The Spain Among Us


Many Spanish priests were appalled at the treatment of the Indians and protested to the crown. The most prominent was Father Bartolomé de las Casas, who was himself a plantation owner and slaveholder on Hispaniola until 1514. While preparing a sermon, he came across a verse in Ecclesiastes that sparked a conversion: “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous, and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted.” It became clear to him “that everything done to the Indians thus far was unjust and tyrannical.” He immediately freed his own slaves and preached that the Spaniards were sinners for exploiting the Indians. Thus began the remarkable career of the man who would be the chief voice crying in the wilderness against the conquest. One would assume that the royal apparatus, delighted at the gold that poured into its coffers from the efforts of the conquistadors, would brush aside criticism from whistle-blowing clerics, but that was not the case.


In a debate in 1519 conducted at Barcelona before nineteen-year-old King Charles I, Las Casas declared, in words that would have a secular echo in Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of liberty and equality for all, that “our Christian religion is suitable for and may be adapted to all the nations of the world, and all alike may receive it; and no one may be deprived of his liberty, nor may he be enslaved on the excuse that he is a natural slave.”

Although the king made it plain that mistreatment of the Indians would not be tolerated and promulgated laws to protect them, the abuses continued. In 1550 the royal Council of the Indies suggested to the king that “it would be fitting for Your Majesty to order a meeting of learned men, theologians, and jurists … to … consider the manner in which these conquests should be carried on … justly and with security of conscience.” And amazingly, Charles ordered that the conquest of the New World be held in suspension until such a convention could discuss the morality of the enterprise. As the historian Lewis Hanke has observed, “Probably never before had such a mighty sovereign ordered his conquests to cease until it should be decided if they were just.” Las Casas spoke before the convention for five days, describing atrocities that Spaniards had committed and begging for an end to them.

The conquest stopped dead for sixteen years while a new legal policy was worked out. The “New Laws” of 1573, published during the reign of Philip II, placed strict limits on the use of force. Slavery was forbidden, although it continued to exist in secret. The taking of land or homes was forbidden. However, Indians were still expected to render tribute to the government and provide labor.

In reviewing the record of Spain’s colonization of the Southwest, the historian Elizabeth John wrote, “Contrary to the Black Legend, and notwithstanding the flagrant violations of Indian rights, it is on the Spanish frontier that one finds the earliest commitment to due process for Indians and the only consistent efforts to foster self-governance of Indian communities.” Hanke regarded Spanish reforms as the first social experiments in the New World and remarked, “No European nation … took her Christian duty toward native peoples so seriously as did Spain.”

The reforms failed to kill the Black Legend. Las Casas’s accusations against the conquistadors were published in Spain. During the Protestant Reformation these books became a weapon against Spain, the primary defender of Catholicism. The Black Legend infected the political debates of three centuries in Europe and America and seeped into the writings of historians, including some of the premier American historians of the nineteenth century—George Bancroft, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman. Parkman described Spain as “a tyranny of monks and inquisitors, with their swarms of spies and informers, their racks, their dungeons and their fagots [crushing] all freedom of thought and speech”—a view that fails to account for the fact that Las Casas and other reformers published their unpopular views, gained the ear of the king, and influenced imperial policy.

The Black Legend reared up mightily in the United States during the Spanish-American War and was enshrined in textbooks, one of which condemned the Spanish for a custom that was actually enlightened: “Their morals were lax, and their treatment of the savages was cruel, despite the tendency of the colonists to amalgamate with the latter, and thus to descend in the scale of civilization.” Indeed, many historians have taken note of the rapidity with which Spaniards intermarried with Native Americans. The historian Michael Kammen describes “a socio-racial pluralism institutionalized and stabilized by law and custom” in the Spanish colonies, which contrasted markedly with the “tribalism” of the “exclusive and withdrawn” Puritan, Quaker, and German colonies. Of all the Europeans who settled in America, it might be said that the Spaniards were the least racist in this regard, although intermarriages followed class lines; members of the Spanish colonial nobility married into what they perceived to be the Native American upper class. The children of these New World unions were welcomed into upper-class society in Spain itself.