The Age of Colonization: The Spanish in the Americas



An important development at this time was the idea of human rights, the idea that one deserves to live with certain inherent liberties and quality of life by the virtue of being human. This idea developed as a result of the colonization of the Americas.

Key: Red=The Spanish Empire; Pink=Regions of Spanish influence after periods of time; Purple=Land lost at or before the Peace of Utrecht in 1714.


The Spanish in the Americas raised fundamental questions about: the nature of creation, their right to govern this new place, and the duties that they owe these new (and obviously culturally different) people.

At first, the conquistadores would act as they would against any infidel--they would treat them as non-humans. It wasn't a sin to rape them, take their land, and kill them if they were infidels and didn't have the same ideals they had, as what could have also been witnessed during the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula and the Crusades. The Monarchy was horrified when they got word of this and demanded that the conquistadores shape up--however, Spain is a long way away and had trouble governing over their people in the Americas.

Because of how the conquistadors were treating the natives, the Crown decided to do something about it. One of the missions of the Crown was to create a Christian world and so they had the current Pope draw up the Requiermento.

The Requiermento was a list of what the conquistadors had to tell the people; if the people didn't agree with the conquistadors and didn't do what was told of them, the conquistadors had the right to do what they had done before the Requiermento was issued. Of course, the list was read in Spanish and the natives had no idea what was being read to them, so their lives were made a living hell.

The Requiermento:
~~There is one God and He created all of us.
~~God appointed the Pope and the Pope says we have the right to rule you.
~~If you do exactly as we say and convert to Catholicism without resistance, you can be our allies.
~~If not, we have the right to enslave you, take your property, drive you off your lands, and otherwise make your life a living hell.

"How could [anyone] think that Indians would believe a mere statement unsubstaniated by proof, read by men held to be infamous and cruel evil-doers, purporting that God in Heaven had given the government of the world to a man called the Pope who in turn had given all the kingdoms of the Indies to the Castilian kings, and that should they fail within two months to swear obedience to the Castilian King, it was lawful to declare war against them?" ~~Bartolome de las Casas.

Because of the Requiermento, an event known as the Great Debate was held. On April 16, 1550, a royal decree was passed to stop all conquests, expeditions, and exploration until a special group of scholars and royal officials could hear a debate about the morality of Spanish colonization. This Great Debate was held in August 1550 in Valladolid, Spain. For five days, Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda presented their arguments. In the end, the Council of the Indies never declared a winner in the debate. Both Sepulveda and Las Casas claimed victory. Most importantly, though, this debate marked the first time issues about the rights of native peoples were raised and seriously discussed.

Highlights of the Great Debate
~~Settling theological and legal questions
~~Takes place in Spain
~~Involved Papal representatives, Crown representatives, lawyers--a very serious setting with exceptionally high stakes
~~A chance for the Catholic Church to regain moral high ground (had been battered in reputation), but had to give an answer that Spain wanted to hear (because Spain had a huge army). Could not be too critical of what had been done.

Questions for the Great Debate
~~Do indigenous people have souls?
~~Do they share a common creation as Europeans--are they children of Eve?
~~Do they possess sufficient reason to learn basic Christian doctrines?
~~How must we treat these people?
~~What makes our victory just?


New Laws (1540s)

The New Laws were written in order to improve conditions for Indians. Slavery of the Indians was prohibited; they had to be given sufficient time to farm, harvest, build their own houses, rest, and had the right to live in the same place as they worked; they had to build churches and the Spanish had to give the Indians the time to worship if they wanted to but could not force the Indians to practice Catholicism.

The New Laws were not very well complied with. However, the New Laws introduced the idea that humans are humans despite cultural differences and deserve a standard of treatment. Humans as a species are still struggling with this even in this day and age.


Expansion of African Slavery

From the 1550s onward, Spain began to escalate their importation of African slaves. The Spanish Empire and slavery are inseparable. The development of profitable overseas plantations and mines, the feeding of the army, and the conquering of new territories all rest on slave labor. Seven out of 10 humans who came across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World between 1500-1800 were enslaved; nine out of 10 humans who came across the Atlantic Ocean owed service to someone else, meaning that they were indentured servants. Inequality, not equality, was the defining human experience in the colonial era.

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