how to rule america -- 8/25/20

Today's selection -- from Emperor: A New Life of Charles V by Geoffrey Parker. Once discoverers such as Hernán Cortés began sending gold back to Spain, the importance of the New World was firmly established and Emperor Charles V began to take up the challenge of how to administer such a distant land. Because of the great ocean that had to be crossed and recrossed, it was an almost insurmountable problem in the 1500s. For one, Cortés had acted without the authorization of his superior, Diego Velázquez, and a cataclysmic dispute between those two for the New World's riches had to be arbitrated. For another, the administrators Charles sent often died on the arduous journey or in the unfamiliar land. And, most notable, there was the conflict between the mission to convert the natives to Christianity and the need for laborers to do the bidding of the Europeans and extract the wealth of the New World:

"These spectacular [discoveries] led the emperor and his chancellor to take a closer look at the new 'gold-bearing world' across the Atlantic. Shortly after his return to Spain in 1522, Charles created a special committee, chaired by Gattinara, to consider once more the rival claims of Cortés and Velázquez. Their verdict (in the phrase of Luigi Avonto, an eminent expert on Gattinara) 'was based more on reason of state than on strict justice': the committee exonerated Cortés of the charge of rebellion, recommended that he be named 'governor and captain-general of New Spain', and urged that he be sent arms, horses and other provisions to consolidate and expand Spanish rule. The Crown would retain direct control only of the royal fisc, appointing a treasurer, inspector, accountant and other officials to maximize assets in New Spain.

Hernán Cortés by Christoph Weiditz

"One year later, Gattinara submitted a wide-ranging memorandum to Charles on the problems that faced him, containing the recommendations of each member of a committee of trusted ministers. The first item concerned 'The Fear of God'. Although Gattinara recognized that the emperor 'is inclined by nature to fear and honour God', he proceeded to 'draw to your attention certain matters that, if you deal with them, may please God and make Him even more inclined to favour your cause'. One was the need to 'send enough qualified people to the New World that God has revealed to you' so that 'the Christian faith may be venerated and exalted there without oppressing and enslaving' the indigenous population. The committee unanimously endorsed this, and recommended the creation of a permanent council of the Indies, staffed by 'persons who boast both knowledge and experience, to meet at least twice a week'. It also accepted Gattinara's recommendation that Charles's confessor should preside over it. In August 1524 the emperor appointed Garcia de Loaysa y Mendoza president of the Consejo Real y Supremo de las Indias to handle all official business concerning the New World, with Francisco de Los Cobos as secretary and the chancellor as a member.

"A few months later, in Mexico, Cortés penned another self-serving report to his master, dispatched with a further sample of the riches that were now (thanks to his efforts) at the emperor's disposal. The Venetian ambassador marvelled at 'a bird from those lands, the most beautiful thing in the world' as well as 'many things made with extremely beautiful feathers,' concluding: 'Every day we see something new.' Charles and his ministers, who were more interested in gold than in parrots, particularly welcomed the 120,000 gold pesos that Cortés sent, because (as Gattinara informed an English embassy, with studied understatement) they 'shall help somewhat towardis his chargis' in fighting the French in Italy.

"The new council of the Indies nevertheless objected to the conduct of Cortés. Charles had given strict orders that no indigenous inhabitants should be forced to work for the conquistadors of New Spain: instead they 'must be allowed to live in liberty', paying only the same 'tribute and services that they rendered to Montezuma'; yet Cortés appeared to have disobeyed. Charles wrote reproachfully that 'I have received, in person and by letter, many statements against you and your administration'. He recognized that 'some of what people write and say will stem from jealousy and envy that you are serving us, but to comply with my obligation to uphold justice according to the laws and customs of that land', and also 'for the discharge of our royal conscience', he needed to take drastic action.

"Initially, Gattinara wanted Charles to announce that he 'planned to create and send a powerful fleet to reduce the lands discovered by Cortés to true obedience ... so that he could profit from all the riches that they contain', because he believed that the announcement alone, 'without actually sending a fleet', would make Cortés toe the line. The chancellor then thought of something more permanent -- the transfer to the New World of an institution used by the Crown to control its officials in Spain: a government inspector (juez de residencia) who would report on 'how our officials in New Spain have used and exercised their offices'. In particular, after consulting with Cortés 'and with our officials, and with anyone else you choose, especially the friars', the inspector would determine 'the best method to convert the indigenous population of America to our Holy Catholic Faith, which is our principal desire and intention, and to ensure that they are well and justly treated' -- instructions once again clearly derived from the views of Las Casas. When news arrived that the inspector had died shortly after he arrived, followed by his designated successor, the council tried yet another approach. In a further lengthy report to Charles, sent from Mexico in 1526, Cortés had expressed the desire to return to Spain and explain his conduct; the following year Loaysa sent a letter 'requesting and advising him to come to Spain so that he could meet and get to know His Majesty'.

"Cortés found the offer irresistible. In May 1528 he arrived in Spain 'to address what had been said about him' by his critics, accompanied by an entourage that included a son and nephew of Montezuma and 'other prominent men from Mexico, Tlaxcala and other cities' as well as 'several of the principal conquistadors' and about forty indigenous people, including twelve of the athletes and jugglers who had entertained Montezuma. 'In short', noted Gómara, Cortés 'came like a great lord.' By chance, the German artist Christoph Weiditz arrived in Spain at the same time and his watercolours of the multicultural court reflected the tremendous impression made by Cortés and his entourage. Weiditz painted the conqueror, together with the caption 'This is the man who won almost all America for Emperor Charles V', as well as several of the Mexica athletes and jugglers who, he wrote, 'entertained His Imperial Majesty.'

"Cortés's tactics worked well. A royal letter in April 1529 informed him that Loaysa and Los Cobos 'have briefed me on what you request', and that he had instructed the council to draw up the necessary paperwork. The following month, Charles signed warrants that created Cortés marquis of the Valle de Oaxaca and granted him 'up to 23,000 vassals with their lands', some 500 kilometres south of Mexico City. The emperor insisted that this was an 'irrevocable grant for now and for ever' to reward the marquis's services to the Crown since leaving Cuba ten years earlier (a retrospective pardon for his previous insubordination), and he invoked the same formula as he had done with Magellan to guarantee the grant: he ordered Prince Philip (now his heir) and all his vassals to respect the donation inviolably, 'notwithstanding any laws that may contradict it', because the emperor abrogated them 'by virtue of our own initiative, reasoned consideration, and absolute royal authority'. In addition, Charles took the first steps towards creating communities fully protected by law for his indigenous subjects. At the request of the new marquis, and of the delegates from Tlaxcala who accompanied him, he ordered his officials 'to investigate the role played by the inhabitants of Tlaxcala in the conquest of Mexico, and see if it would be right to protect them from being included in any encomienda, as they request, as a reward for their assistance'.

"Issuing orders for America was easy; securing their execution was hard. In November 1527 the emperor decided to transfer to the New World another institution from Spain: he created an Audiencia in Mexico City, an appeals court with a president and five judges answering directly to the council of the Indies. Unfortunately for the plan, some judges took a year to reach Mexico, two died soon after they got there; and choosing a president took even longer. A special committee chaired by Cardinal Tavera, with members from the councils of Castile and Finance as well as the Indies, recommended the appointment of 'a sensible and prudent gentleman', but their first nominee claimed he was too ill to cross the Atlantic, and Tavera reported bitterly that although two others 'said that they would serve Your Majesty, they asked for such outrageous rewards that it seems they were not as willing to serve Your Majesty as they seemed at first. So we have begun to think of other people.'"



Geoffrey Parker


Emperor: A New Life of Charles V


Yale University Press


Copyright 2019 Geoffrey Parker


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