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Chapter 13

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Spain in America

by
Edward Gaylord Bourne

in the
Barnes & Noble edition,
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 15

p202 Chapter XIV

The Beginnings of Spanish Colonial Policy
(1493‑1518)

The Spanish colonial empire lasted three centuries, a period nearly as long as that of the sway of imperial Rome over western Europe. During these ten generations the language, the religion, the culture, and the political institutions of Castile were transplanted over an area twenty times as large as that of the parent state. What Rome did for Spain, Spain in turn did for Spanish America. In surveying, therefore, the work of Spain in the New World, we must realize from the start that we are studying one of the great historical examples of the transmission of culture by the establishment of imperial domain, and not, as in the case of English America, by the growth of little settlements of immigrants acting on their own impulse.

The colonial systems of Spain and of England have often been compared, to the great disparagement of the work of Spain; but the comparison of unlike and even contrasted social processes is more misleading than instructive. If we seek in English p203history a counterpart to the Spanish colonial empire, we shall find it rather in India than in Massachusetts or Virginia. Even here qualifications are necessary, for America never sustained such enormous masses of people as are found in India; and, small on the whole as was Spanish migration to the New World, it was relatively much larger than the English migration to India. Nor as yet have the people of Hindustan absorbed so much of the culture of the ruling nation in its various aspects as did the Indians in the American possessions of Spain.

It will be nearer the truth if we conceive of Spanish America as an intermediate and complex product, approximating on the political side to British India, on the social side in some respects to Roman Africa, and in the West Indies to the English plantation colonies in Virginia and South Carolina. British India is a more extreme example of imperial rule than is presented by New Spain and Peru; there was a far less ethnic divergence between the Roman and the Gaul or Briton than between the Spaniard and the red men, and the absorption of Roman culture was more complete in the ancient than in the modern instance.

In the West Indies and southern colonies of the English the same conditions confronted both England and Spain, and here a comparison of their respective systems is instructive; but for a fair counterpart to the English colonies of the north Atlantic seaboard we look in vain in the Spanish world, for p204Spain, in the commercial interest of Peru, steadily neglected the opportunity to develop the La Plata River country, where, alone of all her empire, there has sprung up since the era of independence and the rise of steam transportation a community rivalling the Mississippi Valley, in its wealth from agriculture and grazing, in its attractiveness to Europe emigration, and in the rapidity of its growth.

Of the three general divisions of their empire — the imperial dependencies of Peru and Mexico, the plantation colonies of the islands, and the unutilized areas of La Plata — the Spaniards always regarded the first as the most important; and it was only when these slipped from their grasp that the resources of the West Indies were adequately developed. Hence in a survey of Spanish colonial institutions our study will be mainly directed, after a brief examination of the beginnings of the West Indies, to Mexico, Central America, and Peru.

The earliest outline of a distinctive colonial policy for the new discoveries was drawn up by Columbus shortly before his second voyage. In this paper he proposed that emigration should be allowed at first up to the number of two thousand households to Española; that three or four towns should be founded, with municipal governments similar to those in Castile; that gold hunting should be restricted to actual settlers in the towns; that there should be churches with parish priests or friars to conduct divine worship and convert the Indians; that no p205colonist should go off prospecting without a licence or without having given his oath to return to his town and render a faithful account of his findings; that all gold brought in should be smelted at once and stamped with the town mark; that one per cent be set apart for the support of the church; that the privilege of gold hunting be limited to certain seasons so that planting and other business would not be neglected; that there should be free opportunity to all to go on voyages of discovery; that one or two ports in Española be made the exclusive ports of entry, and that all ships from the island should report at Cadiz.1

In the following January, Columbus, further instructed by experience as to the actual difficulties of establishing a colony in a distant tropical island, supplemented these proposals with the recommendations which were summarized above.2 The most notable addition is the suggestion to ship to Spain captives taken from the cannibals so as to pay for the importations of cattle and provisions. Of all the productions of this new world the only ones immediately marketable in Spain were the precious metals and the inhabitants. These two documents reveal Columbus's ideas as to a colonial policy for Spain. They forecast several features of the system as subsequently developed, and establish his right to be regarded as the pioneer law-giver of the p206New World, a distinction which has been eclipsed by his failure or misfortunes as viceroy.

In the narrative of the second voyage of Columbus the beginnings of the history of the colony of Española were touched upon.3 It was there noted that after the suppression of the revolt of the natives in 1495 a system of tribute was imposed upon them. In commutation of this tribute, perhaps in pursuance of the suggestion of the cacique Guarionex,4 the labor of the Indians on the farms of the Spaniards was accepted, this being the manner in which they rendered services to their own caciques.5

Two years later, one of the conditions exacted by the followers of the Spanish insurgent Roldan, when they came to terms with the admiral, was to be granted citizenship and lands. In fulfilling this last stipulation Columbus allotted to each of them the cultivated lands of the Indians, apportioning to one ten thousand cassava plants or hillocks and to another twenty thousand. These allotments, repartimientos, or encomiendas, as they were subsequently called, carried with them the enforced labor of the Indians,6 and were the beginning of a system almost universally applied in Spanish America to make the colonies self-supporting.

p207 The next advance in the development of colonial institutions was made under the administration of Ovando, who came out in 1502 to take the place of Bobadilla and upon whom fell the burden of establishing ordered life there. Ovando was a man of scrupulous integrity and unbending firmness, just to the Spaniards, but relentless in striking unexpected and terrible blows if convinced or suspicious of intended Indian revolt. Las Casas' affecting pictures of some instances of these terrorizing strokes have blackened Ovando's name, almost completely eclipsing his many admirable qualities as a governor, upon which Oviedo dwells with enthusiasm.

An examination of Ovando's instructions clearly reveals the ideas entertained at this date by Ferdinand and Isabella. Their first injunction was to provide for the kindly treatment of the Indians and the maintenance of peaceful relations between them and the settlers. The Indians were to pay tribute and were to help in the collection of gold, receiving wages for their labor. Emigration must be restricted to natives of Spain; no one was to sell arms to the natives, nor were Jews, Moors, or recent converts from Mohammedanism to be allowed to go thither. Negro slaves born in Christian lands could be taken to Española, but not others. Great care should be exercised not to dispose the Indians against Christianity.7

p208 Ovando set sail with thirty-two ships and two thousand five hundred colonists and adventurers, the largest number in any one expedition in early American history. Among them was Las Casas, the historian and advocate of the Indians. The experiences of these colonists bring out into strong light the perplexing problem of the situation. The number of Spaniards in the colony before the arrival of this force was about three hundred.8 Many of them were survivors of the criminals taken over by Columbus on his third voyage. Bobadilla, in pursuance of his weak policy of conciliation, had allowed them to extend the system of compulsory labor by all Indians; and the indignant Las Casas records that one might see rabble who had been scourged and clipped of their ears in Castile lording it over the native chiefs.9 Most of the Spaniards had Indian concubines, and other Indians as household servants or as draughted laborers.10 The Spaniards who had relied upon mining were in poverty; the farmers were fairly prosperous, and directed their efforts to breeding swine and cultivating cassava and yams and sweet-potatoes.11

Such was the community now overrun with gold seekers and new settlers. The prospectors rushed off to the mines, but found there unexpected labor, "as gold did not grow on the trees." In a new climate, the failing supply of food quickly p209exhausted them, and they straggled back to the town stricken with fever. Here, without shelter, they died faster than the clergy could conduct funerals.12 More than a thousand perished thus and five hundred were disabled by sickness. The fate that impended over the American soldiers in Cuba in 1898 fell upon these new settlers without mitigation.

Ovando had been ordered to treat the Indians as free men and subjects of the king and queen, but he soon had to report that if left to themselves they would not work even for wages and withdrew from all association with the Spaniards, so that it was impossible to teach or convert them. To meet the first of these difficulties, the sovereigns instructed him, March, 1503, to establish the Indians in villages, to give them lands which they could not alienate, to place them under a protector, to provide a school-house in each village that the children might be taught reading, writing, and Christian doctrine, to prevent oppression by their chiefs, to suppress their native ceremonies, to make efforts to have the Indians marry their wives in due religious form, and to encourage the intermarriage of some Christians with the Indians, both men and women.13

To meet the difficulty of getting the Indians to work, a royal order was issued in December, 1503, p210that the Indians should be compelled to work on buildings, in collecting gold, and farming for such wages as the governor should determine. For such purposes the chiefs must furnish specified numbers of men, "as free men, however, and not servants."14 These two edicts fairly represent the colonial policy of the crown and its intentions to civilize the Indians. As time went on these two lines of effort were more and more evenly carried out; but at first attention was principally directed to making use of the labor of the Indians, and only incidentally to their systematic civilization.15

In pursuance of the royal order, Ovando allotted to one Spaniard fifty and to another one hundred Indians under their chiefs; other allotments, or repartimientos, were assigned to cultivate lands for the king. These assignments were accompanied with a patent reading, "To you, so-and‑so, are given in trust ("se os encomiendan") under chief so-and‑so, fifty or one hundred Indians, with the chief, for you to make use of them in your farms and mines, and you are to teach them the things of our holy Catholic faith."16 At first the term of service in the mines lasted six months and later eight months. As the mines were from thirty to two hundred and fifty miles distant this involved prolonged separations of p211husbands and wives, and upon the wives fell the entire burden of supporting the families. According to Las Casas this separation, the consequent overwork of both husbands and wives, and the general despair led to high infant mortality and a very great diminution of births. If the same conditions existed throughout the world the human race, he writes, would soon die out.17

The rapid melting away of the population of the West Indies during the first quarter of a century of the Spanish rule was the first appearance in modern times of a phenomenon of familiar occurrence in the later history of the contact of nature peoples with a ruling race.18 Through the impassioned descriptions of Las Casas, which were translated into the principal languages of Europe, it is the most familiar instance of the kind; and, as a consequence, it is generally believed that the Spaniards were cruel and destructive above all other colonists, in spite of the fact that in their main-land settlements the native stock still constitutes numerically a very numerous element in the population. That the wars of subjugation were very destructive of life is only too clear; that famine followed war to prolong its ravages is equally certain; that the average p212Spaniard recklessly and cruelly overworked the Indians there is no doubt.

Nevertheless, there were other and more subtle causes in operation. Diseases were imported by the whites, which were mitigated for them by some degree of acquired immunity, but which raged irresistibly through a population without that defence. Of these new diseases small-pox was one of the most destructive.19 In the epidemic of small-pox in 1518 the natives, Peter Martyr reports,20 died like sheep with the distemper. Small-pox appeared in Mexico at the beginning of the conquest. When Pamfilo de Narvaez was despatched to recall Cortés, a negro on one of his ships was stricken with the disease, which was soon communicated to the Indians and raged irresistibly, sweeping off in some provinces half the population.21 Mortality was greatly increased because in their ignorance they plunged into cold water when attacked. The disease seems to have been particularly fatal to women. Eleven years later came an epidemic of a disease called "sarampion," which carried off great numbers.22 At more or less long intervals the Indian populations were swept by a pestilence from which p213the whites were exempt. It was known in Mexico as the "matlazahuatl," and in 1545 and 1576 it caused an enormous mortality.23 Humboldt conjectured that possibly this might be the same as the pestilence which visited Massachusetts in 1618, sweeping off the vast majority of the Indian population.24 Jourdanet finds evidence of endemic typhus and pleuropneumonia in Mexico at the time of the conquest, but that yellow fever did not appear until the next century. Besides the famines consequent upon the conquest, those incident to a failure of the crops were a wide-reaching cause of depopulation from which Mexico on occasion suffered comparably to India in the nineteenth century.25

Just what the population of Española was when Columbus discovered the island there is no means of knowing, but there can be no doubt that the estimateº of Las Casas that there were over three million people in the island is a wild exaggeration.26 Oscar Peschel, an experienced ethnologist and a critical historian, after weighing all the evidence, places the population of Española in 1492 at less than three p214hundred thousand and at over two hundred thousand. In 1508 the number of the natives was sixty thousand; in 1510, forty-six thousand; in 1512, twenty thousand; and in 1514, fourteen thousand.27

In 1548 Oviedo doubted whether five hundred natives of pure stock remained, and in 1570 only two villages of Indians were left. A similar fate befell all the islands. Accelerated as this extermination was by the cruelty and greed of the early Spanish colonists, the history of the native stock in the Sandwich Islands, which has been exempt from conquest and forced labor, indicates that it was perhaps inevitable, without the adjunct of ruthless exploitation. The same phenomenon appeared among the less numerous aborigines of our eastern state where there was little enslavement of the Indians. But here there was no Las Casas, and the disappearance of the natives was regarded as providential.

Daniel Denton in 1670, in recording the rapid decrease of the Indian population of Long Island, quaintly observes: "It hath been generally observed that where the English come to settle, a divine hand makes way for them by removing or cutting off the Indians either by wars one with the other or by some raging mortal disease."28

The melancholy fate of these nature folk and the romantic incidents of the Spanish conquest have p215naturally obscured the more humdrum phases of their earlier colonial history, and have given rise to such erroneous assertions as the following: "Not the slightest thought or recognition was given during the first half-century of the invasion to any such enterprise as is suggested by the terms colonization, the occupancy of the soil for husbandry and domestication."29 How far from true such a sweeping statement is, appears from the equipment of Columbus's second voyage, from the offer of supplies for a year to all settlers in 1498,30 and from the provisions made by the sovereigns to promote colonization in connection with his third voyage, which have been summarized in an earlier chapter.

In addition to the arrangements there quoted, in order to promote colonization the king and queen exempted from the payment of duties necessary articles taken to the Indies; and granted a similar exemption upon articles of every sort imported from the Indies.31 Further, they ordered that there should be prepared a sort of public farm open to cultivation by Spaniards in the island, who should receive as a loan to start with fifty bushels of wheat and corn and as many couple of cows and mares and other beasts of burden.32 This loan was to be paid back at harvest with a tenth part of the crop; the rest the cultivators could retain for themselves or p216sell. In July of the same year, 1497, in response to petitions from actual and proposed settlers in Española for lands for cultivating grain, fruits, and sugar-cane, and for erecting sugar and grist mills, the king and queen authorized Columbus to allot lands free of charge to actual settlers, subject to the condition that they live there four years and that all the precious metals be reserved for the crown.33

Five years later Luis de Arriaga, a gentleman of Seville, proposed to take out to the island two hundred Biscayans, or more, with their wives, to be settled in four villages; and the sovereigns on their part offered free passage for these colonists, free land for cultivation, and exemption from taxes excepting tithes and first-fruits for five years. Large reservations of the sources of monopoly profits, such as mines, salt-pits, Indian trade, harbors, etc., were made for the crown; but the terms for farming were certainly liberal. Arriaga was unable to get together more than forty married people, and they soon petitioned for a reduction of the royalties payable on gold mined and for other concessions. These were granted, but the colony did not preserve its identity and soon merged in the mass.34

In 1501 the crown, to promote trade with the Indies, and especially exports from Castile, relieved p217this commerce entirely from the payment of duties.35 Still further, as early as 1503, Ovando was instructed to promote the cultivation of mulberry-trees that the silk culture might be developed.36

One of the most remarkable efforts of the Spanish government to promote the colonization of the New World by actual workers was that made in 1518 in response to Las Casas' representations of the evils of the compulsory labor of the Indians. Those that would go to Terra-Firma were offered free passage and their living on board ship, promised the attendance of physicians, and upon arrival at their destination lands and live-stock; for twenty years they were to be relieved of the alcabala, or tax on exchanges, and all taxes on their produce except the church tithes. Further premiums were offered of $200 for the first one who produced twelve pounds of silk; of $150 for the one who first gathered ten pounds of cloves, ginger, cinnamon, or other spices; of $100 for the first fifteen hundredweight of woad, and $65 for the first hundredweight of rice.37

A formal expression of contemporary opinion in Española as to the needs of the colony towards the end of Ovando's administration affords us an interesting picture of its general condition and of the p218spirit of the inhabitants, and of the defects in the government trade policy. Two proctors or representatives of the people presented a petition to King Ferdinand in 1508 in which they ask for assistance in building stone churches and additional endowments for their hospitals; for permission to engage in the local coasting trade; that all the natives of Spain be allowed to engage in trade with Española; that their imports of wine be not limited to that grown near Seville; that they may bring in Indians from the neighboring islands, which are of little use and not likely to be settled; that by this means the Indians could be more easily converted; for the devotion of the product of salt-mines to the building of public works; for the establishment of a higher court of appeals; for more live-stock; that no descendants of Jews, Moors, or of heretics, burned or reconciled, down to the fourth generation, be allowed to come to the island; that hogs be considered common property as they have multiplied so greatly and run wild; that the towns be ennobled and granted arms, likewise the island; that the artisans who come to the island may be compelled to stick to their trades not be allowed, as they desire, to desert them and to secure an allotment of Indians; for the choice of sheriffs and notaries by election of the regidores, etc.38

That the Spanish authorities were not indifferent to the establishment of agricultural colonies in the West Indies is abundantly evident. That their success p219was not more striking was quite as much the result of the superior attractiveness of Mexico and Peru as of any defects in their policy. The early history of Española compares not unfavorably with the early years of Virginia. Had a California of 1849 been as accessible to the Virginia of 1620 as Mexico was to Española in 1520, Virginia might have suffered a similar eclipse.


The Author's Notes:

1 Thacher, Columbus, III, 94‑113, also translated in Amer. Hist. Assoc., Report, 1894, pp452 ff.

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2 See above, p37.

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3 See above, chap. IV.

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4 Las Casas, Historia, II, 103.

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5 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. III, chap. XIII.

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6 Las Casas, Historia, I, 373. Las Casas draws no other distinction between "repartimiento" and "encomienda" than that noted in the text, that "encomienda" was the later term.

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7 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. IV, chap. XII; Helps, Spanish Conquest, I, 127‑130.

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8 Las Casas, Historia, III, 33.

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9 Ibid., 3.

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10 Ibid., 5.

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11 Ibid., 35.

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12 Las Casas, Historia, III, 36.

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13 Fabié, Ensayo Historico, 42; Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. V, chap. XII.

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14 Las Casas, Historia, III, 65; Fabié, Ensayo Historico, 57, text in Docs. Ined. de Indias, XXXI, 209.

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15 Las Casas, Historia, III, 70. See Van Middeldyk, History of Puerto Rico, 29, 45, for tables illustrating Indian allotments in that island.

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16 Las Casas, Historia, III, 71.

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17 Las Casas, Historia, III, 72.

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18 Waitz, Introduction to Anthropology (London, 1863), 144‑167, amasses a great variety of evidence illustrating this decay of population. Cf. also Peschel, Races of Man, 152‑155; and G. Stanley Hall, Adolescence, II, 648‑748, on "Treatment of Adolescent Races."

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19 On the small-pox, see Waitz, Introduction to Anthropology, 145.

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20 Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, dec. III, lib. VIII; Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 296.

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21 Motolinia, Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España, in Col. de Docs. para la Hist. de Mexico, I, 15; Herrera, Historia General, dec. II, lib. X, chap. XVIII.

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22 Motolinia, Historia, 15.

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23 See Jourdanet, "Considérations Médicales sur la Campagne de Fernand Cortés," in his ed. of Bernal Diaz, 895.

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24 Cf. extract from Johnson, "Wonder-working Providence," in Hart, American History Told by Contemporaries, I, 368; H. H. Bancroft, Mexico, III, 756.

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25 Cf. Humboldt, New Spain, I, 121.

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26 Las Casas, Historia, III, 101. The prevalent Spanish estimate was one million one hundred thousand, ibid.; Oviedo, Historia General, I, 71; Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, III, dec. III, lib. VIII; Hakluyt, Voyages, V, 296.

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27 Peschel, Zeitalter der Entdeckungen, 430; Oviedo, Historia General, I, 71; Lopez de Velasco, Geografia y Descripcion, 97.

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28 Denton, New York (ed. 1902), 45.

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29 G. E. Ellis, in Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist., II, 301.

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30 Memorials of Columbus, 91; Navarrete, Viages, II, 167.

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31 Fabié, Ensayo Historico, 32.

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32 Memorials of Columbus, 74; Navarrete, Viages, II, 183.

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33 Memorials of Columbus, 127‑129; Navarrete, Viages, II, 215.

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34 Docs. Ined. de Indias, XXX, 526; Las Casas, Historia, III, 36‑38; Southey, History of the West Indies, 77.

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35 Docs. Ined. de Indias, XXXI, 62 ff.; Fabié, Ensayo Historico, 40.

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36 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. V, chap. XII; Southey, History of the West Indies, 91.

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37 Col. de Docs. Ined. de Ultramar, IX (Docs. Leg.II), 77‑83; Fabié, Ensayo Historico, 163‑164.

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38 Col. de Docs. Ined. de Ultramar, V (Docs. Leg.I), 125‑142.


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