BY ALBERT A. PALACIOS
THE VICEROYALTY OF NEW SPAIN was a royal territory in the Spanish Empire formed soon after the invasion and conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. Even though the viceroyalty was not formally founded until 1535, the Spanish Crown set its administrative bedrock the year after the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlán. In 1522, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V established the Captaincy-General of New Spain, and in 1527, he created the Audiencia of Mexico, a royal court with judicial, executive, and legislative powers. In parallel, the Catholic Church appointed bishops and organized the dioceses of Tlaxcala-Puebla and Mexico in 1525 and 1530 to acculturate the Indigenous people. Collectively, the overlapping royal and ecclesiastical governments instigated and oversaw the colonization of North and Central America.
Throughout the centuries, this colonial bureaucracy became more complex as the imperial expansion unfolded. By the eighteenth century, the viceroyalty comprised five royal audiencias and over twelve Catholic dioceses. Together, these territories covered a vast area that included present-day Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, Florida, the U.S. Midwest and Southwest, California, and the Philippines.
New Spain started its final century when the end of the Hapsburg dynasty led to the ascension of the French Bourbon house in 1700. Through an empire-wide reorganization known as the Bourbon Reforms, the incoming monarchy revoked regional privileges in order to centralize power in Europe. This shift worsened the ongoing marginalization of criollos (American-born Spaniards) in the political, economic, and religious administration of the viceroyalty, straining the king–vassal state relationship. The draining of American coffers to fund the Bourbon Crown’s European wars, coupled with the monarchical crisis caused by the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), eventually sparked an independence movement in Mexico and throughout Latin America. After a protracted war for independence (1810–1821), the Viceroyalty of New Spain dissolved to give way to a new Mexican Empire under a turncoat army general, Agustín de Iturbide.
A New Spain, 1521–1821, an online exhibition, traces the cultural, social, and political evolution of the Viceroyalty of New Spain from the fall of Moctezuma’s Mexico-Tenochtitlán in 1521 until the rise of Iturbide’s Mexican Empire in 1821. Divided into thematic sections, the exhibit explores a wide variety of topics and issues, including imperial expansion and defense; identity formation and negotiation; and cultural continuity, transculturation, and resistance in novohispano society. This following are selected materials from the online exhibition.
The online exhibition opened in spring 2021, with new installments released over the course of several months. The materials on display are from the Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin, with contributions from the C. L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, The University of Texas at El Paso, through a collaboration funded by a Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant.
Albert A. Palacios, PhD, is a historian and the LLILAS Benson digital scholarship coordinator. He is curator of the online exhibition series A New Spain, 1521–1821.