Ideology and practice of Spanish colonization of Hispaniola and aborigines

E.G. Aleksandrenkov

(на рус.яз.) *

Spain started expansion in the New World by capturing the island of Hispaniola (Spanish name of the time for the island of Haiti). The Spanish monarchy set a goal of baptizing the aboriginal pagans and changing other aspects of their culture and social structure. The crown also planned to gain income from the aboriginal labor. Initial intention was to reorganize the aboriginal society within the relations between the king and the vassals. However later natives were transferred to the Spanish colonists within the institute of encomienda. The colonists, who were supposed to act according to king’s plans, had different intentions – their goal was to extract maximum profit by exploiting the natives. Arguments put forward by theologians, lawyers and philosophers to justify actions of the crown became an ideology of the colonization. Hereunder I discuss how this ideology was defeated by the everyday practices.

The text of the agreement signed by Christopher Columbus and the Spanish Crown before his first journey across the Atlantic dealt with establishing ownership of any new lands found by the expedition, but did not mention the relations with the native inhabitants of this lands, though an intention to establish the trade with newly discovered countries was stated. Neither was any attention given to the spread of Catholicism [Travels 1952: 55-57].

Columbus, after spending two months with the inhabitants of the islands he discovered, made a note which can be seen as a declaration of his principles in dealing with the native population: «… They are fit to be ruled and to be forced to work, to sow and to do other necessary things, and to build towns (villas) and teaching them to dress properly and to follow our customs» [Colón 1961, p. 135]. Even earlier he has expressed a hope that the islanders would «easily become Christians» [Colón 1961: 50].

After Columbus’ return to Spain with information on new lands, the Spanish kings have received on May 4, 1493 the “Inter Caetera» Papal bull, which became a legal and moral foundation of overseas conquest. The Pope declared that «you must begin… subjugating the aforementioned islands and continents and their inhabitants as befits Catholic kings and rulers, as your forefathers had done, and convert them to the Catholic faith». The newly discovered “islands and continents” were given to the King and his descendants as “permanent domain”: «By the power of the Almighty God… we do grant, cede and forever give unto you and your descendants, the Kings of Castilla and Leon [the aforementioned lands] with all the possessions, cities, castles, towns and villages, with full right and jurisdiction and everything related to them» [Travels 1952: 243].

Before his second voyage, the King instructed Columbus to «by all available means to encourage the inhabitants… to convert to our Holy Catholic faith». Columbus was also to «ensure that everyone in the flotilla and everyone who would later arrive in India would treat the Indians well and friendly and cause them no harm or insult» [Travels 1952: 253-254].

The second expedition began on September 1493, and on January 6, 1494 a Spanish settlement was founded on the northern shore of the island of Hispaniola. Approximate number of the island’s inhabitant’s in the late XV century was estimated differently by various modern demographers. The most convincing, in my opinion, studies estimate it to have been around 100 thousand people [Aleksandrenkov 2018: 20-21].

At first, the base of the relations between the indigenous people and the newcomers was trade. The invasions of Spanish forces into the neighboring indigenous territories were accompanied by looting and caused an appropriate response from the local chieftains [Deagan, Cruxent 2002: 45]. The royal instructions said nothing about dealing with unruly Indians. Columbus himself when he decided to continue his voyage in 1494 instructed one of the military commanders remaining on Hispaniola, Pedro Margarit, to cut off the noses and ears of those who would steal from the Spaniards. Food supplies, if they could not be secured by trade or exchange, were to be taken by force [Travels 1952: 369-370].

In Columbus’ absence the Spaniards have spread across Hispaniola. They slaughtered the native people, took women and children. When several Spaniards were killed in response, their comrades decided to kill a hundred Indians in retaliation for every one of them. [Las Casas 1951, t. I: 398-399; 405]. With Columbus’ return, after several confrontations with local chieftains and their defeat, in 1495 the population of the central areas of the island was forced to pay regular tribute (in gold and cotton). Warfare and sickness led to drastic decline in numbers of native population. According to Las Casas who wrote half a century later, by 1496 the population of Hispaniola was barely a third of what it was in 1494 [Las Casas 1951, t. I: 419-420].

This was the result of the first years of colonization for the native people of the island.

In March 1496 Christopher Columbus left for Spain, leaving his brother Bartholome in charge. In April 1497 he started his third journey across the ocean. The royal instructions still did not include native people as a source of labor. Columbus was given a right to grant Spaniards “lands, forests and waters” to build houses and for agriculture [Las Casas 1951, t. I: 438].

Once Columbus had reached Hispaniola it turned out that a number of Spaniards, led by F. Roldan, were no longer willing to recognize the Columbus brothers leadership. They had left for the Western province of Xaragua, where they exploited the local men and women mercilessly and killed those who dared to object. Only by September 1499 a treaty was signed between Columbus and the rebels, a treaty which included provisions that became the foundation for the new relations between the Spanish and the indigenous peoples. Roldan’s followers were provided with land grants and native caciques, whose people were supposed to work on those lands [Aleksandrenkov 2018: 39-41].

But the numbers of those not pleased with Columbus were growing, and the king had sent a new governor, Francisco de Bobadilla, to Hispaniola. Various royal instructions for him did not mention the Indians [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 176-181]. Bobadilla put Columbus and his brothers under arrest and sent them, to Spain in October 1500 [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 185-191].

In 1502 Nicolas de Ovando became the new ruler of Hispaniola. His first set of royal instructions dictated that he should attempt to convert the islanders to Christianity peacefully and specified certain social and economic measures to be used in governing them. The March 20, 1503 instructions contained provisions for creating settlements in which the Indians would live like other subjects of the King, cultivating the land and breeding cattle. Each family would have a house and a plot of land next to it. Such settlements would be overseen by a Spaniard who would possess judicial powers. He would also be responsible for the Spanish not taking the Indians’ wives and children, not causing them any harm and not “using them” (no conscientan que se sirvan de ellos). Other protective measures were also implemented. Besides that, the authorities were also to do all in their power to make the Indians dress and “walk around like reasonable people”. Some efforts for converting the Indians were also to be undertaken, including making the Indians pay church and royal taxes [Aleksandrenkov 2018: 52-56].

The following decree, issued on December 20, 1503 had radically changed the legal status of the native people – while remaining formally subjects to the Spanish Crown, they could formally be indentured, or “given” (or “encomendated” - encomendados) to a Spanish settler who would use their labor and would be responsible for converting them. The justification was that the Indians “due to their great freedom” are not inclined to work, are prone to vagrancy and are impossible to convert to Catholicism, while the Spaniards required a labor force. The governor was instructed to make the Indians work for the Spaniards who would receive a number of them led by their cacique [Konetzke 1953: 16-17].

Thus the encomienda regime had been established.

During Ovando’s rule the conquest of Hispaniola was completed. He personally led the invasion into the Western part of the island and ordered the hanging of Anakaona, the local woman ruler, and the burning of her subordinate chieftains. Many others, including women and children, were slaughtered [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 236-238; see also CDI 1867, t. VII: 409-410]. The Eastern province of Higuey was conquered by Juan de Esquivel. Las Casas, who participated in the expedition, had left a detailed description of the Spanish methods of conquest. After defeating the main native forces, the remaining men, together with women and children, tried to find shelter in inaccessible places. The Spaniards learned of those locations by torturing prisoners, attacked them and slaughtered those who could not run – women, children and the elderly. They cut of the hands of those who survived and let them go. The main goal was, as Las Casas wrote, to inspire fear and to force the Indians to surrender. The Spanish would hang 13 people on a single gallows (to honor Christ and his twelve apostles), so their feet would touch the ground, then they would proceed to “test their arms and swords on them”, and finally to put some dry grass around the victims and set them on fire [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 230, 264].

Ovando distributed the redistributed the Indians, “and untold numbers of them have died through this relocation" [CDI 1864, t. I: 307]. Las Casas attributed the high Indian mortality in peace time to harsh labors, especially in the mining works, where during each period (demora) of 6-8 months, a quarter to a third of each work brigade would die. Las Casas provides an excellent example of the way encomenderos treated their Indians – an encomendero beating the working men with a stick while saying “are you not sweating, you dogs? Are you not sweating?” (¿No sudáis, perros? ¿No sudáis?). The encomendero’s wife treated the women similarly [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 336-337].

When Ovando was replaced by D. Columbus in 1509 the royal instructions repeated the one given to his predecessor. It specifically stated that it is appropriate to force the Indians to work [Konetzke 1953: 18-20].

In late 1511 a third party appeared in the relationships between the conquerors and the conquered – the Dominican monks of Hispaniola. As Las Casas wrote later, the Dominican were questioning: “Are Indians not people? Do the laws of humanity and justice not apply to them? … How could it happen that in such a short time, barely 15-16 years, so many innocent people have died?”. In Santo-Domingo, then-capital of Hispaniola and all the “Indies” one of the monks, Antonio Montesinos, during a sermon in the presence of the governor Diego Colon, asked the assembled congregation on behalf of his brethren: “… On what grounds did you conduct unjust wars against peaceful and gentle people who lived in their own homes, and whom you slaughtered and killed in untold numbers with unheard-of ferocity?...» etc. Despite the protests and the pleas of the Spanish to soften his position and his words, Montesinos repeated the same speech during his next sermon [Las Casas 1968: 127-132].

 To strengthen their position the Dominicans had send Montesinos to Spain, to the royal court. Alonso del Espinar, a Franciscan friar sent by the colonists had arrived at the same time. According to a contemporary source, theologians, bishops and members of the royal Council had gathered more than 20 times and could not reach an agreement. The King, seeing theses disagreements had appointed several people to develop laws according to which the Indians “would live and would be Christians”. The decrees they came up with were approved by the king, the bishops and the leading theologians, printed and send to the Indies [CDI 1864, t. I: 249-250].

Las Casas had described the same events in vivid details [Las Casas 1951, v. II: 449-457]. His relation shows how difficult was the process of development of what was to become the Burgos Laws. The meetings of the royal commission (junta) were attended, by invitation, by the representatives (procurators) of Hispaniola and by Espinar. According to Las Casas, the procurators and certain individuals arriving from Hispaniola were the first to slander the Indians in front of the court by saying they have no ability to govern themselves and are incapable of understanding the Christian religion. Montesinos was not allowed to the present his case to the commission, but had managed to see the king and to read him a message from the Dominicans about the Spaniards cruelty and the Indians misfortunes [Las Casas 1951, v. II: 450-456].

The members of the junta had composed a preliminary conclusion containing several points: the Indians were free and would remain free; they must be educated in the matters of faith; the king is within his right to order them to work, but the work must not interfere with conversion; it must also not be excessively hard, leaving time for rest, both daily and throughout the year; they must have their own houses and must be allowed time enough to maintain their households in their own manner;  they must communicate with the settlers as much as possible, which would foster the conversion; they must be compensated for their work, though not with money but with clothes and other goods [Las Casas 1951, v. II: 456-457].

Then the royal preachers, Bernardo de Mesa and liz. Gregorio were asked to give their opinion. Mesa referring to the Papal bull had stated that the King must do more to convert the Indians. Since they were vassals, not slaves, it would be fair to impose on them the labor befitting a vassal. Mesa also explained that they were definitely not slaves for several reasons – one of which was the fact that the kings did not consider them as such.

Mesa had recognized only one argument in favor of considering the Indians slaves – their nature, the lack of understanding and capacity, as well as the lack of perseverance in the faith and good customs. Referencing Aristotle he also allowed a possibility that they may be slaves due to the nature of the land they inhabited. Therefore, he concluded, they may be governed properly only through a form of enslavement (servidumbre), but one not allowing they being called slaves, while also not giving them so much freedom that would hurt them (la cual no ha de ser tanta que les pueda convenir el nombre de siervos, ni tanta libertad que les dañe).

Since the Indians, Mesa theorized, have no natural or artificial riches, they can only pay tribute through their own persons. Since idleness, he continued, is their primary vice, the king must govern them in such a way that they would be constantly busy with work, physical or spiritual. While idleness is a step-mother to virtues for all people, the Indians are especially prone to it due to being raised in sinful idolatry and surrounded constantly by other sins which inevitably spring from idleness. It is justifiable, therefore, to assign the Indians to Christians. Mesa insisted that those who would be in charge of the Indians must supply them with enough food and moderate work – so they would not grow bitter and angered and would not hate neither the faith nor the customs of Christians. Mesa thought that the king must determine the amount of work and food provided to the Indians, and also grant them an amount of property as befits free people, and houses as well, and to attempt to draw them into a proper civil life (imponerles en la policía), to the extent their capacity would allow it.

Mesa’s general conclusion was – even if the Indians could potentially convert to Christianity, that does not mean they should not be kept in some kind of servitude [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 459-462].

Another royal preacher, Gregorio, also referenced Aristotle and the Church Fathers. He claimed that since the king was the lawful ruler of the Indies, he had every right to establish order and the Indians had to serve Christians as they had already been doing. If the people are malicious and barbaric, the can and should be governed as slaves. Since the Indians are by nature slaves and barbarians who lack understanding and reason, they should be ruled tyrannically. Referring to common opinion, he compared the Indians with talking animals (animales que hablan). The sovereign, Gregorio continued, can enslave sinful people. Since, he claimed, the Indians are sinful and idle people, having no inclination towards purity and meekness, the king is fully entitled to enslave them.

Gregorio had to reconcile his own views on slavery with the fact that the kings claimed the Indians are free. According to him, the kings meant that the Indians were not slaves in the sense that they could not be sold and were allowed to have property. So they were in what Gregorio called “qualified slavery” (servidumbre cualificada), since complete freedom would be harmful to them. According to him, this was an excellent means to make them accept faith and remain faithful through interaction with the Christians because left to their own they would most likely revert to idolatry and other sins of the past. Another reason for this qualified enslavement was the idolatry itself. Like Mesa, Gregorio stressed the necessity of treating and maintaining the Indians [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 471-473].

Based on such ideas about the limits of royal control over the subjects and the natural abilities and qualities of the islanders a set of laws was composed and, on December 27, 1512, signed. This was the first set of legal measures through which the crown intended to regulate the relations between the colonists and the native islanders.

The articles were preceded by a lengthy introduction explaining the core ideas of the colonization of Hispaniola, later embodied on other islands and in Spanish continental possessions. It began with a declaration of the king’s desire to encourage the islanders to convert to Christianity. It claimed that experience had shown that the previous orders were insufficient due to the Indians’ natural inclination towards idleness and sin. The main obstacle that hindered them to save from sins and made their indoctrination useless, according to the authors of the document, was the fact that the Indians lived far from the Spaniards. The most useful course of action was, therefore, to resettle Indians closer to the colonists’ settlements [Konetzke 1953: 38-40; Las Casas 1951, t. II: 475-477].

Obviously statements about idleness and sinfulness of the islanders were written based on the information provided by the advocates of the encomienda from Hispaniola. There is, nevertheless, a degree of idealization of the possible relations between the Spaniards and the Indians visible in the text, resulting from the legislators lack of knowledge about the real situation on the island.

The 35 articles had been written to regulate every aspect of the lives of indigenous people in the encomienda, as well as the rules to be followed by the encomendero.

The first article explained in details the process of resettlement. Those in charge of the Indians had to build habitation for them – at least 4 houses per 50 persons, measuring 25 by 15 feet. The quantity of crops to be planted was also specified. The Indians were to be allowed a dozen hens and one cock. The households left in the old place were given to the same Spanish encomendero, and the houses themselves were to be burned down.

Several articles dealt with converting the Indians – the encomendero had to build and furnish a church, to assemble his Indians every evening with the ringing of a church bell, to follow them to church and to make sure they all made the sign of the cross and prayed – as well as to correct those who made mistakes. An Indian who would not show up to church at the appointed time was to be deprived of resting time in next day and to be forced to pray in the morning before work. The progress of the Indians in matters of faith was to be examined every 15 days.

Several neighboring estates were to use a common church, in which a priest could conduct Sunday and holiday masses, teach the articles of faith etc. The Spaniards were to guide their Indians to church in the morning on those days, stay with them until the mass was concluded and then lead them back home and provide them with a pot of cooked meat (olla de carne guisada), so they would eat better on those days than during the rest of the week. The priests had to confess Indians who were capable to do it, and to teach it to others. The churches had to be established near the mines as well.

One of the laws obliged those who would have more than 50 encomended Indians to teach one Indian boy to read and write and instruct him in the matters of faith so he could teach others. Those with 100 or more Indians had to teach two boys. The Indian boys pages had to be trained in the same manner.

The 12th law prescribed that every Indian newborn was to be baptized. The work regime for the mines was established: five months of work followed by 40 days of rest. During those 40 days, the Indians were supposed to prepare the lands for cultivation. Their masters were also to instruct them in the matters of faith more frequently than in other days.

The 14th law specified that the areito[1] tradition, an important element of traditional culture, should be preserved. The areito was to be conducted on Sundays and on holidays without interference “according to their customs” (como los acostumbran), and on weekdays after the daily work was finished.

The next law regulated the distribution of provisions – aside from grains and vegetables, the Indians were supposed to receive a pound of meat daily, or fish during fast days.

According to law 16 the Indians were to be informed that they are not allowed to have more than one wife, and that they could not leave her while she lived. The Caciques were to be instructed not to marry relatives. Nevertheless, the article did not include a direct prohibition of polygyny.

Law 17 prescribed that the children of caciques aged 13 and above were to be given to the monks of the Franciscan order for a four-year instruction in reading, writing and faith. After that the young men were supposed to return to their encomendero and instruct other Indians.

The next law specified that women after the 4th month of pregnancy were not to be send to the mines or to any hard labor, but to be assigned household tasks, such as cooking. This prohibition was valid till child turned three years old.

Law 19 instructed the encomendero to provide his Indians with a hammock and to make sure they not sleep on the ground. The encomendero were also to supply clothes and other fineries – to the sum of one golden peso per person per year. Part of that amount was to be spend on purchases for the cacique and his wife (law 20).

Law 22 specified how many Indians were to be given to a cacique: two men out of 40, 3 out of 70, 4 out 100, 6 out of 150 and no more. They were to be used only for relatively easy works. The inspector was to provide the cacique and his Indians with good food and to instruct them better in the matters of faith – so they can teach others.

Law 24 prohibited hitting Indians with sticks, calling them “dogs” or otherwise insulting them. They were to be called only by names or nicknames. If an Indian deserved punishment, he was to be taken to the inspector who would administer the punishment.

The next law dictated that no less than a third of the Indians were to be sent to the mines. The only exceptions were the two settlements located too far from the mines. There the Indians were to make hammocks and cotton shirts, to raise pigs and conduct other useful activities.

The Indians brought from other islands were to be treated the same way as the locals. This order, however, was not applied to slaves. Their owners were allowed to treat them any way they wish, with one condition – the usual cruelty and strictness of dealing with the slaves were to be replaced with tenderness and softness (article 27).

Some articles dealt with the position of the inspector. Each Spanish settlement had to have two of them. Their main job was to inspect the settlements, mines, estates and cattle ranches and to monitor the conversion, treatment and maintenance of the Indians. The authorities were to evaluate the quality of the inspectors’ work once every two years.

The very last, 35th, article stated that no Spanish settler can have more than 150 or less than 40 Indians [Konetzke 1953: 40-57].

Some changes were made in these lows on the insistence of the head of the Dominicans on Hispaniola, Pedro de Cordoba. The most important addition was the admission of a possibility that there may appear among the Indians some individuals, who would be ready to embrace Christianity and who would be so civil and understanding (tan políticos y entendidos), that they would be able to govern themselves and live like the Spaniards. They were to be given an opportunity to live on their own (under the supervision of the authorities) and to conduct the affairs as all other vassals of the crown [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 490-494]. Where should such people live was not specified, however.

Breaking any of the laws by the Spaniards was to be punished with different severity depending on particular circumstances.

The Burgos laws had legalized the destruction of the former indigenous culture and regulated every aspect of the new Indians’ live – both material, social and spiritual. Areito was the only part of the old way of live that remained. The native language was being replaced by Spanish. As for the constantly declared care about the well-being of the natives, obviously, in reality a native individuals were completely at the mercy of their owner. They had no rights at all- not a single article mentioned any. Defending his interests was supposed to be the inspector’s job, while the inspector himself was from the encomendero.

The shortcomings of the Burgos Laws and their practical implementation were widely written about by Las Casas. Like many other, he considered relocating “those people” from their native lands led to many of them getting sick and dying. Excessive work demands had a similar effect. Las Casas criticized passionately the idea of converting the natives to Christianity through the efforts of the colonists – how could ignorant laymen, who, for the most part, can barely able to cross themselves, teach anybody the Christian doctrine? Especially given that the native language was vastly different from Spanish and the Indians mostly understood only basic phrases, such as “give water, give bread, go to the mines, return to work”, and had to be taught the very basics of Christianity, not to be read Ave Maria, Pater Noster and Credo in Latin.

Las Casas wrote that the Indians did not understand the prayers, and the Spaniards said “Look at this dog, not wanting to accept the faith, this one will never be a good Christian” (Mirad el perro como no quiere recibir la fe; este nunca en su vida será buen cristiano). When after a day’s hard work the Indians were brought into a church an made to kneel and pray they, being exhausted, did so with difficulty and obviously unenthusiastically, and the Spaniards would beat them with sticks saying “…these dogs will never be Christian” [Las Casas 1951, t. II: 478-480].

While commenting on specific laws, Las Casas had noted that the those dealing with the establishment of churches were useless, since no priests were available. According to him, the Indians did not rest in the appointed time because they had to spend it working hard in agriculture. The law about providing food was also insufficient – Las Casas wrote that in reality the Indians never saw any fish and would subsist on roots and herbs during fast days. As for the clothes, with one peso could buy a couple of combs, maybe a headscarf and a small mirror. So the Indians were forced to stay almost naked [Las Casas 1951, t. II, L. III, cap. XV-XVI].

Burgos Laws were implemented for the first time on Hispaniola in 1514-1515, when a total distribution of the Indians was carried out. It is worth noting that there were two categories of indigenous people not mentioned in the Burgos Laws that figure prominently in the description of the event: the cacique’s Indians (indios del cacique) and domestic naborias (naborías de casa). The first were likely still living in their settlements under the rule of their chiefs. The second were those who, due to different circumstances, found themselves out of their communities, being totally in the encomendero disposal, living in his house in Spanish settlement or on his estate. According to this division, there were 15056 cacique’s Indians and 7276 domestic naboria on Hispaniola, totaling 22332 people, including both children and adults (Aleksandrenkov 2017). It is not clear how the laws were applied to the domestic naboria – that is, almost a third of the encomended Indians. This is all the more important since there were encomiendas of just a few people, in which any regulations for collective living could hardly be employed.

In the years of the Burgos Laws elaboration and their first implementation in Hispaniola, Bartolomé de Las Casas joined the debates about the Indians. He came to Hispaniola in 1502 and, according to his own mentions in “History of the Indies-”, he was a conquistador who took part in Ovando’s conquests. He had an encomienda and he himself admitted that he treated his Indians only slightly better than others did. As for his duty of converting them, he did not care more than others. Already as a priest he participated in military expedition to Cuba, where he also received an encomienda. It was there that he heard about the Dominican protest on Hispaniola and, as he mentions, started thinking about “poverty and slavery from which these people suffered» [Las Casas 1951, t. III: 92].

Las Casas left his encomienda, grew close to Dominican friars and together with Montesinos went to Spain in late 1515. Likely in early 1516 Las Casas presented his memorials about the state of the Indians and his suggestions on improving it to the Regent of Spain, cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros [Pichardo 1972: 8-11]. In June the same year the Dominican friars had sent a letter to the mentor of the new king, Carlos, detailing numerous cases of abuses committed by the Spanish on the Indians. It shows clearly that the Spaniards did not value the lives of the Indians entrusted to them and were not even concerned about preserving their labor force, since they killed both women and children without mercy. The authors of the letter wrote eloquently that in Hispaniola before densely populated as Seville’s land, one could now travel for 60 leagues (around 240 km.) without meeting a single person to greet. According to the friars, the reason for such devastation was the Spanish belief that local people lacked faith and therefore they could be slaughtered, imprisoned, their land and possession can be taken, without burden the conscience [CDI 1867, t. VII, p. 397-430; see also Aleksandrenkov 2018: 106-109]. The Franciscans also opposed the encomienda [Saco 1932, t. 2: 329].

That the royal court was well aware of the terrible position of the Indians in those years, testifies Pedro Martyr, an Italian in the king’s service. According to him, those simple, naked people were ill suited to hard labor, and overworking in the mines killed many of them, while others were so desperate that killed themselves or refused to procreate (including pregnant women aborting). While the royal decrees declared all the islanders to be free, the Indians are forced to work much more than free people should. The numbers of these unfortunates decrease at an extreme rate [Martyr 1912, t.1: 376].

In this situation cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros had decided to send three Hieronymitian monks to Hispaniola. Their instructions were composed with some participation of Las Casas. But, he claimed, the cardinal and the members of the Council had changed and added a lot, due to the influence of Spaniards from the island also present at the court at the time, who actively slandered both the Indians and himself [Las Casas 1951, t. III: 130]. The document, signed in the name of the Queen and her son was aimed at “reorganizing the islands and the Indies” and gives an idea about how the Crown intended to conduct this reorganization.

First of all, the friars had to meet the Spanish settlers and explain that nothing will be taken from them, no injustice or ill treatment would befall them, but they only will be instructed in fair and decent ways of using what they already have, to live in orderly and just manner without oppressing the Indians. The document went on to state that this decision was driven by multiple complaints in the form of “memorials”, from the Indians who were variously abused, oppressed and slaughtered. The intention of the king was for all his subjects to live in harmony and peace without causing each other evil through injustice.

Afterwards, it was declared, the friars, accompanied by their Dominican and Franciscan brethren, should talk to some chief caciques, which were to be informed that many petitions about their condition have been presented to the king. Since the king, their only lawful sovereign, is just and fair he could not allow them, his subjects, to be treated this way. The monks were send by the king to learn of what was happening and to dispose the Indians live in order and peace (policia y en todo sosiego) and instructed in the matters of faith, and to be treated well, as should with the royal subjects.

It would be good, the document stated, if the Indians, by decision of the sides, agreed to live in settlements governed by their caciques and persons appointed for the purpose. There was vague mention of a possibility of a certain sum being paid to the king, and that the settlers who had Indians en encomienda were satisfied. Neither the form nor the amount of this payment were specified, left to the discretion of the friars. This part of the instructions ended with a directive to pay attention to the Indians’ way of life, their food and their labor [CDI-2 1895, t. 9: 53-56].

The document goes on to state that “another measure” should be possible if the first one would prove fruitless. But in reality it was just a more detailed reiteration of the plan of resetting the Indians in specially organized settlements. The friars were to learn the number of caciques as well as the numbers of Indians of different status. They were to find out the situation of the lands, especially those been close to the mines, and determine the places for Indian settlements – places with good land suitable for agriculture, rivers for fishing. They were to explain to the Indians that resettlement was for their own good, “so they would be treated better than before”.

The settlements had to incorporate 300 household’s heads (vecino) and an appropriate number of houses. It was supposed to have a church, squares and streets, a cacique’s house and an orphanage. The lands surrounding the settlement were to be distributed between the vecinos, with each receiving a plot of the best land for planting the trees and vegetables. Cacique had to obtain four time more than one vecino; the rest of lands was to be used for communal necessities.

A situation in which one cacique’s people were insufficient in number to establish a settlement was also foreseen. In this case, several such groups would have been united, with one chief cacique in charge of the settlement, together with a priest or a monk and Spanish administrator.

If a Spanish man wished to marry a woman cacique or a cacique’s daughter (if she was an heir due to lack of male children), it was allowed with consent of a monk, a priest or Spaniard. In this case the Spanish man would become the cacique, and it was hoped that soon al caciques will be Spanish, which will allow the crown to avoid many expenses.

It was dictated that each settlement will have jurisdiction within its borders, and the chief cacique would have the right to punish guilty Indians if the punishment would not exceed lashing. More serious misconducts and the cacique’s ones were to be judged by the Spanish authorities. Persons responsible for the daily function of the settlement (rejidores, algvasiles and others) were to be appointed by the cacique together with a monk or a priest and the Spanish administrator.

The instructions included a number of other orders as part of the first “measure”: building a church and a hospice in each settlements, teaching Spanish, forced wearing of European clothes, monogamy (with lashing as punishment for adultery), controlling the number of cattle (to be carried out by the chief cacique), distribution of meat etc. The mining work regulations now stipulated that the Indians were supposed to mine gold without Spanish participation. Another innovation was that the head of the mining brigade (called nikaino, possible corruption of the native nitaino), the chief cacique and the settlement administrator were to be present when ore was smelted. A third of the gold was to be given to the Crown, the rest – to pay for community needs and to be distributed among the households, based on the status of the head of each household.

Some measures were planned to compensate the Spanish for losing the encomended Indians, such as purchasing the estates to found Indian settlements in their place, putting them in charge of those settlements, allowing them to participate in gold prospecting and mining, and in military expeditions against the Caribs, who were to be taken as slaves, or even allowing them to move to the continent or to other islands. “Some” Indians were to be taught useful trades, such as carpentry, masonry, timber sawing, tailoring and others – to, according to the document, ensure the settlements lived a civil life (se pongan en policía) and to serve the society (la república).

This “measure” ended with an instruction to punish “old Christians” who had harmed the islanders, in presence of the Indians.

Obviously, the above mentioned norms were different from those of the Burgos Laws.

Further, the document said that if the first “measure”, establishing settlements and leading the Indians to civil life (policía), «would not take place, and it would still seem like they must be encomended, as before”, the friars were to make some changes to the articles of the Burgos Laws. Of special importance is the mention of the first and second articles, which dealt with resettling the Indians next to the Spanish towns. It was living far from the Spanish that the Burgos Laws considered the chief obstacle to the Indians overcoming their sinfulness and accepting Christianity. Now, it was declared that the resettlement had already caused “numerous inconveniences”, both in instructing the Indians in faith and in their ill treatment by the Spaniards. The law which assumed the possibility of appearance of Indians capable of self-governing was specifically pointed out as an important one. Those were to be provided such an opportunity [CDI-2 1895, t. 9: 53-73; see also Las Casas 1951, L. III, cap. LXXXVIII, LXXXIX].

The Hieronymites arrived at Hispaniola in late 1516. By that point, judging from one of the letters they sent back to Spain the Indians were spread all over the island, in small numbers in each particular location, be those mines or different Spanish estates. The friars were concerned that such a situation would prevent the Indians from becoming good Christians, and would lead to further decline in their numbers [CDI 1864, t. I: 300]. Before making any decisions, they collected information about the Indians’ capacity and the possibilities of organizing the settlements [CDI 1864, t. I: 269]. This means that the available information about the situation on the island did not seem sufficient to them, and nether were the royal instructions. In one of the letters they bitterly pointed out the differences between what they learned in Spain and what was actually happening on the island. The questions they posed give us an insight into what kind of information they wanted to learn. The questions were asked to twelve secular persons and two monks, Dominican and Franciscan orders.

The first question concerned the time the respondents had spend in the Indies, and the second – the degree to which the respondents were familiar with the Indians: have they communicated to caciques or common Indians, for how long, do they know native customs and inclinations.

The third question concerned the respondent’s knowledge of the Indians intelligence and capacity to live civilly (políticamente), knowing to obtain what feed them and store it to cover their needs like the peasants of Castile did.

The fourth question was about the possible resettlement – would it be beneficial to relocate the Indians from their places of habitation, where they were born and raised, closer to

the Spaniards? The purpose of possible resettlement was explained by that the Indians could be better instructed in matters of the faith there and their needs will be better taken into account. In addition, the respondents were to indicate if such a resettlement, if done by force, would lead

to flee and revolt against the Spaniards and other troubles.

The next question dealt with the possible consequences of leaving the Indians in the areas they already occupied. Would it cause much harm to their salvation and spiritual health? Possible reasons for that – the children would not start working until 13-14 years of age and would learn the customs of their parents instead of useful things, and their will not know the true faith since there are no priests around, only some old men and women, and even those would die without confession, since they rarely or never visit the Spanish farms (asientos e estancias). The same happens to other Indians during the three month of rest.

The sixth and final question was whether the respondents knew, would benefit the Indians, resettled or not, in terms of good treatment by the Spaniards and religious conversion and for the benefit of settling the island and serving the king, to free them, by entrusting them to good Spaniards. And if there are any dangers of it, what are they? If the Indians were to be left encomended, what should be done to improve their treatment?

The answers given by the Spanish reveal quite clearly what they thought about the native population of the island, whom the crown considered vassals. The Spanish historian E. Mira Caballos had studied the answers extensively and managed to classify the respondents into several categories clearly representing different interest groups. Nevertheless, the majority – 10 out of 14 – have denied the possibility that the Indians are capable of living free, while three respondents stated that only some Indians are capable of that, and only one, the Dominican friar, had complete confidence in the Indian capacity [Mira Caballos 2010].

Hieronymites made a controversial decision – not to abolish the encomienda and gather Indians in new settlements. If the settlement was to be organized according to the principles set out in the royal instructions, their inhabitants would conduct their affairs as royal vassals. A cacique would oversee the settlement, as well as a friar and a Spanish inspector. However, since the encomienda would still exist, the inhabitants of the settlement remained under the control of different Spaniards. The situation with domestic naborias was also not clarified.

At joint meetings of Hieronymites and prosecutors of Spanish settlements (starting in April 1518), the latter asked, among other things, not to send naborias to settlements, and from the cacique Indians one quarter to leave the Spaniards to work for them [CDI 1864, t.1: 358]. The proceedings were recorded and sent to Spain, and were only received in Barcelona in 1519.

I could not find out what the decision of the crown and the Hieronymites themselves was. But in early 1519 they reported that 30 settlements were organized, where “the few Indians remaining” would live. 800 thousand cassava bushes were planted, to provide sustenance to more than 7 thousand people (apparently the inhabitants of the new settlements). Church decorations were also delivered to the settlements [CDI 1864, t. I: 367].

All these years, the number of indigenous islanders has been declining. In 1510, when the Dominicans arrived, there were 46 thousand of them, a few years later – 16 thousand, a few more years later – just ten thousand [Las Casas 1951, t. III: 149]. A similar number for 1518 is given by another source – less than 11 thousand [CDI 1864, t. I: 310].

Real life has made adjustments to the plans of the Hieronymites. All the intricacies of theologians’ thinking, all the royal instructions and all the administrative measures proved to be unnecessary. In December 1518, when the Indians were supposed to leave the mines for the new settlements, a smallpox epidemic broke out, and by the beginning of the next year almost a third of the Indians had died [CDI 1864, t. I: 367-368]. In may 1519 the officials reported that “most” of the Indians have died [CDI 1864, t. I: 370].

It is unknown what happened to the settlements build for the Indians. The attempts to free the “capable” Indians from the encomienda, that took place even under Ovando, resumed. The new governor, Rodrigo de Figueroa, was instructed to grant complete freedom to the Indians who would ask for it [Konetzke 1953, t. I: 68-70]. The royal officials of Hispaniola saw this as a threat to potential revenue the Crown could receive [CDI 1864, t. I: 371-373]. Figueroa established two settlements to, in his own words, “try the civil life” (en probación de vida política). He himself was in favor of preserving the encomienda, thinking that without it the Spanish settlers would be unable to maintain themselves. Encomenderos (almost all of them, Figueroa wrote) were cruel to the Indians and they weren't bothered that the Indians could end up, if they could receive gold and move back to Spain [CDI 1864, t. I: 417, 419].

The Crown insisted on extending the experience with the Indians and even ordered an increase in the number of such settlements - at the expense of freed from the encomienda. Spanish settlers, on the contrary, wanted their division [CDI 1864, t. I: 421].

When instructions for Cortes on governing the newly conquered territories in Mexico were made in 1523, they mentioned the experience in administrating the islanders and attributed their decline to poor treatment and excessive work [CDI-2 1895, t. 9: 170, 175]. The authorities had admitted their failure in converting the natives to Catholicism, and Royal letter of November 1526 dictated that some Indian children from Hispaniola were to be send to Spanish schools and monasteries. Afterwards they were to return home and teach other Indians [CDI-2 1895, t.9: 254-255].

The Royal proclamation of 1529 shows quite clearly that by the late 1520-s the native people of Hispaniola no longer were considered a potential source of labor. It gave certain privileges to those who would found new settlements on the island, but “Indians” were not mentioned at all, and except the Spaniards were named “Negroes” [Konetzke 1953: 122].

Despite that, the same year the Spanish authorities were forced to pay attention to the Hispaniola Indians again. In the Baoruko mountains a few hundred of cacique Enrique men successfully acted against the Spaniards. The long presence (1519 – 1533) of rebellious Indians threatened the Spanish rule on the island [Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés 1851, t. I, p. 150]. So the authorities took an exceptional step – peace was made between Spanish king and Indian chief. One of the articles of the treaty was that Enrique’s men would hunt the escaped Negro slaves. Enrique’s men were settled in two villages, one ruled by Enrique himself. He died soon, and his settlement was burned down in 1537 by the rebelled slaves [Aleksandrenkov 2018, p. 133-136].

A few years later, in 1542, the Spanish authorities had legally recognized that the native people of Hispaniola, Cuba and San-Juan (Puerto Rico) had ceased to be an important part of life on the islands. In the New Laws, which were proclaimed in November 1542, among the 40 articles was only one about the Indians of the islands – that no taxes larger than those imposed on the Spanish should be imposed on them, and that they must be given time to rest – to multiply and to convert to Catholicism [Konetzke 1953: 216-220].

By 1548 in Hispaniola, according to a person who lived there, were less than 500 native Indians, both adult and children [Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés 1851, t. 1: 71]. And in time their numbers did not grow as the Spanish Crown had hoped, instead they vanished completely.

* * *

There are several stages of implementation of the intentions of the Spanish crown regarding the natives of Hispaniola.

The first one begins with the royal instructions given to Christopher Columbus and ends with those given to Ovando. At this point the decisions were made by a relatively small number of individuals with little idea of what the life across the ocean was like, and all the Indians were declared to be the vassals of the Spanish Crown. The decline of native population in this period was significant.

The next line is the legalization of encomienda under Ovando. Its practical implementation revealed a contradiction between the earlier notion of the Indians as royal vassals and potential Christians and the fact that they were completely subjugated by the encomenderos, who exploited them mercilessly. The population decline continued.

The intrusion of the Dominicans in native-Spanish relations fostered the institutionalization of the existing encomienda system in the Burgos Laws, and the emergence of the theoretical justifications for Spanish dominion in the New World, as well as on the Indians’ capabilities of converting to Catholicism and accepting the European (Spanish) norms of civil life. The encomienda regime continued to cause death to the Aboriginal people.

The deficiencies of the Burgos Laws and the ongoing attempts to dismantle the encomienda forced the Crown to try another approach, already outlined briefly in Ovando’s instructions – the creation of settlements with self-sustaining aboriginal households. Rejection of such measures on the part of the colonists of Hispaniola led to the fact that the Hieronymites made a half-hearted decision - to create settlements of Indians and to preserve encomienda.

The smallpox epidemic hastened the population decline, and by the late 1520s they ceased to be an important part of the economic life of the island. The New Laws failed to preserve even the few remaining Indians.

The ideology of colonization of the New World was formed from the own intentions of the crown and was developed in councils with theologians and legal scholars, as well as with representatives of colonists, monks and priests from the islands. Subjugating the natives and governing them was considered in two related aspects.

One, legal - the right of Spanish kings to conquer new lands. Since conquest was seen as a necessity for spreading the Christian faith, and the subjugation of Indians itself was blessed by the Pope, the right of conquest was unquestionable.

Another aspect, moral - the treatment of the conquered. Spanish kings had from the very beginning expressed their desire to protect the Indians whom they considered vassals, and the orders to treat them well had been a constant part of the royal instructions from Columbus’s second voyage onward, including those given to the governors of Antilles and later other territories in America. The significance of this proclaimed patronage was, however, negated when the Crown placed the Indians at the disposal of Spanish settlers with intention to provide settlers with working hands, and accelerate Indian conversion and adoption of “civil life”. But for the Hispaniola settlers the main goal was to get rich as fast as possible and to go back to Spain (or, later, to move to Mexico or Peru). Maintaining labor reserves did not concern them – at first because the native islanders were numerous, later because they could be replaced by slaves from other parts of the America or from Africa. Besides, the conquerors in its mass believed that the "infidels" could be killed without burdening one’s consciousness, while the subjugated are incapable of becoming Christians.

These factors contributed to the rapid disappearance of Aboriginal people as ethnic and social communities, a result not conceived in the metropolis.


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[1] Areito – a collective celebration with dancing and singing.

* - Article was translated from Russian by Gleb Aleksandrov