Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516)

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Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516)

Son of John II of Aragon and Juana Enríquez, Ferdinand II, born March 10, 1452, was king of Aragon (1479–1516), Sicily (1468–1516), Naples (1504–1516), and—through his marriage in 1469 to Isabella I of Castile—Castile and León (1574–1516). In this last capacity he helped shape Spanish policy toward the New World, though he paid less attention to the New World and the welfare of its inhabitants than did his first wife. Even after her death in 1504, when the administration of these Castilian realms fell to him, he usually delegated responsibility to his advisers, especially Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, head of the Casa de Contratación in Seville. Ferdinand's interest in the Indies stemmed primarily from the material wealth that they might provide to finance his Mediterranean ventures.

Ferdinand and Isabella met Christopher Columbus around 1486 and appointed a commission to consider the merits of his plan to reach Asia by a westward route. Although they believed, correctly, that Columbus had vastly underestimated the distance of such a journey, they finally decided, after conquering Granada in 1492, that his expedition was worth the modest investment of approximately two million maravedís.

Upon Columbus's return, Ferdinand and Isabella obtained a papal bull (Inter caetera) that granted them title to the newly discovered lands. Pope Alexander VI had received significant favors from Ferdinand and was eager to accommodate the sovereigns' wishes. Nevertheless, they, or Columbus, found this first bull insufficient. A second bull Inter caetera, dated May 4, 1493, more clearly distinguished Castilian territories from those of Portugal. It drew a line of demarcation 100 leagues west of the Azores or Cape Verde Islands and granted Castile title to those territories west of this line not already under Christian rule. In 1494, with the Treaty of Tordesillas, Castile and Portugal moved the line of demarcation 270 leagues farther to the west.

The Spanish monarchs had granted Columbus extraordinary privileges and titles (admiral, viceroy, and governor), but they quickly took steps to limit his power and prevent him from establishing a monopoly. With an arrangement that set a pattern for future conquests, they granted licenses to private adventurers, who had to finance their own expeditions and give the Crown one-fifth of their gross profits. In 1500 Ferdinand and Isabella sent Francisco de Bobadilla to Hispaniola to assume command and investigate charges of Columbus's mismanagement. He arrested Columbus and his brothers, confiscated their property, and sent them back to Spain in chains. The monarchs had Columbus's property returned to him, but not his authority. In 1501 they replaced Bobadilla with Nicolás de Ovando, whom Ferdinand replaced eight years later with Columbus's elder son, Diego.

The question of how to treat the inhabitants of these lands had troubled the monarchs, or at least the queen, from the outset, when Columbus started sending shipments of enslaved Tainos back to Spain. Isabella eventually made it clear that she wanted her new subjects to remain free, adopt Christianity and Spanish customs, and be compensated for their labor, to which Europeans would have access only with the Crown's approval. Neither monarch opposed the institution of slavery. Indeed, Ferdinand authorized the shipment of enslaved Africans to Hispaniola. But he and Isabella usually treated Indians differently, because they considered them to be their vassals, and therefore entitled to their protection.

It was under Ferdinand's rule, after the death of Queen Isabella in 1504 and archduke Philip in 1506, that the Crown first developed a comprehensive Indian policy. The Dominican Fray Antón Montesinos met Ferdinand in 1512 and informed him of the abuses that the natives were suffering at the hands of the Spanish colonists. In response, the king summoned a group of theologians and royal officials to consider the "Indian problem." After lengthy discussion, this group drew up the Laws of Burgos (1512 and 1513), which prohibited the enslavement of the Indians and sought to protect them from the worst abuses. At the same time these laws required them to abandon their homes and many of their customs, so that they might more easily be converted to Christianity and incorporated into the colonial economy as laborers. For the most part the Laws of Burgos were not enforced.

With no surviving son or son-in-law from his marriage to Isabella or his marriage to Germaine de Foix, and with his daughter Juana deemed unfit for rule, Ferdinand bequeathed the Spanish kingdoms to his grandson, Charles of Ghent. He died January 23, 1516.

See alsoColumbus, Christopher; Isabella I of Castile; Spain; Spanish Empire; Tordesillas, Treaty of (1494).


Céspedes del Castillo, G. "Las Indias en el reinado de los Reyes Católicos." In Historia de España y América, vol. 2, ed. Jaime Vicens Vives, pp. 493-547. Barcelona: Vicens Vives, 1961.

Hernández Sánchez-Barba, Mario. La corona y el descubrimiento de América. Valencia: Asociación Francisco López de Gómara, 1989.

Prescott, William Hickling. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. 1837. New York: Heritage Press, 1967.

Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2003.

                                              Glen Carman

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Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516)

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