Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America

Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America

Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America

Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America

Synopsis

Little has been written on society in the Spanish Indies during the sixteenth century, although it was during those formative decades that the Latin American class structure evolved. The Spanish conquest of the Indians produced profound social dislocations as many Spaniards of a low station found themselves members of a new aristocracy and native lords were often reduced to servitude. This book presents the first comprehensive investigation of the primary issue of the first century of Spanish American colonization: the massive system of Indian forced labor, ranging from outright slavery to the encomienda, upon which Spanish colonial society rested.

Focusing on the fate of the natives under Spanish rule, the author traces in graphic detail the rupturing of Indian traditions and the fate that befell the Indian people. While demonstrating the excesses of the conquistadores and unscrupulous crown officials, he also emphasizes that Central America was the scene of the first attempts to apply the famous New Laws. Although that legislation was not fully implemented, the reformist judge Alonso López de Cerrato made significant improvements in labor conditions, in the face of furious opposition from the Spanish settlers.

Aside from its discussion of labor practices, this account deals with population figures and the extent of the slave trade, and corrects a number of errors in traditional sources. In addition, Spanish Indian policy, particularly at the local level, is examined in combination with character studies of individual officials, providing a much needed new look at the way in which Indians were affected by the conquest. Based primarily on documents in Spanish and Central American archives, the book includes chapters on the treatment of Indian women and the decline of the native nobility which made valuable contributions to the ethnology as well as the history of Central America.

Excerpt

Society in the spanish indies during the sixteenth century remains little studied, yet it was during those formative decades that Latin American class structure evolved. the Spanish conquest of the Indians produced social dislocations of the most serious order. the subsequent ethnic fusion notwithstanding, there persisted two communities—the Spanish and the Indian. Forming on the fringe, culturally adrift, was the group of the mixed-bloods.

In the new order of things following the conquest, many Spaniards of low station found themselves members of a new, rustic aristocracy, while proud native lords were often reduced to the meanest circumstances. the social and economic implications of the resulting system of Indian servitude were of such dimension that they transcend the drama of the conquest itself. For native labor was the base upon which Spanish colonial society rested, and without it the empire would have been but a pale imitation of the vast and rich complex it became. the degrees to which the conqueror depended upon the vanquished at once reflect the weak edifice of colonial Spanish society and define the relationship between the two races. the first bishop of Guatemala was moved to remark that "Spaniards in these parts are worthless without native friends."

Europeans who shipped to the New World during the sixteenth century sought opportunity, but not at the end of a hoe. Cortés spoke for them all when he stated that he had not left Spain to plow the land. Spanish artisans of course came to ply their trades, merchants negotiated, lawyers, physicians, and other professionals established practices, and a burgeoning bureaucracy spread to all comers. Indeed, Spaniards representing practically every type in Spain migrated to perform all kinds of work—except common labor. a peasant in Spain saw little to gain by becoming a peasant on the frontiers of the Indies, despite efforts to convince him otherwise. the labor crisis was met by the available force of conquered Indians who . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.