Library of Congress


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

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

Treatment of Indians

The Spanish conducted slave-raiding expeditions along the east coast before the Naváez and de Soto expeditions to Florida, a practice that had become widespread throughout the Spanish new world since the Columbian voyages. Queen Isabella forbade the practice, but the Spanish monarchs agreed in 1503 to what was later called the encomienda system. Under this system, Spaniards would be granted an allotment of Indians who were to be protected and Christianized. In essence the natives became forced laborers who worked the land, labored in mines, and constructed public buildings.

In 1510, the Council of Castile issued the Requerimiento. This document stated that if the enemy agreed to accept the king of Spain as their monarch and Roman Catholicism as their religion, the Spaniards would not go to war against them. In many cases only the letter of the law was carried out as priests who accompanied expeditions read the requerimiento in Latin from the decks of ships before a battle. Warring Indians, once defeated and Christianized, were allotted to settlers through the encomienda system.

Use the search word encomienda to find documents relating to controversies resulting from royal decrees regarding instruction and care of Indians, such as King Charles I of Spain’s (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) letter to Juan de Zumárraga, bishop of Mexico, and the opinions of the Cardinal archbishop of Toledo and the governor of the Council of the Indies addressed to the king. From the English “Notes” to these documents, a reader can begin to understand the conflicts arising over the encomienda system. The archbishop of Seville in a 1541 document addressed to the officials in the Indies ordered that “no one shall be allowed to keep such [free] Indians in his house against their wills, to take them to their mines or farms or anywhere else, or to transfer their ownership. The person who sells them shall be fined half of his goods…”

  • What can you infer about the government of Spain’s goals in terms of the Indians?
  • What conflicting interests did the King have to consider in making decisions about treatment of the Indians?
  • What arguments regarding rewards for Spanish settlers were made? Do you think these arguments are convincing? Why or why not?

In 1542 the king’s council (Junta of Valladolid) adopted the New Laws of the Indies, which prohibited new encomiendas and outlawed abuses of the Indians. Several priests had been instrumental in lobbying for the New Laws, among them the noted Bartolomé de las Casas. The adoption of the laws was not without opposition, as seen in the letter addressed to the king by the president of the Council of the Indies. This letter remarked on particular opposition in Peru, which King Charles I also mentioned in a letter to colonial leaders sent in the summer of 1545.

  • What prompted the enactment of the “New Laws”?
  • What is the attitude of the president of the Council of the Indies in his letter to the king? What seems to be his primary concern about the “New Laws”?
  • How did the king respond to the colonists’ reactions? Are you surprised by the king’s response? Explain your answer.

Bartolomé de las Casas was appointed bishop of Chiapas in 1543. In a petition to Emperor Charles V as bishop-elect, Las Casas requested the addition of provinces to his diocese where there were disturbances between settlers and Indians and made specific requests regarding the government of his diocese. After returning to Spain some years later, he entered into a “debate” with another priest, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, over the proper treatment of the Indians. Philip II took up the case championed by las Casas and in 1578 addressed a cédula to the Viceroy of New Spain reminding him that the king had a primary interest in the welfare and conversion of the Indians.

Based on what you have read in the “Notes” on documents, write a brief essay to:

  • Describe the goals of the Spanish government with respect to the Indians.
  • Explain the interests of Spanish settlers in the New World, including religious leaders.
  • Evaluate the encomienda policy in terms of how well it met the interests of all the Spanish parties, as well as how well it served the interests of the Indians.