History, Colonial Period
Bourbon Reforms, Viceroyalty of New Spain, Spanish monarchy, audiencia, Antigua Guatemala
After Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1519, he sent his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, to invade Guatemala in 1524. Alvarado led a small Spanish force and thousands of indigenous Mexican allies. Alvarado found the native Guatemalans engaged in civil war and already suffering from diseases introduced by Europeans, which were spreading over the Americas even more rapidly than Spainís armies. He formed an alliance with the Cakchiquels to defeat the Quiche. Alvarado then faced a four-year rebellion of the Cakchiquels, which he suppressed by 1528, and established Spanish rule over the region.
Several Spanish conquerors competed for control of the Central American isthmus until the Spanish monarchy united the entire region as an audiencia (Superior Court) in 1542. Territorial adjustments followed, but by 1570 the audiencia, also called the Kingdom of Guatemala, had jurisdiction from what is now Chiapas State in Mexico to Costa Rica. The kingdom was officially part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the large colonial territory based in Mexico. But a captain general, appointed by the Spanish king, ruled the kingdom from its capital at Santiago de Guatemala (today known as Antigua Guatemala). Guatemala became the center of government, commerce, and religion in the region, as well as the major province of the kingdom. Devastating earthquakes struck the city in 1773, causing officials to move the capital to present-day Guatemala City in 1776.
Colonial Guatemala produced relatively little of value for the Spanish Empire, except for a little cacao, until the 18th century. At that time the monarchy, seeking to raise more money from its colonies, instituted measures known as the Bourbon Reforms to stimulate greater export production. In Central America, this especially affected El Salvador, which began producing large amounts of indigo for dye. El Salvador belonged to the province of Guatemala until 1786, when Spanish administrative reforms established it as a separate unit of the kingdom. Chiapas, Honduras, and Nicaragua were also made separate units, while Guatemala remained a province. This reform defined the future independent states of Central America.
Guatemala City remained the capital of the kingdom, but the loss of indigo-rich El Salvador was a blow to the power of the Guatemalan merchant elite. The provinces gained even more autonomy from 1810 to 1814, while Spain was occupied by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812 an interim Spanish government adopted a liberal constitution that granted the colonists greater participation in government and representation in Spain. During this time, independence movements began in many of Spainís American colonies.
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