Viceroyalty Of New Spain: History, Characteristics

The Viceroyalty of New Spain was one of the territorial entities established by the Spanish Empire in the American continent. Most of the territory was in North America, also occupying part of Central America. Also, at its peak, the Viceroyalty also encompassed the Philippines and other islands in Asia and Oceania.

The origin of the Viceroyalty is located after the fall of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec Empire . It was Hernán Cortés himself, the conqueror of those lands, who proposed the name of New Spain to the Spanish king. The monarch officially created the Viceroyalty in 1535.

The King of Spain was the most authoritative figure in New Spain, although he delegated his functions to the figure of the Viceroy. From the creation of the Viceroyalty until its dissolution, in 1821, the position was held by more than 62 Viceroys. In addition, other political positions were created in charge of managing the different administrative divisions.

The economic and social organization of New Spain was based on ethnicity and caste. Despite the fact that miscegenation was very common, in practice the peninsular were those who occupied the most important positions. The Creoles, children of Spaniards but born in America, were the protagonists of the revolts that ended with the Viceroyalty.

Origin and emergence of New Spain

Hernán Cortés led the conquest of the Aztec Empire. The final battle was the conquest of its capital, Tenochtitlan, after which the Spanish emerged as the dominators of the territory.

Very soon, the conquerors began to build a new city on the ruins of the Aztec capital. This city, Mexico City, would be built in the European style and became the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

It was Cortés himself who suggested to Carlos V, the Spanish king, the name “New Spain of the Ocean Sea” for the new territories incorporated into the Empire. It was in a letter sent in 1520, in which he pointed out its similarity to Spain in its fertility, size and climate.

Creation of the Council of the Indies

The first body that was in charge of administering the conquered territory was the Council of the Indies, founded in 1523. Its functions were to draft the laws that would regulate the conquerors’ possessions, although the monarch had the last word.

Audience of Mexico

The first Audiencia of Mexico was formed in 1529, with Nuño de Guzmán as its president. However, this body was not able to consolidate a government, since the abuses against the indigenous people caused many confrontations between its components.

Three years later, in 1531, a second audience was formed, this time under the command of Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal. Although it was more effective, the Spanish crown continued to seek ways to better control the new territories.

These organs were the antecedents of the Viceroyalty, although they were subordinate to the Council of the Indies and the king. Within its powers was the administration of justice, as well as political management. On the other hand, the Audiencia did not have military or fiscal powers.

Decree for the establishment of the Viceroyalty

Despite the institutions created, as the conquest and colonization progressed, the administrative problems grew. That made it necessary for the Spanish to seek a solution. Thus, Carlos I, in 1535, signed the decree that established the Viceroyalty of New Spain. The first Viceroy was Antonio de Mendoza.

Brief history

The Viceroyalty of New Spain existed between 1535 and 1821, almost three centuries. During that time, there were more than 60 viceroys and, in its heyday, comprised today’s Mexico, Central America, part of the United States, the Philippines, and the Antilles.

First Viceroy of New Spain

Once the creation of the Viceroyalty was made official through the decree signed by the Spanish king, it was time to elect the first Viceroy. The position was held by Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco, who assumed direct representation of the crown.

In addition, within its attributions were the political organization and the defense of the territory. Along with him, other authorities were also elected, such as the governors of the provinces.

During his tenure, the first printing press arrived in New Spain and educational centers began to be built.

The spiritual conquest

The Spanish conquest was not limited to dominating the territories of the indigenous peoples. Along with this, the so-called spiritual conquest was very important, a fundamental tool for the Spanish to consolidate their dominance.

The spiritual conquest consisted in the conversion of the natives to Catholicism, eliminating their old beliefs. The first religious to arrive on the continent were the Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians. Although the objective was the same, disagreements arose between these orders regarding the treatment of the natives.

Thus, some religious advocated destroying the old temples, banning rituals and punishing those who tried to cling to their beliefs. Others, on the other hand, preferred conversion through preaching and example. The latter were the ones who learned indigenous languages, in addition to describing their way of life and customs.

The aforementioned differences also affected the civil sphere. Thus, there were frequent confrontations between the defenders of the indigenous people, on the one hand, and the colonizers and viceregal authorities, on the other.

Century XVI

Mendoza moved to Peru in 1551 and the post of Viceroy passed to Luís de Velasco. He applied the New Laws more rigorously, which defended the indigenous peoples. In addition, he was a prominent defender of culture. During his government, the University of Mexico was created in 1553.

Another important fact was the expansion of the Viceroyalty. In 1565, the Philippine Islands came under New Spain. This led to a great boom in trade, with a route between Acapulco and Manila.

His successor was Martín Enríquez, who had to stop the attempts to conquer Veracruz by the English. Likewise, the expansion of the territory continued, reaching Sonora and Saltillo. Finally, he decreed that the Creoles could hold public office, although of a lower rank.

XVII century

The seventeenth century was the longest in the Viceroyalty. The main characteristic of those years was the maintenance of peace, only interrupted by some indigenous rebellion, such as that of Gaspar Yanga, in 1609.

Luis Velasco, Jr., and Gaspar Zúñiga, were some of the viceroys who led new expeditions to annex new territories, such as Monterrey.

In the middle of the century, Juan Palafox assumed the positions of Viceroy and Archbishop of Mexico. He was responsible for a series of important reforms that sought to tackle the prevailing corruption.

At the end of that century, the French sought to settle on the Texas coast. Viceroy Gaspar de la Cerda Sandoval managed to avoid it. Apart from this, he organized an expedition to retake Santo Domingo.

Century XVIII

One of the great changes that occurred in the 18th century was the change of the ruling dynasty in Spain. The first king of the Bourbon House was Felipe V.

Under the Bourbons, of French origin, education regained part of the importance that it had lost since the period of Pedro de Gante as Viceroy. In the 18th century, new centers were opened, such as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts or the College of Mining.

Likewise, in 1693 the first newspaper of New Spain, El Mercurio Volante , began to be published . Starting in 1728, it was La Gaceta de México that made its appearance.

Carlos III

Carlos III was one of the Spanish kings who most influenced the Viceroyalty. Upon reaching the throne, part of the colonial territories had passed into French hands, but, soon, it acquired Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Florida.

The king sent Antonio de Ulloa to the Viceroyalty to carry out the work of adviser to Viceroy Bernardo de Gálvez. During this period, a series of profound reforms of the public administration were carried out, which became the greatest legacy of the monarch in New Spain.

Bourbon reforms

New Spain changed its territorial administration from the reforms promoted by the Bourbons. In 1786, the Viceroyalty was divided into 12 municipalities.

Each of them had a series of people in charge, which reduced the power of the Viceroy. Thus, each of the heads of these municipalities took charge of the political, economic and administrative aspects of their territories.

The viceroys, at first, opposed this reform, without being able to stop it. However, the Viceroy continued to be the most important political authority and the figure of the mayors as a public authority was never consolidated.

First rebellions

Discounting those carried out by indigenous groups, the first rebellions against Spanish rule began at the end of the 18th century. The best known occurred in 1789: the Machete Rebellion.

End of the Viceroyalty

Fernando VII of Spain

The French invasion of Spain caused a series of events that ended with the dissolution of the Viceroyalty. Other causes contributed to this, such as social inequality, the scarce role reserved for the Creoles and the poor management of the viceroys.

In 1812 the Constitution of Cadiz, of a liberal nature, had been approved in Spain. This, plus the rise to the throne of Napoleon Bonaparte, caused part of the New Spain to rebel. In principle, her intention was to create autonomous Government Boards, although swearing loyalty to the Spanish king.

Although Fernando VII returned to the throne and reinstated the Viceroyalty (which was abolished again in 1820), the War of Independence was already underway.

Finally, in 1821, the victory of the rebels ended three centuries of Spanish rule. Mexico became, briefly, an Empire and, after the fall of Augustine I, a republic.

General characteristics

The Viceroyalty of New Spain occupied a really huge territory. At its peak, it encompassed present-day Mexico and much of the southern and central United States, from California to Louisiana, passing through Texas, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado, among other current states. In addition, it reached British Columbia, in Canada.

To all this, we must add the territories of present-day Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Finally, it also included Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago and Guadalupe, in addition to the Philippines and other Asian islands and Oceania.

Racial and social division

One of the most outstanding characteristics of the population of New Spain was the creation of a mestizo society.

That miscegenation, however, did not blur racial differences. The society of the Viceroyalty was composed of perfectly defined social strata. Thus, for example, there were great differences between the European whites and the Creoles, which was accentuated with the natives and the blacks brought as slaves from Africa.

The indigenous population, moreover, had been drastically reduced. The mistreatment and diseases carried by the conquerors decimated the population.

Over time, whites, Indians and blacks ended up producing mixtures, each with its own name.

Political organization

The Viceroyalty was divided into several kingdoms, captaincies general and lordships. All these administrative entities were organized hierarchically, with the Viceroy as the highest authority on the ground. Above him, only the peninsular authorities of the crown and the King himself were found.

The kingdoms and provinces within the Viceroyalty were Nueva Galicia, Guatemala, Nueva Vizcaya, Nuevo Reino de León, Nuevo México, Nueva Extremadura and Nuevo Santander. In addition, there were three Captaincy Generals, each with a governor and a Captain General.

Viceregal economy

The main economic activities of New Spain were mining and agriculture. In general, the resources obtained were sent to the peninsula.

The Crown enacted laws to restrict trade and thus ensure its control and the obtaining of most of the benefits.

Another important factor within the economy was the concentration of land. Large landowners, among which the Church stood out, controlled huge estates.

Political organization

New Spain was the first Viceroyalty created by the Spanish Crown. Later, the pattern was repeated in other parts of America.

The king of Spain

The highest authority of the Viceroyalty was the King of Spain. All powers were concentrated in his figure, especially the legislative one.

The Viceroy

The distance and breadth of the colonial territories made it necessary to appoint a figure to represent the king on the ground. Etymologically, Viceroy means “instead of the king”, which perfectly explains its functions. The Viceroy, who was appointed and deposed by the monarch, had to enforce the enacted laws.

The first in New Spain was Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco. His mandate began in 1535 and one of his objectives was to reconcile the Spanish and the indigenous.

The Royal Court and the Indian institutions

The Royal Court of Mexico was the main justice institution of the Crown. Carlos I was the one who created it in Mexico, in 1527, placing Nuño Beltrán as the first president of the mass. His most important task was to administer justice and, in the event of a vacancy in the Viceroyalty, he assumed power.

Provincial courts and governorates

Despite his extensive powers, the Viceroy could not administer the entire territory under his charge. A certain degree of decentralization was necessary to be able to govern the entire Viceroyalty. For this, local government bodies were created, such as hearings that had legislative functions.

The smallest administrative division was the hearing districts of the governorates, similar to the provinces. Originally, they were established by the conquerors. In New Spain there were more than 200 different districts, administered by a corregidor, mayor mayor or a town hall, as the case may be.


Apart from civil power, there was another organization that exercised great power in the Viceroyalty: the Catholic Church.

Its first function was to convert the indigenous people and make them abandon their old beliefs. This not only had a purely doctrinal importance, but was also a tool to consolidate the conquest.

The Church monopolized education, in addition to becoming one of the great landowners of the colony. In 1571, the Court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition appeared, whose mission was to monitor the observance of the faith.

Social organization

When the conquerors arrived in that area of ​​America, the indigenous population numbered 10 million people. Epidemics, forced labor, and other circumstances meant that, by the 17th century, only 8 million remained. The figure dropped another million for the 18th century and stayed at 3.5 million in the 19th.

Whites, on the other hand, experienced a very accelerated growth from the second half of the 16th century. Apart from those who arrived from the peninsula, the Spanish began to have children. These were called criollos.

Finally, around 20,000 black slaves were brought from Africa. Living conditions reduced the figure to 10,000 by the end of the Viceroyalty.


One of the characteristics of the Viceroyalty society was miscegenation. This, at the beginning, was almost exclusively among indigenous men and women, most of the time prisoners or raped. Mixed marriage was almost non-existent, not even when the woman had converted to Christianity.

Population groups

The population group that enjoyed the greatest rights was the Spanish peninsular. According to the laws, the most important positions, civil or ecclesiastical, could only be held by those born in Spain, not even by Creoles.

The latter were the children of the Spanish born already in the Viceroyalty. Despite the fact that their status was superior to that of indigenous or black people, they were a step below the peninsular. This was one of the reasons why they organized and starred in the rebellions that would end the Viceroyalty.

The mestizos, for their part, were the children of Spaniards and indigenous people. Unlike what happened with the natives, the mestizos were able to learn trades and carry out more activities. However, his social advancement was almost impossible.

As for the indigenous, their rights were included in the different laws issued from the peninsula, without this meaning that they were fulfilled on the ground. Being the largest group, they were forced to work in semi-slavery conditions on the estates.

Finally, African slaves were destined for work in the mines. They only mixed with the natives, thus the so-called zambos were born.


The mixture between Spanish, indigenous and black, was followed by others that gave rise to the so-called castes. These occupied the lowest strata of the Viceroyalty society. According to the writings, some 53 different groups were distinguished.

Among the best known castes were the following:

– Mestizo: son of Spanish and indigenous.

– Castizo: result of the union of Spanish and mestizo.

– Mulato: descendant of Spanish and black.

– Morisco: result of the union of Spanish and mulatto.

– Albino: son of Spanish and Moorish.

From these castes new ones arose, with names that ranged from the tornatrás to the saltatrás, passing through the tentenelaire, lobo, zambaigo or calpamulato.


The economy of the Viceroyalty of New Spain was, mainly, extractive. Thus, the most important activities were mining and agriculture. Besides, livestock and trade also developed.

Mining activity

The main industry in the Viceroyalty was mining. In New Spain the deposits of Guanajuato, Zacatecas and Taxco stood out, which provided enormous amounts of gold and silver.

At first, the Spanish tried to force the indigenous people to work there. However, the death of these and the prohibition of enslaving them, caused them to resort to black slaves brought from Africa.

The Crown took advantage of these exploitations through a tax called Fifth Real. This implied that 20% of what was obtained passed into his hands, since, legally, he was the owner of the conquered territory.

Parcel system

The first conquerors were rewarded with encomiendas, that is, the right to exploit the work of the indigenous people who lived on certain lands. The encomendero also promised to educate them in Christianity and teach them European farming techniques. Once the encomienda ended, the natives became dependent on the king.

Apart from the encomiendas, there were also the royal grants. These were lands ceded by the Crown to an individual or a specific people in exchange for a tribute. Hernán Cortés received the most extensive land: the Marquesado del Valle de Oaxaca, populated by more than 23,000 indigenous people.

When the encomiendas began to decline, another property system called hacienda appeared. This became one of the most characteristic of the territory, monopolizing land around it.

On the other hand, the amount of property that the Catholic Church acquired is remarkable. Experts say that half of the land and capital in New Spain were in their hands.

Communal lands

The indigenous people who lived in their villages used to work lands that belonged to the community. In return, they paid a tax to the government of the Viceroyalty, in addition to having to maintain the churches.


The commerce of the Viceroyalty was put at the service of the interests of the Spanish Crown. Thus, from New Spain shipments of gold, silver, copper or diamonds, among other minerals, left. Likewise, foods such as sugar or cocoa were sent.

In return, the metropolis sent salt, wine, oil or weapons to the colony, without forgetting the shipments of slaves.

The main commercial port on the Atlantic was Veracruz, while Acapulco was on the Pacific Ocean. Cádiz was the main destination for the goods sent, which were received by the commissioners of the Casa de Contratación de Sevilla, a body created for this purpose.


In order to protect its interests, Spain limited trade from the Viceroyalty, which led to an increase in smuggling.

Merchants on both sides of the ocean signed various agreements to establish monopolies and thus profit themselves. With the reforms of Carlos III, these monopolies were eliminated somewhat, although the restrictions continued until independence.

The Crown introduced a tax on the veins, the alcabalas. The complaint of the merchants was unanimous, since it was excessively taxing the products. In parts of colonial America, taxes sparked several rebellions.

Articles of interest

The Development of Internal Commercial Networks .

What was education like?

Social Inequality .

Corporations and Jurisdictions .

Political Organization .

Peonage in New Spain and the Haciendas .

Artistic Expressions in New Spain and Peru .

Criollismo and the Longing for Autonomy .

The Social Thought of the Insurgents .


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  2. Ministry of Culture Government of Spain. Viceroyalty of New Spain. Obtained from
  3. Palanca Strains, José Alberto. The different races of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Obtained from
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Viceroyalty of New Spain. Retrieved from
  5. Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. New Spain, The Viceroyalty Of. Retrieved from
  6. Khan Academy. Introduction to the Spanish Viceroyalties in the Americas. Retrieved from
  7. Eissa-Barroso, Francisco A. The Spanish Monarchy and the Creation of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1717-1739). Recovered from
  8. Ávila, Alfredo. New Spain and Independence. Obtained from

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