History of Mexico (Bancroft)/Volume 1/Preface


As the third greatest of the world's republics, wherein society and civilization are displayed under somewhat abnormal aspects, under aspects at least widely different from those present in other than Spanish-speaking communities, configurations and climates, races and race intermixtures, civil and religious polities, and the whole range of mental and physical environment being in so many respects exceptional and individual, Mexico presents a study one of the most interesting and profitable of any among the nations of to-day.

A brilliant though unjust and merciless conquest was followed by the enforcement of Spain's institutions upon the survivors, who were themselves so far advanced in arts, industries, and intellectual culture as to render such metamorphosis most disastrous. After the awful success of Cortés, Spain neither exterminated the natives, like the United States, nor left them in their aboriginal independence, like the fur-magnates of British America. Aiming at the utmost kindness, the Spanish government fastened on body and soul the iron fetters of tyranny and superstition; aiming at liberty and humanity, slavery and wrong were permitted. With grants of land, grants of men and women were made. The church fought valiantly against the evils of the encomienda system, and against the cruelty and injustice imposed by the colonists upon the natives. There was here little of that wholesome indifference to the welfare of her colonies later manifested by England with regard to her settlements in America. Spain's American possessions belonged not to the Spanish people but to the Spanish sovereign; the lands and the people were the king's, to be held or disposed of as he should direct. Hence among the people were encouraged dividing castes; commerce was placed under the severest restrictions, and in many ways it became clear that provinces were held and governed almost exclusively for the benefit of the crown. And so they remained, Europeans and Americans intermingling their loves and hates for three hundred years, which was indeed Mexico's dark age, two civilizations being well nigh crushed therein. Light at last breaking in upon the people, the three centuries of viceregal rule were brought to a close by their taking a stand for independence, such as their Anglo-American neighbor had so recently achieved. And now during these latter days of swift progression Mexico is happily aroused from her lethargy, and is taking her proper place among the enlightened nations of the earth, to the heart-felt joy of all.

The first of the five great periods of Mexican history, embracing the aboriginal annals of Anáhuac, has been exhaustively treated in the fifth volume of my Native Races. The second is that of the conquest by Cortés; the third covers nearly three centuries of viceregal rule in New Spain; the fourth comprises the struggle for independence and the founding of the republic; and the fifth extends thence to the present time, including as salient features a series of internal revolutions, the war with the United States, the imperial experiment of Maximilian, and the peaceful development of national industries and power in recent years. It is my purpose to present on a national scale, and in a space symmetrically proportioned to the importance of each, the record of the four successive periods.

The conquest of Mexico, filling the present and part of another volume, has been treated by many writers, and in a masterly manner. In the three periods of Mexican history following the conquest there is no comprehensive work extant in English; nor is there any such work in Spanish that if translated would prove entirely satisfactory to English readers. Of the few Spanish and Mexican writers whose researches have extended over the whole field, or large portions of it, none have been conspicuously successful in freeing themselves from the quicksands of race prejudice, of religious feeling, of patriotic impulse, of political partisanship; none have had a satisfactory command of existing authorities; none in the matter of space have made a symmetrical division of the periods, or have appreciated the relative importance of different topics as they appear to any but Spanish eyes. Yet there has been no lack among these writers of careful investigation or brilliant diction. Indeed there is hardly an epoch that has not been ably treated from various partisan standpoints.

The list of authorities prefixed to this volume shows approximately my resources for writing a History of Mexico. I may add that no part of my collection is more satisfactorily complete than that pertaining to Mexico. I have all the standard histories and printed chronicles of the earliest times, together with all the works of writers who have extended their investigations to the events and developments of later years. On the shelves of my Library are found the various Colecciones de Documentos, filled with precious historical papers from the Spanish and Mexican archives, all that were consulted in manuscript by Robertson, Prescott, and other able writers, with thousands equally important that were unknown to them. My store of manuscript material is rich both in originals and copies, including the treasures secured during a long experience by such collectors as José María Andrade and José Fernando Ramirez; a copy of the famous Archivo General de Mexico, in thirty-two volumes; the autograph originals of Cárlos María Bustamante's historical writings, in about fifty volumes, containing much not found in his printed works; the original records of the earliest Mexican councils of the church, with many ecclesiastical and missionary chronicles not extant in print; and finally a large amount of copied material on special topics drawn from different archives expressly for my work.

Documents printed by the Mexican government; including the regular memorias and other reports of different departments and officials, constitute a most valuable source of information. Partisan writings and political pamphlets are a noticeable feature of Mexican historical literature, indispensable to the historian who would study both sides of every question. Prominent Mexicans have formed collections of such works, a dozen of which I have united in one, making two hundred and eighteen volumes of Papeles Varios, some five thousand pamphlets, besides nearly as many more collected by my own efforts. The newspapers of a country cannot be disregarded, and my collection is not deficient in this class of data, being particularly rich in official periodicals.

The conquest of Mexico, which begins this history, has the peculiar attractions of forming the grandest episode in early American annals from a military point of view, and in opening to the world the richest, most populous, and most civilized country on the northern continent, and of gradually incorporating it in the sisterhood of nations as the foremost representative of Latin-American states. On the other hand, an episode which presents but a continuation of the bloody path which marked the advance of the conquerors in America, and which involved the destruction not only of thousands of unoffending peoples but of a most fair and hopeful culture, is not in its results the most pleasing of pictures. But neither in this pit of Acheron nor in that garden of Hesperides may we expect to discover the full significance of omnipotent intention. From the perpetual snow-cap springs the imperceptibly moving glacier. A grain of sand gives no conception of the earth, nor a drop of water of the sea, nor the soft breathing of an infant of a hurricane; yet worlds are made of atoms, and seas of drops of water, and storms of angry air-breaths. Though modern Mexico can boast a century more of history than the northern nations of America, as compared with the illimitable future her past is but a point of time.