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Native Americans, Treatment of (Spain Vs. England) (Issue)


When Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he met natives there. When this was reported to Queen Isabella of Spain, she immediately decreed that the natives (Indians as the Spanish would call them) were her subjects and were morally equal to all her other subjects including the Spaniards themselves. They were to be treated humanely and not to be enslaved, and they were to be Christianized and Europeanized.

Columbus violated these decrees from the beginning and thus he created a tension between Crown policy and behavior in the field that endured throughout the colonial period. Columbus' first illegal act was to ship five hundred Indians back to Spain as slaves. When Queen Isabella heard of this, she immediately ordered that the Indians be freed and sent back to Hispaniola. Meanwhile, Columbus' men on the island had continued their practice initiated from the outset of brutalizing Indians, who eventually rebelled. Those who survived the repression of the rebellion were treated as prisoners of war and were forced to work. For all practical purposes these Indians were slaves.

In addition to the enslavement of rebellious natives, Columbus initiated the practice of tribute. Under this system each Indian male was required to gather and turn in a certain amount of gold every ninety days. If he failed, the Indian was subject to a death penalty. Many ran away and even more died from exposure to the microbes of European diseases for which they had no immunity. The subjugation of native peoples was also employed during the next twenty years on Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica and the results were the same. Indians virtually disappeared from the Caribbean Islands.

Indians who survived the initial invasion were required to work and to accept Christianity. If they refused, they could be forced to comply. Many did resist and a system was devised to deal with them. It was known as the encomienda. Under this system Indians were regarded as part of the land: When land grants were made to settlers, the native inhabitants became a part of the grant. As property of the landowners, they could be forced to work without being technically enslaved. At the same time they were to be converted to Christianity by the local priests.

Spanish churchmen took very seriously their obligation to Christianize the Indians. Some of them were appalled by the harsh treatment meted out to the Indians by many encomenderos and they demanded reform. One of these was a Dominican Friar, Antonio de Montesinos. As a result of his demands, the Crown promulgated the Laws of Burgos in 1512. These required that Indians were to be put into villages where they would live under supervision. They were to be baptized, given religious instruction, and encouraged to marry. They were to work for the Spaniards no more than nine months per year, and they were to be free and not mistreated.

The Crown also issued a document known as the Requerimiento, which was to be read to all Indians before the Spaniards could declare war on them. Written in Spanish or Latin, and thus unintelligible to the natives, Requerimiento was intended to inform them that they were about to become subjects of the Spanish Crown. If they submitted peacefully, all would be well, but if not, they would be attacked and enslaved.

Another priest who took the side of the Indians was Bartolome de Las Casas. He believed the Laws of Burgos were too weak and the Requerimiento was a travesty. He persuaded the government to appoint him Protector of the Indians and for a few years (15141517) he sought to employ a milder regime for the Indians. This did not work. The settlers obstructed Las Casas' efforts at every stage and the Indians continued to die. Facing a critical labor shortage, the Spaniards began to import African slaves in 1517.

Another important element of Spanish policy in the New World was the mission system. Beginning in the middle years of the sixteenth century, Spanish priests, with the support of the Crown, began to establish supervised communities in frontier areas. A few priests would go into an area, learn the local Indian dialect, and begin to preach the gospel. They would persuade the Indians to build a village, accept Christianity, and settle into a sedentary life. The process was extremely dangerous and sometimes the friars lost their lives; however, they often succeeded.

The pattern established in the sixteenth century was essentially repeated again and again throughout the 300 years of the Spanish colonial period. One major feature of this policy was that it brought the whites and Indians together; it did not separate them. This, of course, led to intermingling and intermarrying and it soon produced a new class of peoplethe mestizos. Today, mestizos are the majority in most Latin American countries.

The English did not establish permanent settlements in the New World until more than a century after the Spaniards. The first two were Jamestown (Virginia) in 1607 and Plymouth (Massachusetts) in 1620. In both cases the Englishmen faced a problem that the Spaniards also encountered a century earlier: they had to determine how to evaluate the natives and how to deal with them.

The English lived in proximity to the Indians for some years. This intermingling, however, did not produce the same results as that of the Spaniards. The North American Indians did not die out as rapidly as their native peoples of the Caribbean and the English, who came in families, did not inter-marry with the Indians as frequently as the Spaniards. Like the Spanish priests who were appalled at the treatment of the Indians, some English observers also spoke out. Roger Williams, a Separatist Puritan who came to Massachusetts Bay in 1631, charged that the English had no right to occupy land that the Indians were already living on. For the most part, however, especially in New England, the colonists tried to recreate the villages that they had known in England and did not try to bring the Indians into their society or convert them to Christianity.

On the other hand, there were some similarities between the two experiences. Like the Spaniards, the British sought to enslave Indians without much success, and they also sought to Christianize them, although not nearly as diligently as the Spanish had. Under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, founded in 1649, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, founded in 1701, the Puritans in New England attempted to persuade the Indians to accept Christianity. Settlements known as "praying Indian" towns were established beginning in 1651. Eventually, there were as many as fourteen of these, with a population of around 1100 in Massachusetts alone. It is believed that there had been more of these settlements in other colonies.

However, the overall relationship between the British and Indians was a bad one. The two elements which it was based upon could not sustain cordiality: trade and land occupancy. In most cases the trade relation was based upon an exchange of furs for trinkets, firearms, and blankets. When the furbearing animals were depleted the Indians had nothing to exchange and they became embittered. As for land, the British frequently attempted to buy land from the natives, but the Indian concept of ownership and exchange of title was nothing like that of the Europeans. This difference led to misunderstandings which often resulted in conflict.

As in the case of the Spaniards and the Indians, so in the case of the British and the Indians, the pattern was essentially repeated again and again as the whites moved inexorably to the West. However, the pattern itself was different. Here it was a succession of trade, attempts to secure land, misunderstanding, and conflict. The result was that the Indians were generally in retreat after the first few decades of the colonial period, especially as the Indians learned that close association with the colonists was likely to result in sickness and death from European disease, like smallpox. Efforts to enslave the Indians were given up fairly early and the effort to Christianize them, although part of the agenda of the early period of colonization, never developed as extensively as it did in Latin America. The most important difference, however, was the absence of intermarriage.

See also: Native American Policy


Craven, Wesley Frank. The Colonies in Transition, 16601713. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Croton, Michael. Sinews of Empire: A Short History of British Slavery. London: Temple Smith, 1974.

Haring, Clarence H. The Spanish Empire in America. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Klein, Herbert S. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Oxford, 1986.

Lockhart, James and Schwartz, Stuart. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Pyson, John. ColumbusFor God and Glory. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.

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