Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Parallel Histories

[Detail] Discovery of the Mississippi: By Ferdinand De Soto

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Issues in Colonial Administration

In 1582, King Phillip II lamented the mistreatment of Indians in a cédula (decree) to the archbishop of Mexico. Read the recorded “Notes” that introduce the document, which include the following account of the problem:

The King has been informed of the decline in the Indian population through mistreatment by their encomenderos. In some places they have decreased by a third, but they still have to bear the full burden of taxation. The encomenderos treat them worse than slaves…. Many hang themselves or starve themselves to death, or take poisonous herbs. There are some women who kill their children at birth to save them from the burdens of work. As a result the Indians hate the name of Christians, consider the Spaniards deceivers, and do not believe what they are taught, so that everything has to be done by force…. The King, having made many attempts to bring about good treatment of the Indians, believed his ministers were carrying out his desires; he was saddened to hear otherwise….

From “Notes” introducing “Royal cedula to [Pedro Moya de Contreras], archbishop of Mexico”

  • What was the problem facing King Phillip II?
  • How might a vigorous enforcement of the policy have been regarded by encomenderos (conquistadors who were granted control of towns they conquered) bent on exploiting Indian labor?
  • What can be inferred about the degree of control over the colonies from the failure to carry out royal orders protecting the Indians?
  • What decision is the king announcing or confirming in the cedula? What were the practical considerations supporting his decision? The ethical considerations? Based on what you know, what do you think happened as a result of the cedula?

Locate other cedulas by browsing the Hans P. Kraus Collection within Parallel Histories. What kinds of problems did the Spanish face in governing their colonies in the Americas? Do you think these problems are inevitable in ruling colonies? Explain your answer, using knowledge of colonial experiences around the globe.