The anticolonial revolution in Mexico

Image: Ricardo Esquivel


The Mexican experience is one of the few in which the anti-colonial battle took on the contours of a struggle between classes and not between sectors of the propertied classes.

The Viceroyalty of New Spain was Madrid's most valuable colonial possession. In the 5th century, silver production jumped from 1702 million pesos in 27 to a peak of 1804 million in 67. Mexican mines produced 17% of all the silver in the Americas. Guanajuato was the world's leading producer, accounting for an annual total equivalent to XNUMX% of the continent's precious metals. The Manila-Acapulco-Manila trade route linked the Hispanic world with the Orient. It is no exaggeration to argue that Spain had more to lose in Mexico than anywhere else in the Americas. This fact, added to the characteristics of the Mexican separatist insurrection, explains the determination – and the cruelty – with which the monarchist repression operated.

Mining and obscene inequality in land ownership led to the concentration of private wealth in the hands of peninsular and local oligarchies. The Catholic Church was a powerful landlord, moneylender and tax collector. The majority of the population, landless and unemployed, survived in misery. Between 1720 and 1810, Mexico suffered ten agrarian crises where corn shortages – and price speculation – led to atrocious famine. If, in 1790, a bushel of corn[I] it cost between 16 and 21 reais, the price of the same measure in 1811 rose to 36 reais. The indigenous and mestizo masses, which corresponded to 82% of the population, were imprisoned in a barbaric situation. Hunger, humiliation and despair led to his entry into the political scene. Colonial rule was fueled by this social inequality. According to British Hispanic historian John Lynch: “Mexico was a pure colony. The Spaniards dominated the criollos[ii], these dominated the natives, and the metropolis exploited the three…”[iii].

As in the rest of the continent, the collapse of the Hispanic monarchy in 1808 exacerbated the autonomist interests of local sectors of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, including individuals from the lower clergy and the middle ranks of the militia. Although they were part of the colonial institutionality, these sectors were anxious to rise socially and had a closer contact with the difficulties of the people. It wasn't long before the first conspiracies against the metropolis began.

On September 16, 1810, in the town of Dolores, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla appealed to the indigenous and mestizos to rise up against the “bad government” of the viceroyalty authorities. The Querétaro Conspiracy – in which he participated along with captains Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama – had been discovered. Its members had to act quickly. In the midst of the confusion, the parish priest of Dolores did not hesitate to turn to the masses. He summoned his faithful and, according to tradition, exclaimed: “Long live America, long live Fernando VII, long live religion and may the gachupines[iv] die!”. It is still debated whether he spoke of independence, but the meaning of his call to rebellion clashed head-on with the colonial power and its associates. criollos. A contingent of disaffected people began an armed march towards the capital. Hidalgo himself could not have imagined the dynamics that the social forces he had just summoned would assume.

In the first days of the revolt, they took San Miguel el Grande and Celaya. On September 23, more than 23 rebels arrived in Guanajuato. Five days later, royal troops and families of Spanish nobles were quartered in a wheat warehouse known as the Alhóndiga de Grenaditas. The mob occupied the place and killed hundreds of Spaniards. Guanajuato was sacked. On October 17, insurgents entered Valladolid. By the end of that month, when they appeared in the vicinity of Mexico City, rebel forces numbered around 80 fighters. It is estimated that 60% of the insurgents were poor peasants and an eminently indigenous agricultural semi-proletariat. They had no military training and few had more than bows and arrows, spears, machetes and stones.[v].

In the battle of Monte de las Cruces, the insurgent army defeated the troops sent by Viceroy Francisco Xavier Venegas. The capital, almost unprotected, was before the eyes of the rebels. Captain Allende insisted on advancing. But Father Hidalgo made a decision that historians still debate. He ordered a retreat to the Bajío, the region he had left in September. A historic mistake. A fatal hesitation not only for the most advanced phase of the revolution, but for himself. The insurgency would never again resume the offensive.

The royalists pursued a confused and retreating rebel faction, which was overtaken on 7 November and defeated at the Battle of Aculco. On January 17, 1811, an army of more than 100 militiamen – the largest military contingent assembled on Mexican soil since the European conquest – was destroyed in the Battle of Puente Calderón. In the face of disaster, Allende removed Hidalgo from military command.

On March 21, 1811, in full retreat, Hidalgo and the entire insurgent army fell into a trap and were captured. The priest of Dolores was subjected to a double trial, ecclesiastical and military. The Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition accused him of heresy, apostasy and sedition. The military trial sentenced him to death for high treason. At dawn on June 30, he was executed. The royalists exhibited his head, along with those of Ignacio Allende, Juan Aldama and Mariano Jiménez, on the corner of Alhóndiga de Grenaditas, where they remained for ten years.

A brief analysis of the program and class dynamics provides a better understanding of the rise and fall of this first campaign of the anti-colonial war in New Spain.

Hidalgo seemed to be aware that the movement had no other social base than what the peasant and indigenous masses could provide. In this sense, the priest of Dolores dictated a series of measures that, although he lacked the conditions to carry them out, aimed to demarcate the class character of the armed revolt and, in this way, unite his troops and recruit more followers among the common people: abolished the tribute that weighed on the natives; abolished the obligatory nature of sealed paper; eliminated restrictions on gunpowder production; regarding the agrarian problem, he ordered the return of land belonging to indigenous communities to be used for cultivation; moreover, he ordered the judges to immediately collect the amount due for the leases on those lands and determined that no indigenous person could be forced to lease their plots[vi]; finally, he abolished slavery, under pain of death: “… all owners of slaves must give them freedom within ten days, under pain of death, which will be applied for transgression of this article”[vii].

In Aguacatillo, Father José María Morelos y Pavón, who had been commissioned by Hidalgo to lead the rebellion in the south, eliminated the castes: “with the exception of Europeans, all other inhabitants will not be identified as indigenous, mulatto or other castes, but all like Americans in general”; he eliminated tributes: “no one will pay tribute, nor will there be slaves from now on, and all those who have them will be punished”; forgave the debts of any native: “every American who owes any amount to Europeans is not obliged to pay it; and if the opposite happens, the European will be condemned to pay with the greatest rigor”; and dictated that public jobs be held only by Americans[viii].

Such measures have made even the criollos with strong autonomist tendencies opposed the revolution and openly sided with the colonial government. The advance of the “hordes of indigenous people” – considered as vagabonds and drunkards by the whites –, who in each city left a mark of killing peninsulars, confiscating property, looting, introducing the summary execution of enemies of the revolution, etc., caused ( rightly so) a complete dread among most criollos.

Indeed, the army of Félix María Calleja, the Spanish brigadier who would defeat Hidalgo and later be named viceroy, was not only largely financed by mine owners in San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas, but also had a large number of officers criollos.

This class dynamic took the revolution to an extreme beyond Hidalgo's intentions – let alone the moderate Allende, who came from a wealthy merchant family.

Six of the nine men who led the tribunal that brought Hidalgo to the gallows were criollos. This is an important historical lesson, which speaks volumes about the composition of today's national bourgeoisies. The royalists could never have defeated this chapter of the revolution – and kept Mexico a colony for another decade – without the support of a strong sector of criollos owners, terrified by the insurrection of "people without reason". In other words, many wealthy Americans feared the anarchy of the "rabble" more than their European colonists did. Between “the nation” and its properties, they chose the latter.

Hidalgo's execution should serve as a lesson so that the people would not forget their place. The royalists thought that this exemplary punishment would be the end of so much insolence. In reality, it was the beginning of its end. The revolution had not been defeated. Dolores' Legacy – Despite Hidalgo's Serious Military Mistakes and His Christian Repentance Before Going to the Wall[ix] – remained alive in thousands of peasants, rural workers and miners from indigenous and other castes. A network of guerrilla groups, under the command of military caudillos, would continue to harass the colonial power: Ignacio Rayón; Manuel Félix Fernández; Vicente Guerrero; the Matamoros; the Bravo family. In addition, there was a new leader willing to continue the fight on new bases: Father José María Morelos.

This reorganized a less numerous army, but better prepared. Between 1812 and 1813, he managed to dominate cities like Oaxaca, Cuautla and Acapulco. Morelos elaborated a political program that foresaw independence – dispensing with the mention of Fernando VII and denying the authority of the Cortes of Cádiz –, the abolition of caste distinctions and the division of large properties, especially those of the Church.

The famous document titled Feelings of the Nation, presented at the Congress of Anáhuac, responds to two fundamental problems: “that America be free, independent of Spain and of any other Nation, Government or Monarchy”[X]; and “that slavery be forbidden forever, and likewise the distinction of castes, all remaining equal”[xi].

A document attributed to Morelos establishes measures that express the clash between classes during the revolution: “They must consider as enemies of the nation and linked to the party of tyranny all the rich, nobles and employees of the first order, criollos and gachupines, because they all have their vices and passions authorized by the European system and legislation [...] the first diligence is to discover the rich, nobles and officials that exist, in order to strip them at once of all the money and goods they possess, distributing half of its product among the poor residents of the same population, in order to capture the will of the greatest number, reserving the other half for the military fund”[xii].

However, the sectors criollos The most powerful did not want independence on these terms. Isolated, Morelos was captured, sentenced to death, and shot in December 1815. The insurgency remained active, although dispersed and greatly weakened, limited to guerrilla tactics. Independence would be achieved in 1821 through the Iguala Plan, supported by the so-called Army of the Three Guarantees – the Catholic religion, independence and unity between the belligerent sides. The separation from the metropolis was achieved on the basis of the defeat of the popular insurrection, and this fact stamped its conservative stamp. Iturbide, a former Calleja officer, established a monarchical government, protective of oligarchic property and the privileges of the military and ecclesiastics. He even went so far as to invite King Ferdinand VII or some other European prince to take the throne.

The case of Mexico is particularly significant for the well-known discussion about the degree of popular participation in independence. The common people embraced the cause of independence not in the sense that later patriotic literature gave it, but when they identified this task with their social redemption, that is, with the concrete possibility of improving their conditions of existence. In addition to independence, it fought for land, for bread, for the end of servile and slave relations, despite the countless vacillations and betrayals of its bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leaders.

The Mexican experience, at least its beginning, is one of the few in which the anti-colonial battle took on the contours of a struggle between classes and not between sectors of the propertied classes. Indigenous peoples, enslaved blacks, peons and other dominated sectors of colonial society directed their actions – and their fury – against all their exploiters, without distinction between Peninsulars and those born in America. The echoes of this liberating undertaking would resonate a century later, in the outbreak of a new revolution.

*Ronald Leon Núñez holds a doctorate in economic history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (sundermann).

Translation: Marcos Margarido.

Originally published in the newspaper ABC Color.


[I] One of the bushel of corn weighs approximately 65 kilos.

[ii] Criollo is the general name given to descendants of Spaniards born in America during Spanish colonization.

[iii] John Lynch: Las Revoluciones Hispanoamericanas [1808-1826], Barcelona, ​​Ariel, 1976, p. 330.

[iv] Derogatory term for the name of Spaniards in Mexico.

[v] Gisela von Wobeser. The Indigenous People and the Independence Movement. Study Cult. Nahuatl, Mexico, v. 42, pp. 299-312, August 2011.

[vi] René Cárdenas (1810-1821). Basic Documents of Independence, Mexico. Comisión Federal de Electricidad, 1979, p. 210.

[vii] Available in:,_las_gabelas_y_el_papel_sellado_(Miguel_Hidalgo)

[viii] Miguel Hidalgo: Decree against slavery, the gables and the sealed paper, 6/12/1810. Available from: José María Morelos: Bando de suppression de las castas y la esclavitud. Available in:

[ix] On May 18, 1811, he wrote: “…The night of darkness that blinded me has turned to bright day, and amidst my righteous imprisonments I am presented as Antiochus, as perfectly as the evils I have done to America […] I see the destruction of this soil that I have wrought, the ruin of the wealth that has been lost, the multitude of widows and orphans that I have left, the blood so profusely and recklessly shed: And what I cannot say, without fainting, the multitude of souls who, following me, will be in the abyss ".

[X] On December 6, 1813, the Solemn Act of the Declaration of Independence of North America was signed.

[xi] José Morelos: Sentimientos de la Nación, 14/09/1813. Available in:

[xii] Ernesto Lemoine: Documentos del Congreso de Chilpancingo, listed among the roles of caudillo José María Morelos, surprised by the realists in the action of Tlacotepec on February 24, 1814. México DF, Talleresográficas de México, 2013, pp. 204-205.

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