Myth of Spanish Destruction of the Indians

Myth of Spanish Destruction of the Indians

Posted by Mani Miami on 30th Aug 2019

This was the struggle in the Spanish Empire to defend the rights of the indigenous population

Isabel "la Católica" already warned in the Royal Provision of December 20, 1503 against the possible excesses of the conquerors: "Do not consist or give rise to any person doing wrong to the Indians or any damage or other misguided"

Faced with the myth of the Spanish genocide in America, the writer Pío Baroja said at the beginning of the 20th century that the Spaniards "have purged the error of having discovered America, of having colonized it more generously than what foreign historians have with a stupid protestant criterion, and as fanatic or more than the Catholic. What did the Basque intellectual mean with a more generous colonization? Basically - historians say - to legislation in defense of indigenous people unthinkable in any other European country of that period and of any colonial period. Thus, in the face of the greed of the conquerors, there were many Spanish missionaries who denounced the excessive violence and worked to carry out fairer laws against a type of covert slavery, the encomiendas. Their efforts were materialized in the New Laws of 1542, which recognized the Indians as free subjects of the Spanish Crown, and in the Valladolid controversy, where the Castilian city witnessed an unprecedented debate on human rights in the sixteenth century.

At the beginning of the conquest of America, there was a period of legal uncertainty in the new lands on the question of how the indigenous population should be treated. The first to suffer clear cases of slavery were the Taíno Indians of Hispaniola, already in the first voyages of Christopher Columbus, although other formulas such as the collection of taxes in gold to the Indians and parcels were soon resorted to. The institution of the encomienda was a way to channel the ambition of the conquerors to create a feudal system in America, as explained in the book "The Enterprise of America: the men who conquered empires and created nations" (EDAF). The process was to "entrust" a group of indigenous people to a conqueror, an encomendero, as if it were a vassal but without land transfer. Every indigenous male between 18 and 50 years of age was considered a tributary, which meant that he was obliged to pay tribute to the King in his condition of "free vassal" of the Castilian Crown or, failing that, to the encomendero that exercised this right on behalf of the monarch. The parcels, not in vain, were an assignment of the Catholic Monarchs in exchange for the conquerors to bear the expenses of evangelization: they had to pay, among other payments, the lodging of the doctrinal priest.

The greed and brutality of the conquerors

This system gave rise to numerous abuses against the population at the hands of some conquerors who only sought to get the most out of forced labor. However, as the Spanish Crown gained institutional strength in the New World, it was possible to exercise greater control and avoid abuses of an instrument that vertebrated the colonization of many lands. Over the years, the parcels lost their role in colonization and, thanks to the fact that they were concessions for a certain period, the Crown was able to neutralize the emergence of Spanish leaders. In other peripheral regions, however, see Yucatán, Paraguay or Chile, the parcels remained for several centuries.

Even so, Isabel «la Católica» already warned in the Royal Provision signed on December 20, 1503 against the possible excesses in the parcels: «I command you, the saying our governor (...) that you make each one pay , the day I will work, the daily wage and maintenance that according to the quality of the land and of the person and of the trade, it seems that there should be (...) Which they do and comply as free people, as they are, and not as servants, and make them well treated; and those of them were Christians, better than the others. And do not consist of any place for any person to harm them or any harm or other misguided.

Isabel "la Católica" was responsible in life for slavery not being applied to a population whose legal status was that of free persons and not subject to servitude, but their protection ended at their death. «The greatest horrors of these wars ... began since it was known in America that the Queen had just died, because Her Highness did not cease to entrust that the Indians were treated with sweetness and all means were used to make them happy», He wrote at the death of Queen Bartholomew of Las Casas, who described how the majority of conquerors used the parcels by way of underground slavery.

In this context, the sermon of the Dominican friar Antonio Montesinos given in Hispaniola, in the year 1511, is usually pointed out as the first allegation to defend sa of equality between indigenous and Spanish. The sermon had as its central axis the questioning of the legality of the Spanish domain and the abuses by the conquerors, which had not been put under debate until then since, according to the medieval theory of the Dominus Orbis, the concession of the Pope was enough to give legitimacy to the conquest or any company. The Catholic Monarchs had papal support, but both within and outside their borders were increasingly those who argued that theological arguments were an insufficient response.

The Laws of Burgos in 1512 (Odenanzas for the treatment of the Indians) were the first laws that the Hispanic Monarchy issued for their application in the Indies in order to organize their conquest. Signed by Fernando "the Catholic" on December 27, 1512, the debate concluded that the King of Spain had just titles of dominion over the American continent and that the Indian had the legal nature of a free man with all property rights, which It could not be exploited, but as a subject he had to work for the Crown. In spite of its defects, the Laws of Burgos were precursors within international law and represented avant-garde legislation for their time; However, the reality is that it was not always fulfilled in the Spanish overseas territories and its effective value was limited to limiting the parcels.

The New Laws of 1542: the entrustment prohibited

In an edict of 1530, Carlos I of Spain prohibited all forms of slavery in any kind of circumstance, but the abuses continued once again, despite the efforts of the Crown, giving rise to the most critical voice among all missionaries : Bartolomé de Las Casas. This Dominican friar, whose father accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second trip, denounced the abuse that the Indians were suffering in a work written in 1552, "The Brief Relationship of the Destruction of the Indies", which was used as one of the props of the black legend that the enemies of the Empire poured internationally. As Joseph Pérez, author of "The Black Legend" (GADIR, 2012) explains, Las Casas intended to "denounce the contradictions between the end - the evangelization of the Indians - and the means used. Those means (war, conquest, slavery, ill-treatment) were not worthy of Christians; but the fact that the conquerors were Spanish was secondary ». Foreign propaganda endorsed the thesis of the Dominican friar and further exaggerated death figures already unrealistic.

However, we must not forget that de Las Casas represented a group of Spaniards with the courage to denounce injustice, the majority of missionaries, and a growing sensitivity that over the years attracted the interest of the authorities. The Spanish friar was very influential in the Castilian court and managed to materialize his protests in 1542, with the New Laws for the Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, which ended suddenly with the legal indefinition prevailing in America. These laws considered the kingdoms of the Indies in the same terms as many others within the Spanish Empire - such as Aragon, Navarra, Sicily, etc. - and definitively classified the Indians as full-fledged subjects of the Crown, which prevented that were enslaved under any circumstances. Specifically, article 35 directly prohibited parcels and article 31 mandated that Indians subject to entrustments should be transferred to the Crown upon the death of the entruster.

Although it had been from Las Casas who had fueled the debate, the legal foundations of these New Laws were based on the premises of the friar Francisco de Vitoria, who argued that “although the Indians did not want to recognize any dominion to the Pope, you cannot for that reason to make war on them or seize their property and territory ». Not surprisingly, although Francisco de Vitoria - a pioneer in many matters of international law - and Las Casas pursued humanitarian purposes by promoting these laws, the main objective of the Spanish Crown was another: to reduce the power of the conquerors. "We are so scandalized as if he were sending us to send heads to cut, because if he is anxious as they say, all of us here are bad Christians and traitors to our King whom we have served with our lives and estates with such fidelity," wrote the cabildo from Guatemala to Carlos I upon knowing the terms of the new legislation. The conquerors interpreted the end of the encomiendas as a direct aggression.

In New Spain, what is now the area of Mexico, Viceroy Mendoza managed to avoid the uprising of the conquerors with a partial application of the New Laws; but the severe viceroy of Peru, Blasco Núñez de Vela, resulted precisely in the opposite with his little touch. Nuñez de Vela caused a great rebellion led by Gonzalo Pizarro, Fra's little brother Ncisco Pizarro, who ended up with the decapitated viceroy. From Madrid they rushed to send against Pizarro the cunning and pragmatic Pedro de La Gasca, who was able to put out the fire and execute the brother of the conqueror of Peru in exchange for postponing the abolition of parcels in this region.

The laws to stop the abuses followed from Madrid - as well as the revolts by the encomenders - and caused the outrage of a King, Felipe II, accustomed to his orders being fulfilled to the millimeter, but he saw in the distance with America an insurmountable barrier: «I have been informed that the crimes that the Spaniards commit against the Indians are not punished with the rigor that those of some Spaniards do against others (...) I command you therefore that from now on you punish with more rigor to the Spaniards who injure, offend or mistreat the Indians, than if the same crimes were committed against the Spaniards ».

Valladolid, headquarters of the debate on human rights

In parallel to this legal process unparalleled in any other country in Europe - which did not even consider the need to grant recognition of free subjects of the Crown to the indigenous people who met in America -, the theoretical debate on the lawfulness of the conquest that Francisco de Vitoria had raised in the past, already deceased. During what was known as the Valladolid controversy, held between 1550 and 1551, those who defended that the Indians had the same rights as any Christian - thesis defended by de Las Casas - against those who believed that it was justified for a superior people to impose their rights guardianship of lower towns to allow them access to a higher degree of development, an idea led by Ginés de Sepúlveda.

On a practical level, the Valladolid controversy served to draw few final conclusions and there was only one notable modification to the laws enacted in 1542: the creation of the figure of the "protector of Indians." This legal figure was basically an administrative office of the Spanish Colonization of America dedicated to attending the welfare of Native Amerindian populations and preventing them from being abused. Felipe II regulated his appointment and activity in 1589.