Indian revolts, rebellions, and insurrections played a key role in the colonial history of the Americas, shaping Indian-Spanish relations in lasting ways and helping to structure the principal features of colonial society. In New Spain, patterns of violent collective action by Indian communities varied widely in time and space.
In Central and Southern Mexico, the core of the viceroyalty, colonial-era revolts were local, small-scale, and of relatively brief duration, at least until Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s Revolt of 1810, in the waning days of 300 years of colonial rule. In peripheral zones, outside the core areas of Indian settlement, north and south, several large-scale rebellions erupted during the colonial period.
These patterns were partly an expression of demographics, geography, and the Spanish Crown’s geopolitical strategy of rule: those areas of densest Indian settlement yielded more labor, more wealth, and thus, were more worth controlling and defending. Areas with fewer people had less labor, less wealth, were costlier to control, and were thus less worth defending.
Because their power was far from absolute, the Spanish in effect gave up large parts of the Americas as unconquerable, launching occasional forays into those areas, but for the most part leaving their generally seminomadic inhabitants alone. It was on the boundary between these zones of Spaniards’ unequivocal domination and generalized absence that the largest and most violent Indian rebellions erupted.
Each of these collective outbursts can be traced to a unique confluence of long-term causes and short-term triggers; each followed a distinctive trajectory and each produced a different outcome. All can also be seen to have had certain features in common.
On the northern periphery, in 1680 a major rebellion broke out among the sedentary Pueblo Indians of the Upper Río Grande Valley, the result of decades of extreme exploitation, oppression, and violence at the hands of Spanish encomenderos, combined with epidemic diseases, drought, widespread hunger, and an intensification of religious persecution by Franciscan missionary friars.
After 1692 when the Spanish managed to retake the area, the Pueblo Revolt (or Popé’s Rebellion) led to a major restructuring of Spanish colonial rule throughout the region, resulting in decreased exactions in tribute and labor, greater religious autonomy, and an overall easing of the most oppressive features of colonial rule.
In 1740 in the highland valleys of the Sonora desert, the Yaqui and Mayo Indians rose in rebellion against the Jesuit missionaries and the small number of Spanish miners and hacienda owners.
The revolt, which lasted some six months and extended across large parts of the north, was rooted in intensified labor demands by secular Spaniards, grievances against specific Jesuit friars, and an erosion of the autonomy of individual communities, and was triggered by floods and famine.
In the wake of the uprising, the mission and mining system on the northern frontier was considerably weakened, while the Yaqui exercised greater political, economic, and cultural autonomy for the rest of the colonial period and after.
On the southern periphery, the Tzeltal (Maya) Revolt in Chiapas in 1712 was similarly rooted in decades of excessive labor demands compounded by extreme political and religious persecution. This revolt was triggered by the vision of a 13-year-old Tzeltal girl named María López, of the Virgin yearning for her own kingdom.
Dissident Maya leaders and thousands of their Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Chol-speaking followers embraced her vision; the revolt spread throughout large parts of Chiapas before being suppressed by the Spanish military. Subsequent decades saw a lessening of exactions and greater religious autonomy among Tzeltals and other Mayan-speaking peoples throughout the region.
The Maya Insurrection of 1761 in Yucatán, led by Jacinto Canek, had similar long-term causes and was triggered by Canek’s argument with a priest that escalated into a major, regionwide rebellion.
Its aftermath saw a diminution of Spanish labor and tribute demands and a relaxation of friars’ religious intolerance, along with a legacy of struggle that inspired later generations of rebels (most notably, the Caste War of Yucatán from 1848). All of the foregoing were major regional events that offered direct and sustained challenges to Spanish authority and power, and whose repercussions endured for decades.
In central and southern Mexico, episodes of violent collective action by Indian communities followed a different pattern. Large-scale regional rebellions were impossible here; the Spanish were simply too strong. Instead, Indian communities devised and pursued a host of strategies intended to more effectively endure the weight of colonial rule.
From the mid-1500s on, Indians became adept at using the judicial system against specific infringements of their collective rights in land and labor, initiating litigation and pursuing legal cases through the courts that could and often did last for decades. Many Indian communities became renowned for their savvy and skill in using the courts.
Another way Indians in central and southern Mexico defended the rights of their communities was through violent collective action. Such violent outbursts did not assume the character of sustained frontal challenges to the overall structure of Spanish domination and Indian subordination.
Instead they were localized, spontaneous, without identifiable leaders, of relatively brief duration, and focused on specific sets of grievances against individual agents of state and ecclesiastical authority.
Targets most often included specific authorities such as priests, municipal officials, hacienda overseers, land surveyors, census takers, tax collectors, and government buildings like jails and administrative offices. Women often played key roles in these unplanned outbursts.
Weapons were makeshift, consisting of diggings sticks, hoes, clubs, slings, rocks, and powdered chili peppers used to temporarily blind and disable the targets of the community’s wrath. Few such revolts lasted more than a day or two.
Deaths were usually few. The authorities generally responded to such spontaneous outbursts with “a calculated blend of punishment and mercy,” and the outcome commonly led to redress of the community’s specific grievances.
The Mexican historian Agustín Cue Cánovas has identified more than 100 conspiracies and rebellions during the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule in New Spain, while U.S. historian William B. Taylor has unearthed evidence for more than 140 episodes of communities in revolt against Spanish rule.
Scholars are just beginning to unravel the complexity of these episodes of rural and urban unrest and the variety of ways in which violent collective action by Indian communities shaped the overall structure of colonial society and of Spanish-Indian relations in the heartland of Spain’s American empire.