hernán cortés, slaves, and the encomienda -- 11/05/19

Today's selection -- from 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, had the most Native American slaves of anyone in the world:

"Hernán Cortés died a disappointed man. After subjugating the [Aztecs], he was awarded a title -- Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca -- and given his choice of real estate in the lands he had conquered. He chose six spreads in central and southern Mexico: 7,700 square miles in total, an expanse the size of El Salvador. The biggest chunk, 2,200 square miles of temper­ate plains south of Mexico City, was where he built his thick­walled, castle-like home. An opulent place, it had no less than twenty-two tapestries, each at least fifteen feet wide; the con­queror, something of a dandy, liked to roam about his tapestries in brocaded velvet jackets and pearl-studded dressing gowns.

"Having acquired his property, Cortés threw himself with characteristic energy into a series of entrepreneurial ventures: digging silver mines; establishing cattle ranches and hog farms; panning for gold; opening a shipyard on the Pacific coast; creating a kind of shopping mall in central Mexico City; growing maize, beans, and Garrido's wheat; lending money, goods, livestock, and slaves to entrepreneurs and adventurers in return for a share of the profits; importing silkworms (and mulberry trees to feed them); and raising big stone structures as monuments to himself Sugarcane, which he began growing in 1523, was high on his list.

"Cortés might have succeeded at these enterprises if he had paid attention to them. Instead he kept looking for new kingdoms to vanquish. He marched into Guatemala. He schemed to send ships to Peru. He went to the Pacific and nearly killed himself looking for a route to China. All the while, he flagrantly disobeyed orders. Eventually he ran out of his own money and other peo­ple's patience. He returned to Spain in 1540, hoping to obtain more royal favors and positions for himself and his friends. Cortes fol­lowed the king from place to place, seeking an audience. Carlos V refused to see him. The heartbroken conquistador was unable to fathom why the sovereign might worry about creating a powerful new aristocracy of unreliable, impulsive men of action. The story, told by Voltaire but surely apocryphal, is that at one point Cortés bullied his way onto the emperor's carriage. Carlos V, annoyed, asked who he was. 'It is he,' Cortes supposedly said, 'who has given you more states than your ancestors left you cities.'

"His timing was dreadful. As he followed the court, the king was talking with Bartolomé de las Casas, a fiery Dominican priest who had just completed Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, an indictment of Spanish conduct that remains a landmark both in the history of human-rights activism and in the literature of sus­tained invective. Reading his first draft before the shocked court, Las Casas branded the conquest of Mexico as 'the climax of injus­tice and violence and tyranny committed against the Indians.' He denounced Indian slavery as 'torments even harder to endure and longer lasting than the torments of those who are put to the sword.' Troubled by Las Casas's lurid descriptions of cruelties committed in the name of Spain, Carlos V had asked his council of advisors to investigate the nation's policies toward Indians.

"As the king surely knew, the Spanish monarchy had been struggling to define its Indian policy since before he was born. His grandparents, King Fernando and Queen Isabel, had been stunned when Colón informed them that they now ruled over multitudes of people whose very existence had been previously unsuspected. The monarchs, devout Christians, worried that the conquest could not be justified in the eyes of God. Colon's new lands had the potential of enriching Spain, an outcome they of course viewed as highly desirable. But obtaining the wealth of the Americas would involve subjugating people who had committed no offense against Spain.

"As Fernando and Isabel saw it, Indian lands were not like the Islamic empires whom they and their royal ancestors had fought for centuries. Muslim troops, in their view, could be legitimately enslaved -- they had conquered most of Spain, exploited Spanish people, and, by embracing Islam, rejected Christianity. (For simi­lar reasons, the Islamic empires freely enslaved Spanish POWs.) Most Indians, by contrast, had done no wrong to Spaniards. Because American natives had never heard of Christianity, they could not have turned away from it. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI resolved this dilemma of conscience. He awarded the sovereigns 'full, free and complete power, authority, and jurisdiction' over the Taino of Hispaniola if they sent 'prudent and God-fearing men, learned, skilled, and proven, to instruct [them] in the Cath­olic faith.' Conquest was acceptable if done for the purpose of bringing the conquered to salvation.

Hernán Cortés, with his coat of arms on the upper left corner. 16th c. Attributed to the Master Saldana.
Museo Nacional de Historia. Chapultepec Castle.

"The Spaniards who actually went to the new lands, though, had little interest in evangelization. Although often personally pious, they were more concerned with Indian labor than Indian souls. CoIón was an example. Despite being fervently, passion­ately devout, he had appalled Isabel in 1495 by sending 550 cap­tured Taino to Spain to sell as galley slaves. (Galleys were still common on the Mediterranean.) Colón argued that enslaving prisoners of war was justified -- he was treating the Indians who had attacked La Isabela as Spaniards had long treated their mili­tary enemies. In addition, he said, the Indians' fate would deter further rebellions. Isabel didn't agree. Slowly growing angry, she watched shackled Taino trickle into the slave markets of Seville. In an outburst of fury in 1499 she ordered all Spaniards who had acquired Indians to send them back to the Americas. Death was the penalty for noncompliance.

"The queen seems mainly to have been outraged by the pre­sumption of the colonists -- they were disobeying instructions and enslaving the wrong people. But she also must have known that the monarchs hadn't addressed the fundamental problem. On the one hand, the pope had justified Spain's conquest because it would allow missionaries to convert the Indians -- a goal unlikely to be accom­plished if they were enslaved in large numbers. On the other hand, the colonies were supposed to contribute to the glory of Spain, a task that could not be accomplished without acquiring a labor force. Spain, unlike England, did not have a well-developed system of indentured servitude. And unlike England it did not have mobs of unemployed to lure over the ocean. To profit from its colonies, the monarchs believed, Spain would have to rely on Indian labor.

"In 1503 the monarchs provided their answer to the dilemma: the encomienda system. Individual Spaniards became trustees of indigenous groups, promising to ensure their safety, freedom, and religious instruction. In fine protection-racket style, Indians paid for Spanish 'security' with their labor. The encomienda can be thought of as an attempt to answer the objections to slavery raised by Adam Smith. By restricting the demands on Indians, the monarchs sought to reduce the incentive for revolt -- a benefit to the Spaniards who employed them.

"It didn't work. Both Indians and conquistadors disliked the encomienda system. Legally, Hispaniola's Indians were free peo­ple, their towns and villages still governed by their native lead­ers. In practice the rulers had little power and workers were often treated as slaves. Encomenderos (trustees) loathed negotiating with Taino leaders, which required more tact and delicacy than they typically wished to muster. When native workers didn't feel like showing up -- why would they, if they could avoid it? -- they vanished into the countryside, where their whereabouts were concealed by relatives, friends, and sympathetic Indian leaders. For their part, the Taino came to view the system as little but a legal justification for slavery. Under the law, Indian Christians were entitled after baptism to be treated exactly like Spanish Christians, who could not be enslaved. But colonists argued the contrary; Indians were, in effect, less human than Europeans, and thus could be forced to work even after they converted.

"Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, may have had more unfree Indi­ans than anyone else in the world. In addition to owning three thousand or more indigenous slaves outright, his estate forced as many as twenty-four thousand laborers a year to work as trib­ute (they were sent by their home villages for a week at a time)."


Charles C. Mann


1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2011 by Charles C. Mann


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment