The Mexican Inquisition was an extension of what had been going on in Spain and the rest of Europe for some time. Spanish Catholicism had been reformed under the reign of Isabella the Catholic (1479– 1504), which reaffirmed medieval doctrines and tightened up discipline and practice. She also introduced the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1478 with the permission of Pope Sixtus IV, combining secular and religious authority in the matter. Much of the zeal to reaffirm traditional Catholic tenets came from the history of the Reconquista. Those who overthrew Muslim domination of the peninsula were very committed to the purpose of making Catholicism completely dominant wherever they could. After the discovery and conquest of the New World, this effort to spread the faith included the belief that the non-Christians there would benefit from instruction in the “true faith.”
This intermingling lead to the Spanish crown’s complete domination of religious matters in New Spain. Pope Alexander VI in 1493 and later Pope Julius II in 1508 gave the crown extensive authority over this domain with the goal of converting the Indians to Catholicism. Spanish officials appointed religious authorities in Mexico and even had ability to reject papal bulls there. The evangelization process and later Inquisition had political motivations. The objective of Christian conversion was to strengthen alternative sources of legitimacy to the traditional authority of the tlatoani, or chief of the basic political unit of the city-state.
Franciscan friars began the work of evangelization in the mid-1520s and continued under the first Bishop of Mexico, Fray Juan de Zumárraga in the 1530s. Many of the Franciscan evangelists learned the native languages and even recorded much of native culture, providing much of the current knowledge about them. The Dominicans arrived as well in 1525. They were both seen as intellectuals and agents of the Inquisition, due to their role as such in Spain. These two orders, along with the Augustinians, provided most of the evangelization effort in Mexico. By 1560, these three orders had more than 800 clergy working in New Spain. Later the Jesuits would arrive in 1572. The number of Catholic clergy grew to 1,500 in 1580 and then to 3,000 by 1650. In the early years, the clergy’s attention would be focused on the conversion of the Indians. In the latter years, however, emphasis on struggles between religious orders as well as segments of the European society would take precedence.
A series of three ecclesiastical councils met during the course of the 16th century to give shape to the newly established Church in New Spain. In 1565, the Second Mexican Ecclesiastical Council met to discuss how to implement to the decisions of the Council of Trent (1546–1563). The Catholicism being imposed here was heavily influenced by the Counter-Reformation and required total assent from its believers. Its main thrust was not on individual belief or conscience but on collective observation of clerically ordained precepts and practices. This combination of authoritarianism and collectivism became transferred to the Indies during the course of the 16th century.
This sense of collectivism allowed for a certain amount of laxity in the conversion of the Indian population as many outward practices were indeed similar. Both systems intertwined religious and secular authority, practiced a type of baptism with subsequent renaming of the child and the practice of communion had parallels with eating replicas of Aztec divinities with blood. Franciscan and Dominican studies of Indian culture and language led to a certain amount of appreciation for it. It was definitely different from the Islam that the Reconquista had created such hatred for. Instead, indigenous religion was branded as paganism, and as an authentic religious experience but corrupted by demonic influences. Much of this was helped by the fact that many parallels could be drawn between the gods and the cults of the saints as well as the Virgin Mary. For this reason, evangelization did not result in a direct onslaught against indigenous belief but rather more an attempt to shift existing belief into a Christian paradigm. In the end, while in theory Christianity was to have absolutely supremacy in all things religious, in practice, the Church did not oppose any practices that did not directly conflict with doctrine.
The native population adjusted to those aspects of Christianity that accorded itself to the view of the cosmos they already knew, including the notion of the intertwining of both religious and secular authority. Many European and indigenous practices continues side-by-side and many indigenous beliefs and practices were redesigned with Christian names and references. The goal was to preserve as much of the ancient symbols that had always given meaning to the universe. The further away a community was from direct Church intervention, the thinner the Christian veneer was. Pre-Hispanic beliefs and practices therefore survived in the new religion and colored its expression. The most famous example of this may be the emergence of the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Franciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún suspected it was a post-Conquest adaptation of the Aztec cult of Tonatzin, a mother goddess. However, the archbishop of Mexico, Fray Alonso de Montúfar, a member of the Dominican Order promoted the cult.
There was even some speculation in the early colonial period that the Nahua god Quetzalcoatl was being refashioned as the Apostle Thomas.
However, not all native reaction was docile. There was strong resistance early on in Tlaxcala. The Oaxaca sierra violently resisted until the late 1550s as well as the Otomi and peoples in parts of Michoacán state as late as the 1580s.
At the time of the discovery and conquest of the New World, Cardinal Adrian de Utrecht was the Inquisitor General of Spain. He appointed Pedro de Córdoba as Inquisitor for the West Indies in 1520. He also had inquisitorial powers in Mexico after the conquest, but did not have the official title. When Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga became the first Bishop of Mexico in 1535, he exercised inquisitorial powers as bishop.
One of Bishop Zumárraga’s first acts as episcopal inquisitor was the 1536 prosecution of a Nahua man, baptized Martín, with the indigenous name of Ocelotl ("ocelot"). He was prosecuted as a nahualli, a priest with supernatural powers, as well as heretical dogmatism, and concubinage. The trial record of his case was published in 1912, Scholars have been attracted to this early case prosecuting a Nahua holy man.
Another of Bishop Zumárraga's inquisitorial prosecutions was that of Nahua lord of Texcoco, who took the name of Carlos upon baptism and known in the historical literature as Don Carlos Ometochtzin. The trial record was published in 1910 and is the main source for this high-profile case. Don Carlos was likely a nephew of Nezahualcoyotl. Zumárraga accused this lord of reverting to worship of the old gods and following a trial with indigenous witnesses and Don Carlos's own testimony, the Texcocan lord was declared guilty. He burned at the stake on 30 November 1539. However, this persecution was not considered prudent by either the Spanish secular or religious authorities and Zumárraga himself was reprimanded for it.
For a number of reasons persecution of the Indians for religious offenses was not actively pursued. First of all, since many native practices had parallels in Christianity, and since this “paganism” was neither the Judaic or Islamic faiths that Spanish Christians had fought so zealously against, ecclesiastical authorities opted instead to push native practices in Christian directions. Also, many of the friars sent to evangelize the native peoples became protectors of them from the extremely cruel treatment at the hands of secular authorities. This would contrast sharply with treatment of European heretics later in the colonial period. However, as a practical matter it was probably not prudent to pursue such rigid enforcement in an environment where native peoples vastly outnumbered the European conquerors, who also needed to rule through indigenous intermediaries.
This is part of the reason why the Inquisition was not formally established in New Spain until 1571. However, this is not to say that Inquisition-like tactics were never used after the Nahua lord Don Carlos’s execution. Antagonism with the Spanish led to the Maya resistance in the Yucatan in 1546–1547. The failure of this movement prompted more aggressive evangelization, with the Franciscans finding out that despite their efforts much of traditional beliefs and practice survived. They, under the leadership of Fray Diego de Landa, decided to make an example of those they considered back-sliders without regard to proper legal formalities. Large numbers of people were subjected to torture and as many of the Maya sacred books as could be found were burned.
When Holy Office of the Inquisition had been established in New Spain in 1571, it exercised no jurisdiction over Indians, except for material printed in indigenous languages. Its first official Inquisitor was archbishop Pedro Moya de Contreras, who established the “Tribunal de la Fe” (Tribunal of the Faith) in Mexico City. By this, he transferred the principles of the Inquisition set by Tomas Torquemada in Spain. However, the full force of the Inquisition would be felt on non-Indian populations, such as the “Negro,” “mulatto” and even certain segments of the European. Historian Luis González Obregón estimates that 51 death sentences were carried out in the 235–242 years that the tribunal was officially in operation. However, records from this time are very poor and accurate numbers cannot be verified.
One group that suffered during this time were the so-called “crypto-Jews” of Portuguese descent. Jews who refused to convert to Christianity had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497. When Spain and Portugal united shortly thereafter, many converted Portuguese Jews came to New Spain looking for commercial opportunities. Following the voluntary confession of one Crypto-Jew, Gaspar Robles, a younger member of a merchant family, his closest kin and other members of Mexico City's merchant families came under suspicion. In 1642, 150 of these individuals were arrested within three or four days, and the Inquisition began a series of trials. These people were accused and tried for being ‘judaisers,’ meaning they still practiced Judaism. Many of these were merchants involved in New Spain’s principal activities. On 11 April 1649, the viceregal state staged the largest ever auto da fe in New Spain, in which twelve of the accused were burned after being strangulated and one person, Tomás Treviño de Sobremontes, was burned alive, since he refused to renounce his Jewish faith. The Inquisition also tried accused Crypto-Jews who had already died, removing their bones from Christian burial grounds. At the Gran Auto de Fe of 1649, these deceased convicted Crypto-Jews were burned in effigy, along with their earthly remains.
The best known case of a Crypto-Jew prosecutred by the Inquisition was that of Luis de Carabajal y Cueva. Born Jewish in Spain in the 16th century, he was a convert to Christianity. However, he was married to a woman who would not give up her Hebraic faith even though he tried to convert her. Finally, when she decided to stay behind as he went to the West Indies to trade wine, he moved on to New Spain. There he became a businessman but was more noted as a soldier. He fought for the Spanish against the Indians in Xalapa and the Huasteca areas. Having made a name for himself, he brought a number of his family,including his wife and children, over from Spain to live in the frontier state of Nuevo Leon. Raiding in that area, he was alleged to have made a fortune capturing and selling Indian slaves. It was rumored that the family were secretly practicing Judaic rites. He was brought before the Inquisition and had 22 chapters of charges, including slave trading, read against him but the main charge was reverting to the Judaic faith. He was convicted in 1590 and sentenced to a six-year exile from New Spain but died before the sentence could be imposed. Later, on December 8, 1596, most of his extended family, including his wife Francisca and their children, Isabel, Catalina, Leonor, and Luis, as well as Manuel Díaz, Beatriz Enríquez, Diego Enríquez, and Manuel de Lucena, a total of nine people, were tortured and burned at the stake on the Zocalo in Mexico City. A nephew, Luis de Carabajal the younger killed himself by jumping out a window to avoid further torture.
Another case was that of Nicolas de Aguilar. Aguilar was a mestizo, the descendant of a Spanish soldier and a Purépecha. He was appointed as a civil official in a district in New Mexico. He attempted to protect the Tompiro Indians from abuses by Franciscan priests. In 1662, due to complaints about him by the Franciscans, he was arrested, imprisoned, and charged with heresy. Tried in Mexico City, Aguilar vigorously defended himself but was convicted and sentenced to undergo a public auto da fe and banned from New Mexico for 10 years and government service for life.
After a series of denunciations, authorities arrested 123 people in 1658 on suspicion of homosexuality. Although 99 of these managed to disappear, the Royal Criminal Court sentenced fourteen men from different social and ethnic backgrounds to death by public burning, in accordance to the law passed by Isabella the Catholic in 1497. The sentences were carried out together on one day, 6 November 1658. The records of these trials and those that occurred in 1660, 1673 and 1687, suggest that Mexico City, like many other large cities at the time had an active underworld.
The last group that had to be careful during this time was scholars. Early attempts to reform the educational curriculum to keep pace with contemporary European influences were exterminated during the 1640s and 1650s by the Inquisition. The central target was Fray Diego Rodriguez (1569–1668), who took the First Chair in Mathematics and Astronomy at the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico in 1637, and tried to introduce the scientific ideas of Galileo and Kepler to the New World. For thirty years, he argued the removal of theology and metaphysics from the study of science. He was the leader of a small circle of academics that met semi-clandestinely in private homes to discuss new scientific ideas. Political struggles of the 1640s, however, brought the suspicions of the Inquisition down upon them and a series of investigations and trials followed into the middle of the 1650s. When academics worked to hide books banned by the Holy Office’s edict in 1647, the Inquisition required all six booksellers in the city to subject their lists to scrutiny under the threat of fine and excommunication.
A unique and spectacular case prosecuted by the Inquisition was of Irishman William Lamport, who had transformed himself into Don Guillén de Lombardo, bastard half-brother of King Philip IV, and attempted to foment rebellion among dissident elements in Mexico City and have himself named as king. This would-be king was denounced to the Inquisition in 1642 and was executed at the auto de fe of 1659. He is considered by some as a precursor of Mexican Independence, and there is a statue of him inside the base of the Monument to Independence in Mexico City.
Those sentenced under the Inquisition usually had these punishments, of which the most extreme was execution, carried out in a ceremony called the “auto de fe,” almost all of which were carried out in Mexico City. For such, all notables and most of the populace would turn out in their finest garb. The Church set up a stage with pulpits, rich furnishings for the noble guests, tapestries, fine cloth draped for decoration and to serve as a canopy over the stage. No expense was spared in order to show the power and the authority of the ecclesiastical authorities in this matter. In addition, all nobles from the viceroy himself, his court, and all others in position of authority would be conspicuously in appearance. The ceremony began with a sermon and a long declaration of what constituted the true faith. The assembly was required to swear to this. The condemned were led onto the stage dressed in capes with marks showing their crime and their punishment. They also wore a kind of dunce cap. They were given a chance to repent, in many cases, to modify their sentences, such as strangulation instead of burning alive at the stake. Then sentences were carried out.
The Inquisition remained officially in force until the early 19th century. It was first abolished by decree in 1812. However, political tensions and chaos led to something of its return between 1813 and 1820. It was abolished in 1820.