"We came here to serve God, and also to get rich," wrote Bernal Diaz, chronicler of Cortez's conquest of Mexico.
Without doubt, most Spaniards who came to the New World were prompted by the same ambivalent spirit. Some, like Pizarro, were frankly less interested in serving God and more intent on acquiring gold. "I have not come for any such reasons," he said to an ecclesiastic who urged respect for Indian rights; "I have come to take away from them their gold."5 As Hernando de Soto lay dying in 1542, there were two preoccupations on his mind. With a feeble voice he entrusted to his men the pursuit of his desire to convert the natives to the Catholic Faith, and to promote the aggrandizement of the Spanish empire.
These several examples are a fair sampling of the dual purpose which drove so many conquistadores in that first century following the Discovery of the New World. No doubt there were excesses in the pursuit of that twofold ideal – and various commentators will stress the one or the other purpose. Others may see excess in both directions, denigrating every attempt of Spain in facing and solving a situation wholly unique in the history of mankind.
A more balanced view endeavors to recognize that sadly humans are imperfect beings, and that institutions are nothing else than projections of individuals, sometimes working in concert as gifted and charismatic leaders; sometimes (more often perhaps) working at crosspurposes, selfish and rapacious egoists, who will trample on any and all who stand in their way of securing riches or power or fame. In all human endeavors there is quite naturally a mixture of ideals and objectives. While no one insists that what is wrong be condoned, neither should one insist that what is right be reproved.
The Spanish enterprise in colonization was an enterprise in pillage, inflamed and inflated by religious fanaticism and martial vanity." Thorstein Veblen
The excesses of the period of the early Conquest gave rise to the so-called "Black Legend" – the assumption that the Spaniards were by nature cruel and rapacious. The American writer Thorstein Veblen was an exponent of that view. "The Spanish enterprise in colonization," he wrote, "was an enterprise in pillage, inflamed and inflated by religious fanaticism and martial vanity."6
Wealth as a reason for conquest was not worthy of a Christian prince, and the theologians at the court of Charles V constantly reminded him of it. A debate arose, not between those who favored material values against those who advocated the spiritual, but between two schools, both of which agreed that conversion of the native Americans must be the dominant motive. One group of theologians argued that conversion by force was legitimate, while their opponents contended that genuine conversion could be accomplished only by peaceful means.
The initial Conquest was carried out by those who, though not irreligious, were not versed in the finer points of theology. On the island of Hispaniola the devout Columbus established the encomienda system: the Indians were "commended" to the care of the landowners. But time was to show that some of the landowners were not very "caring" persons. The encomienda system was a fait accompli before the King's advisers began their discussion of its justice and rightness. Essential to an understanding of the debate is an awareness of certain assumptions prevailing in sixteenth-century Spain. This world was a battlefield, where a tremendous contest between God and the devil was being fought. Those who did not serve the one necessarily served the other.
The decades which had been spent fighting the Moors had a deep effect on the Spanish psyche. Glorious exploits were possible; heroic deeds were expected. Cervantes might have ridiculed the idea of the quest, but the challenge of doing noble deeds motivated many who came to the New World.
Spaniards were legalists to the point of hair-splitting. No other colonizing power rationalized so persistently about why they did what they did. Since there was no separation of Church and State, the Law drew upon sacred and secular sources, and the King was the arbiter of both. It was this proclivity to be legally correct that led the court to condone the use of the document called the requerimienio in dealing with Indians. The requerimienio consisted of a recitation about the creation of the world, the fall of Adam, the promise to Abraham, the coming of the Messiah, the establishment of the Church, and the papal donation of that part of America to the reigning King of Spain. If the listening Indians agreed to this summation of history, they could place themselves under the protection of the King of Spain, and no harm would come to them. If, on the other hand, they did not agree, legally war could be waged against them and they could be made slaves. In that case, it was to be understood that their unhappy fate was their own fault.7
The requerimienio was made even more ridiculous by the manner in which it was delivered. Before a landing was made on a hostile shore, it was read aloud by the captain of the principal ship, looking in the direction of the broad forests. It was muttered into the beards of the soldiers on the ship, who naturally were anxious not to alert the possibly ferocious enemy to their presence. And if there was no interpreter present to translate it into the local language – as most often was the case – it was read in Spanish.
The stoutest champion of Indian rights was Fray Bartolome de las Casas, a conquistador turned Dominican friar. He believed that the Pope could grant the King enough temporal power to achieve the Church's missionary purposes. In 1537 he further contended that the Indians were truly human and that preaching the Gospel to them must be done in a peaceful manner and context. He followed St. Augustine in arguing that faith depends upon understanding. Haste or violence repels potential converts. The natives, to be converted, must be convinced that the missionaries are men of exemplary lives, manifesting love and concern for them.
Though las Casas' experiment in peaceful conversion in Guatemala – where he had preached for ten years – was less than a success, his ideas captivated the conscience of the King. In 1542, Charles V promulgated the so-called New Laws, which stated flatly that Indians were not to be enslaved, and that those who were at that time in a state of slavery were to be set free. In the future, grants of encomienda would not include the natives living on the land.
The Indians living in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Hispaniola were to be granted the same rights as the Spaniards residing on those islands. The New Laws were a significant triumph for the Dominican las Casas, for the Franciscan Fray Jacobo de Testera, and for the Indians in general.
Both the Diaz and Pizarro quotations are in Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965), 7.
Bartolome de las Casas' reaction to the requerimiento was expressed in his comment that he did not know whether to laugh or to weep. Ibid., 35.