a modern invention of a less medieval Europe, and subtly encouraged the colonists of New Spain to think of themselves in modern terms. It worked well. By the time the conquistadors organized against Mendoza, he had become so popular with the people that even Cortés' efforts failed.

At the same time, Mendoza demonstrated the power of a more imperial New Spain. He funded a number of expeditions, sending soldiers to conquer lands as distant as California. Not only did this appease many conquistadors by giving them new commissions, it also got some of them out of Mexico City while Mendoza reformed the political structure.

Of course, part of Mendoza's display of strength was violently suppressing rebellions. Amerindians rebelled against the Spanish Empire in 1542 and 1548. Both times, Mendoza led armies to crush the revolts. Those involved were tortured and publicly executed.

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