Discovery and Reformation

Discovery: The Spanish Empire


   The Spanish Empire in the New World was a disaster for Native Americans. The Spanish for their part could never really decide what to do with the Native Americans. On the one hand, they believed that they were introducing Native Americans to Christianity and to the arts of civilization and some believed that Native Americans had a right to their lands and should not be economically or politically exploited. This benign attitude was paternalistic; the Spanish would introduce Native Americans to salvation and school them in European civilization. On the other hand, the Spanish could ruthlessly massacre native populations and freely enslaved them in some of the most cruel slave practices ever seen on the face of the earth. The average Native American slave barely lasted a year under his or her Spanish masters.

   When Isabella declared that Native Americans were subjects to her crown, that allowed conquistadores to collect tribute and labor from the Native Americans. It also meant, however, that the Native Americans were to be protected and cared for, physically and spiritually, by the Spanish conquistadores . In reality, the Spanish by and large collected the labor but ignored the protection part. Native Americans were put to work in gold and silver mines as well as plantations. They were not fed well and were often forced to labor for impossible stretches of time; as a result, the Native American slaves of the Spanish died off in droves. It is believed that somewhere around 40% of the Native Americans under direct Spanish control died off in the sixteenth century, some through Spanish cruelty and the majority through diseases unwittingly introduced by the Spanish.

   To be sure, while we universally condemn Spanish cruelty in the Americas, it was outdone by the English treatment of African slaves in the Caribbean. The English promulgated what the Spanish called "the black legend" in order to justify their conquests in the Caribbean. Claiming that the English were more benign than the Spanish, who they depicted as monstrous and rapacious, the reality was that Trinidad and Jamaica were little better than death camps.

   In part to justify their cruelty and exploitation, the Spanish vigorously debated the nature of Native Americans. One faction held that Native Americans were only part human and so had no legal or spiritual privileges. Another faction—a much smaller faction—held that Native Americans were fully human and deserved to be treated as full spiritual and legal beings. This faction vigorously opposed the conquest and even settlement of America, claiming that the Native Americans had full rights and privileges to lands that they occupied.

   The Spanish divided their American territories into two central divisions: New Spain (Mexico and Central America along with the Caribbean Islands) and Peru (the western coast of South America). Each of these territories was ruled by a viceroy, who was the king's civil and military representative. The viceroy was advised by councils called audiencias ; these councils also served as the judicial branch of the colonial government.

   The primary administrative unit, however, was economic. The Spanish wanted one and only one thing from the Americas: wealth. Production and trade was overseen by a board of trade located in Spain that governed all Spanish trade. In the Americas, however, the Council of the Indies, which regulated Spanish production and trade in the Americas, was the real administrative power in the Americas. This Council appointed all colonial officials, regulated all the trade, and even regulated church affairs in America.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-7-98