The Spanish Crown and Native Americans

Updated on May 29, 2018
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Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland majoring in English and History.

Spain and Native Americans have a complex history
Spain and Native Americans have a complex history | Source

This article will discuss the question of how seriously the Spanish Crown took its responsibilities towards the Native American population. A brief discussion of the Spanish arrival in America will also be delved into, as well as Spain’s early colonisation. The Encomienda and the Repartimientos system are crucial in an analysis of the relationship between the Native Americans and Spanish Crown. The term the ‘Spanish Crown’, and what that entails and the powers it had is a key concept here as well as many attempts at answering this question can become muddied without a clear definition of the term. The work of Las Casas and his debates with Sepulveda are a pivotal aspect of the treatment of the Natives. The role the church played in state affairs at the time, particularly as it relates to the missionaries is crucial in developing a keener understanding. The attitudes and reactions of the various rulers from Isabella and Ferdinand, to Charles V and Phillip II all play an important part in how the Native Americans were treated.

The Spanish Crown is a complex term with a varied meaning. Certainly, up until the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469, the Iberian Peninsula constituted various similar but separate kingdoms. Even under the rule of the Ferdinand and Isabella, the Castilian and Aragonese Kingdoms functioned largely as two separate crowns. The exploration into the Atlantic was done solely by Isabella, just as the reconquest of the Granada had been a specifically Castilian endeavour. Aragon was a much smaller Mediterranean leaning kingdom, whereas, for Castile, the success of a voyage westwards would allow Isabella a superiority over Portugal. Aragon was busy with their own conflicts such as the Italian wars which spanned most of the following century. Even after Isabella’s death, Ferdinand struggled to assert control over Castile. Indeed, before her death, Isabella had originally intended the American possessions to be solely for Castilian benefit, and in 1503 a monopoly on New World trade was given to Seville. The relatively new state was, at the time of exploration and conquest, struggling to assert its control in its own lands. Feudal lords were battling with the crown over dominance in their areas. It is important, therefore, certainly of the early conquest, to not think of the actions of the Crown towards the Natives as one unified Spanish response done by a monarch in total control, but rather a disjointed attempt at asserting influence.

The Spanish arrival in America in 1492, marked a turning point throughout Europe. However, it would take another two decades for serious colonisation to take place in mainland America by the Spanish. Two separate campaigns led by Hernan Cortes and Pizarro led to the collapse of the Aztec and the Inca empires respectively. A distinction must be made, however, between the early pillage done by Columbus and his crew in the Caribbean, and the actions down under the administration of the crown on mainland America during Spanish colonisation. Prior to 1500, the crown had struggled to assert control over the Caribbean, which dire consequences for the Natives. Under the governorship of Nicolas de Ovando, the crown was able to exert some order in the area. Although early Spanish involvement resulted in death and destruction for the Natives population, the Crown made definite attempts to protect them in their colonisation and rule over America in the coming century, and with the aid of the church, serious and positive efforts were made to care for their well-being.

The Catholic church at the time of Spanish colonisation was intertwined with the administration of the Spanish crown, led by Ferdinand and Isabella ‘The Catholic’. The recent conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, as well the call for the conquest of North Africa by Cardinal Cisneros, showed how crucial the church was in the Spanish crown’s decisions at the time. This translated to the new world as well, and particularly through the treatment of its Native population. Deeply ingrained in the missions overseas was the recently conquered Granada and ‘conversion’ of the Muslims populace. This, in turn, was coupled with a hope that a successful voyage would extend the Christian Kingdom. Friars and preachers accompanied colonisers, as the quest to extend to the empire of the crown, was done in addition to extending the word of God to the Native population. The intricacies of the church and the crown during this venture mean that proper analysis of the crown’s actions must include the actions of the church as well.

In turn, the missionaries conducted by the church at the time, are intertwined with the work of the Crown. One of the most important preachers during the period was Bartholome de las Casas. In his preaching, he called for the Native Americans to be incorporated into the crown, in which they would be given the title of vassals, which stopped the Natives from falling under the category of slaves. Both the governor of Cuba Velazquez and Cortes spoke of the colonisation effort as a mission for God. Las Casas led much of the preaching about the role of the church and the crown in protecting the Indians, leading debates in Valladolid against Sepulveda. Las Casas claimed that Christian kings had a higher duty to protect the rights of the Natives. The brunt method of forced conversions done to the Muslims under Cardinal Cisneros, only occurred very briefly in America, before being phased out. Early failed attempts led the crown to adopt a more nuanced approach, instructing Christian preachers to educate themselves on the Natives’ culture and language. The serious nature of this endeavour to placate the Natives is no better shown that by how accepting the crown was to the demands Las Casas placed on it and its bishops regarding Native well-being. The conduct of the church with its conversion policies and willingness to adhere to Las Casas was linked to a positive attitude shown by the crown to the Native Americans.

The role of Las Casas was crucial in the reaction of the Spanish crown to the treatment of the Native Americans. A former slave owner turned preacher, Las Casas attempted to appeal to the conscience of court preachers to end the exploitation of Native Americans. This was after many years of failure by Ferdinand’s confessor, to explain the graveness of the situation in the Americas. Las Casas argued relentlessly against those who claimed that colonisation gave Castile the right to Native labour and goods. Although Las Casas’ book A short account of the Destruction of the Indies, contains a very biased and exaggerated account of the treatment of the Native Americans, the seriousness in which it was taken at the time showed how important the situation was to the Spanish crown. With the removal of the ban on African slave importation in 1516, the treatment of the Native American population improved as Las Casas had argued for, albeit at the expense of the Africans, whom it appears Las Casas had a low opinion of, describing North Africans as ‘Moorish barbarians’. The same is true for many aspects of Spanish colonisation, where the crown took the treatment of Native Americans very seriously, albeit at the expense of other groups. In fact, under the reign of Phillip II, the Galley ships that protected Spanish colonial properties were made up of only non-Native slaves. Las Casas’ work, while damaging to other groups, led to better treatment by the crown towards the Natives.

Despite popular thought, the Spanish did attempt to help natives
Despite popular thought, the Spanish did attempt to help natives | Source

Queen Isabella herself did not approve of Native Americans being brought back to Spain as slaves. When Columbus arrived at back at Spanish court with slaves and news reached Isabella that he had permitted the use of laves by his followers, Isabella did not tolerate it. When Ferdinand assumed control after Isabella’s death, knew very little about the Natives or their lives. The incredible exposure and press that Las Casas’ book received, showed how important the Spanish court was treating the issue of Native American well-being. Similar to the Galley slaves, as the crown became more aware of the situation through the book, in an effort to curb Native mistreatment, the crown began the importation of African slaves. A title was even created for Las Casas, ‘Protector of the Indies’, which he used as leverage in Spanish Court, to improve the unsuccessful and exploitative Encomienda system.

The Encomienda system that developed in America, was originally designed to tackle the problem of labour shortages and the abolishment of slave labour. After 1500, enslavement of Natives was only allowed if they attacked a Spaniard or if they partook in the practice of cannibalism. In reality, however, this law was exploited by rulers such as Cortes to enslave vast numbers of Natives. What originally was meant to be a symbiotic relationship between the Spaniard who offered protection and the Native American who offered his labour, quickly amounted to nothing more than slavery. As the Encomenderos who ruled these Natives began to consolidate a feudal lordship of the lands in America, they were eventually curtailed by the power of the Church and the State. Under the reign of Charles V, the crown then brought in the Repartimientos system to replace it. This was passed under the ‘New Laws of 1542’, which outlawed Native slavery, as Native Americans could no longer be classified as property. This also replaced the Laws of Burgos from 1512, which were an attempt at the first set of codified laws to regulate the behaviour of the Spanish colonists in America, but which proved a failure. While the Repartimientos system like so many others, would be exploited by the colonisers, the gradual phasing out of the Encomienda system with the ‘New Laws’ showed that the crown was taking the Native American situation seriously.

An important pitfall to avoid when discussing this situation is grouping all Native American peoples at the time of colonisation as one unified group that the Spanish crown was dealing with. The Americas was made up of various different tribes, many of which were antagonistic towards one another, taking prisoners and engaging in acts of cannibalism. Cabeza de Vaca described the Native Americans as sometimes being cruel, often capturing and beating Spanish explorers. When Cortes overran the Aztec Empire, he did so with the help of many other rival tribes, such as the Totanacs and the Tlascalans, who were intent on bringing down the Aztec empire. The death of Aztecs as result of conquest is counteracted somewhat by the halting of human sacrifice by that very same civilisation. Therefore, when contemplating whether the Spanish crown took their responsibilities towards the Native Americans seriously, one must ask which specific group, as favouring one group could harm or kill another by proxy. Furthermore, although smallpox lead to the death of millions in Mexico, it was unintendedly brought over. The crown needed Native labour, so accusations of genocide are unfounded. In fact, Cook argues that the biggest cause of population decline during colonisation was not Spanish violence, but epidemic diseases.

Under the reign of Phillip II, the conditions of the Native Americans largely stayed the same as before. Although the large death toll from disease had stagnated the Spanish economy, labour shortages were mostly fixed through the continued use of African slave labour. Phillip II, who had been present at many of the debates between Las Casas and Sepulveda, was, unlike Ferdinand, very informed on the situation in America. The exploitation of workers was also curbed with new European techniques for farming that was brought over to the colonies, reducing the burden on Native labour. 1573 also saw the introduction of the ‘New Ordinances, which became the first set of codified laws in America. However, one negative impact of Phillip’s reign was the creation of multiple latifundios, which crowded Native Americans together. Although this was done to help with both the allocation of labour and to help with religious instruction, it resulted in many old Native villages being deserted. The relocation of Natives, although having some negative effects, was ultimately done so for the benefit of the Native population, in the hope that it protected them from Spanish settlers.

Ultimately, the Spanish Crown certainly did take its responsibility towards the Native American population very seriously. Although not as effective as it hoped in curtailing the violence, pillage and rape carried out by its enlisted Conquistadores, there is a clear effort shown in attempting to curb Native enslavement and exploitation. While one may look at the large death toll on Native Americans from disease, as negligence on the part of the Spanish crown, their motives certainly weren’t genocidal. The attempt to curb the excesses of the Encomienda system and later the passing of the ‘New Laws’ and the introduction of the Repartimientos system, shows a willingness to improve the lives of the Natives, as the crown was aware of the problems of their previous systems. When Native exploitation had occurred, it was perpetrated by individual Spaniards and was not a direction given by the Spanish crown under any of its rulers. The crown was largely amicable towards the Native Americans, albeit at the expense of other races, and at the expense of their own wealth from the colonies. Certainly, the inseparable link that the crown and the church had at this time, and the mostly positive attitude the church had for the fair treatment of Native Americans, would suggest an acknowledgement of the Spanish Crown’s responsibilities.

The Church cared about the Natives
The Church cared about the Natives | Source

Primary Sources

Casas, Bartolome de las, A short account of the destruction of the Indies (London, 1992).


De Vaca, Álvar Núñez Cabeza, The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación (Houston, 1993).


Ellitott, J. H., ‘Cortés, Velázquez and Charles V’, in Hernán Cortés: Letters from Mexico (London, 1986), pp xi–xxxvii.


Secondary Sources

Allen, Alexander, ‘Credibility and incredulity: a critique of Bartolomé de las Casas’s A short account of the destruction of the Indies’ The Gettysburg Historical Journal, vol. 9, no. 5, Gettysburg College (2011), pp 44-48.


Cook, Noble David, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 (New Approaches to the Americas) (Cambridge, 1998)


Elliot, J. H., Imperial Spain: 1469-1716 (London, 1990).


Read, Malcolm K., ‘From Feudalism to Capitalism: Ideologies of Slavery in the Spanish American Empire’ Hispanic Research Journal Iberian and Latin American Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, State University of New York (June 2003), pp 151-71.


Wheat, David ‘Mediterranean Slavery, New World Transformations: Galley Slaves in the Spanish Caribbean, 1578–1635’ Slavery and Abolition, vol. 31, no. 3, Taylor and Francis (8 September 2010), pp 327-344, accessed 18 September 2017, doi: 10.1080/0144039X.2010.504541.

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