Early centuries

San Lorenzo and La Venta: 1200 - 400 BC

The first civilization in central and north America develops in about 1200 BC in the coastal regions of the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the Olmec civilization, its early site is at San Lorenzo.

From about 900 BC the capital city of the Olmecs moves further east along the Gulf coast to La Venta, an island site in the Tonalá River. For the next 500 years La Venta is the cultural centre of a large region, trading with much of central America. The Olmec traditions of Sculpture and of Temple architecture, developed over eight centuries, will influence all the subsequent civilizations of the region.

The most characteristic sculptures of San Lorenzo and La Venta are astonishing creations. They are massive stone heads, more than two metres in height, of square-jawed and fat-lipped warriors, usually wearing helmets with ear flaps.

The chunky and uncompromising quality of these images will remain typical of much of the religious art of Mesoamerica, particularly in the region around Mexico City. It can be seen in the rain-god masks of Teotihuacan (about 2000 years ago), in the vast standing warriors at Tula (about 1000 years ago) and in the brutally severe monumental Sculpture of the Aztecs (500 years ago).

The first American monuments: from 1200 BC

In both the centres of Olmec civilization, at San Lorenzo and then La Venta, numerous large clay platforms are raised. At their top there are believed to have been temples, or perhaps sometimes palaces, built of wood. The concept of climbing up to a place of religious significance becomes the central theme of pre-Columbian architecture.

Its natural conclusion is the pyramid, with steps by which priests and pilgrims climb to the top (unlike the smooth-sided tomb pyramids of Egypt). La Venta initiates this long American tradition too. One of its pyramids is more than 30 metres high.

The Olmec temple complexes set the pattern for societies in America over the next 2000 years. The pyramids, with their temples and palaces, dominate the surrounding dwellings as powerfully as the priestly rulers and their rituals dominate the local community.

It is also probable that the Olmecs engage in a custom which remains characteristic of all the early civilizations of America - the ritual of human sacrifice, reaching its grisly peak in the ceremonies of the Aztecs.

The Zapotecs and Monte Alban: from 400 BC

The Zapotecs are among the first people to develop the Olmec culture in other regions. From about 400 BC at Monte Alban, to the west of the Olmec heartland, they establish a ceremonial centre with stone temple platforms.

Monte Alban eventually becomes the main city of this part of southern Mexico. Pyramids, an astronomical observatory and other cult buildings and monuments (including America's earliest carved inscriptions) are ranged in a temple district along the top of a ridge. In terraces on the slopes below there is a town of some 30,000 people. The Zapotecs thrive on this site for more than 1000 years, finally abandoning it in about AD 700.

Teotihuacan and Tikal: early centuries AD

Around the beginning of the Christian era two regions of central America begin to develop more advanced civilizations, still based on a priestly cult and on temple pyramids.

The dominant city in the northern highlands is Teotihuacan. It eventually covers eight square miles, with a great central avenue running for some two miles. At its north end is the massive Pyramid of the Moon. To one side of the avenue is the even larger Pyramid of the Sun (66 metres high). The sculptures on an early pyramid in Teotihuacan introduce Quetzalcoatl, the most important god of ancient Mesoamerica. His image is a snake's head with a necklace of feathers (the plumed serpent).

The other classic civilization of Mesoamerica is that of the Maya, developing in what is now the eastern part of Mexico and the neighbouring regions of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. Much of this region is jungle. The inaccessibility of the great centres of Maya culture (of which the largest is Tikal) means that they outlast all rivals, surviving a succession of violent changes in the civilization of central Mexico.

The first of these changes is the sudden collapse of Teotihuacan in about AD 650. It is not known for certain which invaders overrun this greatest city of ancient America. But the next people to establish themselves as rulers of the valley of Mexico, in the 10th century, are the Toltecs.

The Toltecs: 10th - 12th century

At some time after the collapse of Teotihuacan in the 7th century, migrants from the north move into the valley of Mexico. They are the Toltecs, who by the middle of the 10th century are dominating the region from a capital city at Tula. In an otherwise traditional complex of pyramid temples in the Mesoamerican style, Tula introduces one new element - the vast stone statues of warriors surmounting the main pyramid.

Late in the 10th century the Toltecs expand their empire to the north, capturing the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá and establishing a regime sometimes described as Toltec-Maya. The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá echoes the prototype at Tula.

The Toltecs lose control of their empire during the 12th century, when both Tula and Chichén Itzá are destroyed. But the Toltecs are not immediately replaced by another ruling dynasty in central Mexico. Instead the region lapses into a prolonged period of chaos and anarchy.

Not until the 14th century does a migrant tribe create a base, at what is now Mexico City, from which they will establish the last and the most powerful of the Indian empires of central America. They are the Aztecs.

The Aztecs and Mexico City: 14th century AD

The Aztecs are a tribe, according to their own legends, from Aztlan somewhere in the north of modern Mexico. From this place, which they leave in about the 12th century AD, there derives the name Aztecs by which they are known to western historians. Their own name for themselves is the Mexica, which subsequently provides the European names for Mexico City and Mexico.

After two centuries of migration and warfare, the Aztecs finally settle within the area now covered by Mexico City. They choose an uninhabited island in Lake Tetzcoco. This is either in the year 1325 or, more probably, 1345. (The difference in date depends on how the Mesoamerican 52-year Calendar cycle is integrated with the chronology of the Christian era). They call their settlement Tenochtitlan.

Their prospects in this place, where they are surrounded by enemy tribes, seem as unpromising as those of the Venetians on their bleak lagoon islands a few centuries earlier. Like Venice, against all the odds, Tenochtitlan becames the centre of a widespread empire and it does so much more rapidly, stretching across central America within a century. But unlike Venice, this is not an empire of trade. It is based on the Aztecs' ferocious cult of war.

Aztec sun rituals: 15th - 16th century AD

The patron deity of the Aztecs is Huitzilopochtli, god of war and symbol of the sun. This is a lethal combination. Every day the young warrior uses the weapon of sunlight to drive from the sky the creatures of darkness - the stars and the moon. Every evening he dies and they return. For the next day's fight he needs strength. His diet is human blood.

The need of the Aztecs to supply Huitzilopochtli chimes well with their own imperial ambitions. As they extend their empire, they gather in more captives for the sacrifice. As the sacrifices become more numerous and more frequent, there is an ever-growing need for war. And reports of the blood-drenched ceremonies strike terror into the enemy hearts required for sacrifice.

A temple at the top of a great pyramid at Tenochtitlan (now an archaeological site in Mexico City) is the location for the sacrifices. When the pyramid is enlarged in 1487, the ceremony of re-dedication involves so much bloodshed that the line of victims stretches far out of the city and the slaughter lasts four days. The god favours the hearts, which are torn from the bodies as his offering.

Festivals and sacrifice are almost continuous in the Aztec ceremonial year. Many other gods, in addition to Huitzilopochtli, have their share of the victims.

Each February children are sacrificed to maize gods on the mountain tops. In March prisoners fight to the death in gladiatorial contests, after which priests dress up in their skins. In April a maize goddess receives her share of children. In June there are sacrifices to the salt goddess. And so it goes on. It has been calculated that the annual harvest of victims, mainly to Huitzilopochtli, rises from about 10,000 a year to a figure closer to 50,000 shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The most important gods, apart from Huitzilopochtli, are the rain god Tlaloc (who has a temple beside Huitzilopochtli's on top of the great pyramid in Tenochtitlan) and Quetzalcoatl, god of fertility and the arts.

Quetzalcoatl: 10th - 16th century AD

Human sacrifice plays relatively little part in the cult of Quetzalcoatl, but the god himself has an extraordinary role in American history. The reason is that he merges in Aztec legend with a historical figure from the Mesoamerican past.

A Toltec king, the founder of Tula in about 950, is a priest of Quetzalcoatl and becomes known by the god's name. This king, described as fair-skinned and bearded, is exiled by his enemies; but he vows that he will return in the year 'One Reed' of the 52-year Calendar cycle. In 1519, a 'One Reed' year, a fair-skinned stranger lands on the east coast. The Aztecs welcome him as Quetzalcoatl. He is the Spanish conquistador Cortes.

European invasion

Cortes advances into Mexico: AD 1519

Cortes reaches the coast of Mexico, in March 1519, with eleven ships. They carry some 600 men, 16 horses and about 20 guns of various sizes. The Spanish party is soon confronted by a large number of Indians in a battle where the effect of horses and guns (both new to the Indians) is rapidly decisive. Peace is made and presents exchanged - including twenty Indian women for the Spaniards. One of them, known to the Spaniards as Doña Marina, becomes Cortes' mistress and interpreter.

Cortes then sails further along the coast and founds a settlement at Veracruz, leaving some of his party to defend it.

Before proceeding inland, Cortes makes a bold gesture. He sinks ten of his ships, claiming that they are worm-eaten and dangerous. The single surviving vessel is offered to any of his soldiers (and now sailors too, about 100 in all, liberated from their previous duties) who would prefer to return immediately to Cuba, publicly admitting that they have no stomach for the great task ahead. No one takes him up.

His small party is now irretrievably committed to the success of the adventure. Cortes leads them into the interior of the country.

The next battles, far more dangerous than the first encounters on the coast, are with the Tlaxcala people. The Spaniards eventually defeat them, and are received as conquerors in their capital city. This is a victory of great significance in the unfolding story, for the Tlaxcaltecs are in a state of permanent warfare with their dangerous neighbours. Any enemy of the Aztecs is a friend of theirs. They become, and remain, loyal allies of the Spaniards in Mexico.

In November 1519 when Cortes approaches Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, his small force is augmented by 1000 Tlaxtalecs. But to the astonishment of the Spaniards, no force is needed.

Cortes and Montezuma: AD 1519-1520

The Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, has had plenty of warning of the arrival of the fair-skinned bearded strangers. He also knows that this is a One-Reed year in the Mexican calendar cycle, when the fair-skinned bearded Quetzalcoatl will at some time return.

He sends the approaching Spaniards a succession of embassies, offering rich gifts if they will turn back. When these fail, he decides against opposing the intruders with force. Instead Cortes is greeted in Tenochtitlan, on 8 November 1519, with the courtesy due to Quetzalcoatl or his emissary. In the words of one of the small band of conquistadors, they seemed to have luck on their side.

For a week Cortes and his companions enjoy the hospitality of the emperor. They sit in his hall of audience and attempt to convert him to Christianity. They clatter round his city on their horses, in full armour, to see the sights (they are particularly shocked by the slab for Human sacrifice and the newly extracted hearts at the top of the temple pyramid).

But Cortes is well aware of the extreme danger of the situation. He devises a plan by which the emperor will be removed from his own palace and transferred to the building where the Spaniards are lodged.

The capture of the emperor is carried out with a brilliantly controlled blend of persuasion and threat. The result is that Montezuma appears to maintain his full court procedure under Spanish protection. A few hundred Spaniards have taken control of the mighty Aztec empire.

During the next year, 1520, chaos and upheaval result from the approach of a rival Spanish expedition, launched from Cuba to deprive Cortes of his spoils. He is able to defeat it, but at a high price. In his absence the 80 Spaniards left in Tenochtitlan lose control of the city - largely thanks to their own barbarous treatment of the inhabitants.

When Cortes returns, he finds garrison and emperor besieged together. He persuades Montezuma to address his people from a turret, urging peace. The hail of missiles greeting this attempt leaves the emperor mortally wounded.

The situation is now so desperate that Cortes withdraws his army from the city in haste, in July 1520, during 'the Sorrowful Night'. With Tlaxcala assistance he captures it again a year later, on 13 August 1521. There is no further Aztec resistance. The conquest of central Mexico is complete.

A brutal end: AD 1521-1533

The destruction by the Spaniards of the great Inca empire in Peru, twelve years after the similar fate of the Aztecs, brings to an effective end nearly three millennia of indigenous civilization in America - though the Maya, hard to suppress in the Yucatan jungle, preserve for a while their own ways.

The Spanish destroy the precious artefacts of these cultures with an unprecedented thoroughness - mainly in their lust for gold and silver, but sometimes (as with Mayan manuscripts) as an ideological assault on paganism. The result is that there is relatively little to show now for these rich cultures and their highly skilled crafts. Only the great Pyramid mounds of their temples stand today as gaunt witnesses of a vivid past.

Spanish empire

New Spain: AD 1521-1539

From early in the colonial period Mexico is a cornerstone of the Spanish empire. Royal officials are sent out in 1523 to rule what Cortes has conquered, and the area is given in 1535 the status of a Viceroyalty under the title New Spain. The viceroy controls not only Mexico but the entire Caribbean - though from as early as 1539 part of this large territory has some autonomy as the captaincy general of Guatemala.

Naturally the first royal officials are newcomers from Spain. But it will remain royal policy to send out a Spanish-born governing clique (who become much resented locally as peninsulares or gachupines) rather than allowing any real power to the colonial settlers.

Spanish settlement is first achieved on the semi-feudal basis of allotting Encomiendas to Conquistadors. At the same time friars arrive in large numbers to fulfil one of the main purposes (in contemporary eyes) of an otherwise brutal and grasping campaign of conquest. This more respectable purpose is to bring Christianity to the unenlightened inhabitants of America.

The thoroughness of the conversions, soon claimed by the friars in impressively large numbers, may be doubted. But missionaries such as Las casas make great efforts to protect the Indians from their new masters. And at Guadalupe, as early as 1531, Mexico is blessed with a miracle which reconciles many to the religion being thrust upon them.

The Virgin of Guadalupe: AD 1531

A major difficulty for the friars, in attempting to convert the Indians, is that Jesus Christ is inevitably seen as the god of an alien race of white conquerors. This problem is neatly solved by a miracle.

Near Tenochtitlan (subsequently the site of Mexico City) there is a hill sacred to the goddess Tonantzin, who is believed by the Aztecs to be the virgin mother of several other gods. Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Christianity, is on this hill in 1531 when a beautiful Indian lady, dressed in rich clothes, appears to him in a vision. She speaks to him in his own language, Nahuatl. She tells him that she is the Mother of God and 'one of his kind'.

Juan Diego asks how he can prove that he has seen her. She tells him to gather the flowers from the hilltop in his cloak and to give the bundle to his bishop. When he does so, a miraculous image of the Virgin with Indian features is found to be imprinted on the fabric.

The Aztec virgin rapidly becomes the most popular saint in Mexico. Her image is even today Mexico's most sacred object - still supposedly on Juan Diego's cloak, and seen through the centuries above the altar in the succession of churches built at Guadalupe to house the famous icon.

Expansion to the north: 16th - 18th century AD

The desert regions to the north of Mexico are of little appeal to Spanish settlers in the 16th century, though the familiar rumours of cities paved with gold prompt treasure-seeking expeditions into New Mexico and parts of Texas in 1540 and again in 1598. No treasure is found, but interesting details are brought back of the Indians living in the region - particularly of the Pueblo in their multi-storied towns.

The religious orders in Mexico are naturally stimulated by the news of more Indian tribes awaiting the Christian truth. Friars move into New Mexico, which becomes essentially a mission frontier - though there is a Spanish administration based in Santa Fe from 1610.

By the mid-18th century New Mexico is a reasonably stable northern province of New Spain. At the same period there is very sparse Spanish settlement in Texas (partly in response to French penetration of the area from neighbouring Louisiana). And there is a sudden new interest in California, where again the pioneering efforts at settlement have been made by Roman Catholic missions.

In California, as in Texas, the impulse to settle the regions is largely in response to external pressures. The Spanish government, which maintains a claim to the entire Pacific coast of America, feels threatened by a new Russian interest in the area after the second voyage of Vitus Bering.

In the early 19th century, when the movement for independence is sweeping through Latin america, the region of New Spain is in many ways unlike other provinces. The social fabric of this long-standing Spanish viceroyalty is deeply conservative in its loyalty to crown and church.

This characteristic is significant in Mexico's eventual achievement of independence, in 1821. Yet the first step towards independence is more in keeping with the mood prevailing elsewhere. The famous 'cry of Dolores' in 1810 is brave and in the end unsuccessful. But it is undeniably a romantic gesture of revolution.

The cry of Dolores: AD 1810-1815

Napoleon's seizure of the Spanish throne in 1808 provokes many secret societies in Mexico - devoted either to the cause of the deposed Ferdinand vii or to full independence from Spain. One such society, in San Miguel near Dolores, is betrayed to the police. Some members are arrested, others flee. But one, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, has a different response.

Hidalgo is a parish priest in Dolores. On 16 September 1810 (celebrated now as Mexico's independence day) he rings the bell of his church to summon the parishioners. He then makes an inflammatory speech, proclaiming an end to Spanish rule, equality for Mexico's various races, and redistribution of land.

This passionate manifesto, which becomes known as the grito de Dolores (cry of Dolores), has immense appeal to the poor and underprivileged, whether they be mestizos or Indians. Hidalgo selects as his banner Mexico's most famous image, powerfully effective in this context. It is the Virgin of guadalupe, an icon of the Virgin Mary with Indian features.

Vast excited crowds rally to this banner. They sweep through the towns between Dolores and Mexico City, arriving eventually at the gates of the capital itself. Here, mysteriously, Hidalgo pauses. The impetus is lost. His followers begin to drift away.

Hidalgo's remaining forces are defeated at the bridge of Calderón, near Guadalajara, in January 1811. Fleeing north, hoping to reach safety in the United States, the priest is captured, defrocked and tried. He is put before a firing squad in Chihuahua in July. But his cause survives for several more years under the leadership of his colleague José María Morelos y Pavón, also a priest.

Morelos is a more practical leader than Hidalgo. Victories at Oaxaca in 1812 and Acapulco in 1813 give him control of most of southern Mexico. In 1813 he summons a congress at Chilpancingo. In November the congress declares Mexican independence.

In the following year, 1814, the Spanish position is strengthened when Ferdinand vii is restored to his throne and reinforcements can be sent out to Spanish America. Morelos is captured in October 1815. Like Hidalgo, he is defrocked and is shot as a rebel.

For the next five years the independence movement is checked in Mexico. When it revives, in 1820, Mexico is once again out of step with the rest of Spanish America. Elsewhere liberal sentiments have encouraged rebellion against Spain. In Mexico the precise opposite happens. Fear of liberalism provides the impulse which finally brings Mexican independence.

Agustín de Iturbide: AD 1820-1824

In 1820 a coup in Spain against the reactionary Ferdinand VII forces him to bring in a liberal government (see Liberal and conservative). It is this development, profoundly unwelcome to Catholic and conservative circles in Mexico, which results in the sudden break with Spain.

The agent of change is a Creole officer in the Spanish army, Agustín de Iturbide, who has won his reputation by his severity and violence against the independence movements of Hidalgo and Morelos. He now abruptly changes sides, finding a formula which unites nearly all Mexicans behind him. His policy, published at Iguala in February 1821, has three distinct strands.

In his Plan of Iguala, Iturbide proclaims immediate independence from Spain, promises equality for Creoles and peninsulares in the new Mexico, and declares a ban on all religions or sects other than Roman Catholicism. With this programme Iturbide is able to lead a force, known as the Army of the Three Guarantees, which rapidly wins control over the whole of Mexico.

A newly arrived viceroy, sent out by the liberal government in Spain, signs on 24 August 1821 the treaty of Cordóba recognizing the independence of Mexico (a concession subsequently but ineffectually denied by the Spanish crown).

With this much so rapidly achieved, the recent alliance between the many factions of Mexico soon crumbles. Iturbide makes use of the prevailing chaos to declare himself emperor of the new nation, as Agustín I, in May 1822. The notion of a republic was never part of his programme (his stated intention was to offer the crown to some European prince).

In the event the self-appointed emperor proves an incompetent ruler and loses the support of his army. He abdicates, in March 1823, and goes to Europe. His turbulent story ends when he returns in 1824, unaware that he has been condemned to death in his absence. He is captured and executed. But whatever the upheavals and uncertainties, Mexico is now undeniably independent.

With this much so rapidly achieved, the recent alliance between the many factions of Mexico soon crumbles. Iturbide makes use of the prevailing chaos to declare himself emperor of the new nation, as Agustín I, in May 1822.

The empire proves to be short-lived (losing the support of the army, the emperor is forced to abdicate in 1823). But during his two years in power, Iturbide nominally rules over an area larger than Mexico itself. His winning of independence for Mexico in 1821 enables the neighbouring captaincy general of Guatemala to take the same step without bloodshed.

When regions in Latin America declare independence, their new status is soon accepted by major powers with interests different from Spain's. Britain (sensing commercial opportunities) and the USA (in the decade of the Monroe doctrine) recognize most of the new nations during the 1820s.

Spain, understandably, drags her feet. Even though the liberal Spanish viceroy accepts Mexican independence in 1821, the more conservative Spanish crown refuses to do so until 1839. Honduras has to wait for Spanish recognition until 1895. But in reality the Spanish empire in continental America ends with the loss of Mexico and Guatemala in 1821 - a year in which Spain also loses Santo domingo, in the Caribbean.


The era of Santa Anna: AD 1823-1867

The early decades of the Mexican republic (proclaimed in 1823, when Iturbide abdicates) fall into a pattern characteristic of much of Latin America at the period. Political allegiances divide into two broad camps, associated with the liberals (anti-clerical and favouring a federal constitution with maximum independence for the provinces) and the conservatives (believing in strong central rule and an important role for the church - see Liberal and conservative).

These distinctions often dignify what is in effect little more than factional anarchy. The situation is further confused by the personal dominance of leaders in the local Caudíllo tradition.

Mexico has a quintessential Caudíllo in the person of Antonio López de Santa Anna. An army officer of considerable charisma, but entirely lacking in consistency or scruple, Santa Anna manages to become president of Mexico for five separate periods between 1833 and 1855 - often with dictatorial powers, and at different times representing liberal and conservative interests.

After being banished in 1855, Santa Anna attempts a final return to Mexican politics ten years later. He offers his services first in support of the emperor Maximilian and then, when this approach is rejected, volunteers to assist the forces trying to overthrow the emperor.

Santa Anna is by now too old, and his scheming too cynical even by his own standards, for this final ploy to succeed. But the very attempt means that his career, spanning the first four decades of independence, involves him in the three great issues which shape the early republic - the war in Texas (1835-6), the war against the United States (1846-8), and the brief empire imposed by France (1864-7).

The first of these crises is the result of Mexicans becoming a minority within Texas. The issue flares up during a period when Santa Anna is president with dictatorial powers. As an experienced army officer, he decides to take personal charge of the campaign - with disastrous results.

Texas: AD 1821-1836

From the 16th century Texas, though much neglected, has been a northern region of Spanish Mexico, or New spain. It is formally recognized as such in the border Agreement of 1819, when any US claims to the territory are relinquished. Just two years later Mexico wins independence from Spain.

Later in 1821 a 27-year-old American, Stephen Austin, arrives in Texas with 300 families to establish a settlement. They are the first of many. By the early 1830s there are some 30,000 Americans in Texas and only about 7000 Mexicans. Friction would be inevitable in these circumstances, but it is aggravated by the issue of slavery.

The Americans, from the southern states, bring slaves to work the cotton plantations which they establish. The republican government of Mexico, outlawing slavery, places garrisons in Texas in an attempt to discipline the unruly colonists.

In 1835 the colonists rise in rebellion and capture San Antonio. The town is recovered in March 1836 by the Mexican commander, Santa Anna, apart from one building - the Alamo, an old Franciscan chapel in a walled complex, which is held by fewer than 200 Texans (among them Davy Crockett). In the most famous event of early Texan history, the defenders hold out for twelve days and account for 1000 or more Mexicans before themselves being overwhelmed and killed.

The fall of the Alamo is followed by a massacre at Goliad where 300 Texan soldiers, surrendering after a battle, are killed in cold blood on the orders of Santa Anna. The settlers have recently declared their independence, as the republic of Texas. It is a claim soon sealed by a convincing victory.

In April 1836 Sam Houston surprises Santa Anna's army taking a siesta near the San Jacinto river. In a brief skirmish his men kill 600 and capture another 200, including Santa Anna. With this event the tide turns. Mexico makes no further effort to suppress the Texan rebellion, while nevertheless denying the independence of the self-proclaimed republic - of which Houston is elected president.

In the United States, on the other hand, the new republic is immediately recognized. There is also a widespread feeling that Texas should be included in the union, as the colonists themselves wish. In the 1844 presidential campaign the Democratic candidate, James Polk, is elected on a platform supporting the annexation of Texas. In 1845 congress admits the Texan republic (by now home to 140,000 Americans) as the 28th state of the union, regardless of Mexico's undeniable claim to the region.

This in itself would be sufficient pretext for war. Another likely cause, unadmitted, is President Polk's yearning for yet more of Mexico - rich California. And there is also an unresolved dispute over the boundary of Texas.

American and Mexican War: AD 1846-1848

The Americans in Texas claim that the southern boundary of their province is the Rio Grande. The Mexicans maintain that it is the Nueces river, more than 100 miles to the north. War breaks out in 1846 when President Polk sends an American army under Zachary Taylor into the disputed region, prompting the Mexicans to take the same step in retaliation.

Taylor makes little progress into northern Mexico beyond the city of Monterrey, which he captures in September 1846. During that winter Polk tries another tactic. He sends an American army under Winfield Scott by sea to the Gulf of Mexico.

In March 1847 Scott takes the port of Veracruz after a three-week siege. He then marches inland and defeats Santa Anna (once again serving as Mexico's president) at Cerro Gordo. Though strongly opposed in the mountainous terrain, he reaches Mexico City. He enters the capital in September.

The resulting treaty, signed in Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, gives Polk all that he has hoped for. In return for a payment of $15 million, Mexico cedes to the USA the territory now forming the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California. With suitable forethought, during the course of the war, US forces have already occupied the only developed parts of this vast region, New Mexico and California.

This treaty of 1848 establishes the southern border of the USA along the line which has prevailed ever since. Meanwhile, in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, the northern frontier with British North America has also been agreed. It runs along the 49th parallel to the Pacific coast, acknowledging as US territory the region which will become the states of Oregon (in 1859) and Washington (in 1889).

With these developments the boundaries of the entire continent north of Mexico are settled, except for a somewhat indeterminate one to the northwest of Canada in the remote and inhospitable regions of the Yukon. West of this natural frontier, in Alaska, the landlord in the mid-19th century is still the Russian tsar.

Reform and civil war: AD 1848-1861

In the aftermath of the humiliating capitulation to the United States, Mexico's politicians argue that drastic reforms are needed to save the republic. In this mood both liberals and conservatives gradually move to more extreme positions.

The conservatives are the first to seize control by force, in a coup of 1853. They then make the astonishing decision, in view of his record, of inviting Santa Anna to assume power as dictator. He proves so ineffectual that he is easily toppled in 1855 by a liberal rebellion, led by Juan Alvarez and Ignacio Comonfort. Together they launch a radical programme which becomes known simply as the Reform.

The central aim of the Reform is to transform Mexico into a secular democracy. This involves abolishing the special privileges enjoyed by the church and the military, together with the forced sale of all church lands not used for specifically religious purposes. A constitution putting in place a secular government is proclaimed in 1857. Comonfort is elected president.

The church fights back by excommunicating any official who takes the oath required by the new constitution. The result is the full-scale outbreak of the civil war which has been simmering for several years. The conservatives seize Mexico City in January 1858. Comonfort escapes into exile.

The closest ally of the liberal leaders Alvarez and Comonfort has been Benito Juárez, the most remarkable figure in Mexican history of this period. A full-blooded Indian, the son of Zapotec parents on both sides, he has begun his working life as a domestic servant before making a career as a lawyer and liberal revolutionary.

In 1858 he is chosen to succeed Comonfort as the legitimate president under the previous year's constitution. He maintains his government in Veracruz, the nation's main port, and in 1859 succeeds in winning the diplomatic support of the US president James Buchanan (Britain and France, by contrast, align themselves with the conservatives).

In 1860 the liberals begin to make extensive gains in the civil war, and on the first day of 1861 their army enters Mexico City. The conservative leaders, in their turn, flee into exile. Juárez is constitutionally elected president, but the nation which he now governs is bankrupt. To tackle the economic crisis he suspends for two years all interest payments on Mexico's massive foreign debt.

In doing so he plays into the hands of the European supporters of the conservative faction. Britain, France and Spain send a joint force to Mexico to protect their investments.

A tale of two emperors: AD 1862-1867

In January 1862 an army of 8500 French and Spanish troops and 700 British marines occupies the city of Veracruz. But within two months this European alliance falls apart, when it becomes evident that the allies have different intentions. Britain is mainly interested in using the customs collected at Veracruz to service the debt. French policy by contrast, following a grandiose notion of the emperor Napoleon iii, envisages the conquest of Mexico and the establishment of a new Catholic empire in America.

In March, when the split becomes clear, the British and the Spanish embark for home. The French march inland.

The French forces meet stronger opposition than they expect (they are defeated in their first engagement against the Mexicans, at Puebla in May 1862), but with the help of reinforcements from France they have more success during 1863. In June they capture Mexico City. The Mexican president, Juárez, flees to the north of the country where he continues a military campaign against the French intervention.

With Mexico City in French hands, the central purpose of Napoleon iii's plan can come into effect. A hastily convened conservative assembly is persuaded to declare Mexico an empire and to offer the crown to a European prince. The candidate has already been selected by Napoleon.

The unfortunate recipient of this poisoned chalice is the 31-year-old archduke Maximilian, a younger brother of the Austrian emperor Francis joseph. Napoleon, who has recently gone to war in Italy to liberate the Austrian provinces there, now sees an advantage in a Franco-Austrian alliance.

Maximilian is one of history's tragic figures. Liberal, idealistic, courageous, naive, he is only persuaded to go to Mexico (after much deliberation) on the false assurance that the Mexicans have voted him the crown - and on the promise that the 33,000 French troops now on Mexican soil will not be withdrawn before his position is secure.

Maximilian and his young wife Carlota (originally Charlotte, daughter of Leopold I of Belgium) are crowned emperor and empress in June 1864 in the cathedral in Mexico City.

Maximilian sets about ruling as a liberal monarch. He retains the reforms brought in by Juárez. He refuses to restore church lands. He takes steps to improve the lot of Indian labourers on the great landed estates. He launches educational schemes, founds a national art gallery, plans public parks and shady avenues. But meanwhile his nation is at war. Juárez is unremitting in his determination to restore the Mexican republic. And real power at the centre is held not so much by Maximilian as by the commander of the French troops.

Two events in 1865 prove a turning point, one in Mexico and the other abroad. Maximilian is persuaded by the French commander to pass an emergency decree allowing for the summary court martial and execution of any members of unauthorized armed groups. And the American Civil war is brought to a close, enabling the US to pay belated attention to a blatant infringement of the Monroe doctrine.

Under pressure from the secretary of state William H. Seward (and also from public opinion in France), Napoleon in 1866 orders the French troops to withdraw from Mexico. He expects Maximilian to come with them. But the idealistic young emperor considers it his duty to stay with his people.

Maximilian and his small army are soon surrounded at Querétaro. The emperor and his two leading generals are courtmartialled and condemned to death. In spite of numerous appeals for clemency arriving from Europe, Juárez upholds the sentence - partly in retaliation for Maximilian's harsh decree of 1865. The scene of the three men being shot has been immortalized in a painting by Manet.

This Mexican fiasco is but one staging post in the downfall of the French emperor, Napoleon iii, who is himself deposed in 1870. But it leaves the Mexican liberals in a greatly strengthened position. The next four decades belong mainly to one of Juárez's chief lieutenants, Porfirio Díaz.

Juárez Lerdo and Díaz: AD 1867-1911

Benito Juárez is re-elected president in 1867 and again in 1871. On this latter occasion the Liberal party splits three ways. Juárez is opposed by Sebastián Lerdo and Porfirio Díaz, two of his leading colleagues from the years of resistance. Juárez wins, but dies in office in the following year.

Lerdo succeeds him as president, but during the 1870s Díaz makes several attempts at rebellion. On his third bid, in 1876, he succeeds. Díaz defeats Lerdo's government forces at Tecoac in November, and in May 1877 is himself formally elected president. Apart from one short period (1880-84, when he hands the presidency to a trusted subordinate), Díaz remains in power until 1911.

Although emerging from the liberal tradition personified by Juárez, the taste of power transforms Díaz into a classic example of the Latin American Caudíllo. He rules as a dictator, manipulating the press, imprisoning and sometimes assassinating political opponents, and changing the constitution to ensure that he can remain in office for an indefinite period on the basis of rigged elections every four years.

His economic policies do nothing to help Mexico's poor, but they have a beneficial effect on the economy as a whole. Foreign investment is encouraged. There are major developments in railways, mines, telegraphy, textile industries and eventually oil.

Inevitably the new wealth accumulates in the hands of the richer classes and of foreign companies. Agrarian problems are made worse after a law of 1894 allows public land to be sold cheaply with no limit on individual ownership. By the first decade of the new century the elderly Díaz (seventy in 1900) is imposing his erratic personal will on a nation seething with multiple and justified resentments.

The eventual reaction is sparked by an idealistic liberal, Francisco Madero, who stands against Díaz in the election of 1910. Madero is arrested just before polling begins. But he escapes and reaches Texas, where he issues a pamphlet demanding democracy. He even specifies a date for the revolution to begin - 20 November 1910.

20th century

Revolution: AD 1910-1920

The Mexican revolution, beginning in 1910, evolves as a long and complex sequence of violent events lasting ten years. By May 1911 it has acquired sufficient impetus for the ageing dictator Díaz to be compelled to resign. He escapes into exile. Francisco Madero is elected president.

Madero's moderate policies please no one. In 1913 he is toppled and murdered in a coup led by the army commander, Victoriano Huerta. Huerta's assumption of the presidency restores the condition of dictatorship from which the country has so recently escaped. But he is rapidly deposed in 1914, in a coup which is immediately followed by civil war.

Two of the main contenders in the civil war are romantic figures in a Mexican bandit tradition. Pancho Villa, son of a labourer and a fugitive from justice from an early age, forms a private army several thousand strong which becomes known as the Division of the North.

Emiliano Zapata, also the son of a peasant, wins a reputation among the dispossed of southern Mexico for leading peasant groups in the seizure of land (using a famous slogan Tierra y Libertad, 'Land and Liberty'). He too becomes the commander of a guerrilla force numbering eventually some 25,000 men - the Liberation Army of the South.

Both men fight on behalf of Madero in the early stage of the revolution in 1911. Both take part in the toppling of Huerta in 1914. But there is also a third and more conventional group in the struggle against Huerta. This is a moderate political party, known as the Constitutionalists and led by a landowner, Venustiano Carranza.

Once victory over Huerta has been jointly achieved, civil war develops between these three groups of former allies. Usually, but not always, the conflict is between the two guerrilla leaders on one side and the Constitutionalists on the other.

In November 1914 Villa's and Zapata's armies together occupy Mexico City (where the citizens are impressed by the courteous ways of these peasant guerrillas). But over the next two years it is Carranza's forces which gradually prevail. By May 1917 he is in a strong enough position to be formally elected president.

The election takes place under the terms of a radical new constitution of 1917, promising extensive measures of land and labour reform. Carranza, conservative by nature, probably has little intention of delivering these reforms. But his scope for action is anyway limited by a continuing guerrilla campaign against his regime, carried out by Villa and Zapata.

These years of unrest are brought to an end in 1920 when a swift and effective coup against Carranza is carried out by one of his best generals, Alvara Obregón. Obregón's own election as president, in December 1920, ushers in a welcome period of calm after the decade of ceaseless revolution.

The main rivals in the civil war all come to a violent end. Zapata is tricked, in April 1919, into attending a meeting where he is ambushed and shot by Carranza's troops. Carranza is murdered in May 1920 while attempting to flee to Veracruz. Villa is granted a pardon by Obregón on condition that he retires to his ranch, where he is assassinated in 1923.

Obregón and Calles: AD 1920-1928

During the years of the revolution Obregón has been the most successful soldier in Mexico, regularly winning victories on behalf of Carranza, but he has also been a consistently radical voice in the politics of the time. In any area where he establishes control, against the forces of either Villa or zapata, he introduces minimum wages and maximum hours for labour and takes measures to restrain the church.

Such policies also characterize his four years in office, when he begins to put into effect the reforms envisaged in the Constitution of 1917 (in the shaping of which Obregón has himself been a powerful influence on the radical side).

An administrative framework is set up for the redistribution of land to the peasants (a modest beginning is made with some 3 million acres), educational programmes are initiated, support is given to organized labour and measures are taken against the church. Obregón continues to display his other skill, as a general, when he marches in 1923 to defeat a right-wing rebellion which has the tacit support of at least half the army.

At the end of his term, in 1924, Obregón is succeeded as president by his friend (and his secretary of the interior), Plutarco Elías Calles.

Calles continues Obregón's policies (a further 8 million acres are redistributed in the programme of land reform). His term in office sees the first effective reaction by the church to the anti-clerical policies of the revolution. In 1926 the clergy adopt a weapon more normally associated with industrial workers. They go on strike. For nearly three years not a single church service of any kind is held in Mexico, though the buildings themselves remain open for prayer.

During this period there is also a more violent and dramatic manifestation of religious reaction.

In 1928 Obregón is again elected president, in a sequence which already seems to be assuring unprecedented continuity for the party of revolution - though this year's elections are marred by the use of terror and violence by both revolutionary and conservative supporters.

Shortly after the election Obregón is attending a private victory celebration when he is shot by a Roman Catholic assassin outraged at the recent anti-clerical policies. But Obregón's death does nothing to halt the progress of his faction. Instead, it is given lasting presence in Mexican political life when Calles establishes, in 1929, the National Revolutionary party.

A party by any other name: from AD 1929

The party founded by Calles in 1929 retains power in Mexico for seventy-one years, albeit under a succession of different names. It starts as the PNR (Partido Nacional Revolucionario, National Revolutionary Party), becomes in 1938 the PRM (Partido Revolucionario Mexicano, Mexican Revolutionary Party) and in 1946 acquires its lasting name as the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Institutional Revolutionary Party).

Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the revolutionary party remains one and the same. Since it wins by a wide margin every presidential election to the end of the 20th century, Mexico becomes effectively a one-party democracy. Party nomination for the presidency is tantamount to election.

As in any political system (unless totalitarian) there are regular and open disagreements about policy. But these develop in Mexico as left-wing and right-wing factions within the PRI. As different groups within the party gain influence, national policy shifts accordingly.

For most of the period from 1929 the chosen model is a centrally directed economy in which measures of reform are introduced gradually. The redistribution of land, for example, is for much of the period a slow but continuing process. By 1940 about 115 million acres have been divided among peasants (even so, more than this remains in private hands in the large estates). During the 1960s another 40 million acres are redistributed.

The major turning point in the Mexican economy is the nationalization, by Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938, of the holdings of the foreign oil companies (the immediate pretext is their refusal to comply with the wages and conditions for their workers demanded by Cárdenas and his reforming government).

The possession of oil brings Mexico increasing prosperity after World War II. It opens the doors of international banks, whose loans fund ambitious programmes of industrialization. Vast new reserves of oil are discovered in 1976 in the Tabasco and Chiapas regions. The proceeds are confidently expected to service an international debt amounting by this time to some $80 billion.

However this rapid growth in the economy is accompanied by the familiar perils of high unemployment, high inflation, a falling exchange rate and the flight of capital as wealthy Mexicans invest more securely abroad. In 1976 José López Portillo, the newly elected president, nationalizes the banks and imposes tight currency controls.

The situation is made worse by the collapse of world oil prices in the 1980s. Meanwhile the effect of long single-party rule is beginning to be reflected in increasing charges of corruption. To add to these problems, an earthquake devastates Mexico City in 1985, killing some 7000 people. Circumstances are conspiring to tarnish the undeniable achievements of the PRI.

Opposition and Zapatistas: the 1990s

During the 1980s there is the first sign of an opposition party which can claim some long-term chance of success against the RPI. Representing right-wing interests, it is known as the PAN (Partido de Acción Nacional, National Action Party). By the 1990s there is also another effective party of opposition in the form of the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, Party of the Democratic Revolution).

Continuing crises, both economic and political, give the ruling PRI an incentive to cooperate with these emerging parties in improving Mexico's democracy.

On the economic front the PRI's long-standing commitment to a centralized state economy begins to be dismantled during the 1990s by measures of Privatization - the panacaea of the period in many parts of the world. But Mexico's status as an emerging capitalist economy is shaken by two crises. A devaluation in 1994 gets out of control and leads to a collapse in the stock market. The situation is only recovered during 1995 by IMF support and a stringent austerity programme.

A similar collapse of stock market and of peso occurs in November 1997 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Again international support averts disaster.

In political terms the main crisis of the 1990s is the emergence of various groups of guerrillas. The first is the ZNLA (Zapatista National Liberation Army), which in 1994 seizes towns in the southern state of Chiapas and demands work and welfare for Mexico's poverty-stricken population of Maya Indians. Government efforts to negotiate an end to Zapatista insurgency continue through the rest of the decade, but without any final resolution.

Two other guerrilla groups move into action in 1996 - the EPR (People's Revolutionary Army) and ERIP (Popular Insurgency Revolutionary Army).

Meanwhile, the ruling party is rocked by two assassinations in 1994. The victims are the party's presidential candidate (Luis Donaldo Colosio) and secretary-general (José Francisco Ruiz Massieu). The disaster is compounded by widespread suspicion that the murders have been carried out on behalf of rivals high within the PRI itself, with possible links to Mexico's drug mafia.

These various circumstances induce the PRI to agree measures of electoral reform with the opposition parties, ensuring at least that elections henceforth are fairly conducted and properly supervised (something never previously to be relied upon).

Voting takes place on the new basis for the mid-term elections in 1997, and the result is a sensational first dent for nearly seventy years in the single-party dominance of Mexican politics. The PRI retains control of the senate and remains the largest party in the chamber of deputies, but it loses control of the lower chamber to a coalition of its opponents.

The president of Mexico, elected in 1994, is Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (who replaced Colosio as the PRI candidate when Colosio was assassinated on the campaign trail in March 1994).

The shift in Mexico's long-established political order continues dramatically in the presidential election of July 2000. Vicente Fox, leader of the centre-right PAN (National Action Party) wins by a convincing margin over the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida. For the first time in seventy-one years the government of Mexico is in the hands of a politician outside the revolutionary party founded by Plutarco Elías Calles in 1929.

The most dramatic event early in Fox's presidency is the peaceful march on Mexico City in March 2001 by the Zapatista Liberation Army, led by Subcomandante Marcos. Laying down their arms after seven years of insurgency, the guerillas hope to achieve the passage of a bill of rights by negotiation with the president.
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