With much of the former Aztec empire firmly in his grip and his lieutenants continuing to lead their forces in triumph in all directions, Cortés anticipated the grand domain that would eventually expand to more than a dozenfold the size of old Spain. He wrote his king, Charles V, “The most suitable name for it would be New Spain of the Ocean Sea, and thus in the name of your Majesty I have christened it.”
Even as he was building the new Mexico City atop the ruins of old Tenochtitlán, Cortés dreamed of a kingdom of his own. His first information of the fertile, spring-like Valley of Oaxaca came from his own scouts and from the ambassadors the Oaxacan kings had sent. Cortés moved quickly to carve out his Oaxaca domain, sending orders with Pedro de Alvarado to remove all Spanish settlers from the valley.
When Cortés personally arrived in Oaxaca in 1523 he found to his chagrin that the settlers that he had previously ordered out of the valley had returned and were squatting on the land he wanted for himself. He sent the instigators to Mexico City in chains and dispersed the settlers again. He granted his friends and relatives, including his son Martín and his two illegitimate daughters, encomiendas (rights to land and native labor) at strategic points all over Oaxaca, then, in October 1524, marched off on an exhausting two-year expedition to Honduras.
By the time Cortés returned in 1526, the settlers had again returned and reestablished their village at Huaxyacac. Moreover, they had petitioned the king of Spain, Carlos I, for a charter for their settlement, which they had christened Antequera, in honor of the ancient Granada town of the same name. To Cortés’s great displeasure, the petition was granted, by royal decree, on September 14, 1526.
Undeterred, Cortés took charge and began building his Valley of Oaxaca domain. He staked out the best bottomland, built haciendas, and set his native laborers to planting wheat and sugarcane. Cortés then traveled to Huatulco and Tehuántepec, where he built a port and ships to explore the Pacific. Concurrently, Cortés strengthened his alliance with King Cosijopí, who reciprocated by converting (along with thousands of his Tehuántepec subjects) to Christianity, taking the name Juan Cortés Cosijopí.
Hernán Cortés, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca
Cortés realized that his de facto kingdom needed both a queen and royal recognition, so he traveled to Spain in 1528 to get both. A year later he returned with his young noble bride, Juana de Zúñiga, and the grand title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, which included a singularly generous grant of land, subjects, and privileges. For many years thereafter, he and his heirs received upward of 80,000 gold pesos a year from tens of thousands of indigenous subjects on three million acres of domain scattered from the Valley of Mexico through the present states of Morelos, Mexico, Guerrero, and Veracruz to Oaxaca.
Cortés’s Valley of Oaxaca holdings, the crown jewel of his domain, encompassed most of the best valley land. In a wide, 350,000-acre swath, it stretched 25 miles, including 34 villages and towns, from Etla in the north to Coyotopec in the south. Excluded, however, was the one-league square (two square miles) of the town of Antequera, which grew into the present-day Oaxaca City.
While the conquistadores scoured the countryside for gold and subjugated the local people, missionaries began arriving to heal, teach, and baptize them. The Dominicans were the first and most numerous in Oaxaca. Padre Minaya built the first Oaxaca convent, dedicated to Saint Paul, in Antequera around 1530. Other Dominicans settled in Tlaxiaco, Etla, and Tehuántepec, where King Cosijopí financed a church for them in 1538. Other orders—Franciscans, Augustinians, Bethlehemites, and more—soon joined them. Missionary authorities customarily enjoyed a sympathetic ear from Charles V and his successors, who earnestly pursued Spain’s Christian mission, especially when it coincided with their political and economic goals.
Besides saving souls, the missionaries introduced new plants, flowers, and vegetables, and useful European crafts, such as ironwork, glassmaking, wool processing, and pottery glazing. They learned native tongues and wrote catechisms in Zapotec, Mixtec, and other local dialects. Within a few dozen years, the fields, orchards, and vineyards dotted with dozens of churches around the Valley of Oaxaca and beyond testified to the dedication of both the missionaries and their native converts.
Unfortunately, in order to speed the process of conversion, which the missionaries viewed as a sort of divine manifest destiny, native temples, idols, and paintings were destroyed. Historical records were irretrievably lost. The Spaniards also banned native song and dance, fearing that they kept alive old beliefs.
Although the missionaries on the whole provided a kinder, gentler counterbalance to the often brutal and exploitative conquistadores and colonists, they were not entirely blameless. In their zeal to build churches, convents, and monasteries, they also demanded the backbreaking labor of the newly converted. Moreover, those resistant to conversion were dealt with harshly, sometimes beaten, tortured, or killed.
In Oaxaca, however, which was primarily a Dominican stronghold, indígenas were spared the worst excesses of the more zealous Franciscans. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar, devoted his life to fighting for the rights of the native people. This champion of social justice earned the sobriquet “Apostle of the Indians.”
The King Takes Control
By 1530, the crown, through the Council of the Indies, had begun to wrest power away from Cortés and his conquistador lieutenants. Cortés had granted many of them rights of encomienda: taxes and labor of an indigenous district. In exchange, the encomendero, who often enjoyed the status of feudal lord, pledged to look after the welfare and souls of his native charges.
From the king’s point of view, though, tribute pesos collected by encomenderos translated into losses to the crown. Moreover, many encomenderos callously exploited their indigenous wards for quick profit, sometimes selling them as slave labor in mines and on plantations. Such abuses, coupled with European-introduced diseases, began to reduce the native population at an alarming rate.
By 1540, strongly influenced by Dominican padre Bartolomé de las Casas, the outspoken “Apostle of the Indians,” the king and his councilors realized that the native Mexicans were in peril, and without their labor New Spain would vanish.
They acted decisively. New laws would shift power toward the crown and limit abuses to the king’s native subjects. Decreed in 1542 and enforced by a powerful visitador (inspector general), the New Laws of the Indies abolished perpetual rights of encomienda, outlawed slavery of native Mexicans, and limited their labor and tribute payments.
Although Oaxacan colonists protested vehemently, some native groups benefited. With the support of the new bishop of Antequera, Juan López de Zárate, and the missionary padres, Zapotecs around the Valley of Oaxaca mounted a legal fight against excessive encomienda payments.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition