Early Settlement of the Americas by Spain
Early Settlement of the Americas by Spain
Expansion. The land grant in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) opened up a whole range of possibilities for Spaniards, and in the following decades thousands of adventurers, petty nobles, and colonists set out for Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispaniola. They brought with them horses, cows, pigs, European crops and diseases, and appetites
for wealth that could not be satisfied by the islands’ native societies. The fanatic quest for mineral wealth led the Spanish from island to island, and they decimated the Caribs, Arawak and other native populations. Early in the 1500s conquistadors headed for the Central and South American mainlands to search for the treasure that had not been found in the islands. Between 1519 and 1522 Hernando Cortés conquered the Aztecs, the descendants of America’s first horticulturalists. His army of four hundred men relied on smallpox and the support of various tributary chiefdoms that had chafed at Aztec rule to subjugate the hundreds of thousands of Aztecs. The gold and silver he pillaged made him wealthy and filled the Crown’s treasury. Meanwhile, Francisco Pizarro searched for a wealthy native society in the Andes about which rumors had circulated for years. Smallpox had already exacted a terrible toll on the eight to twelve million Incas, and Pizarro was able to exploit quarrels among the leaders to subjugate the empire for Spain in 1531–1533.
Stratification. To govern their new lands and the native populations, the Spanish implemented a strategy for colonization best described as stratification. Officials raised in the hierarchical culture of Spain conceived of the New World in similar terms, and they organized colonists and Indians as two distinct social orders, or republics. The first republic was the order of Spaniards—the gentlemen who supervised the land and who ran the mines, the lawyers and soldiers who staffed the colonial administrations, and the artisans who provided the colonies with skilled labor. The second order, la republica de los indios, consisted of the Native Americans who provided the backbreaking labor that fed, housed, and clothed the Spanish; in return the Indians received instruction about the saving grace of the Christian faith.
Implementation. In order to implement their colonial vision the Spanish had to shift local Indian populations in order to make them more manageable and amenable to the stratification doctrine. Priests and soldiers gathered far-flung bands together and settled them on rancherias while nomadic hunters–gatherers were united into congregaciones. Doctrinas, missions with churches and friars to instruct native peoples in Catholicism, were the cornerstone of the resettlement policy, and the Crown chartered them for a limited number of years. After the charter expired, the Crown assumed that the Indians would be converted and ready to assume their own government. Alongside the missions were the presidios, military outposts of fifty to one hundred soldiers who protected the two republics from outside invasion.
Enforcement. The Spanish enforced the system of stratification through three institutions: the requerimiento, the encomienda, and the repartimiento. When soldiers first contacted native peoples, they read aloud in Spanish the requerimiento, which required the natives either to submit to the authority of the Spanish crown or be put to the sword. Once a measure of control had been established, the Crown dispensed native land to nobles and officers who, through the encomienda, received tribute in the form of goods or labor from Indian villages for nine months of the year. In exchange the Indians received military protection and Catholic indoctrination. Missionaries decried the exploitation of the encomienda, particularly because of the landlords’ brutal methods of extracting labor and their refusal to provide the Indians with religious instruction. Changes to the policy came slowly. In the early 1600s missionaries persuaded the king to end the encomienda and replace it with the repartimiento, an annual levy of labor and goods payable to the colonial government rather than to individual landlords. Although the New Laws of 1542 outlawed the encomienda, it continued in operation in North America in order to attract Spanish settlers.
Colin M. MacLachlan, Spain’s Empire in the New World: The Role of Ideas in Institutional and Social Change (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988);