In 1495, the crown ordered the money from the sale of the Indian slaves to be set aside until certain troubling questions could be answered: Did Spain have "just title" over the Indies? Could Spain legitimately make war on the native peoples and thereby enslave or otherwise force them to work? Did the Indians have the capacity to accept Christianity and to live like Spaniards? Were the Indians even human beings?
God and Greed
The question of the "just title" to the Indies was seemingly settled in 1493. Pope Alexander VI issued a declaration passing legal possession of the newly discovered lands to Spain. The pope, however, made this "donation" to Spain for the purpose of converting the native peoples to a belief in God and the Catholic faith. Whether Spain could also legally take Indian lands and possessions by force became a disputed matter among Spanish scholars for many years. Of course, the Indians had no say in any of this.
In America, events took their own course. The Spanish conquistadors, who went to Hispaniola and then to other Caribbean islands and finally to the mainland, were rough and violent. They took what they wanted, and when the Indians resisted--or even when they did not--the conquistadors attacked and slaughtered them. By 1499, Columbus was rewarding his men for helping conquer the Indies by forcing Indians to work for them. This prompted Queen Isabella to ask, "By what authority does the Admiral give my vassals [subjects] away?"
The Laws of Burgos
The year after his revolutionary sermon, Montesinos traveled to Spain to take his grievances directly to King Ferdinand. (Isabella had died in 1504). The king listened sympathetically and ordered Spanish scholars to prepare a code of laws regulating the treatment of Indians. Drawn up in 1512 and l513 in the city of Burgos, Spain, the Laws of Burgos became the first code of laws written by Europeans for the New World.
The Laws of Burgos were remarkably enlightened for the time. Although this law code continued to recognize the encomienda system, its 39 articles laid down specific rules to prevent abuse of Indian workers. For example, it forbid using Indians as carriers of goods in place of pack animals. It granted 40 days of rest to encomienda Indians who had mined gold for five months. It prohibited Indian children under 14 and pregnant women from doing heavy work in the mines or fields. It banned Spanish masters from beating, whipping, or calling any Indian "dog." Moreover, the code required that the Catholic faith "shall be planted and deeply rooted so that the souls of the said Indians may be saved."
Defender of the Indians
Bartolome de Las Casas was the most persistent defender of the Indians during the early years of the Spanish conquest of America. Starting out as a conquistador with his own encomienda, Las Casas later became a Dominican friar who passionately spoke out against the brutal treatment of the Indians.
Las Casas went on and on cataloging the tortures employed by the conquistadors--throwing Indians into pits with sharpened stakes, spearing them from horseback as they tried to escape, grilling children over a fire. The Dominican friar finally charged that after the survivors had been enslaved or forced into encomiendas, their Spanish masters started "killing them slowly with hard labor."
The new encomienda law produced tremendous opposition in America. Encomienda holders argued that not only they but the entire Spanish colonizing effort would fail without forced Indian labor. The viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) suspended enforcement of the new encomienda law because so many refused to accept it. In Peru, a violent revolt resulted in the beheading of the viceroy there.
The Great Debate
The great debate took place at Valladolid, Spain, before a special group of scholars and royal officials. They were to decide whether the conquest of the native peoples in the New World was morally justified. A brilliant religious scholar, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, argued that the Indians were barbaric and "slaves by nature." If "those little men in whom one can scarcely find any remnants of humanity" resisted Spanish rule, Sepulveda reasoned, war was justified.
Las Casas contended that the Indians were free, rational human beings whom he compared favorably to the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and even the Spanish themselves. "All the peoples of the world are men," he said, and thus possess basic natural rights. Therefore, it was wrong for the Spanish to force their rule and religion onto the Indians. Las Casas concluded that the conquest must stop, Spain must end its rule over native peoples, and religious conversion must take place peacefully and voluntarily.
For Discussion and Writing
2. What was the encomienda system? How did the conquistadors justify it? How did Las Casas and other critics condemn it?
3. How would you have decided the great debate on the conquest of the Indians? Give reasons for your decision.
For Further Reading
Las Casas, Bartolome de. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. New York: Penguin Books, 1992 [originally published in 1552].
A C T I V I T Y: Laws for the Indies
The Council of the Indies considered at one time all the proposed laws for the Indies listed below. Divide the class into the following role groups for a simulated Council of the Indies lawmaking session:
1. Conquistadors: Soldiers and encomienda masters who conquered the New World for Spain 2. Viceroys: The king's representatives in the New World. Each heads the government of a Spanish colony.
3. Missionaries: Members of religious orders who want to convert the Indians to Christianity
4. Indian Defenders: People like Las Casas who protest the mistreatment of Indians and defend their human rights
5. Council of the Indies: The lawmaking body for the Indies
The first four role groups should prepare a position with arguments on each of the proposed laws while the last group (the council) develops questions to ask. Each group will then present its position on the first proposed law before the Council of the Indies. The council may ask questions of each group after it has finished. The council will then discuss and decide whether to approve, disapprove, or modify the proposed law. The same procedure should be followed in considering the other proposed laws.
1. Indians shall not be permitted to go without clothing, worship idols, or make human sacrifices. 2. Sons of Indian leaders will be instructed in reading, writing, and the Catholic faith at the expense of their encomienda masters.
3. The encomienda system will be phased out. When a current encomienda master dies, his Indians shall become vassals of the crown.
4. Books by Juan Gines de Sepulveda shall not be printed or distributed in the Indies.