II. The Conquest of the New World


"The Virgin of Navigators" by Alejo Fernandez c. 1475-1545 depicts the divine right given by the Virgin Mary to the Spanish navigtors. source.

Because the conquest of the Americas and differing rationales regarding the ethics of doing so set the stage for a major religious debate in Spain, it is necessary to study initial responses to the discovery of this region. First contact with the new world occurred at Hispaniola during Columbus’s first voyage in 1492. According to Jerry Bentley, Spanish contact with the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century displayed the effect of technology and epidemic disease on cross-cultural encounters even before the voyages of Columbus. 1 Alonso de Espinosa, a Spanish chronicler of the African conquest, described the “acknowledged fact… that the wars waged by the Spaniards against the natives of these islands… were unjust and without any reason to support them… If it is said that the Spaniards brought the Gospel, this should have been done by admonition and preaching—not by drum and banner; by persuasion, not by force.” 2 The Spanish use of technology and the disease that followed them to the Americas led to the death of entire indigenous populations. Furthermore, the treatment of the Indians in the Western Hemisphere was described in remarkable similarity to the Canary conquest by Bertolome de Las Casas 3 Economic desire for expansion eclipsed the desire of encomenderos to tend to the basic human rights of the Indians. 4

by Anonymous Aztec Artist

"Cortes Arriving in the New World" by an anonymous Aztec artist c. 1519-22. source.

The report of exploitation of the natives under the encomienda system, as well as the continued use of slave labor as payment for the service of conquistadors, required the monarchs to decide the method by which colonization should take place. On 20 June 1500, the kings officially approved a system of liberty for the Indians, writing to Governor Nicolas de Ovando that he should not use force, but correct the Indians with love “so that they may be converted as rapidly as possible.” 5 The struggle for Spanish leaders to enforce the instruction from the Crown revealed the unwillingness of lay Spaniards to obey, as well us their unpreparedness to evangelize. 6 Initial concerns regarding the morality of creating a work force of islands of people were put to rest by a 1504 junta. Organized by King Ferdinand, it decided authority had been given to the colonists by the Papal bull Eximie devotionis to use the people since the Spaniards arrived at the new territory on Catholic mission. 7 Spanish occupation was one issue, argued Antonio de Montesinos in 1511, but the abuse of power in the implementation of “cruel and horrible servitude” reflected a larger failure to resource Indians with religious instruction. 8 Conquistador Bernal Diaz de Castillo fought in the conquest of Mexico in the early sixteenth century and is frank in recalling that if there was any intent of a Spaniard to serve God in America, it came secondly to a desire to get rich. 9

"Scenes of the Spanish Conquest" by an anonymous Mexican Painter c. 1520s. source.

Laws intended to govern the interactions between colonizers and the new subjects were generally ignored in practice. The 1521 siege of Tenochtitlan, with the slaughtering of the Aztec people in the temple following Cortez’s defeat of Montezuma, revealed the greed of the Spaniards that marched on the city. 10 Elegies on the Fall of the City is a collection by Aztec poets that attempts to convey the sorrow of the defeated and “the trauma of conquest.” 11 Of course, there was a doctrinal loophole that allowed for the brutality in Mexico– the people were engaged in pagan worship and expressed opposition to the Requerimiento of 1513. Drawn up by jurists and theologians in Valladolid, this document asserted that any any deaths resulting from the rejection of Christian evangelization were the fault of the local indigenous population. 12 The low opinion of the Indians held by the Spaniards meant that many were not given the adequate opportunity or instruction by which to choose Christianity. Evangelization and teaching of non-Christians by  any and all Spaniards was an entirely new idea, since the Reconquest of centuries past was carried out more exclusively by the monarchy and its appointees. 13 Just as emphasis grew on the personal responsibility of individuals to participate in and share their faith in New Spain, so did the Iberian Peninsula religiously organize itself to provide for that aim.

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  1. Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 181.
  2. Ibid., 179.
  3. Stafford Poole, trans., In Defense of the Indians (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974).
  4. Lewis Hanke, All Mankind Is One (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 6.
  5. Charles Gibson, The Spanish Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 55.
  6. Hanke, 7.
  7. Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man (London: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 28-30.
  8. Hanke, Lewis and Jane M. Rausch, eds., People and Issues in Latin American History (New York: Markus Wiener Publishing, Inc., 1993), 87-89.
  9. Alfred Percival Maudslay, trans. and ed., The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1908).
  10. Hanke and Rausch, 100-106.
  11. Ibid., 106-109.
  12. Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), 266.
  13. Hanke, 4.

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