Spanish Government in the Americas
Spanish Government in the Americas
Silver and Gold. The earliest Europeans in the Americas were the Spanish conquistadores (conquerors). The conquistadores were adventurous minor nobles and military officers fresh from the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors. After word of the discovery of silver in Mexico reached Spain, hundreds of these men rushed to America solely for the purpose of procuring the mineral wealth of the continent. Their demand for gold and silver was insatiable. As Hernando Cortés began his attack on Mexico, he admitted, “I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.” The government of Spain profited greatly from this gold lust. Between 1500 and 1650, historians estimate that Spain carried more than 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver back to Europe. The extraction of gold during this period was perhaps as much as ten times more than the amount drawn from all of the rest of the world’s mines put together. These precious metals made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world during the sixteenth century. However, this enrichment came at a terrible cost for the native peoples of the Americas. The conquistadores left a horrible trail of mayhem, murder, plunder, and disease across the lower third of the North American continent. By 1600 the population of Mexico alone declined from about fifteen million to less than a million. Some historical demographers estimate that 90 to 95 percent of the Indian population of North America was wiped out during the first 150 years of the European colonial period in America. Most of this decimation was caused by diseases such as smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza. However, the Spanish conquistadores also simply slaughtered thousands of native people in their furious search for gold and silver.
The Requerimiento. When Pope Alexander VI conveyed title of the Americas to Spain, he instructed Ferdinand and Isabella to convert the native inhabitants of the continents to Christianity. After considering the problem, Spanish policy makers concluded that it was essential for Indians to adopt Hispanic culture before they would be ready to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. In other words Spanish missionaries first tried to teach Indians to dress, speak, and work like the people of Spain before they attempted to convert them. In 1513 Ferdinand issued a decree called the Requerimiento (the Requirement). The purpose of the law was to ensure that the conquistadores gave Indians a reasonable opportunity to convert to Christianity and peacefully submit to Spanish rule. In the event that a conquistador came upon a group of Indians, the decree required a Spanish notary to read a prepared statement to the natives before the conquistador and his army commenced hostilities. The statement declared that the Indians could either accept Christianity and Spanish rule or be annihilated. Native Americans were advised, in Latin or Spanish, of the Christian conception of the creation, that they had an obligation under God’s law to hear the Gospel, and that God had given authority over the earth to Saint Peter, the first pope. Peter’s successors, the Requerimiento explained, had recently given the Indians’ lands to Spain. Consequently, the king and queen of Spain now expected
the Indians to submit to their rule. Juan López de Palácios Rubios, who prepared the Requerimiento, believed that it was a genuine effort on the part of the Spanish to meet their legal duty to convert the Indians to Christianity. Palácios Rubios, explaining the purpose behind the Requerimiento, wrote that “Indians must be treated like tender new plants, worthy of loving care and protection of the Crown.” However, the Requerimiento held that those plants could be trampled underfoot if they stood in the way of Spanish will. In reality the Spanish conquistadores either ignored the Requerimiento decree or mechanically read the statement without interpreting and explaining it to the Indians. The Requerimiento was “read to trees and empty huts when no Indians were to be found. Captains muttered its theological phrases into their beards on the edge of sleeping Indian settlements, or even a league away before starting the formal attack, and at times some leather-lunged Spanish notary hurled its sonorous phrases after the Indians as they fled into the mountains.... Ship captains would sometimes have the document read from the deck as they approached an island.” In many cases Spanish records reveal that armies led by conquistadores would discover an Indian village, read the Requerimiento outside of the earshot of its residents, and ride in and mercilessly destroy them. Bartolomé de las Casas, a missionary to the Indians, wrote that he did not know whether to laugh or cry after reading the Requerimiento.
Presidios and Missions. The presidio and the Catholic mission were the visible demonstrations of Spanish authority in America. A presidio was a military post or fort. Some presidios were small and were manned by only a few soldiers of the Spanish army. Some, however, were powerful outposts protected by hundreds of cavalry and infantrymen. The presidios were responsible for protecting the Spanish population from hostile Indian attack. They were also the military arm for enforcing the Spanish will over Native Americans. The Catholic Church was also an important and powerful weapon that Spain used to extend its influence over the Indians. Throughout the sixteenth century groups of Catholic missionaries came to America for the purpose of converting the native population to Christianity. The most important mission orders who came to spread the Gospel were the Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits. These orders established missions throughout Florida, Mexico, and the American Southwest. Since the Catholic Church was so closely affiliated with the Spanish government, the missionaries in America served a dual role. They represented the Church and the Spanish Crown. Their responsibilities were therefore broader than simply converting the Indians to Christianity. The missionaries also wanted to convince native people to adopt what they felt was the superior civilization of Catholic Spain. Many early Spanish conquistadores, however, cared little about the Christian mission and civilization duty. They were more concerned with acquiring wealth and generally thought of Indians as either obstacles to their economic aggrandizement or as a potential labor force that they could ruthlessly exploit. In the early stages of the Spanish entrée into the Americas, the conquistadores and their armies brutally attacked and annihilated thousands of Indians who stood in the way of their material objectives. Some members of the Dominican order of Catholic missionaries in Spanish America strongly censured the actions of the conquistadores. They urged King Ferdinand to issue regulations to prevent further atrocities and to fulfill the responsibility given to him in the Inter Caetera Divinae to convert the Indians to Christianity.
The Encomienda. The conquistadores needed a cheap supply of labor to work in the mines and on the farms and plantations of America. The encomienda system seemed to satisfy both of these objectives for the Spanish colonists. The encomienda was a forced system of labor that distributed Indian workers to certain favored Spanish colonists. Upon request the Crown “commended” a group of Indian villages to a Spanish individual called an encomendero. The people of these villages provided a set period of labor for their encomendero. Moreover, the system required the laborers to provide tribute in the form of corn, blankets, animals skins, and other items to their encomendero. In return for the grant the encomenderos agreed to provide military service to the Crown and pay a head tax for each Indian worker. He also promised to protect his Indians and indoctrinate them into Christianity and Spanish civilization. The Spanish established encomiendas wherever they went in the Americas. At first only conquistadores or military officers possessed encomienda rights. Over time, though, the government expanded the system and gave encomienda grants to wealthy civilians and officials of the Spanish government. The enslavement of Indians produced a great deal of wealth for the encomenderos and the Spanish government. Consequently, the government was at first reluctant to impose restrictions on the encomenderos when members of the Dominican order of missionaries criticized the system. In 1511 a Dominican friar named Antón Montesino rebuked the encomenderos: “[Y]ou are in mortal sin... you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by which right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people? Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” The defenders of the encomienda system argued that they were not enslaving Indians. However, in practice it was difficult to distinguish the encomienda from slavery. Encomenderos often bought and sold Indians as if they were property. They ruthlessly overworked thousands of Indians to death, kept them in line with brutal beatings, and refused them freedom of movement.
The Laws of Burgos. In response to the criticism of missionaries such as Montesino and Las Casas, the Spanish made occasional efforts to reform the system. For example, in 1512 King Ferdinand issued the Laws of Burgos. The laws limited the number of months out of every year that a laborer could work for his encomendero and required the encomendero to pay his workers a wage. The laws also provided that Indians working in the mines be given periods of rest and that they be supplied
with adequate food. In addition the statutes imposed restrictions on the Indian laborers. They prohibited polygamy, required Indians to learn the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and exhorted the natives to act in accord with what Spanish Christians deemed to be proper behavior. When King Charles came to the throne in 1516, he also worried that the encomenderos were becoming too powerful and were challenging his authority in America. The Spanish government was thousands of miles away and incapable of overseeing the activities of the encomenderos. Thus, in most cases, the encomenderos simply ignored royal reforms and continued to repress their Indian laborers. The king therefore moved to restrict the rights of the encomenderos. In 1542 Charles limited the inheritance of encomienda rights and sent visitadores to America. The visitadores were government officials who were responsible for ensuring that the encomenderos were abiding by Spanish law. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Spanish crown supplemented the encomienda with the repartimiento. Under the repartimiento system Spanish law required Indian villages unaffiliated with an encomienda to supply a set number of male laborers for a specific time period to work on Spanish buildings, in Spanish mines, and in Spanish fields. As the Indian labor supply dwindled from disease and overwork, the Spanish also began bringing Africans to America to serve as slave labor. By 1560 the Spanish had already transported more than 100,000 Africans to the Americas.
Native Resistance. At times Indian people violently resisted Spanish efforts to subjugate them. Those who opposed the Spanish conquest, however, were either annihilated by the forces of the presidios or placed into the forced labor of the encomienda system. When Hernando de Soto was exploring the Southeast in 1539, a group of Mabila Indians refused to submit to his demands. In response de Soto’s cavalry rode in and killed more than three thousand Mabilas. Similarly in 1597 the Guales, a native group located in what is now Georgia and Florida, were destroyed by the Spanish invaders. The Guales despised the proselytization efforts of the Spanish missionaries and tired of their constant demands for food. Eventually the Guales and other groups revolted against the Spanish. They attacked the Spanish missions and killed several friars. In response the missionaries requested support from the presidio in St. Augustine. Spanish troops attacked the native rebels, burned down their villages, and seized their grain supplies. In New Mexico a year later, the people of the Ácoma pueblo also learned what could happen if they opposed Spanish plans to seize control of the continent. In 1598 the Spanish government ordered Juan de Oñate to occupy the vast area drained by the Rio Grande River. Oñate led an expeditionary force of 129 soldiers along with some missionaries and civilians to claim and settle the region. Oñate sent representatives out to all of the pueblos of New Mexico. These agents told the pueblo peoples that they were now under the authority of the Spanish king, that their lands would be seized and distributed under Spanish law, and that the Indians should immediately renounce their tribal religion and convert to Christianity. Most of the pueblo peoples accepted their fate. However, the people of Ácoma rejected the Spanish message and violently resisted the Spanish army’s attempts to subdue them. The Spanish then sent Oñate a larger force to attack Ácoma in 1599. After a three-day battle Oñate’s army finally conquered Ácoma. Oñate ruthlessly punished the Ácoma people for their resistance. Along with killing almost one thousand Indians, Oñate issued harsh sentences for the survivors that were intended to deter any future native group from resisting Spanish expansion. Oñate ordered his men to amputate one foot from each man more than twenty-five years old and sentenced the victims to slave labor for twenty years. The Spanish conqueror also sentenced young men between twelve and twenty-five and all women over twelve to twenty years of forced servitude. The children of Ácoma did not escape punishment; they were taken away from their families and placed into the hands of the missionaries. Incidents such as these and other atrocities throughout the Americas demonstrated that the Spanish desire to seize land and wealth overrode their espoused desire to convert Indians to Christianity.
Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949);
Robert A. Williams, The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1990).