The preservation and civilization of a large proportion of the native stock on the continent is a feature of the Spanish colonial system remarkable in itself and inadequately appreciated by the average American, whose familiarity with the Spanish Indian policy rarely goes beyond the days of the conquest and of the extinction of the natives of the islands. To the prolonged efforts of the crown in behalf of its Indian vassals many a popular history gives less space than to the terrible stories of cruelties which Las Casas heaped up.
In Spanish America the natives from the start were regarded as the subjects of the crown of Spain, whereas in English America they were generally treated as independent nations, friends, or enemies, as the case might be; and the relations of the English crown and colonial governments to them were diplomatic rather than those of ruler and governed. The consequence was that the English did not exert over the Indians a strong protective power, but that p254 they were left in the main to take their chances in a sort of struggle for existence. A contributing factor in shaping the different policy pursued by Spain in its final form was the conquest by Cortés and Pizarro of states of a developed civilization, themselves in turn resting on the conquest and combination of smaller political aggregates. The people under the sway of Montezuma and Atahualpa accepted a change of rulers with no great resistance, and became the subjects of the king of Spain, whose captains displaced their earlier conquerors. Only in the case of the wilder tribes, the "unreduced" Indians, do we have a situation more like that in English America.1
The inhabitants of the newly discovered tropical Africa knew Europeans only as slave-buyers and kidnappers; that a similar fate did not befall the natives of America may be attributed to the long-continued efforts of the Spanish kings and missionaries, seconded by public opinion in Spain.2 These new subjects must be converted, must be reduced to civilized life and to regular industry. It was a compulsory process, and it bore down at times in the remoter fields of execution with terrible severity, especially on such as were not inured to work. That the Indians, excepting prisoners of war and the wild Caribs resisting conquest, should not, either in theory p255 or in fact, be enslaved, was from the start the policy of the crown. The encomienda system, the genesis of which has been described in an earlier chapter, tended to degenerate into a serfdom approaching slavery and capable of great abuses; but the crown tried to prevent these evils so far as possible. In the code for the Indies prepared in 1542, commonly called the "New Laws," the future enslavement of the Indians was absolutely prohibited, and all slaves whose masters could not prove a just title were to be liberated; encomiendas belonging to officials, churchmen, and charitable institutions were to be given up; encomenderos who had abused their Indians were to forfeit their holdings; no new encomiendas were to be granted, and existing ones were to lapse on the death of the holder.3
In securing this legislation Las Casas, "the apostle of the Indians," had been pre-eminently influential, but the practical difficulties of its execution proved insuperable.4 The problem was not an easy one. A realm had been wrested from its earlier conquers by the heroism and sacrifices of private adventurers: how were they to be rewarded and their families supported? That they should have great estates with a numerous body of serfs and live like the nobles in Europe seemed a practical p256 solution of the difficulty. That "the American conqueror with his encomienda of Indians differed little from the Andalusian or Valencian noble with his Moorish vassal peasantry"5 was no slight confirmation of this view. On the other hand, Cortés and the Spanish crown keenly felt the unwisdom and the wrong of any such wasting of the population as had taken place in the islands. Hence, after prolonged discussion and several experiments, it was decided that the encomienda system was to go on through four generations, after which with the encomiendas would lapse to the crown. Subsequent further extensions took place, and the lapse of the system was not accomplished until the eighteenth century.6 The Indian legislation of the Spanish kings is an impressive monument of benevolent intentions which need not fear comparison with the contemporary legislation of any European country affecting the status of the working-classes.
The details of the history of the Spanish Indian policy are too voluminous for presentation in the survey of the population of Spanish America; yet they form an important and instructive chapter in the history of the contact of the "higher" and "lower" races, of which unfortunately only the tragic prologue has been made generally familiar through the wide diffusion of Las Casas' tracts on p257 the Indian question. His Breuissima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias, a voluminous plea prepared to present to Charles V in 1540, was first published twelve years later. Translations into all the principal languages of Europe followed, and its pictures of terrible inhumanity, its impassioned denunciations of the conquerors, and its indictment of the colonial officials became the stock material of generations of historical writers.
It is forgotten that his book was the product of a fierce agitation, or that it was written before the Spaniards had been fifty years in the New World, where their empire lasted three hundred years. Two centuries of philanthropic legislation has been thrown into the background by the flaming words which first gave it impulse. Las Casas was the Lloyd Garrison of Indian rights; but it is as one-sided to depict the Spanish Indian policy primarily from his pages as it would be to write a history of the American negro question exclusively from the files of the Liberator; or, after a century of American rule in the Philippines, to judge it solely from the anti-imperialistic tracts of the last few years. That the benevolent legislation of the distant mother-country was not, and probably could not be, wholly enforced will not seem strange to those familiar with our experience with federal legislation on the negro question; but that a lofty ideal was raised and maintained is as true of the Indian laws of Spain as of the Fifteenth Amendment.
p258 All that can be attempted here is an outline sketch of the typical features of Indian society as reorganized by conquest. The distinctive features of the Spanish Indian policy were the reduction of the Indians to village life, their conversion to the Christian religion, the suppression of their vices and heathen practices, and a training to industry and sobriety so that they should support themselves and contribute to meet the expenses of the colonial establishment. A portion of their labor was to belong either to their encomenderos or to the crown. On the other hand, they were to be protected from the struggle for existence in competition with the heterogeneous elements of a colonial population.
In pursuance of these aims the Indians were to live in villages under their own magistrates. Each village, according to its size, had one or two alcaldes and from one to four regidores, who were annually elected by the residents in the presence of the cura, or pastor.7 These offices were not purchasable, as was the case in the Spanish towns.8 Each village must contain a church with a mission priest, the expense to be borne by the encomendero out of his tributes.9 No Indian could live outside his village, nor could any Spaniard, negro, mestizo, or mulatto live in an Indian village; Spaniards could p259 not tarry over one night, except merchants, who might stay two nights.10
In these villages the Indian social life, their marriages, and the like were to be regulated in accordance with Christian principles;11 schools for teaching Spanish were to be opened;12 no wine could be sold there, and precautions were to be exercised that the native pulque should not be adulterated or fortified with spirits.13 Indians could not purchase or bear arms nor ride on horseback.14 In their religious relations they were exempt from the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.15 The caciques who had been the chiefs of the Indians before their conversion or reduction might retain that office, and it was recognized as hereditary. They exercised minor jurisdiction, but could not try capital offences. In case they were reported to be oppressive the Spanish officials were to look into their conduct.16
The question of Indian tribute and labor was carefully regulated. All male Indians between eighteen and fifty were liable for an annual payment, which was payable in kind either to the crown or to the encomendero, as the case might be; but sometimes it could be commuted into money. The tribute was assessed by officials for the purpose, and protectors of the Indians were appointed to p260 look after their interests. The amount of the tribute in money value was in the later period two or three pesos.17
Slavery was absolutely prohibited;18 the cacique could not hold Indian slaves. In granting encomiendas the descendants of the conquerors, discoverers, and first settlers were to be preferred. Encomenderos could not be absentee landlords. They must provide for the religious instruction of the Indians and protect their rights. If negligent they were liable to forfeit their tributes. In the case of the larger encomiendas the tributes in excess of two thousand pesos were to be available for pensions of deserving persons. Encomenderos must not live in their Indians' villages, nor build houses there, nor allow their slaves to go thither, nor maintain stock-farms in the neighborhood of a village. They must marry within three years after receiving a holding, and could not leave their province without a license, or go to Spain except for some extraordinary emergency.19
Many regulations safeguarding the good treatment of the Indians illustrate evils which needed correction. For example, no Spaniard of whatever station could be carried in a litter by Indians.20 The older form of draughting Indians for labor had been p261 prolific in abuses and was later abolished. Indians could be assigned by the proper officials to work for wages, and the same was done with idle Spaniards, mestizos, and negroes; but it was forbidden that the Indians should be carried off against their will or kept overtime. If they demanded excessive wages the rate was to be settled by the officials. The absence of beasts of burden in New Spain, before they were introduced by the Spaniards, had necessitated all freight being carried by Indian porters; but the Indians were no longer to be compelled to carry burdens. Nor were Indian laborers to be apportioned to work in vineyards or olive groves, factories or sugar-mills. If, however, boys wished to work in a factory to learn the art of weaving it was permitted.21
The required service of Indians in the mines was called the "mita." In Peru not more than one-seventh part of the Indians could be assigned on the "mita" at once; nor could an Indian be draughted again until all his fellow-villagers had completed their turn. In New Spain the "mita" drew only four from each hundred. For this as for all other services they received wages. They were not to be sent to poor mines, or employed in draining them of water.22
One of the fullest pictures that we have of the conditions of Indian life in the middle of the colonial p262 era is that of the English friar Thomas Gage, who was for several years stationed in Indian towns in Guatemala, and also served as a teacher of Latin in Chiapa and as lecturer on divinity in the University of Guatemala. After his return he became a Protestant, and his subsequent views in some respects colored his narrative. His incidental notices of Indian conditions impress the reader as indicating on the whole a status superior in its economic possibilities to that of the European peasantry of that day. His chapter devoted to a particular description of Indian life23 is darkly colored, but not more so than the average conventional picture of peasant life in France on the eve of the Revolution. Gage tells us that the apportionment of Indians as laborers was the occasion of much oppression, and that the wages were inadequate, being only about ten cents a day. Yet it does not appear that the system in Mexico was more oppressive than the French corvée.
After describing the government of the Indian towns, he writes: "They live as in other Civil and Politick and Well governed Commonwealths; for in most of their Townes, there are some that profess such trade as are practised among Spaniards. There are amongst them Smiths, Taylors, Carpenters, Masons, Shoomakers and the like." Some of the Indians were excellent architects. "For painting they are much inclined to it, and most of the p263 pictures and altars of the country towns are their workmanship. In most of their townes they have a schoole, where they are taught to read, to sing, and some to write."24 Humboldt at the beginning of the nineteenth century estimated that one-third of the Indians lived nearly in the manner of the lower people of Spain;25 the other two-thirds were poorer. He quotes an interesting memorial of a bishop of Michoacan to the king which takes the ground that the laws shielded the Indians too much from the world, and so hindered their development that the regulation should now be relaxed and the Indian given free opportunity to make the most of himself.26 Depons was led by his observations in Caracas to a somewhat similar view.27
In South America, particularly in Peru, the condition of the Indians was much worse than in Mexico. Ulloa charges the corregidors — the royal officials for collecting the tribute — with ruthlessly exploiting the Indians by collecting the tributes from ages and classes exempt from it, and particularly by means of the repartimiento system of supplying them with mules and Europe goods. The corregidor arbitrarily allotted the mules or the cloths to the Indians, which they were compelled to buy at p264 exorbitant prices.28 In the application of the "mita" system, which in Peru and Quito was extended to the stock-farms and woollen factories, they were practically reduced to slavery, overworked, underpaid, underfed, and scourged for falling short in their tasks.29 Ulloa goes so far as to say that whatever may have been the tyranny of the encomenderos of the conquest he does not believe it was as bad as that of the corregidors and the bosses in the factories or the overseers on the plantations and stock-farms.30
In a later work Ulloa says that the severity of the "mita" in the mines had been much exaggerated; that more Indians were killed in a year by the immoderate use of brandy than by the mines, including all accidents, in fifty years. The inhumanity and destructiveness of the labor in the factories he still condemns without qualification.31 The prohibition of factory assignments would seem to have been a dead letter in Peru.
The Spanish authorities on the whole encouraged marriage between Spaniards and Indian women. When Ovando arrived he found most of the three hundred Spaniards in Española living with Indian women, often the daughters or sisters of chiefs, p265 as concubines. The Franciscan fathers protested against this practice, and Ovando ordered the Spaniards to marry the women or to separate from them.32 As a temporary expedient King Ferdinand in 1512 urged the sending of Christian white slaves to the Indies, and especially to Porto Rico, to become wives. This policy Diego Columbus, the governor, opposed, so far as Española was concerned, because there were Castilian women in the island, converts,33 and the settlers would pass them by in favor of the white slaves, who were presumably "old Christians."34 In 1514 King Ferdinand, apparently recognizing the inevitable, issued an ordinance approving of the marriage of Spaniards with Indian women.35 The interest of the wives left at home by adventurers enlisted the concern of Ovando, and in 1505 the king approved of his plan to send such husbands back to Spain to fetch their wives.36 Later, married men, even officials of the highest rank, were not allowed to go to the Indies without their wives.37
In striking contrast to the subsequent policy of Louis XIV in Canada and Louisiana and of the English generally, the emigration of single women to the colonies was not favored in the later legislation, and the king reserved to himself the power to p266 grant the necessary license if exception was to be made.38 It was therefore inevitable that there should be an excess of white men in the colonies and that marriage with Indian women should be common. It was Humboldt's estimate in 1803 that not one-tenth of the European-born Spaniards in Mexico were women.39
This mixture of races produced a variety of types in the population of Spanish America. The whites were divided into the peninsular Spaniards, who were called in Mexico gachupines (those who wear spurs),40 and chapetones; and in South America,41 usually chapetones, and the American-born Spaniards or creoles. The word creole, contrary to a prevalent idea, indicates nothing as to blood, but only connotes the place of birth:42 there were creole whites and creole negroes, the latter being thus distinguished from the bozals or African-born negroes.
Below the whites came the castas, the mixed breeds or blends. Of these the commonest were the mestizos, those born of Spaniards and Indian women; in addition, there were the mulattoes, of white and negro parentage; the zambos, of negro and Indian parentage. Then there were the Indians, and lastly, p267 the negroes. Subdivisions of the mulattoes were the quadroons and octoroons (quinteroons in Spanish). An alternative name for the zambos in use in Mexico and Lima was chino, and the name zambo came to be applied to the offspring of a negro and mulatto or chino. A black zambo was the offspring of a negro and a zambo woman. The extremes of mixtures between whites and negroes were, therefore, octoroons (seven-eighths white), and black zambos (seven-eighths black).43
The European Spaniards were most active in commerce and filled the governmental offices in church and state. If the Spanish emigrant rose in fortune he would marry into a wealthy creole family; if he fell he would marry into one of the blends. Many of the Spaniards came over only to make their fortunes and return, but those that stayed constantly replenished the creole stock with new blood and energy, to yield again in the next generation to idleness and ease.44
Manual labor was disdained by the white; and even if he had been inclined to engage in it he could not compete with the Indian with his simple tastes and low standard of living. Miles Philips reports that "in that country (Mexico) no Spaniard will serve one another."45 Similarly Henry Hawkes, p268 a merchant who lived in Mexico five years, told Hakluyt in 1572 that the Indians were expert artisans and would "do worke so cheape that poore young men that go out of Spain to get their living are not set on worke; which is the occasion there are many idle people in the country. For the Indian will live all the weeke with lesse than one groat; which the Spanyard cannot do, nor any man els."46 In Lima most of the mechanics were colored, although some were Europeans.47 In Quito, however, the whites avoided any mechanical labor, and all the handicrafts were left to mulattoes and Indians.48 There was a spirit of jealousy prevalent among the different classes of the population and a pride proportionate to the degree of whiteness of the complexion. Between the office-holding, enterprising Spaniard and the easy-going creole there was little sympathy of race and much antagonism. The Indians, of a morose disposition by nature, smothered their resentment against the ruling race. The home government welcomed rather than tried to allay these antipathies regarding them as an element of security.49
1 Cf. Farrand, Basis of American History, chap. XII.
2 See Armstrong, Charles V, II, 100, for petitions of the communes and the cortes for the freedom of the Indians.
4 Charles V repealed the prohibition of encomiendas in 1545, Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VI, tit. VIII, ley 4.
5 Armstrong, Charles V, II, 99.
6 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VI, tit. XI, leyes 14, 15; Humboldt, New Spain, I, 183. On the whole question, see Icazbalceta, Obras, V, chap. XV.
7 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VI, tit. III, ley 15.
8 Ibid., ley 29; Depons, Voyage, I, 229.
9 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VI, tit. III, leyes 4, 5.
10 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VI, tit. III, leyes 19, 21, 23, 24.
11 Ibid., lib. VI, tit. I, passim.
12 Ib., ley 18.
13 Ibid., leyes 36, 37.
14 Ibid., leyes 31, 33.
15 Ibid., ley 35.
16 Ibid., lib. VI, tit. VII, passim.
17 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. VI, tit. V, passim.
18 Ibid., lib. VI, tit. II, ley 1, end ley 3.
19 Ibid., lib. VI, tits. VIII, IX, passim.
20 Ibid., tit. X, ley 17.
21 Recopilacion de Leyes, tit. XII, passim.
22 Ibid., tit. XV, passim.
23 Gage, New Survey of the West Indies, chap. XIX (London, 1648).
24 Gage, New Survey of the West Indies, 146.
26 Humboldt, New Spain, I, 89.
27 Depons, Voyage, I, 226‑248.
28 Juan and Ulloa, Noticias Secretas, 234, 235.
29 Ibid., 268‑279. Cf. Frézier, Voyage, II, 464‑472, and Tschudi, Peru, 330. The hopelessness of securing reforms led to the Indian revolt under Tupac Amaru in 1780.
30 Juan and Ulloa, Noticias Secretas, 279.
31 Ulloa, Noticias Americanas, 281.
32 Herrera, Historia General, dec. I, lib. VI, chap. XVIII.
33 I.e., from Mohammedanism, or "New Christians."
34 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 81.
35 Docs. Ined. de Ultramar, IX, 22.
36 Fabié, Ensayo Historico, 64.
37 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. IX, tit. XXVI, ley 28.
38 Recopilacion de Leyes, lib. IX, tit. XXVI, ley 24.
40 Alaman, Mejico, I, 7; Gage, New Survey of the West Indies, 56.
41 Ulloa, Voyage, I, 29.
42 Saco, Historia de la Esclavitud, 124; Tschudi, Travels in Peru, 80.
43 Humboldt, New Spain, I, 243‑247. The English translator mistakenly renders chino, Chinese woman. Tschudi, Peru, 80, 81, gives the technical names of some twenty varieties of blends.
45 Hakluyt, Voyages, XIV, 208.
46 Hakluyt, Voyages, XIV, 178.
47 Ulloa, Voyage, II, 55.
48 Ibid., I, 263.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Spain in America
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 7 Jun 16