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Conquistadors and Indian Rights

Juan Ponce de Leon Statue at landing site, Melbourne Beach, Florida. 

Picture, if you will, a sixteenth-century conquistador in the New World. If you’re like most of us, the image that comes to mind is of a swarthy, swashbuckling bully, mad for gold, lustful for power, and ruthless to Indians. This caricature is built (as stereotypes generally are) on a promontory of truth. There are plenty of documented instances of brutality to warrant such a jaundiced retrospective, but like most caricatures it also misses most of the complexity and richness of real life. One of the missing truths in this simplified popular conception is just how distinctly liberal (failures notwithstanding) Spain was to the Indians of North America. Especially today, when “slavery” and “colonialism” are white-hot topics in the ongoing culture wars, it is a surprise to discover that many Spaniards (even conquistadors) were not only sympathetic to Indian rights, but actively sought to defend them.

In a previous article we looked at the early roots of liberalism in Spain, and the surprisingly receptive culture that embraced, for example, Cervantes’ advocacy for individual rights and limits on arbitrary authority. This early Iberian attraction to liberal values was not limited strictly to literature, however. It also strongly influenced the imperial conquest of the New World. The Dominican and Franciscan orders were effective political advocates for a “humane” conquest in the Indies, and heavily shaped official policy there. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar, was named “Defender of the Indians” (a paid royal position) and spent his life carefully documenting infractions against Indian rights. The Spanish court itself was keen to end abuses against Indians as seen, for instance, in Hernando De Soto’s 1537 royal authorization to embark on his exploration of Florida:

[“We,” The King], having been informed of the evils and disorders which occur in making discoveries and new settlements…a general provision of chapters is ordained and dispatched, respecting what you will have to observe in the said settlement and conquest…for the good treatment and conversion to our Holy Catholic Faith of the natives of it…

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s appointment in January 1540 (to explore what is now the American Southwest) is similarly remonstrative:

In regard to treatment of the native Indians of the lands through which you may travel…we order you to observe and fulfill the directive [for benevolent treatment] which we have ordered given to the persons who go, as you are going, to reconnoiter and pacify lands and new provincias… under [pain of] penalties referred to in the directive.

Such orders were not mere cynical lip service. Many a conquistador was charged with mistreatment of Indians and forced to account for his actions. Coronado, for instance, effectively defended himself in court, convening witnesses to testify that he had forbidden his army from touching “so much as an ear of [Indian] corn” without their permission. Conquistadors who failed to bring such exculpatory evidence were fined, banished, or imprisoned. 

This attention to Indian rights was held by more than just clerical elites or official functionaries: conquistadors themselves were often deeply critical of trespasses against Indians. “Why,” asked conquistador Rodrigo Rangel of his leader De Soto, did he “not settle down to a colony, but rather disturb and devastate the land and take away the liberty of all the natives?” Conquistadors were generally attentive to, and often keen to redress, cruel abuses against what they saw as the natural liberty of Indians. Melchior Pérez testified in court that he “doubted the word” of a fellow conquistador and deplored his mistreatment of Indians caught in a siege. An anonymous Gentleman “from Elvas” writes:

Those who were cruel, because they showed themselves inhuman, God permitted their sin to confront them, very great cowardice assailing them in sight of all at a time when there was greater need of fighting, and when at last they came to die.

Sometimes, in fact, conquistador chronicles would embellish the “speeches” of Indians in ways that reveal as much about the Spanish understanding of liberty than about the Indians’. Chief Tascaluça, in modern-day Alabama, is described in 1540 thus:

…about giving obedience to the king of Spain, he replied that he himself was king in his own country and there was no necessity for becoming the vassal of another who had as many as he. Those who put themselves under a foreign yoke when they could live free he regarded as very mean-spirited and cowardly. He and all his people protested that they would die a thousand deaths to maintain their liberty and that of their country. And he gave that reply once and for all.

Tascaluça surely did not speak these exact words (“yoke,” for one thing, was incomprehensible to a society without large domestic livestock), yet the sentiment no doubt was accurate. More to the point, the sentiment resonated with a Spanish reader, one that was primed to be sympathetic to liberty.

The Spanish empire, for all its nascent liberality, was not, of course, a shining beacon of human freedom (nor, for that matter, was the English one). There were enormous moral failings, to be sure. The point here is not to whitewash examples of deplorable illiberal acts. The point, rather, is to show how surprisingly respectful the Spanish could be (even by modern standards) toward Indians. Though this counters today’s understanding of colonialism generally, and the conquest in particular, the fact is that Spanish treatment of Indians in the Americas was not the monolithically brutal affair it is so often portrayed to be.

In short, it is time to update the caricature. Part of ‘getting our history right’ means not infantilizing Indians as passive victims, nor portraying Spaniards as diabolical ruffians. Such two-dimensional ‘good-guy/bad-guy’ history is not only inaccurate, but it also taints our modern political discourse. We need instead to rescue living, breathing human stories from what E.P. Thompson called the “enormous condescension of posterity,” and see the basic humanity in our common history.