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After Spain’s conquest of Mexico and other American lands, these events inspired books, paintings, and other historical and artistic records. In this section are materials illustrating these interpretations. Some of these items highlight the efforts of Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566), an early Spanish historian and Dominican missionary in the Americas, to persuade the Spanish Empire that indigenous peoples deserved humane treatment. Also featured are the spectacular Conquest of Mexico paintings created in the seventeenth century that capture the drama of the original encounter as imagined and interpreted by artists 150 years later.

The Fate of the Indians of the New World

This manuscript, signed by Bartolomé de las Casas, was sent to Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, for presentation to the Council of the Indies as they debated the fate of the Indians of the New World. In it, Las Casas makes this plea, “In order that the Indians may be preserved in life and liberty there are no other means save that Your Majesty should incorporate them in your royal crown as your vassals, which they are, terminating all the encomiendas which are made in all the Indies, and giving neither one nor any Indian to [a] Spaniard.”

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Tovar’s History of Mexico

Juan de Tovar, born in Mexico of conquistador stock, became a Jesuit missionary. He was fluent in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and became an avid collector of Aztec codices, conferring with natives about their meaning. His studies resulted in a multi-volume work about the history and culture of pre-Hispanic Mexico (ca. 1585). The images on display are copies from Tovar’s original drawings and include depictions of Aztec gods, rulers, and ceremonies of the Pre-Columbian period. The original manuscript is now at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

Juan de Tovar. Historia de la benida de los yndios apoblar a México de las partes remotas de Occidente los sucessos y perigrinaçiones del camino su gouierno, ydolos y templos dellos, ritos y cirimonias . . . calandarios de los tiempos [History of the arrival of the indians that populated remote parts of western Mexico, the events and course of their government, idols, temples, rites, and ceremonies . . . calendars of the times.] Handwritten manuscript transcribed by Elizabeth, Lady Phillips, of Middle Hall, England, ca. 1862. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (098.00.01, 098.00.02, 098.00.03, 098.00.04)

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Rights for Indians

Conquistador-turned-Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas wrote this book to inform the Spanish Crown that officials and landowners in the New World were behaving cruelly toward their indigenous subjects and to plead for redress. His book had an enormous impact, prompting Emperor Charles V to recognize the humanity of indigenous peoples and to issue the New Laws of the Indies in 1542, ending the absolute power of individual Spaniards.

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566). Brevíssima Relación de la destrucción de las Indias (Very brief account of the destruction of the Indians). Seville: Sebastian Trugillo, 1552. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (079.00.00, 079.00.01, 079.00.02, 079.00.03)

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New Laws to Protect Indians

When Emperor Charles V (1500-1556) proclaimed important new laws for the Indies in 1542 and 1543, he was addressing Bartolomé de las Casas’s charges of brutality towards indigenous peoples and trying to regain power for the crown. The New Laws were intended to ensure better treatment of the Indians, limit Spanish takeover of their lands, and above all, protect them against enslavement by the Spaniards. The Spanish crown was later forced to rescind the New Laws because colonists resisted them violently. This book is a rare facsimile reprint of the original Spanish edition with an English translation.

The New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians/ Promulgated by the Emperor Charles the Fifth, 1542-1543. A facsimile reprint of the original Spanish edition. London: Chiswick Press, 1893. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (082.01.01, 082.00.00)

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Tales that Inspired Conquistadors

Amadis of Gaul, the most famous romance of Spanish chivalry, may have originated as early as the mid-fourteenth century. The handsome, virtuous knight Amadis achieves incredible feats of arms, in which he is undefeated. The earliest extant printed version, from 1508, is by Garci Ordónez (or Rodríguez) de Montalvo (ca. 1450–ca. 1505). Montalvo’s avowed purpose was to inspire Spanish youth to imitate Amadis. Numerous sequels appeared, and the work was translated into other languages. Bernal Díaz del Castillo refers to Amadis in his account of the conquest of New Spain, and the name “California” appears in another work by Montalvo.

Le troisieme livre d’Amadis de Gaule [The third book of Amadis of Gaul]. Lyon: Benoist Rigaud, 1575. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (078.03.00, 078.00.00)

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“The Black Legend”

This English translation of Las Casas’ defense of Indian humanity appeared in 1583, five years before the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Countries hostile to Spain and its power, such as England and Holland, were quick to make use of Las Casas’s words to create the “Black Legend,” which emphasized Spanish brutality toward their subjects.

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566). The Spanish colonie, or, Briefe chronicle of the acts and gestes of the Spaniardes in the West Indies, called the Newe World. London: Thomas Dawson for William Broome, 1583. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (081.00.00, 81.00.02, 081.00.03)

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Inspiration for the Conquest of Mexico Paintings

Antonio de Solís served King Charles II of Spain as the official historian for the American colonies. In his monumental Historia de la conquista de México, written more than 150 years after the events described, Solís relied heavily on the work of previous chroniclers, including Lopéz de Gomara, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and Hernán Cortés himself. Written in an elegant and dramatic style, the book was immediately successful and was translated into other languages, including English. The book brought new attention to Cortés and to a heroic view of the Spanish Conquest. This work may have directly inspired the Conquest of Mexico series of paintings.

Antonio de Solís. Historia de la conquista de México. [The history of the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards]. London: printed for T. Woodward, J. Hooke, and J. Peele, 1724. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (086.00.00, 086.00.02, 086.00.03)

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