History of Aboriginal America 6: Papal Generosity, the Laws of Burgos & more

Posted on January 14, 2011

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9.  The Requirement, the Laws of Burgos and the Papal Donation of 1493

In 1513, Spain issued the Laws of Burgos which are notable for two things:  they officially incorporated and made part of Spanish law the institution created by Columbus, the incomienda, whereby land grants to settlers included, as an extra added benefit, the right to enslave the people who lived on that land.

Of course, the incomienda system was the status quo in New Spain anyway, but it is always useful to have royal sanction.

The other notable thing about the new laws was the attempt to define the responsibilities of the encomenderos – the holders of incomiendas – towards their new slaves.

In theory, the indigenous people had become de facto Spanish citizens – albeit of low status – and were not supposed to be slaves at all.  But the inconvenient notion that the encomenderos had responsibility towards the people they considered their property, the unnecessary – to them – notion that these people had rights, and that the settler’s powers over them was limited in any way, these ideas were not likely to be taken seriously.  Those aspects of the Laws of Burgos were merely ignored on these islands and territories so distant from royal scrutiny and reach.

And so the incomienda system continued as it had been, simply slavery by another name.

But now with royal stamp and approval.

Also in 1513, a Spanish lawyer by the name of Palacios Rubios crafted a document known as the Requerimiento or the Requirement.

The document declared that the world was 5000 years old, that God had made the Pope the lord of this world, and that the Pope – as universal king – had given the Americas to Spain.  Therefore the lands upon which the indigenous Americans dwelt were Spanish lands, and all the people presently living upon these lands owed their allegiance to the Spanish.

The Requirement asked the indigenous Americans to acknowledge Spanish ownership of their territories and possessions, and to acknowledge the right of the Spanish to rule them.

And it stated that if they did not do so, then the Spanish “shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault…”

Why craft such a document?

Ronald Wright in Stolen Continents explains, “the Spanish king, to save his mortal soul, had accepted the principle that foreign peoples, even pagans, could not be attacked without first being given a chance to submit.”[1]

And were they given such a chance, and was the chance legitimately offered?

When Cortés spoke to Moctezuma in 1519 after entering Tenochtitlan – Mexico City – Cortés had the Requirement translated and read, and Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor, believing Cortés to represent the prophesized return of the Mesoamerican culture hero Quetzalcoatl, in fact submitted and surrendered his throne to Cortés.  Yet the Spanish brought war and destruction anyway, indicating that the Requirement had as little functional meaning to those who read it out as to its intended audience.

And the conquistadors were not always, or even particularly, scrupulous in ensuring that the indigenous people had a chance to submit.  The Requirement was read to empty streets, from ships at sea, outside of sleeping villages, and, even when it had an actual audience to hear it, often no attempt at translation was made, even as much – given its particular and uniquely European worldview – as it could be translated and understood outside of a specifically European context.

Ronald Wright remarks:

Reading this document now, one wonders, like the humanitarian Las Casas, “whether to laugh or cry.”  It is at once primitive in conception and maniacal in grasp.  Nothing proclaims more loudly the arrogance of European man and the meanness of the mental prison he inhabited.  One can imagine the smiles of the Maya, who knew the scale of eternity, on being told that the world was made “five thousand and some years ago.”  And one applauds the chiefs of Sinú, among the first to hear the document, when they answered, “The holy father has indeed been generous with others’ property.”[2]

It was the papal donation of the lands in the Americas which formed the legal underpinning of the Requirement.  This donation was made to Spain on May 4, 1493, in the papal bull “Inter caetera” by Pope Alexander VI, a Spanish member of the Borgia family.

The donation was in part a reward for the successful efforts of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in finally defeating, in 1492, the Muslim enclave of Granada in southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, an enterprise which had been heavily financed by the church under the rubric of “crusade,” and which had resulted in the flow of a considerable amount of Moslem gold into Christian hands, as well as a satisfactory expansion of Christian territory.

Donations made by prior popes to the kingdom of Portugal were contradicted in some aspects by the Inter Caetera of 1493, and the Portuguese were not pleased about it. But they resolved the issue in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, negotiated with Spain.

The treaty redrew the boundary line of the Inter Caetera westward, which had the eventual effect of conceding to Portugal the right to exploit Brazil, and of reserving the rest of the Americas for Spain.

Of course, in 1494 nobody in Europe knew about Brazil, or about the Americas for that matter, but that is how matters turned out, and it explains why most of the Americas south of the Rio Grande today speaks Spanish while Brazil speaks Portuguese.

Credit a pope who was generous in distributing what was not his to give.


[1] Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes, 1993, Penguin, Toronto, p. 29.

[2] Wright, p. 66.