restricted access 8. Colonization: Efforts to Incorporate the Indians
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CHAPTER 8 Colonization: Efforts to Incorporate the Indians The Rationality of the Indian: Spanish Perceptions Queen Isabella desired to incorporate the American indigenes into the Spanish scheme of colonization by converting them, acculturating them, and putting them to work, but she underestimated the magnitude of the task. Indeed, a sharp difference of opinion arose as to whether it could be accomplished at all. The dispute turned on the essential nature and identity of the American indigene and, in a broader sense, was an extension of the problem first raised by Portuguese expansion along the coast of Africa when Europeans encountered savagery and paganism on a large scale. The first settlers in the Indies had a low opinion of the Indian's rationality, and Governor Ovando shared it. When he arrived in Espanola in 1501, he found a situation that was duplicated again and again as the Conquest advanced. The Indians, he reported, worshiped idols and devils and showed little disposition toward Christianity. They lived in savagery, ate bugs and lizards, indulged in bestial sexual practices, and bathed frequently, a practice that the queen was informed did them much harm. Of more immediate concern, they preferred feasting, drinking, dancing,and idleness to honest toil, and to avoid serving the Spaniards they fled to the hills and forests. Asa result of native fecklessness, the European settlers starved, the gold mines went unworked, and royal revenues languished. Indeed, the first Spanish colony in the Indies faced a crisis of existence . A little later, historian and public official Gonzalo Fernandezde Oviedo described the natives he saw on Espanola and Tierra Firme as "naturally lazy and vicious, melancholic, cowardly, and in general a lying,shiftless people. . . . 153 154 C O L O N I Z A T I O N : I N D I A N S [But] what could one expect from a people whose skulls are so thick and hard that the Spaniards had to take care in fighting not to strike on the head lest their swords be blunted?" Teaching them Christianity, he observed ironically, "is like chewing on a cold piece of iron."1 Some persons believed the Indians to be not only depraved but subhuman. Although he changed his mind on his deathbed, Dominican Friar Domingo de Betanzos sent a memorial to the Council of the Indies declaring the natives to be beasts, condemned by God for their sins and doomed to perish.2 Father LasCasas took a more positive view. "God created these simple people ," he affirmed, "without evil and without guile. They are most obedient and faithful to their natural lords and to the Christians whom they serve. . . . Surely [they] would be the most blessed in the world if only they worshiped the True God."3 He believed further that they could be truly converted and taught the arts of civilization. The crown and its most influential advisers consistently supported Las Casas's position, at least in theory, and in 1537 Pope Paul settled the question officially by declaring: "We . . . consider . . . that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith, but according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it."4 The question of the rationality of the American indigenes, however, remained very much alive and generated intense debate in Spain and the Indies throughout discovery, conquest, and colonization. Generally speaking, esteem for Indians was highest among savants in Europe who had never seen one, lowest among officials and settlers who had to deal directly with their exasperating resistance to European ways. It must be said, however, that most Spaniards in the New World had a vested interest in regarding Indians as inferior beings. Early Spanish Indian Policy Enslavement But, even if the essential humanity and rationality of the Indians were accepted , at first no one had any clear notion of how to redeem them from sin and sloth. The most obvious way to put them to work was to enslave them. Columbus tried it but received a severe reprimand from his sovereign. The queen had no scruples about the ancient and universally accepted institution of slavery, but she objected to the disposition of her subjects without her express approval. She and her successors, moreover, consistently affirmed that the Indians, once they accepted Castilian sovereignty, became vassals of the C O L O N I Z A T I O N : I N D I A N S 1 5 5 crown and as such were free, although...


Subject Headings

  • America -- Discovery and exploration -- Spanish.
  • America -- Discovery and exploration -- Portuguese.
  • Latin America -- History -- To 1830.
  • Spain -- Colonies -- America -- History.
  • Portugal -- Colonies -- America -- History.
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