A brief history of Mexico

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century the land mass now known as Mexico was variously occupied by a multitude of different Indian groups. Several of the more prominent groups developed into civilizations with complex social and economic structures, like the Mayans and Aztecs.

The majority of central and southern Mexico had been conquered by the Toltecs by AD 1100 and they established a capital at Tula as well as the city of Teotihuacan (which was situated close to where Mexico City is today) whilst the Oaxaca Valley was controlled by the Zapotecs at around the same time.

By the time the Spanish came on the scene in 1519 much of the Mesa Central was under the control of the Aztecs. The Aztecs fulfilled tribal prophesy by forming a city on the area where they found an eagle resting on a cactus with a snake in its beak. This image would later develop into the symbol of Mexico, used by the country to this day.

The Aztecs exerted control over their extensive empire through a tax-extraction state tribute system but when Hernando Cortez arrived in Mexico the civilisation’s days were numbered.

Cortez entered the Valley of Mexico with only 200 men and had to engage the services of large anti-Aztec Indian armies in order to have any hope of defeating the powerful and established civilisation.

Although initially successful in capturing the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan the Spanish were repelled and didn’t return to try again until 1521.

During their second invasion the Spanish destroyed the city, overwhelmed the Aztecs and conquered central and southern Mexico.

The Spanish then went on to capture the native Indian lands and reorganise them amongst themselves, losing tens of thousands of Indians to epidemics of smallpox and measles in the process.

For over three hundred years after Cortez conquered the region Mexico was a Spanish colony but it fought for its independence in the early 1800’s, finally managing to achieve it in 1821.

After gaining independence in the 19th century Mexico’s history was one characterised by political instability.

Under the Plan of Iguala the Mexican Empire was granted national independence under a constitutional monarchy. In July 1822 Augustin de Iturbide, a royalist officer instrumental in the drafting of the plan, was crowned emperor of Mexico.

Within a year the new empire had crumpled and Iturbide was first exiled and then executed.

The dominant political presence in Mexico then became General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and remained that way for three decades, right through the 1846 Mexican-American War.

The next big shift for Mexico occurred when Benito Juarez became President in 1858 and tried to alter the nation’s poor economic circumstances.

Juarez attempted to render the Roman Catholic Church redundant by re-appropriating its lands. In 1859 church and state were separated through the issuing of the Lay Lerdo. Although Juarez had intended for church lands to be returned to peasants and Indians they were purchased by the wealthy.

By 1861 the years of political instability had taken their toll and the nation was financially insolvent.

Juarez suspended the payment of foreign loans and, as a result, the French, Spanish and British occupied Veracruz. Although the Spanish and British withdrew the French succeeded in overthrowing the Mexican government.

In 1864 the French declared Maximilian I Austria emperor of the Mexican Empire.

After the US civil war came to an end Mexico’s powerful neighbour got involved in the conflict and helped expel France from Mexico. In 1867 the Mexicans executed Maximilian.

In 1877 Porfirio Diaz became the President, and absolute dictator, of Mexico. Diaz remained in power until 1910 and during that time he pursued modernisation in a variety of sectors and cultivated foreign investment.

Diaz did a huge amount to improve Mexico’s finances, including boosting gross domestic product fivefold, advancing exports and imports and building extensive railway networks. However, despite the good he did for the nation Diaz developed enemies as he ensured he was well compensated for his pains, filling his own pockets and gifting lands to friends.

As a result of Diaz’s actions more than 95 per cent of rural families were landless by 1910.

After a fraudulent election fracas in 1910 Francisco Madero, a wealthy Mexican, instigated the 1911 revolutionary movement, capturing the border city of Ciudad Juarez.

Diaz, who was old and frail by this time, resigned and Madero was made President in his place.

The Madero Presidency was of short-duration; he was usurped by Profirio Diaz’s nephew Felix and General Victoriano Huerta and executed in 1913.

After Huerta became president further revolutions broke out in both the north and south. During the chaos Huerta was ousted and replaced with General Venustiano Carranza.

During Carranza’s time as president the Constitution of 1917 was drafted. The constitution aimed to destroy Mexican feudalism.

Carranza was assassinated three years later and the Presidency fell to General Obregon, a man committed to focusing on social reform. He was re-elected in 1928 but assassinated soon afterwards.

Mexico became a politically altered nation after the election of General Lazaro Cardenas in 1934.

Cardenas implemented measures to modernize the country and built schools whilst widely redistributing land.

Successive Presidents variously raised and lowered Mexico’s economic fortunes and, in the last few decades the nation appears to be moving away from single-party rule and towards multiparty democracy.