by Sanderson Beck
This chapter has been published in the book Latin America & Canada to 1850. For ordering information please click here.
Humans may have lived in the western hemisphere more than fifty thousand years ago as indicated by legends of ancient Lemuria or Mu and Atlantis. A land bridge from Asia to North America was apparently used by migrating hunters between 40,000 and 8,000 BC. The oldest physical evidence by radiocarbon dating is from southern Chile about 33,000 years ago, though some archaeologists dispute this is human evidence. Generally accepted radiocarbon dating goes back about 19,000 years. Paleo-Indian hunting peoples pursued large game between 30,000 and 8,000 BC. Stone artifacts have been found from about 15,000 years ago. Stone spear points indicate that the Clovis people in the New Mexico area were hunting mammoths about 11,000 BC. About 9,000 BC as the glaciers were melting, the climate became warmer and drier. Mexica culture began developing about 7,000 BC. The Mexico area cultivated maize (corn) by 5,000 BC and beans by 4,000 BC. These and squash became the staple foods. Chili peppers and avocados were also domesticated.
Another ancient culture developed between the Andes mountains and the Pacific coast in what is now Ecuador, Peru, and northern Chile. By 4000 BC settlers had established villages cultivating squash, gourds, kidney and lima beans, and cotton. Coincidental with similar activity in Egypt, pyramids were built between 2800 and 2600 BC by progressively filling in the lower rooms of the mounds. These pyramids indicate that there must have been a hierarchy of power, probably associated with religion, that could get workers to construct increasingly large public buildings. Irrigation must have been mastered to support communities in such arid country. About 2000 BC U-shaped buildings were built on top of the mounds at La Galgada. In the second millennium BC pottery became very refined, and intensive farming with corn (maize) developed with an improved variety used in the ninth century BC. Religion became even more important. Burials were deep in the ground with accompanying objects of art, and temples became larger.
The Chavin people apparently worshipped a feline symbol representing
a jaguar or puma. Evidence of bows and arrows have been found,
but the primary weapons were the spear and spear-thrower. To these
people religion seems to have been much more important than war
or widespread trade. Coca plants were grown, and an oracle was
established at Pachacamac and other sites. Trade and communication
seems to have been good along the central Peruvian coast. The
Chavin culture spread from the northern highlands south and, after
a devastating tidal wave inundated the coastal area about 500
BC, into that region following its climatic deterioration. However,
after about two centuries of intensive influence in most areas
the Chavin culture began to fade away. Unfortunately there is
no writing describing this religious movement.
The Olmec culture developed civilization about 1500 BC. These people lived on the southern shore of the Gulf of Mexico where they practiced slash-and-burn farming. They supplemented their diet with deer, wild pigs, and fish. They built with adobe bricks, creating mounds and platforms for the dwellings of the elite who ruled. The Olmecs provided for most of their own needs but traded for obsidian to make cutting blades. They carved jade and stones and are perhaps best known for the colossal heads between five and ten feet tall. These heads, which seemed to be fitted with helmets, remind us today of football helmets, and they may have been used for a ball game that they played as well as for war. Respect for the jaguars of the jungle somehow developed into a powerful religious symbol, and the Olmecs may have been called the people of the jaguar. The terraced platforms eventually became large pyramids.
During the final centuries BC the Olmec culture gradually influenced and became absorbed by other people living nearby. The Izapa lived in the Pacific plain where the prized cacao grew. Izapan art depicts jaguars captured and used in human rituals, bird gods flying, gods in canoes on waves with fish beneath, gods descending headfirst, seated humans tending incense, and a warrior decapitating an enemy.
Pyramids were built in the Chiapas area in the sixth century BC. Pottery found there indicates a diversity of trading partners. A link between the Olmecs and the Maya seems to be the Zoque people who lived there and spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language that has a common origin with Mayan language. As population increased and spread, agricultural land became more valuable. Eventually elite groups of people formed to protect and manage the best land, as indicated by larger temples and funerary constructions. In the south Kaminaljuyu controlled the highland products such as obsidian and jade. Nakbe became a trading center by controlling the ports of the river routes at the base of the Yucatan peninsula in the lowlands. Colha provided quartz chert and Komchen salt. Gradually the Mayans absorbed or replaced the Mixe-Zoqueans and established their authoritarian political institutions with hereditary rulers, who began to commemorate themselves with dates and hieroglyphic texts in the first century BC.
Although they did not use the wheel, metal tools, horses, money, or alphabetic writing, the people in the western hemisphere developed prosperous civilization. In central Mexico by 300 CE the city of Teotihuacan had about 80,000 people. Raids and small wars resulted in captured warriors being ritually sacrificed. Teotihuacan would be a leading power for the next five centuries, though building slowed about 550. Urban dwellers lived as families in large apartment compounds. Obsidian was used for tools and traded. Metals were not used in Mesoamerica until after 800 CE; then gold and silver came from the south. Alloys were not popular until the 13th century. A great goddess was the primary deity in Teotihuacan, though there was also a storm god and the feathered serpent that was to become famous as Quetzalcoatl. Art did not depict human individuals until later during the decline. Much of Teotihuacan was smashed and burned in a major fire about 750. Because foreigners were probably not involved, this was likely a revolution against the ruling elite. Zapotec people in the Oaxaca valley, who seemed to have co-existed peacefully with Teotihuacan for so long, also ended centralized government by 900.
In what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the Mayan populations in the first centuries CE increased and began building monumental temples and tombs. Those at Kaminalijuyu controlled obsidian and jade and dominated the southern area. Others at Nakbe and El Mirador controlled local resources and trade. Powerful hereditary rulers emerged who commemorated their deeds in dated hieroglyphic sculptures. In the third century CE the city of Tikal began building large pyramids. In 378 Great Jaguar Paw recorded the conquest of Uaxactun, where the warrior Smoking Frog was put in charge. Symbols of war and sacrifice were adopted from Teotihuacan icons, and wars were timed according to the planet Venus. The Mayans excelled in mathematics and astronomy; their calendar was extremely accurate. In the late 5th century Kan Boar's portraits abandoned the war and captive motifs of his predecessor Stormy Sky, and Tikal seemed to prosper with some social mobility. However, they were defeated in a war led by Caracol ruler Lord Water in 562. Caracol waged wars for more than a century, also timing their battles to the movements of the planet Venus. Caracol's Lord Kan II claimed to defeat and sacrifice Naranjo captives in 631.
From the mid-7th century until the decline, two centuries of wars occurred as massive fortifications were erected. A Tikal prince founded Dos Pilas about 640, but later he defeated Tikal in two wars. The 25th ruler of Tikal, Shield Skull, was captured and sacrificed by this first Petexbatun ruler in 679 according to the hieroglyphics at Dos Pilas. The second Petexbatun ruler Shield God K (r. 698-727) expanded his kingdom by military force in the southwestern lowlands, while Naranjo's Smoking Squirrel raided the Yaxha region in 710. The third Petexbatun ruler in 735 portrayed the Seibal king beneath his feet and married a princess from Cancuen. Petexbatun power, which controlled the largest lowland Mayan kingdom ever, was suddenly curtailed in 760 when the 4th king after ruling twenty years was captured and sacrificed at Tamarindito, and the capital at Dos Pilas was overcome. The kingdom broke up into warring chiefdoms for a half century, and then the area was abandoned. At Bonampak wall paintings depicted bloody sacrifices of nine captives.
Yaxchilan managed to weather a conflict with Copan west of Petexbatun in 653 and with Palenque the next year as Six Tun Bird Jaguar ruled for half a century until 681; then his son Shield Jaguar II ruled Yaxchilan to 742, claiming he captured five places. Palenque king Pacal reigned from 615 to 683 and only recorded one war in 659 with Yaxchilan. His son Chan-Bahlum (r. 684-702) continued his father's building, as did another son, Kan Xul II (r. 702-25), who was captured in 711 raiding his southern neighbor Tonina. However, Palenque was one of the first cities to collapse, as its last date was recorded in 799. Tikal demonstrated revitalized power in 695 when its 26th ruler Ah Cacau claimed to capture Jaguar Paw of Calakmul. After a reign of half a century Ah Cacau was succeeded by his son in 734; but the power of Tikal gradually declined, and 889 was the last date they recorded. Yaxchilan king Shield Jaguar III recorded several conquests in the last five years of the 8th century, but the last date recorded at Yaxchilan was 808.
In the southeast (Honduras) the people of Copan expanded their territory during the long reigns of Butz Chan (578-628) and Smoke Imix (628-95). Great Copan building was continued by Eighteen Jog (Rabbit); but he was captured and sacrificed in 738 by Quirigua ruler Cauac Sky, who celebrated their increased power by inaugurating a century of building. Copan declined, and its last monument was dated 822. Quirigua's power seems to have been more suddenly eclipsed by occupation, and their last record was in 810. Most of the Mayan cities in the southern and central lowlands declined during the 9th century, and the last known inscriptions of Palenque and Piedras Negras, like those of Yaxchilan, related to military issues. Numerous causes for the decline have been suggested, such as disease, overpopulation, ecological disasters, revolutions, fatalism, wars, conquest by the Putun Maya, and trade isolation. Probably it was some combination of these factors. Yet it can also be argued that the end of the period of massive architecture and inscriptions glorifying their rulers did not mean the end of Mayan civilization but merely the end of an era in which a powerful elite ruled large numbers of peasants. When the large kingdoms broke up, social mobility became more possible.
In the 9th century Seibal was invaded by Putun and Itza Mayans. The Itza Maya began their domination in the northern Yucatan peninsula when, led by a Chontal Mayan named Kakupacal, they occupied Chichen Itza in 850. Kakupacal and others expanded the Itza realm by force and trade. Most of their building was in the late 9th century, but their capital at Chichen Itza thrived until about 1200. In the west the Puuc city of Uxmal was prominent; the Puuc built many causeways between their communities. In the east Coba maintained its independence from Itza incursions and was connected to Yaxuna by a causeway of 100 kilometers. The Itza were driven from the Yucatan area by the Mayapan ruler Hunac Ceel about 1221. Mayapan did without ball courts, sacrifices, sweat baths, and had few religious buildings, as the upper class dealt with commerce. The Quiché Maya left the chronicle, Popol Vuh, which recounted their migration to the north led by Balam Quitze and their conquest of the Pokomam Maya in the east in the 13th century. Quiché Mayans expanded in the 14th century and reached their maximum power in the mid-15th century; but the Cocom dynasty was massacred as Mayapan was destroyed in a revolt led by Ah Xupan Xiu in 1441.
Most archaeologists agree that the Mayans were governed by an elite class. When rivals or enemies from the elite were captured, they were often sacrificed, while most prisoners were probably made slaves, servants, or laborers. Orphans gained by purchase or kidnapping were also used for human sacrifice; slaves were bought and sold. Ceremonies and a ball game played on a court with a rubber ball were very important to the Mayans. According to the Spanish missionary Las Casas, men retired to a special building, and while separated from their wives they fasted and made daily offerings of their blood for up to a hundred days prior to a major festival. The priesthood, like the rulers, was headed by a hereditary elite family, which directed the sun priests, diviners, and seers whose visions were induced by peyote. Others assisted in the human sacrifices that cut out the heart of the victim. Such sacrifices were probably not performed as often as the Aztecs later did. Mayan rituals often focused on the sacred corn (maize).
Later Mayan hunters would pray for understanding before they
would take life or disrupt the forests. These attitudes may have
long endured and might have been learned from the hard experiences
during the decline after population had increased. Later Mayans,
like the Mexican Itza and the Spanish, were criticized in the
Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel for having lost their
innocence in carnal sins, causing lack of judgment, bad luck,
and sickness. The great teachings of heaven and earth had been
lost. Before these came, this author claimed there was no robbery,
greed, tribute, nor violent strife.
Popol Vuh, the Maya Quiché book of counsel containing creation stories and legends, probably developed over centuries and was written down in a Roman alphabet by 1558. The Earth is formed from sky and sea by Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter, Heart of the Lake, Heart of the Sea, and Sovereign Plumed Serpent in discussion with Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, Newborn Thunderbolt, Sudden Thunderbolt, and Hurricane. They sow the earth with seeds that sprout, and their first try produces animals that squawk, chatter, and howl. The second attempt to create humans fails when they dissolve without reproducing. Then they consult the grandmothers Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, a divine matchmaker and a divine midwife. The next people have no hearts and minds and are destroyed in a flood and abused by killer bats and jaguars; for having eaten animals these people are eaten. Their descendants are the monkeys. The second part of Popol Vuh tells how the two divine boys Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeat and destroy Seven Macaw and his two sons, a maker of mountains (Zipacna) and Earthquake, because of their self-magnification and in revenge for the four hundred boys that Zipacna killed.
In the third part ball playing offends the lords of the underworld at Xibalba; so One and Seven Hunahpu journey there to play One and Seven Death. They face several tricks, traps, and tests, and they are buried at the Ball Game Sacrifice; but the head of One Hunahpu causes a calabash tree to bear fruit. Blood Moon becomes pregnant by his skull and escapes sacrifice, returning to Xmucane on Earth to give birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They learn how to overcome the animals that prevent clearing the forest for gardening. Rat helps them find the ball game equipment, and they too are challenged to play at Xibalba. Before they leave, Hunahpu and Xbalanque plant corn as a sign of their death and rebirth. The heroic twins overcome the tricks of Xibalba with the help of mosquito; they lose the game, but ants get them the flowers they wagered. They endure more tests, but a bat cuts off Hunahpu's head, which is replaced by a squash. Playing ball with Hunahpu's head, they knock it out of the court, and a rabbit helps them switch it with a squash. Hunahpu and Xbalanque are ground up and reborn again and finally get the Xibalbans to limit their attacks on humans to those with weaknesses or guilt.
Meanwhile Xmucane mourns the death of the corn and rejoices when it sprouts again. With the corn flour Xmucane makes the first real humans-Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now, and Dark Jaguar, the ancestors of the Quiché people. At first they have complete vision and perfect understanding, but Heart of Sky fogs up their vision so they can see clearly only what is close; they are given beautiful wives, and they multiply. They get fire from Tohil, but he and two other gods are turned to stone when the sun rises for the first time; now the gods can only speak to them in spirit form. Followers of these gods try to appease them by abducting people, sacrificing them, and rolling their heads onto the roads. So the Quiché send two radiant maidens to seduce their three boys. This fails, and the enemy tribes prepare for war. The Quichés are victorious and force the tribes to pay tribute regularly. Rebellions that occur are defeated, and victims are sacrificed. The Quiché king takes the title of Plumed Serpent, and the capital at Rotten Cane has three great pyramids and 23 palaces. Religious retreats involve fruit fasts lasting from 180 to 340 days. Wars occur, ending in tribute, and the lineage is recounted up to the Spanish period.
Cristobal Colon (Christopher COLUMBUS), whose name means “Christ-bearing colonizer,” was born near Genoa in 1451. He became a sailor, navigator, captain, and mapmaker, and after 1480 he dedicated his life to the audacious venture of leading an expedition to explore eastern Asia by sailing west. His proposal was rejected by the Royal Commission of Portuguese king Joao II (r. 1481-95) because they were exploring the route around Africa; also they believed that his estimate of the distance to Japan by going west was much too short. His brother Bartolomé Colon appealed to England's Henry VII without success. Finally in 1492 after the Spanish had defeated the Moors at Granada and expelled them and the Jews from Spain, King Fernando (Ferdinand) and Queen Isabel agreed to finance the bold venture.
Three ships left Palos, Spain on August 3, 1492 and departed from Gomera in the Canary Islands on September 6. Columbus told his crew they were going shorter distances than his own estimate so that they would not be so afraid; but modern scholars have calculated that his false reports were actually more accurate than his own estimates. On October 10 the crews resisted going any further west; but Columbus promised them he would turn back if they did not see land in three days. Two days later they landed on an island he called San Salvador, where they found a few naked Tainos (Arawaks). Taino means "peace" or "friend." Columbus wanted to win them over to the Christian faith and gave them red caps, glass beads, and hawks' bells, for which they received cotton, parrots, and wooden spears in exchange. The natives had no iron, and one cut himself handling the wrong end of a sword. Columbus observed that they were intelligent and believed they would be good Christians and servants. Noticing a golden ornament worn on a nose, he tried to ask them where they found the gold. Columbus forbade his crew from taking things of value from them. On October 14 he took seven of them with him to learn his language, and he wrote in his logbook that fifty of his men could easily subjugate them.
Columbus explored and claimed many islands. Some women wore a piece of cotton over their genitals, but most were naked. Many inhabitants ran away when they saw the Spaniards coming. From Cuba they took a dozen people, including a man who wanted to be with his family. On November 21 Captain Martin Alonzo Pinzon took his ship Pinta to search for gold. Columbus named the large island of Haiti Española (Hispaniola). After one of their interpreters told the fleeing natives that the Christians had come from the sky, they were given hospitality. The local cacique (chief) Guacanagari was carried in a litter and shared with his tribe the food they gave him. On December 24 while Columbus was resting, his flagship Santa Maria was wrecked on a reef; but the natives helped his men salvage all they could. Columbus named the new settlement Navidad, and 39 of his men volunteered to stay there while he returned to Spain. Efforts were being made to find gold, and they were warned about the aggressive Caribs, whom they believed were cannibals. Columbus took over the Niña and met up with Martin Pinzon, who denied he had been collecting gold. Before they departed, a group of Indians charged seven Spaniards, who wounded two of them before the fifty-five natives fled.
Columbus went northeast and found favorable winds; but a storm near the Azores caused them to pray and promise pilgrimages. Half his men on the pilgrimage, dressed only in shirts, were captured by the Portuguese; but Columbus managed to get them back and was received by King Joao II at Lisbon before he returned triumphantly to the Spanish court at Barcelona. According to their agreement, Columbus was recognized as viceroy over the lands he discovered. He promised that they would bring back gold, spices, cotton, mastic, aloes, and slaves. A large expedition with seventeen ships and at least 1,200 men was organized. On May 4, 1493 Pope Alexander VI designated a line 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, giving Portugal discoveries east of it, and Castile those to the west; but the next year Spain agreed in the Treaty of Tordesillas to have the line be 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.
On the second voyage Columbus explored the leeward islands (Antilles), where they found the Caribs treated women cruelly and slaughtered and ate men. When they got back to Navidad, they learned that all the Christians were dead: some died from disease; some seeking gold were killed by Caonabo; and the rest were killed in the village. Guacanagari claimed that he had been wounded, though some doubted his injury. Columbus founded a settlement on the north coast of Española called Isabela. He sent Alonso de Ojeda (Hojeda) with fourteen men to look for gold at Cibao. Captain Antonio de Torres took twelve ships back to Castile with many requests by Columbus. While the Admiral was visiting the gold fields discovered by Ojeda, a plot to overthrow him was organized by Bernal de Pisa, who was caught and imprisoned. The Christians learned that the Tainos had no private property, as they freely took things from each other and shared everything in common. Columbus had Fort Santo Tomas built in the goldfields and put Pedro Margarit in charge.
Many Christians had difficulty adjusting to the tropical diet and became sick; so Columbus left 300 men on the island and sent the rest back to Castile. He put his brother Diego Colon in charge of the council and went off to explore Jamaica and Cuba. Lacking sleep, the Admiral eventually collapsed and returned to Isabela, where he found his brother Bartolomé had arrived. Pedro Margarit, instead of policing the island, let many factions and quarrels spring up in Isabela, where the council would not let him take control. Margarit took a ship back to Castile, allowing the Spaniards to rob and seize whatever women they pleased. In response to these crimes the Magdalena cacique Guatigana executed ten Christians and burned a house with forty sick men. When Columbus came back, he had some of Guatigana's chiefs arrested and sent to Spain; others were punished for having killed Christians.
The four main rulers on the island of Española were Caonabo, Higuanama, Behechio, and Guarionex; under each of these was about seventy caciques. Guacanagari remained loyal to Columbus and asked him to punish Caonabo and Behechio for taking his women. In 1495 the Admiral prepared 200 Christians with twenty horses and hunting dogs for war against about 100,000 Tainos. Bartolomé was appointed adelantado (governor) and commanded half the force. The horses and dogs caused the natives to flee, and many were killed. Most of those captured were executed except for Caonabo and his family; he had been captured earlier by Ojeda, who had tricked him by giving him shiny manacles. Caonabo confessed to murdering the men left at Navidad and died while being shipped to Castile. For a while the Christians were safe, and the natives would even carry them on their shoulders. Columbus believed it was God's providence for so few Christians to dominate the natives in this way. Tainos over age 14 had to pay tribute every three months, either a hawks' bell full of gold or 25 pounds of cotton. In exchange the Spaniards gave them a copper or brass medallion to wear to show they had paid; later the amount of gold required was cut in half. Many Tainos, who failed to pay this tax, had their hands cut off and often bled to death.
Michele de Cuneo reported that in February 1495 Columbus captured 1,600 Tainos and put 550 on ships, though 200 died on the return passage. Columbus claimed that four shiploads sent with Torres that year were cannibal Caribs, and they were sold in Spain as slaves to lessen colonial expenses. According to Peter Martyr, 50,000 Tainos had already died before this from famine, because they destroyed their own crops to discourage the Spaniards from settling on the island. In March 1496 Columbus stopped at the Caribs' islands to plunder food for their voyage back to Spain. On the island of Guadalupe he left some prisoners and gifts to gain good will so that they could use that island for provisions in the future. Las Casas later calculated that by 1496 the Tainos population on Española had been reduced to a third of what it had been. That year Bartolomé Colon recorded that there were more than a million Tainos adults in their domain. Columbus at the port of Cadiz saw three ships led by Pedro Alonso Niño departing in June 1496, and he gave him a letter authorizing him to sell prisoners of war as slaves.
That summer Bartolomé Colon collected 300 "prisoners" and sent them back with Niño's fleet while they built Santo Domingo on the south coast of Española. Bartolomé visited Behechio in Jaragua and allowed him to pay tribute in cotton, cassava, and hemp, because the region had no gold. Meanwhile alcalde mayor (chief magistrate) Francisco Roldan was leading the hungry, lusty, and greedy in a rebellion, because food had not arrived, because they were not allowed to take native women, and because they wanted to seek gold. They plotted to assassinate the adelantado Bartolomé Colon when he was going to hang their friend Barahona; but the sentence was commuted. With 65 men Roldan went to Isabela and took supplies without Diego Colon's permission before heading for Jaragua, where the women were most beautiful and friendly. Roldan's men and Tainos led by Guarionex planned to attack Fort Conception by surprise on the full moon as caciques murdered Christians; but one cacique struck early, and thus Bartolomé was warned. Roldan extorted a gourd full of gold from the cacique Manicaotex. Three ships under Carvajal sent by Columbus directly to Española arrived at Jaragua by mistake, and many were won over to Roldan's conspiracy. Bartolomé used force to subdue Guarionex and burned his villages as punishment.
The third voyage of Christopher Columbus had been delayed in Spain for two years by the hostility of Bishop Fonseca. After exploring the coast of South America, a weary Columbus arrived at Santo Domingo, finding 160 men sick with syphilis. This disease was not known in Europe until 1493. Having only seventy men who could fight, the Admiral summoned Roldan, offered him safe conduct, and agreed they could have ships to leave with their gold, women, and slaves within fifty days. When that could not be fulfilled, Columbus agreed to exonerate Roldan, let him resume his office as chief magistrate, and let his men have free land grants in Jaragua. These were called repartimientos and were the beginning of what became the encomienda system by which natives were "commended" to settlers, who could make them work on the plantations they were given; the encomenderos were also supposed to teach them to be good Christians. The caciques agreed to this in order to avoid paying the hated tribute. In 1498 Columbus shipped six hundred slaves and authorized forced labor in the repartimientos but under their caciques. By the end of 1499 Columbus had learned that there were extensive gold fields in Española.
Columbus had already written to the Spanish sovereigns saying he planned to take as many slaves as he could; now he told them of the rebellion and asked them to send a competent judge. Meanwhile they had authorized Ojeda to visit the mainland Columbus had discovered and which Ojeda named Venezuela, where he found valuable pearl fisheries. The natives asked him to attack their enemy Caribs on the islands, and Ojeda's force of 57 men killed many and captured others with only one Spaniard killed and 21 wounded. When Ojeda arrived in Española, he took wood and tried to take over leadership of the rebellion from Roldan, who now was ordered by the Colon brothers to bring in Ojeda; but the captain avoided capture, filled his ships with slaves, and went back to Spain. Meanwhile Pedro Alonso Niño with one ship managed to get rich taking pearls from Margarita and Cumana. However, Vicente Yañez Pinzon borrowed money at outrageous interest in Palos and discovered Brazil but went broke and almost lost his ships in a lawsuit.
As alcalde, Roldan arrested rebels and condemned Adrian de Mujica to be hanged. This satisfied the Tainos. They obediently went back to digging gold, and many, to please the Admiral, became Christians. The critics of Columbus got King Fernando and Queen Isabel to authorize Francisco de Bobadilla to investigate in Española with power to take over if necessary. When he arrived, he saw hanged Spaniards and stopped Diego Colon from executing other rebels. Diego was put in irons, and Bobadilla took over the governing palace, hearing many testify against the Colons. He tried to gain popularity by reducing the royal share of the gold from one-third to one-eleventh and by letting the Spaniards have their way with the natives. Columbus obeyed his summons and advised Bartolomé to submit also. Bobadilla sent all three Colon brothers back to Spain in chains.
After Columbus was brought to Cadiz, the sovereigns ordered him released from his chains. At their court in Granada they ordered Bobadilla to restore his estate; but Nicolas de Ovando was appointed governor of Española, and Venezuela was assigned to Ojeda and Vicente Yañez Pinzon. Ovando conducted a residencia of Bobadilla, meaning an investigation into his governing in residence, and he arrested chief judge Roldan. Columbus was given permission to go on a fourth voyage of exploration, but he was told to stay away from Española and their enemy, the Portuguese. He took shelter at Santo Domingo from a hurricane and warned Ovando not to send out his fleet. The ships led by Antonio de Torres and carrying Bobadilla were lost; only one ship with Columbus's agent Carvajal and his gold survived the hurricane.
After replacing a ship, Columbus explored what he called Veragua and the Mosquito coast from Panama to the Cape of Honduras. In 1503 he visited a cacique named Quibian, who was captured by Diego Mendez; but he escaped. Their ships became waterlogged from wormholes, and they were marooned at Jamaica. Mendez and Fieschi with six natives managed to take a canoe to Española; but a year went by before Columbus was rescued. Meanwhile the Porras brothers led a mutiny; they tried and failed to leave the island, which they then plundered. To keep the natives providing his men with food, Columbus used an upcoming eclipse of the moon on February 29, 1504 to persuade them that his God would harm them if they did not provide food for them. Columbus returned to Spain, where he died in 1506.
In 1502 captain Ojeda returned to the Gulf of Paria to govern Coquibacoa, where he cut down trees, built a fort, and fought natives. He sent Vergara to Jamaica for supplies; but Vergara and Ocampo resented Ojeda keeping all the gold in a strongbox and took him prisoner to Santo Domingo, where all three were judged. Ojeda appealed to the sovereign and was eventually acquitted.
Governor Ovando arrived in Española in 1502 with 2,500 men on thirty ships. He subjugated the Tainos and strictly disciplined the Spaniards. Although Queen Isabel had instructed Ovando to consider the “Indians” free and not subject to slavery, she wrote they could be compelled to work for wages. Forced labor, diseases such as measles and smallpox, and famine greatly reduced the number of Tainos. Many crops were destroyed as herds of pigs and cattle were brought from Spain. Las Casas described in his history how in Jaragua Behechio’s widow Anacaona tried hard to help the Spaniards; but Ovando believed that she was plotting revolt. He had her hanged and burned eighty caciquesalive in a house. After dogs killed their cacique, natives in Higuey and Saona killed eight Spaniards in a boat. Juan de Esquivel was sent with four hundred men and slaughtered the natives, killing six hundred in one house. Even Las Casas could not describe the extermination. By the end of 1504 a royal order allowed Spaniards to compel natives to work but for wages, not as slaves.
In 1505 the first Spanish-speaking African slaves were brought to Española. A royal letter in 1509 decreed that natives were only to be compelled to work for one or two years, not for life. That year, before he was succeeded by Diego Colon, son of Columbus, Ovando sent Sebastian de Ocampo to reconnoiter Cuba. Only 60,000 Tainos were counted in 1509, and in 1514 a repartimiento, based on a census that recorded 22,726 (not counting slaves), was ordered by treasurer Miguel de Pasamonte. Large grants were given to absentee landlords such as Bishop Fonseca, royal secretary Lope de Conchillos, and others. According to the crown’s records, about a ton of gold per year was mined in Española between 1504 and 1519.
On his third voyage Ojeda was paired with the courtier Diego de Nicuesa. In 1509 Nicuesa captured a hundred natives from the island of Santa Cruz and sold them as slaves on Española. Because Ojeda and Nicuesa were using Jamaica to supply Venezuela, Diego Colon sent Juan de Esquivel to seize it; but Jamaica did not produce gold, and settlers left. Ojeda explored Cartagena with four ships and three hundred men; Juan de la Cosa had been there eight years earlier with Bastides, and he warned Ojeda that the natives were warlike and used poisoned arrows. Ojeda had friars read a proclamation that they were a conquering people of the Catholic faith and that the pope had given their king this land and all its inhabitants; if they did not accept this religion, they would be attacked and made slaves. Ojeda led an expedition inland and alone survived, losing all his men, including the veteran Juan de la Cosa. Nicuesa had fallen out with Ojeda but helped him get revenge against these natives and got enough gold from the venture to give his men 7,000 castellanos each. (100 castellanos were equal to one pound of gold.)
Ojeda founded a mainland colony called San Sebastian and built a stockade. Wondering if Ojeda was invincible, natives ambushed him and shot a poisoned arrow into his thigh; but he ordered a doctor to cauterize the wound with a red-hot iron and survived. Men on Española led by Talavera stole a Genoese ship and took Ojeda captive; but they needed him to navigate in a storm. They were not able to make it back to Española and landed on Cuba, where they hiked through swamps and lost half the men. Ojeda prayed to the virgin Mary, using a painting, and built a chapel for the relic at the native village which saved his exhausted men. Eventually Ojeda made it back to Santo Domingo, and in 1515 he died in a monastery. Diego Colon had pirates arrested in Jamaica and hanged for stealing a ship.
Nicuesa explored the isthmus of Panama. In 1510 Bachelor Enciso sailed to find Ojeda and discovered that debtor Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had stowed away on board. Enciso learned of graveyards at Zenu and went there to steal the gold and gems. He read a proclamation Ojeda had used which had been drawn up by Spanish jurists. The natives replied that they agreed there is one God, but they thought the pope and the Spanish king must have been drunk or mad to think their country was given to them. They warned they would cut off his head if he tried to do this, showing them a row of enemy heads on poles. Enciso attacked them; but two of his men, wounded by arrows, died from the poison. They went back to San Sebastian, where Enciso’s ship was wrecked, and he had to join the ship of Francisco Pizarro. Balboa said he had been with Bastides and guided them to the lucrative and fertile Darien, where the warriors did not use poison. The caciqueZemaco with 500 warriors attacked them but was defeated by Enciso and his men. Enciso forbade private trafficking in gold and became so unpopular that he was deposed; Balboa and Zamudio were elected. When Nicuesa came there and tried to take the gold, he was refused and, given the worst vessel, sailed away in March 1511 never to be heard of again.
Learning of gold, Governor Ovando in 1509 had authorized Juan Ponce de Leon to begin settlements on San Juan (Puerto Rico), where Caribs were distributed to Spaniards in repartimientos. The cacique Agueybana led a revolt. His sister loved Cristoval de Sotomayor and warned him; but their native guides murdered him and four other Spaniards. Spanish villages were burned, and a hundred inhabitants were massacred. Ponce de Leon had less than a hundred men in a fort; but he was reinforced from Española, and they defeated five thousand warriors, killing Agueybana. Put to work in the mines, a population estimated at 60,000 was reduced to 14,636 by 1515.
In 1510 the Spanish government ordered agents in Seville to send 250 slaves to the gold mines in Española. Slave raiding was authorized in the Bahamas to replace the dwindling labor supply on Española. The Spaniards had servants, whom they did not call slaves.
As early as 1509 King Fernando had ordered that no official should prevent anyone from sending him information concerning the welfare of those in the new world. In December 1511 Fray Antonio Montesinos preached a sermon at Santo Domingo in which he warned the conquistadors they were all in mortal sin because of the cruel way they were oppressing innocent people. He asked them,
Tell me, by what right do you hold these Indians
in such cruel and horrible servitude?
By what authority did you make unprovoked war
on these people, living in peace and quiet on their land,
and with unheard-of savagery
kill and consume so great a number of them?
Why do you keep them worn out and down-trodden,
without feeding them or tending their illnesses,
so that they die—or rather you kill them—
by reason of the heavy labor you lay upon them,
to get gold every day?
What care do you take to have them taught
to know their God and Maker, to be baptized,
to hear Mass and keep their Sundays and holy days?
Are they not men? Have they no soul, no reason?
Are you not required to love them as you love yourselves?
Do you understand this? Do you not feel it?
How can you be sunk so deep in unfeeling sleep?1
The audience was affected but not converted, and they complained to Diego Colon, insisting that the following Sunday the Dominican friar should retract what he had said. Fray Montesinos agreed to try but preached another strong sermon the next week. So they wrote to the King. In March 1512 Fernando ordered governor Diego Colon to restrain Montesinos, and Dominican superior Alonso de Loaysa commanded the Dominicans to stop preaching that doctrine. A royal response justifying the encomenderos was probably written by Bishop Fonseca.
Montesinos and the Franciscan Alonso del Espinal persuaded King Fernando to order theologians and jurists to formulate new laws. Friar Matias de Paz argued Indians must be free persons; but he believed that wars and enslavement could be used if they refused to become Christians. Palacios Rubios held that Pope Alexander VI in 1493 had given the natives to Spain to make them Christians; but they should not be mistreated. The Laws of Burgos promulgated at the end of 1512 mandated humane treatment of natives but allowed coercion to make them work. The encomienda system was ratified, and the natives were to live in new houses as their old ones were burned. They were to be taught to be Christians, forbidden to dance, but persuaded to marry. They could be allowed to live under their own government but must pay feudal dues to Spain. One-third of them may work in the gold mines. The next year a Clarification to the Laws of Burgos said the natives could be compelled to work nine months each year, and they must also work the other three months for wages or on their own farms.
In 1511 Diego de Velazquez began the conquest of Cuba, and he had a fort built at Baracoa. Young Bartolomé de Las Casas accompanied Panfilo de Narvaez on the invasion of the eastern end of Cuba, where Taino chief Hatuey had fled from Spanish oppression. According to Las Casas, Hatuey warned the Cubeños that the Spaniards would kill for gold and jewels. Although they claimed to adore a God of peace and equality, they usurped land and made people slaves. Hatuey led a guerrilla campaign against the intruders for three months. After he was betrayed and captured, the Spaniards burned him at the stake on 2 February 1512 as he refused to accept the religion of hypocrites. Seven thousand naked natives attacked the forces of Narvaez to steal clothes and other things. Narvaez terrified them with his horse, and they fled. To lessen conflict, parson Las Casas persuaded Narvaez to let the natives abandon half their houses to his settlers. In one incident a hundred Spaniards killed hundreds of natives, but Las Casas managed to save forty porters. In 1513 Amador de Lares got permission to import four African slaves from Española.
Velazquez was not authorized to assign native Cubeños to the conquistadors as workers. Nonetheless Francisco Morales captured some in his district, and in the conflict some Christians were killed. Velazquez sent Morales to be tried by Diego Colon at Española. The partisans of Morales wanted to send Velazquez’s secretary, Hernando Cortes, to Santo Domingo, but the Governor learned of it and put the future conqueror of Mexico in prison. Friends of Cortes persuaded Velazquez to pardon him, and Cortes began accumulating his fortune by marrying Catalina Xuares. Velazquez reluctantly assigned Cubeños to his men, and the repartimiento system of forced labor began in Cuba. Velazquez was wise enough to have crops planted while they were washing for gold. By 1515 Velazquez had established seven towns including Havana and Santiago de Cuba. One-fifth of the gold sent to Spain in the first four years amounted to 12,437 pesos. Spaniards at Santiago ventured on man-hunting expeditions, and one raided islets of Yucutan in 1516. In Cuba 300 slaves arrived to work in the gold mine at Jaugua in 1520.
Hearing of a fountain that makes people younger, Ponce de Leon discovered Florida on Palm Sunday in 1512. In 1515 King Fernando sent him to kill the cannibal Caribs; but most of his men were killed, as the Caribs carried off the women to the mountains. Ponce de Leon retired from military campaigning but remained governor of Puerto Rico. Learning in 1521 that Florida was part of the mainland, he ventured there again with eighty men but died on his way back in Cuba.
Factional Spaniards at Darien elected Balboa, who found Enciso guilty and sent him back to Spain with alcalde Zamudio. The Darien cacique Zemaco ambushed the Spaniards, but Francisco Pizarro and his men killed many as the rest fled. Balboa made Pizarro go back to get a wounded man. Two criminals had escaped punishment by Nicuesa and lived with the native Coyba cacique Careta. One told Balboa that Careta was hiding treasure. After the cacique and his family were captured, Careta offered to be Balboa’s friend and gave him his daughter. Balboa helped the Coyba defeat their enemy, the Ponca. The Comagre tribe gave Balboa 4,000 ounces of gold and sixty captive slaves; after taking one-fifth of the gold for the crown, Balboa shared the rest with his men. Balboa sent Valdivia to Española for supplies and wrote asking Diego Colon to send 1,000 men for an expedition to discover the southern sea.
After another attack from Zemaco, Balboa had a fortress built at Darien in 1512. A mutiny over gold division was suppressed; but after Balboa was recognized as governor by Diego Colon, Balboa pardoned them. Learning that Enciso was accusing him in Spain, Balboa took 190 men and a thousand natives with guides to cross the mountains. Ponca foe Quaraqua attacked them, but Spanish firearms, swords, and dogs killed 600 of his men; Balboa had about forty homosexual men in Quaraqua’s harem torn apart by dogs for sodomy. In January 1513 Balboa wrote a letter to King Fernando criticizing Diego de Nicuesa and Alonzo de Ojeda for causing perdition and making the following claim for himself:
I have taken care that the Indians of the land
are not ill-treated, permitting no man to injure them
and giving them many things from Castile,
whereby they may be drawn into friendship with us.
The honorable treatment of the Indians has been the cause
of my learning great secrets from them.2
On 25 September 1513 Balboa was perhaps the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The cacique Chiapes gave him 500 pounds of gold, and Tumaco gave him more gold and pearls. Balboa had the chief Poncra and three others killed by dogs because their enemies said they were plotting against him. He extorted even more gold from cacique Tubanama.
King Fernando sent Pedro Arias de Avila (Pedrarias Davila) to govern Golden Castile (as Darien was called) and to investigate Balboa. After learning about Balboa’s achievements two thousand men joined the expedition, but no lawyers were allowed. Franciscan friar Juan de Quevedo was appointed bishop and Gaspar de Espinosa alcalde mayor. The large enterprise was delayed until 1514 while Martin Fernandez de Enciso persuaded the royal council that God had given Spain the Indies just as the Jews had been given the promised land. El Requerimiento was formulated and was later proclaimed by conquistadors to justify their domination of natives. After explaining the Catholic religion, the sovereignty of the king and queen, and promising to treat them with love and charity if they accept their authority, this Requirement threatened the natives as follows:
But if you do not do thus, or maliciously delay to do it,
I certify to you that with the help of God
I will invade your lands with a powerful force,
and will make war upon you in all parts,
and in every manner in my power,
and will subject you to the yoke
and obedience of the Church and their highnesses;
and I will take your persons,
and those of your wives and children,
and will make them slaves,
and as such will sell them and dispose of them
as their highnesses shall order;
and I will take your property,
and I will do you all possible harm and evil,
as to vassals who do not obey or recognize their lord,
but who resist and oppose him.
And I protest that the deaths and damage
which from such conduct may result will be at your charge
and not at that of their highnesses, nor at mine,
nor at that of the gentlemen who come with me.3
Balboa submitted to a residencia in 1515 and had to pay a fine. In one month 700 of the greedy adventurers died of hunger and disease; others were sent back to Spain. The rapacious Juan de Ayores oppressed the natives while trying to find gold. At Dobayba a hundred Spaniards died, and Balboa was wounded. King Fernando proclaimed Balboa adelantado of the South Sea and governor of Panama and Coyba; but the resentful Garabito persuaded Pedrarias to arrest Balboa. Pizarro led an expedition after pearls to the Isla Rica that killed 700 natives in one battle. Bishop Quevedo persuaded Pedrarias not to send Balboa back to Spain but to betroth his daughter to Balboa. In 1516 Balboa managed to transport materials to build ships for exploring the Pacific, though Bishop Quevedo reported that more than 500 Indians died on the journey. Garabito used Balboa’s native paramour to turn Pedrarias against him, and Pizarro arrested Balboa at Acla. He was tried before Espinosa for mistreating Enciso and Nicuesa; despite his popularity among his men, Balboa and three other officers were beheaded at the insistence of Pedrarias in 1517.
By 1515 most of the islands of the Caribbean were being exploited, and the Bahamas had been depopulated. Las Casas told how these innocent Lucayos were persuaded to leave their island so they could visit the souls of their ancestors. Many died and were thrown into the sea. Divers were used to gain precious pearls. The need for labor led the Spaniards to import African slaves even though they had to go through Seville because of the Treaty of Alcaçovas with the Portuguese.
When King Fernando died in 1516, Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros became regent for the mad Queen Juana; Las Casas persuaded him to replace Fonseca and appoint three Jeronymite monks to govern the Indies. They attempted to apply the Laws of Burgos that had been formulated in 1512, demanding that Christians injuring the Indians be punished by their judges and that Indians should be accepted as witnesses. Jiménez urged the Spaniards to marry native princesses (cacicas). Las Casas was appointed Protector of the Indians with a salary and the lawyer Zuazo to conduct residencias of the judges. The only proposal by Las Casas that was implemented was the one he regretted, allowing African slaves to relieve the burden on the Indians. In 1517 the first contract to import 4,000 African slaves in eight years was made. That year an official inquiry concluded that the Indians were not capable of living in freedom, though one Dominican believed they could. Las Casas had to flee Española to avoid being arrested. Jiménez died in 1518. A smallpox epidemic from Europe exterminated the remaining natives on Española and spread to Cuba in 1519. The Jeronymites were recalled, and Bishop Fonseca was again in charge. Rodrigo de Figueroa headed another investigation and in 1520 was instructed to give Indians their freedom; but he found that the natives with little help failed to provide for themselves. The declining gold industry was replaced mostly by sugar plantations. The first sugar mill had been built on Española in 1516. In 1520 officials in Española requested permission for sugar to be traded directly within the Spanish empire without having to go through Seville.
After Balboa was executed, the friars of St. Jerome ordered Pedrarias to obey the town council of Darien. Bishop Quevedo in Spain testified against Balboa and Pedrarias. In November 1521 Darien’s council allowed the historian Oviedo to implement major reforms that included prohibiting gambling, blasphemy, keeping mistresses, employing native women for bearing burdens, and enslaving their children; he promoted construction and increased prosperity. Oviedo also quelled a native rebellion. Pedrarias had him arrested and tried. Oviedo paid a fine, but after an attempt on his life he went back to Spain.
Pedrarias disobeyed the royal order to deliver Balboa’s ships to Gil Gonzalez for an expedition in the South Sea. Gonzalez had ships built and was able to gain gold and converts mostly by diplomatic means. The chief Nicoya sent him on to Chief Nicaragua, who asked difficult questions. Why did the Christian God not make a better world? Is the soul immortal after it leaves the body? Are the pope and king of Spain immortal? Why do Christians love gold so much? Nicaragua agreed to give up his idols and become a Christian, and thousands followed his example. Diriangen, however, attacked the Spaniards with three thousand men; yet three horses enabled the conquistadors to scatter them. Panama governor Pedrarias wanted to kill the cacique Urraca, who was invited to Nata and treacherously captured, but he escaped. Urraca then led a war against the invaders that lasted nine years.
After Cortes conquered Mexico in 1521, he sent his lieutenant general Pedro de Alvarado to invade Guatemala with 120 horses, 420 soldiers, and 20,000 natives. The lord of Tehuantepec capitulated right away; but the wealthier lord of Tutupec resented this and attacked his neighbor. Tehuantepec appealed to Cortes, and in 1522 Alvarado helped them defeat the Tutupec. In early 1524 Alvarado moved into Soconusco. Tecum Umam led the ancient Quiché (Mayans); but their army was defeated when Alvarado slew that chief with a lance. Four captured chiefs of Xelahuh were baptized, freed, and sent out to convert others. Quichés in their capital at Utatlan invited the Spaniards to dine and plotted to burn their city; but Alvarado avoided the trap and defeated them, burning their city and destroying their crops as punishment. At the Cakchiquel capital of Patinamit their king Sinacam gave Alvarado gold and festive hospitality, asking him to subjugate the Zutugils, whose ruler at Atitlan had already slain four messengers sent by Alvarado. After capturing a stronghold, the Castilians found Atitlan abandoned. Alvarado fell in love with Sinacam’s wife, arrested the king, and extorted more gold.
Next Pedro de Alvarado and his men invaded the region they called Salvador and exterminated tens of thousands of natives; most towns had to be subjugated again. In the summer of 1524 Cakchiquel nobles revolted. Alvarado even tore the golden ornaments from the noses of Sinacam and two princes, demanding more gold and silver within five days. The Quichés and Zutugils were even more devastated by the Castilian oppressors. The Spaniards founded a city called Santiago, and Alvarado appointed his brother Gonzalo alguacil mayor. Gonzalo de Alvarado took charge of conquering Mixco, Chignauta, and the Zacatepecs in 1525. He governed so badly that another revolt by the Cakchiquels had to be suppressed. Pedro de Alvarado returned from Spain to govern Guatemala, Chiapas and other territories; but he was put on trial in 1529 for embezzlement, cruelty, and illegal warfare. They agreed on a compromise, and he continued to govern.
Mexico’s governor Cortes sent Cristobal de Olid to explore Honduras in 1524, but the latter accepted money and men from Cuba’s governor Velazquez, who felt Cortes had betrayed him. Gil Gonzalez gave way before the powerful Olid. When Cortes learned that Olid was disloyal, he sent Francisco de las Casas to Honduras. Olid arrested Gonzalez and Casas but let them dine with him. One night they grabbed and stabbed Olid, executing him and his deserting lieutenant Briones before sailing for Mexico. Cortes was leading an expedition in an arduous trek through forests, building impressive bridges to cross rivers and struggling with starvation as local natives avoided them. When captains on one of his ships at sea fought each other, the natives rebelled and killed the Spaniards, causing many in Mexico to believe that Cortes was dead, especially after Ordaz went and saw the evidence of the slaughter. Cortes was warmly welcomed at Trujillo. When he heard bad news from Mexico, he sent an envoy, who reversed the situation. Cortes sent Sandoval to open a road to Nicaragua, but soon they went back to Mexico on the ship of Diego Altamirano, leaving Saavedra to govern Honduras.
Spaniards in the territory of Nicaragua came into conflict in 1524 when Gil Gonzalez attacked Hernando de Soto, who had been sent by Hernandez de Cordoba on behalf of Pedrarias. Cordoba thought he could claim Nicaragua for himself and imprisoned Soto, who escaped and reported this to Pedrarias in Panama. This aged governor organized a large fleet and had Cordoba beheaded. Pedrarias sent Hurtado and Rojas into the Olancho valley, where they routed the followers of Saavedra. Natives, reacting to the cruelty of Pedrarias, attacked them and killed sixteen, including Hurtado and Grijalva. In 1526 Pedro de los Rios arrived as the new governor of Golden Castile, seizing the estates and encomiendas of Pedrarias and starting his residencia investigation the following February.
King Carlos (Charles) V ordered the Spaniards not to fight each other, and he appointed Diego Lopez de Salcedo governor of Honduras. Saavedra and others were deported; but after a mutiny at sea they escaped to Cuba. When Salcedo ruled harshly by hanging and enslaving natives, they withdrew supplies, destroyed their crops, burned their villages, and fled to the mountains. Salcedo also began ruling Nicaragua in 1527 and alienated the settlers by taking over their slaves. When Rios arrived there, Salcedo ordered him to leave and even had a town destroyed for giving him hospitality. Pedrarias came in 1528 and had Salcedo imprisoned for ten months. Martin Estete supported Pedrarias but treated the natives so cruelly that after he left, they revolted. Historian Oviedo reported that Pedrarias had seventeen caciques torn apart by dogs one at a time in an arena. Estete tried to explore Salvador but was chased out by Guatemala governor Jorge de Alvarado. Pedrarias finally died in 1530.
Factions continued conflicts in Honduras, and Nicaragua governor Francisco de Castañeda promoted slave hunting. Rodrigo de Contreras became governor of Nicaragua in 1532. The reformer Bartolomé de Las Casas and King Carlos caused Contreras to cancel an expedition in 1536, though the Governor expelled the reformer. In 1542 the New Laws ordered those in Nicaragua to surrender their encomiendas, and two years later Antonio de Valdivieso became bishop of Nicaragua. Contreras had tried to avoid the law by giving his encomiendas to his wife; he and his relatives were accused of owning a third of the province. Complaints mounted up, and in 1548 licentiate Alonso Lopez de Cerrato arrived to investigate with a residencia. Contreras left for Spain and did not return. In 1550 his sons, Hernando and Pedro, aimed to take back power by force of arms, and Hernando murdered Bishop Valdivieso. Pedro Contreras with fifty men seized the ships in the Panama harbor. They tried to steal eleven million castellanos that licentiate Gasca was taking from Peru to Spain; but their forces led by Juan Bermejo were defeated.
Carlos V appointed Yucatán governor Francisco de Montejo to rule Honduras, and he suppressed a native rebellion in 1537 that ended when its chief Lempira died. Cristobal de Pedraza became bishop of Honduras and made contracts to gain African slaves for work in the mines; he was strongly criticized for this by Nicaragua bishop Valdiviez. A new audiencia was named Panama in 1538.
In Guatemala after Pedro de Alvarado died in 1541, his widow Beatriz was elected governor. She died, and in 1542 her brother Francisco de la Cueva and Bishop Marroquin were elected co-governors. Marroquin and his relatives and friends held a third of all the encomiendas in the province; so he and Pedraza resisted the reforms. Bartolomé de Las Casas had recommended that Alonso de Maldonado be appointed president of the new Audiencia of the Confines, and the viceroy of New Spain made Maldonado governor of Guatemala; but in 1545 he got the New Laws repealed, and later the repartimientos were made perpetual for the colonists. Meanwhile Fray Luis Cancer had continued the work of peaceful conversion in Vera Paz since 1541, but in 1546 Spaniards entered the region to impose tribute and make slaves. Cancer complained that 700 slaves were taken from Tuzulutlan alone, and the tributes were intolerable. The next year he and Las Casas returned to Spain. Las Casas threatened bishops Marroquin and Pedraza with excommunication, and in 1548 he got Alonzo Lopez de Cerrato appointed president of the Audiencia of the Confines to judge a residencia of the removed Maldonado. In 1549 Bishop Maldonado founded a hospital in Santiago. That year a royal cédula decreed that natives should not be used as bearers except in emergencies and for pay.
Reform came in 1555 when Dr. Antonio Rodriguez de Quesada succeeded Cerrato in Guatemala, and licentiate Cavallon became alcalde mayor of Nicaragua. They encountered opposition from the settlers, who pressured them to fight the rebellion of the tribes in Lacandones. When Quesada died in 1558, Pedro Ramirez became commander of the army. A thousand Indians helped them invade the region and take 150 prisoners. Even the native governor of Vera Paz entered Acala to punish those who had murdered two priests. Licentiate Juan de Caballon had crushed a rebellion led by Juan Gaitan in 1554, and six years later he joined with priest Juan de Estrada de Rabago to fight rebelling natives in Nicaragua. In 1562 Juan Vazquez Coronado became alcalde mayor of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and by pacifying the natives he earned the governorship of both provinces. In 1564 the Dominican Laurencio persuaded the Puchutlas to settle in Vera Paz.
Fray Pedro Alonzo de Betanzos learned twelve Indian dialects and helped pacify Nicaragua and Costa Rica by not letting soldiers accompany him; after thirty years of this missionary work he died of fever in 1570.
Runaway slaves called cimarrones rebelled in Panama led by Bayano in 1554 and fought from the mountains until they were allowed to be free men in 1570. Another rebellion broke out, and cimarrones joined buccaneers in 1596. John Hawkins traded slaves and was attacked by Spaniards at San Juan de Ulua in 1568. Francis Drake got revenge by capturing merchandise worth 100,000 pesos at Venta Cruces in 1571 and by attacking Nombre de Dios the next year. After being informed by cimarrones, he marched to the city of Panama. He shared the gold they captured with his French allies and returned to England the next year. In 1576 John Oxenham captured Spanish ships in the Gulf of Panama; but Loarte defeated him, and most of his men were hanged. Commerce in Panama declined because Spain protected its own monopolies on wine and tobacco. Africans had been imported to dive for pearls, but these treasures were exhausted. Mining reached its peak in 1570, but by 1580 only four mines remained in Panama. Efforts to build defenses culminated by the end of the century after the death of Drake.
In Española water-powered sugar mills called ingenios replaced horse-powered mills, and by 1523 Jamaica had thirty ingenios. Slaves revolted on Española in 1522, but the next year Carlos V authorized the importation of 4,000 African slaves from the Portuguese Guinea coast into Spanish dominions—1,500 to Española, 500 to Puerto Rico, 300 to Jamaica, and 300 to Cuba, which requested 700 more in 1528. Puerto Rico also developed sugar plantations and had a slave rebellion in 1527. Diego Colon was divested of his authority by the Council of the Indies in 1523 and tried to regain it until his death in 1526, the year Dominican cardinal Garcia de Loaysa called a special session of the Indies Council with Carlos V at the Alhambra. In their “Ordinances on discoveries and good treatment of the Indians” they ordered conquistadors to read the Requirement and take along two clergy approved by the Council to instruct and protect natives. Anyone fighting an unjust war against natives was to lose his contract. San Juan, Puerto Rico, was protected by the nearby Santa Catalina fortress that was completed in 1540, when they began building the El Morro Castle.
The Dominican college at Santo Domingo became a university in 1538. In 1574 the death penalty was decreed for free mulattoes or Africans inciting slaves to escape while the penalty for Spaniards was reduced to banishment. Las Casas estimated that Española alone had imported 30,000 slaves by 1540, and 2,000 slaves per year were being imported in 1552. These are the “legal trade” figures, but that year an official estimated that the number smuggled was twice that amount.
Velazquez became wealthy governing Cuba and died in 1524; he was succeeded by his cousin Manuel de Rojas. Municipal councils had been increasing their powers. In 1525 the Santiago Council refused to allow the acting governor to attend their sessions, and three years later they petitioned Emperor Carlos V to let each town elect a council and proctor. A smallpox epidemic devastated Cubeños in 1528, and in October 1529 a revolt killed nine or ten conquistadors. When Gonzalo de Guzman was appointed repartidor, Fray Pedro Mexia de Trillo went to the audiencia of Española in May 1527 to protect the native Cubeños. Guzman argued that the natives were not fit for responsibility and reported to the crown that they were in rebellion. Carlos V declared they were not slaves but encomendados that should be given food, clothing, and not be overworked. Cuba bishop Miguel Ramirez was named their protector. Rojas reported that Spanish mistreatment caused the revolt of the Cubeños.
After 1527 half of the Africans imported to the Indies were required to be females, and in 1531 the crown ordered that royal revenues be invested in African slaves to be distributed among the settlers. African slaves in the Jobabo mines revolted in November 1533, and four died defending themselves. Rojas reluctantly gave his authority over to the appointed Guzman in October 1535. Hernando de Soto took the wealth he gained in Peru to the court in Spain and was made governor of Cuba in 1537. He arrived at Santiago in June 1538 with 600 men, and that year French pirates with the help of local slaves burned Havana. In May 1539 Soto launched his expedition from Havana to explore Florida. With few soldiers left in eastern Cuba, the natives rebelled and were joined by Africans. The absent Soto was finally replaced when Juanes de Avila arrived in 1544. The crown had forbade using natives in the mines, but this had been overruled in the council for the Indies in 1543. Governor de Avila proclaimed that natives were not to be forced to work except when “necessary” and for a proper wage. De Avila created monopolies for his own profit, accepted bribes, and intimidated people. He was investigated by a commission and replaced by Antonio Chaves in 1546. Chaves did not enforce the laws protecting the natives and was reprimanded by King Carlos. Dr. Gonzalo Perez de Angulo was made governor in 1549, and Chaves was sent back to Spain as a prisoner. Increasing slavery discouraged democracy, and in 1550 the last conference of proctors was held in Santiago, Cuba. Angulo declared the native Cubeños free, but in 1556 their numbers were estimated at only two thousand. The next year the Havana Council prohibited Africans from selling tobacco or wine.
Bartolomé de Las Casas was born in 1484 and grew up in Seville, where he witnessed the triumphant return of Columbus in 1493. His father and three uncles accompanied Columbus on his second voyage. When his father returned in 1498 on a ship loaded with slaves, he gave one of them to Bartolomé during his college years at Salamanca. The slave was returned to Española in accordance with the royal order of 1500. Bartolomé accompanied his father to Española in 1502. After the massacre at Jaragua, Governor Ovando gave Bartolomé a slave. Las Casas later described the misery and early deaths of the slaves who worked in the mines. He went to Spain to assist Bartolomé Colon and was ordained a priest at Rome in 1507. After studying canon law for two years, Las Casas sailed back to Española with Admiral Diego Colon, who gave him land in Cibao with a repartimiento (allotment) of Indians. In 1513 he joined Diego Velazquez in the conquest of Cuba under Panfilo de Narvaez, trying to pacify the natives. Las Casas observed Spaniards massacre three thousand natives at Caonao after they had brought food to share with the Christians. He left Narvaez and was given an encomienda near the port of Xagua. Once he was even refused the sacrament by a Dominican because he held slaves.
While preparing a sermon in 1514 and reading the Wisdom of Sirach 34:18-22 in which denying the laborer his wages is compared to shedding the blood of a neighbor, Las Casas had a change of heart, realizing that the treatment of the natives was unjust and tyrannical. He informed Velazquez that he was renouncing his Indians, and he began to give sermons against the robbery and wrongs of the Spaniards, telling his congregation that it was sinful to make the Indians serve them. Las Casas returned to Spain in 1515 with Antonio Montesinos to report to King Fernando on the evils he witnessed. He presented his Memorial de remedios to Cardinal Cisneros on how Spaniards and Indians could live together. This visionary document was passed from regent Adrian of Utrecht to Erasmus and Thomas More, who applied its ideas in his Utopia.
In 1516 Las Casas was appointed Protector of the Indians and tried to influence the Jeronymite commissioners, but his zeal met determined resistance from the Spaniards who exploited the labor of the natives. When he told Bishop Fonseca of Burgos that seven thousand Cuban children had died of starvation in three months because their parents had been taken to work in the mines, Fonseca asked how that concerned him or the king. The next year Las Casas proposed an experiment to settle Venezuela with farmers that would work all the natives in common under his rules. Twenty African slaves were to be put in the mines in place of the Indians, and only priests properly educated in his methods were allowed. The community was to be assisted by 74 officials with various technical skills, and 6,600 castellanos were to be spent on supplies per year. In 1518 a royal order authorized establishing the villages; but because of opposition Las Casas had trouble getting volunteers. Most of those rounded up by Captain Berrio fell ill, and the attempted colonization was delayed for 3 years.
In 1519 Bishop Juan de Quevedo, using Aristotle as his authority, argued that Indians are slaves by nature. The aristocratic Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo, the first official historian of the Indies, seemed to agree, but Las Casas kept this history from being printed. He suggested more Arthurian ideals dubbed Knights of the Golden Spur. Opposed by Bishop Fonseca, Las Casas selected seventy laborers and went to Cumana in 1521; but some soldiers refused to serve under him and went off slave hunting. This caused the Guayqueri on the Venezuela coast to call on Caribs; they burned the monastery, killed some Dominicans, and massacred the colony while Las Casas was away. He blamed himself for compromising with the slave-hunters. Drunken natives used poisoned arrows, and in revenge Spaniards enslaved 600 of them in two months. The frustrated Las Casas joined the Dominican order and retreated into a monastery on Española for many years. He became prior of a new monastery on the northern coast in 1526 and observed the dying slaves that were being brought from the Bahamas. He wrote reports to Spain and influenced legislation to suppress slavery.
In 1533 Las Casas persuaded a dying encomendero to free his slaves and leave his goods as reparation. As a result of this, pressure was put on his superior to confine him to the monastery. Las Casas accepted the submission of a “rebel” cacique named Enriquillo, who had been educated in a Franciscan convent. After the encomendero Valenzuela raped his wife, Enriquillo complained to Valenzuela and the governor’s agent; but they only threatened him with punishment. He went to the Audiencia, which did no more than send him back with a letter. After more abuses and brutalities, Enriquillo withdrew to the mountains. He and other Indians defended themselves against the soldiers sent against them, taking their weapons. Enriquillo never let his men attack Spaniards first and ordered all prisoners disarmed and released. After 13 years the colony had spent 80,000 castellanos trying to capture them. Finally Fray Remigio persuaded Enriquillo they could be friends with the Spaniards, and Enriquillo gave them gold but had to flee again from their treachery. Enriquillo died soon after he agreed to accompany Las Casas to the town of Azua.
Las Casas worked as a missionary in Central America. In 1536 he refused to join an expedition under Captain Diego Machuca de Zuazo and denied absolution to those participating because he believed the conquest ordered by Nicaragua governor Rodrigo de Contreras was wrong; but he offered to pacify the country himself with only fifty men. Contreras banished Las Casas; but King Carlos V ordered Contreras to suspend his expedition for two years so that Las Casas could use peaceful methods. He attended conferences in Mexico with his allies Fray Julian Garces and Bishop Juan de Zumarraga, urging the doctrine of peaceful conversion. Bernardino de Minaya took these ideas to a conference in Rome in 1536, and the next year Pope Paul III pronounced that American Indians should not be deprived of their liberty or property even if they are outside of the Christian fold; he threatened those who enslave Indians with excommunication. Las Casas wrote a long book, which is mostly lost, entitled The Only Method of Attracting All People to the True Faith. In this treatise he moderated his rhetoric and exhorted preachers to use only peaceful and loving methods of conversion because any violence repels rather than attracts. Infidels are not moved by those greedy for wealth or desiring dominion over them.
Las Casas was allowed to attempt another experiment to test this thesis in Guatemala with his fellow Dominicans. The province of Tuzutlan was so untamed that it was called the “Land of War.” In 1537 acting governor Alonso Maldonado from the second Mexico audiencia was investigating the Alvarado government and agreed to keep other Spaniards out of this region for five years. With three friars Las Casas wrote songs on Christian history, and they taught them to four native merchants who were Christians and began by trading with the natives and singing these songs. Then the Dominican Luis de Barbastro, who knew the Mayan language Quiché, went to live among them. The chief became a Christian and urged his people to follow; Las Casas took him to meet Governor Alvarado. This experiment in peaceful conversion succeeded for several years as the region was renamed Vera Paz, the “Land of True Peace.” Meanwhile colonists and ecclesiastics argued over peaceful preaching as a method.
Las Casas returned to Spain in 1539 and for two years lobbied the Council of the Indies to abolish encomiendas. He condemned this system in his Remedies for the Existing Evils, with Twenty Reasons Therefore. The ninth reason was the most simple and obvious, namely that all people in the new world are free. Even the Spanish Cortes (Council) in Valladolid petitioned the king to remedy the cruelties perpetrated against the Indians. After Carlos V returned to Spain in 1542, Dominicans persuaded him to abolish encomiendas and promulgate the New Laws. No Indian was to be enslaved, and all existing Indian slaves were to be freed. Encomenderos without proper title were to lose their natives, as were all officials and prelates. No new encomienda was to be granted to anyone, and as encomenderos died, their natives were to revert to the Crown. On the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Española tribute was not to be demanded from Indians, who were to have the same rights as Spaniards. Suspected of taking bribes from Cortes, Pizarro, and others, the Council of the Indies was suspended for a year, and new commissioners were appointed. Later historians have questioned whether abolishing the encomiendas benefited the natives because they still were considered tribute-paying vassals of the king.
The conquistadors reacted strongly to the New Laws, resulting in the assassination of the viceroy in Peru. Visitador Tello de Sandoval was sent to Mexico to enforce the New Laws; but he heard so many protests, he modified them. Business was badly affected, and hundreds of Spaniards returned to Spain with their wives. Clergy had also profited from encomiendas, and many priests resisted the reform. In 1545 the Council of Mexico advocated suspending the New Laws and making encomiendas perpetual, and Carlos V revoked the New Law on encomiendas later that year.
Las Casas met with hostility at Santo Domingo, but the stern rule of Judge Cerrato prevented violence. After rejecting the lucrative see of Cuzco, Las Casas was consecrated bishop of poor Chiapas in 1544. He met with bishops at Mexico City in 1546 and wrote Advice and Regulations to Confessors, urging the withholding of sacraments from anyone who did not compensate Indians properly for their labor. The rules were to be kept secret, but they leaked out and upset many. Penitents were required to give their slaves freedom instantaneously and irrevocably. They must pay for the wrongs they did, and very unpopular was the call for conquistadors, who had gained all their wealth from exploiting natives, to leave nothing to their sons. Merchants who imported war materials were also guilty and owed restitution. Those confessing must never again participate in a war of conquest against natives.
Having become too unpopular to minister effectively in the colonies, Las Casas resigned his bishopric and returned to Spain for good in 1547. The king’s chaplain Juan Ginés de Sepulveda had written a treatise in which he argued that the wars against the Indians were just. Persuaded by Las Casas, university authorities refused to let Sepulveda’s book be printed. Las Casas had been working on his History of the Indies for years and responded by writing the massive Defense of Indian Civilization. He argued that the current licenses should be revoked and that all conquest should be stopped. In April 1549 the royal order on “The Manner in which New Discoveries are to be Undertaken” was sent to the Audiencia of Peru.
Sepulveda wrote to Prince Felipe (Philip) in September, and in April 1550 Emperor Carlos V ordered all conquests stopped until theologians and counselors should decide the issue. Sepulveda wrote A Defense for the Book on the Just Causes of the War, which was printed at Rome in May 1550, and he wrote three other defenses in Spanish, describing the Indians as brutish and cowardly. Fourteen officials and ecclesiastics met for a month during the summer at Valladolid. Sepulveda spoke for three hours and then Las Casas read from his book for five days before the judges began their discussion. Domingo de Soto made a summary, and then Sepulveda wrote a reply to the twelve objections of Las Casas. Sepulveda argued that because of their idolatry and sins against nature, the Indians should be subjugated and protected by the superior Spaniards. He noted that the natives do not have any written laws or even private property. Las Casas responded that the Indians were quite rational and in some respects superior to the Greeks and Romans. He wrote,
No nation exists, no matter how rude, uncultivated,
barbarous, gross, or almost brutal its people may be,
which may not be persuaded and brought to a good order
and way of life and made domestic, mild, and tractable,
provided the method that is proper and natural to men
is used; that is, love and gentleness and kindness.4
The judges argued and made no judgment, but by 1566, the year Las Casas died, King Felipe II was issuing licenses for new discoveries. Yet the more humane ordinance of 1573 was surely influenced by the life work of the zealous Dominican as the concept of conquest was replaced by pacification.
After the debate Las Casas in 1552 published eight tracts, including his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies he had written ten years earlier. Unlike most of his writing, this bold criticism was translated in the 16th century into Flemish, English, French, German, and Latin and was thus widely disseminated. In the prolog he explained that it would have been a criminal neglect of his duty to remain silent about the enormous loss of life because of the conquests. He summarized the most egregious violations he described in his longer history. The native population of Española had been reduced from 3 million to 200. Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas were similarly devastated. On the mainland Christians had caused the deaths of between twelve and fifteen million people by unjust war and brutal slavery in order to get gold and amass private fortunes. Las Casas repeatedly argued that the natives had done nothing wrong to deserve such ill treatment. They had welcomed the Europeans, believing they came from heaven until they realized what their oppressive purposes were. Only then did some of them take up their inferior weapons to try to defend themselves. Europeans were ruthless and vowed to slaughter one hundred natives for every Spaniard who was killed.
In Panama and Nicaragua Governor Pedrarias led the slaughter in the relentless search for gold. Demands for fifty slaves every few months were made of local leaders, who were burned alive or thrown to dogs if they did not meet their quota. Las Casas described the assaults in Mexico as worse than those of Turks trying to destroy Christians. He accused the Alvarado brothers of killing four million natives in Guatemala between 1524 and 1540. Other “butchers” he left unnamed were Guzman in northern Mexico and Montejo in Yucatán. In only the first ten years Las Casas calculated the number of deaths in Peru at four million. He noted that already the conquistadors in Peru were fighting and killing each other. He saw the Christ in each of the natives and lamented that they had not been given the knowledge of God. He loved Castile and feared his country would be punished for these crimes.
Las Casas wrote a treatise on imperial sovereignty in which he argued that the pope had no coercive authority to force infidels to accept Christianity, and he believed that the natives had their own rightful kings and property, which should be restored by the encomenderos who had robbed them. In Thirty Very Juridical Propositions he argued that everything the Spaniards had done in the new world was illegal and unjust. These writings and his sermons made Las Casas the most hated man in the Spanish empire. Several times the council of Mexico City urged Felipe II to restrain the Indian advocate and prohibit the printing of his books. In 1554 licenciado Ribera on behalf of encomenderos in Peru offered Felipe four million ducats if he would make encomiendas perpetual. Las Casas contacted missionaries, and they promised even more money to the bankrupt Spanish government from the Indians themselves for their freedom. This royal commission was so fraught with corruption and fraud that the king dismissed it. In 1564 Las Casas wrote a Solution to the Twelve Doubts in which he asserted that it is right for even infidels to have jurisdiction over their own lives. He questioned the enrichment of the fortune hunters in Peru, and his writing stimulated Viceroy Toledo to research the history of the Incas so that he could prove that they had oppressed other natives.
In his last will Las Casas defined his call:
To act here at home on behalf of all those people
out in what we call the Indies,
the true possessors of those kingdoms, those territories.
To act against the unimaginable, unspeakable violence
and evil and harm they have suffered from our people,
contrary to all reason, all justice, so as to restore them
to the original liberty they were lawlessly deprived of,
and get them free of death by violence,
death they still suffer.5
In that will he left behind a disturbing prophecy:
I think that God shall have to pour out his fury and anger
on Spain for these damnable, rotten, infamous deeds
done so unjustly, so tyrannically, so barbarously
to those people, against those people.
For the whole of Spain has shared
in the blood-soaked riches, some a little, some a lot,
but all shared in goods that were ill-gotten,
wickedly taken with violence and genocide—
and all must pay unless Spain does a mighty penance.6
1. Historia de las Indias by Bartolomé de Las Casas II:176 in New Iberian World, Volume 2 The Caribbean, p. 310.
2. The Caribbean by W. Adolphe Roberts, p. 66.
3. Oviedo III:29 quoted in History of Central America, Volume 1 by Hubert Bancroft, p. 398.
4. Apologetica Historia by Bartolomé de Las Casas p. 127-129 quoted in The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America by Lewis Hanke, p. 126.
5. Indian Freedom: The Cause of Bartolomé de Las Casas ed. Francis Patrick Sullivan, p. 354.
6. Ibid., p. 354.
This chapter has been published in the book Latin America & Canada to 1850. For ordering information please click here.