Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

4
THE EVOLUTION OF SPAIN'S INDIAN POLICY

DEVISING A WORKABLE labor system for the American colonies was the central problem of Spain's Indian policy. The situation created on the island of Hispaniola by the arrival of Columbus's second expedition has been aptly summed up in the phrase "hell on Hispaniola." Columbus, anxious to prove to the crown the value of his discoveries, compelled the natives to bring in a daily tribute of gold dust. When the Indians revolted they were hunted down, and hundreds were sent to Spain as slaves. Later, yielding to the demand of rebellious settlers for Indian slaves, Columbus distributed the Indians among them in repartimientos, or shares, with the grantee enjoying the right to use the forced labor of his Indians. This system, formalized under the administration of Governor Nicolis de Ovando and sanctioned by the crown, became the encomienda.

In operation, the encomienda in the West Indies became a hideous slavery. The first voices raised against this state of affairs were raised by a company of Dominican friars who arrived on Hispaniola in 1510. Their spokesman was Father Antonio Montesinos, who on Advent Sunday 1511 ascended the church pulpit to threaten the Spaniards with damnation for their offenses against the Indians.

The agitation begun by the Dominicans raised the larger question of the legality of Spain's claim to the Indies. To satisfy the royal conscience, the jurist Doctor Palacios Rubios drew up a document, the requerimiento, which was supposed to be read by all conquistadores to the Indians before making war upon them. This document called upon the Indians to acknowledge the supremacy of the church and the pope and the sovereignty of the Spanish monarchs over their lands by virtue of the papal donation of the Indies to Spain in 1493. The Indians were threatened with the disasters of war and enslavement if they refused to acknowledge Spain's hegemony over them.

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