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The first American War of Independence?

24 January 2022

It doesn’t really count, but the first serious attempt at separating the Americas from their European colonial rulers was not in 1776 (nor in the 1640s) but a century earlier, led by Hernan Cortés sons, Martín Cortés, and Martín Cortés.

The first Martín, born in 1533 was “legitimate”, his mother being Cortés Spanish wife, Juana Zuñiga; the “other” Martín, “Martín el Meztizo” being the son of Malache, the conquistor’s Nahuatl interpreter, political advisor and sometime bed partner. The first Martín, of course, got all the goodies when dear old dad shuffled off his mortal coil in 1547 … that including — or so he insisted — the “encomendas” in New Spain that made him, like his father, the wealthiest person in the Kingdom.

Hi, I’m Martín, this is my other brother, Martín

HOWEVER, since 1542, the crown had been trying to extinguish the encomendas, under which conquistadors had been rewarded not just with land taken from native peoples, but the people as well… somewhat between a form of serfdom and chattel slavery, the people were forced to work for the new owners, whose income largely rested on renting out their “free” labor. The crown had already abolished chattel slavery at home, and sought (with only middling success) to end Indigenous slavery in the Americas. While there was some moral consideration given to abolition (especially when the justificatin had been the “need” to Christianize those pagan Indians, most of whom were quick enough to switch their allegiences to the “right” Gods) and Pope Paul III’s 1537 Bull, Sublemis Deus (“the Indians were human beings and they were not to be robbed of their freedom or possessions” — followed up by Pastorale officium, which automatically excommunicated those who disobeyed), there were practical considerations. Besides the huge drain on the treasury of having to sublet or rent workers for public works in the colonies, Spain, like other European powers, was consolidating the power of the crown at the expense of the old feudal lods, and recognized that the encomenderos were, when you came down to it, just feudal barons with their potential armies of dependent serfs (or slaves) at their disposal and a source of wealth out of reach of the crown.

Felipe II, decreed that conquistador encomenidas could not be inherited… that is, Martín Cort{es inherited the land but not the people living there. Nor did the other sons and heirs of the other conquistadors. Having returned to claim his inheritance in 1563, only to find his main revenue stream (renting out “his” people”) had been cut off, when the Viceroy died later that year, and the goverment was temporary in the hads of the audiencia (roughly the Mexico City Council), he had himself appointed captain-general (head of the local militia, much as his father had when founding Veracruz to justify his own role as legitimate leader of his dubiously legal conquest) and, at the head of an attemped encomiendero coup, was proposed as “king” of an independent Mexico.

The coup was put down by the visador (special prosecutor) Alonza Muñoz. While today, we think of special prosecutors with some trepidation, the visador, especially when it was someone like Muñoz was beyond scary. He had the coup leaders — who found “their” indians not exactly willing to fight for them (I wonder why) — rounded up, and chopping off their heads. Martín, the rich one, was spared only because of his father’s name, but he was stripped of his properties in Mexico and tossed out of the Americas (and of Spain itself, being exiled to Oran, a Spanish enclave in what is now Algeria).

Showing that racial disparity exists, even in the most prominent of families, Martín el Mestizo, while he kept his head, was tortured and waterboarded before being sent back to Spain. To his credit, Felipe II did recall Muñoz, and fine him for his over-zealous prosecution.

While not by any means the end of indigenous exploitation, it did lead to a few reforms. The “reparimento” system, by which indigenous communities themselves would appoint a quota of workers for public works projects (with “service” running from a few weeks to a couple months) to satisfy their tax obligations replaced the encomiendos, at least in Mexico. The encomiendos would still linger in parts of the Americas through the 18th century, but became rarer and rarer.

On the other hand, it also gave impetus to the transatlantic slave trade, and to the long practice of buying slaves from the northern tribes (especialy Apaches and Navahos) for export to the other colonies.

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