The New World

'The greed of some of our subjects'

Colonial Expansion

Charles’ accession was closely followed by the expansion of Spanish territories in the New World. Earlier settlements in the Caribbean, particularly on Hispaniola and Cuba, were extended by the invasions of the Aztec Empire in Mexico (which became known as ‘New Spain’) by Hernando Cortes (1519-1521) and then of the Inca Empire in the Andes (known as ‘New Castile’ and then ‘Peru’) by Francisco Pizarro (1532). Charles was sent some of the treasures of Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, by Cortes from Mexico. The gold shields and feathered cloaks, the sun of gold and moon of silver, the coats of armour and fine clothing, had gone first to Spain and then on to Brussels where Charles was by late 1520. They impressed all who saw them with their beauty, ingenuity and value. Albrecht Durer wrote: ‘In all my life, I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things’. Charles and Isabella met both conquistadores in 1529, shortly before travelling to Italy for his coronation. Cortes wished to be reinstated as governor in ‘New Spain’ but had to be content with being appointed military commander. Pizarro had returned to Spain to put his case for a third expedition to the Inca Empire. Charles was impressed and the following year Isabella gave permission for the venture.

In 1493 Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) had issued a papal bull giving Spain rights to newly discovered lands to the west of a pole to pole line 100 leagues west of the Portuguese Cape Verde islands. This line was shifted a further 270 leagues to the west the following year by the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal (who gained the rights to lands to the east of the line). Spanish control of central and southern America (except Brazil) was thus agreed by the European powers. The eventual consequences of this colonisation were the shipping of vast amounts of bullion from the Americas to Spain, the exploitation of the indigenous population as a cheap labour force and a catastrophic decline of their numbers as they succumbed to both the ‘European’ diseases, particularly smallpox and measles, to which they had no natural resistance, and the harsh conditions in which they worked.

There were two key motives for the colonisation: to spread Christianity and to gain riches. How such small forces were able to defeat these large empires has been well described and explained elsewhere. The promise of land and riches meant that there was no shortage of adventurers and settlers from Spain, many from the lesser nobility who lacked a role in Spain with the completion of the Reconquista, and especially from the poorer regions such as Extremadura. Charles and his predecessors had not been willing to share in the costs of opening up these ‘new lands’, but they were naturally keen to share in the profits to be made from the growing trade and from the increasing amounts of gold and silver being produced. The trade through the port of Seville, which was given a monopoly, could be controlled and taxed. In addition, the crown had the right to one-fifth of the bullion from the annual treasure conveys, formed to protect the cargo from the attacks of English and French ‘pirates’. The approximate annual value to Charles of the bullion arriving in Spain was 40,000 ducats in the 1520’s, rising to 280,000 ducats in the 1540’s and 871,000 in the early 1550’s.

The Government of the Spanish Colonies

Although having no direct role in the colonisation of these lands, once they were part of Castile Charles could not abdicate all responsibility for them. The religious, moral and ethical issues that Charles attempted to resolve resonate through the centuries, right up to the present time. The existence of a large population with a completely different culture created practical and moral problems.1 How were these lands to be ruled and what methods should be used to convert the native inhabitants to the ‘true faith’? Should the focus be on saving their souls or on the exploitation of the natural resources found there?2 On the death of Juan Rodriquez de Fonseca, the Bishop of Burgos, who had previously had responsibility, the Council of the Indies was established in 1524 to oversee the administration of these new territories. This was always going to be a difficult task given the conflicting priorities, the distances involved, the slowness of communications, delays in responding to petitions, and the independent nature of the conquistadores and settlers.

There was an underlying conflict in the responsibilities of European rulers generally (in this case specifically the Spanish crown) to the establishment of colonies and the treatment of the inhabitants. On the one hand Charles had a duty to care for all his subjects (the ‘real consciencia’). On the other he was expected to develop and exploit the new lands for the benefit of the country and the individual settlers who had risked much in the colonisation (the ‘real servicio’)3, especially if the crown delegated to the settlers the important role of converting the population. The perceived self-interest of the settlers would mean that little attention would be given to humanitarian concerns if left ungoverned.

The Treatment of the Native Inhabitants

Queen Isabella had forbidden the introduction of slavery at the time of the first settlements. Instead the ‘encomienda’ system was introduced, giving settlers control over local native communities, together with the responsibilities of converting them to Christianity and ‘protecting’ them, in return for their use as cheap labour in the exploitation of local resources. Efforts were made to control the actions of the settlers. Charles requested that much care should be taken to explain to the inhabitants in their own language the consequences of resistance and that force should only be used as a last resort. However as early as 1526 the Council of the Indies recognised the ‘greed of some of our subjects’ and the abuses of the native population that were taking place – excessive labour, lack of food, cruel punishments.

Most were employed on the land where they worked very long hours for little reward. Despite efforts to limit the number of workers in an ‘encomienda’ to 300, most were large, often with 6,000 workers. Those inhabitants that resisted were enslaved along with their families. Little effort was made to convert them by education. Others working in mines experienced extremely hazardous conditions. The most famous of all South American silver mines was at Potosi. Opened in the 1540’s, in modern day Bolivia, it has become a by-word for exploitation and suffering, with dangerous mining methods and a refining process which caused thousands of deaths through mercury poisoning. For the settlers and mine owners in the Americas, as well as the Spanish crown, the rewards were considerable.

The introduction of a royal ‘Audience’ (a group of high ranking royal officials), to act as the highest court of appeal, did help to provide some protection for indigenous people who wished to challenge the way they were treated. In theory they could have access to the legal system without having to pay for the cost of litigation.4 The appointment of members of the highest Spanish nobility as Viceroys of New Spain - Antonio de Mendoza (1535 - 1550) and Luis de Velasco (1550 - 1564) - gave more status to the role; these were people whose decisions had to be taken notice of.5

Nevertheless abuses continued, recorded by Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican priest who had experience of the colonisation from its early days. In his ‘History of the Indies’ and ‘A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies’ he outlined the murder, expropriation and exploitation of the population and argued the case for improving their welfare and allowing only peaceful conversions. Such was the hostility to his ideas amongst the settlers that he had to travel to the Spanish court to put his case. His work persuaded Charles to support the ‘New Laws’ of 1542, preventing further enslavement and forbidding the inheritance of ‘encomienda’, which would end the system within a generation. Such was the reaction of the settlers with protests and riots, that concessions were made whereby ‘encomienda’ could be passed on once, thus continuing the system.

The Disputation of Valladolid in 1550

In Spain, de las Casas’ arguments did not go unanswered. Juan Gines de Sepulveda, a philosopher, humanist and Greek scholar made the case that it was legitimate to wage war on the native population. Charles requested a panel of jurists to hear the opposing cases and reach conclusions about their proper treatment. They met in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid (see Chapter 23 in 'Charles V:Duty and Dynasty: The Emperor and his Changing World'). Sepulveda argued that there was a right to rule over ‘inferior’ peoples. Using Aristotle’s ideas on ‘natural slavery’, he believed that because they were ruled by ‘passion’ rather than ‘reason’ they were inferior barbarians. Since they committed crimes against natural law, such as idolatry and cannibalism, and also themselves killed ‘innocents’ in human sacrifice, it was Spain’s duty to punish and put a stop to these crimes. In addition, they were infidels who needed to be instructed in the ‘true faith’. As many of them would not willingly undergo such changes, it was ‘just’ to carry out a war of conquest in order to pave the way for preaching. The indigenous peoples had to be first subdued and then converted.6

De las Casas responded that they were not ‘barbarians’. They were certainly non-Christian, but met most of Aristotle’s criteria of civilisation - they lived in harmonious societies, had expressive languages, and the ‘unnatural crimes’ were committed by a small minority. The people of the Indies were born free, regardless of papal consent for Spain to rule the area, and therefore there was no natural right of conquest in name of higher civilisation or superior faith. He argued that ‘punishment’ required jurisdiction and that Charles or the Pope had no such jurisdiction over infidels (as opposed to heretics). While he agreed that human sacrifice was evil, he argued that war, with its numerous deaths of even more ‘innocents’, was a greater evil, and went on to question how God could wish his Church to kill pagans in war in order to save them from their own ignorance. True conversion, he argued, required peace and freedom of choice, and forced conversions had no part to play.

There was no attempt at compromise. Both sides claimed ‘victory’ and no final judgement or decision was ever issued. Over time the encomienda system was reformed but essentially the pre-colonial inhabitants remained an exploited cheap labour force. The catalogue of abuses produced by de las Casas was in future to be used as evidence of cruelty and inhumanity by other countries whenever they wished to criticise Spanish rule. This ignored the fact that those countries were equally culpable of appalling treatment of native inhabitants in their own colonies, but never perhaps had it documented so well.


1Maltby, W. The Reign of Charles V. Palgrave, Basingstoke. (2002) p.88   
2Kamen, H. Spain’s Road to Empire: the Making of a World Power. Allen Lane, London. (2002) p.94   
3Heer, F. The Holy Roman Empire. (transl. by J. Sondheimer). Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London (1968) p.168   
4Spanoghe, S. Imperialising the Amerindian Other: Between Forced Integration and Dual Citizenship. in Boon, M and Demoor,M Charles V in Context: The Making of a European Identity. Ghent Univ. and Brussels Univ. Press (2003) p.100   
5Spanoghe (in Boon and Demoor) p.101   
6Heer p.172