Historian Michael J. O’Neal tells how, for quite some time, there had been debate in Spain over the morality of conquering the New World. Some contended that, aside from the vast financial benefits, it was a righteous deed to convert people to the one true faith. Others contended that it was unfair to force people to believe in a god about whom they had never heard.
The end of 1512 brought the Laws of Burgos, a legal code drafted by a group of Spanish priests who sought to curtail the abuse of natives by Spanish settlers in the already established colony of Hispaniola.
The Laws of Burgos regulated how natives would be educated, fed, housed, and – if need be – punished. Though these laws reinforced dominion over the natives, they were comparatively “humane”, according to O’Neal, who points out that children under 14 and visibly pregnant women were excused from labour. The natives were also allowed to perform their sacred dances, as long as they passed periodic tests on the Ten Commandments, Seven Deadly Sins, and the Catholic Articles of Faith.
At the time of the Laws of Burgos – some two decades after Columbus’ legendary first voyage – the Spanish had yet to make huge inroads into New World territory. But monarchs and conquerors alike knew Spain was destined for greater things. The year 1513 brought the release of a curious document called the Requerimiento.
It was written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios (1450–1524), a highly versatile Renaissance man who operated as a college professor, jurist, judge, minister, and even an ambassador to Rome. Just as important as any of these titles, he was an ardent supporter of the Spanish monarchy; he was quite perfect for the task of composing the Requerimiento.
Written in the second person, this document is addressed to the native peoples of the Americas. The opening paragraph tells that the following words come directly from King Ferdinand and his daughter, Doña Juana, who both exhort indigenous peoples to submit to Spanish rule and convert to Catholicism.
The Requerimiento’s logical justification goes basically like this: under God’s direction, Saint Peter established the Catholic Church; the Pope, as a holy descendant of Saint Peter, has now granted all New World territories to the Spanish Crown.
The conquerors, as “subduers of the barbarous nations”, are acting simply on God’s will; they are divinely ordained to claim all possible New World territories. Whatever burdensome moral conflicts that may have entered the conquerors heads are now relieved. They could now act with rigour and spiritual impunity.
Paragraph 4 says that the natives are welcome to read the document for themselves. Though this offering may seem equitable on the surface, the Requerimiento was written in Latin, a language in which indigenous Americans were far from proficient.
The ensuing paragraph attempts to make the document sound like a reasonable proposition. It tells how many other natives of the New World have already submitted to Spanish rule and converted to Catholicism, and, moreover, that they have done so “in the way the subjects ought to do, with good will, without any resistance, immediately, without delay”. Such agreeable natives have been “joyfully and benignantly received” by the Spanish monarchy. And as for any natives now being addressed, the monarchs are prepared to receive them with “love and charity”.
Following this mention of love and charity, the tone changes, as the document concludes with threats in the case of refusal: “If you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we 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”.
Whether the Requerimiento was read in its native Latin, or translated to Spanish, amounted to much the same; the vast majority of the time, the natives had not the slightest clue as to what the Spanish were telling them.
Historian O’Neal reinforces how the real purpose of the document was to “provide the colonizers with the spiritual justification they needed, basing conquest not on raw subjugation but on the authority of the Pope to grant the lands of the Americas to the Spanish”.
It is rather haunting to think of how, for the natives, this document they could not comprehend would change their world forever. Often the Requerimiento was not even actually presented to the natives: “Observers noted that the document was often read to trees, empty beaches, and abandoned villages, as well as from the decks of ships far out of earshot of land”.
The Requerimiento’s own author, Palacios Rubios – despite his politics – acknowledged the frequent absurdity. He reportedly “could not stop laughing” when told of how his document had been used in one instance.
However ridiculous its presentation, the document’s implications would vastly change the course of history, as New World conquest rose to a fevered pitch. Later in 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama, bringing the first European journey to the western coast of the New World and the Pacific Ocean. Several years later, the Spanish – under Hernán Cortés – invaded the thriving Aztec Empire.
In fairness to these conquerors, the witnessing of Aztec human sacrifice on a mass level would only reinforce any preconceived notions that, under the Spanish monarchy, they were acting in a righteous way – introducing Christian ideals to a civilization so long accustomed to barbarous practices.
During the ensuing years of the 16th century, an estimated 250,000 Spanish would settle in the Americas. This influx of people (especially those bringing new diseases, smallpox most notably) often had devastating consequences for native populations; some estimate that, in Mexico and Peru, over 80% of the indigenous population was wiped out.
On a more triumphant note, the Spanish would dominate the Americas for centuries, as the Requerimiento kept finding its way to the next perplexed audience.