restricted access 18. American Societies and American Identities
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CHAPTER 18 American Societies and American Identities Throughout the colonial era persons of European descent in the Indies still believed firmly that a properly formed republic should be constituted by a hierarchy of orders, each possessing distinct ascribed and juridical statuses. By the end of the Conquest, however, it had become clear that the traditional ordering —nobility, clergy, and commoners—could not be reproduced in America. They were already archaic in Europe, the crown opposed the presence of a powerful nobility in America, and, above all, the medieval concept of arepublic could not accommodate the millions of non-Europeans who made up most of the American population. For these reasons the social order in the seventeenth-century Indies washierarchical , but its constituent elements were defined by the Spanish in ostensibly racial terms—a Republic of Spaniards, a Republic of Indians, and a "third order" of free blacks and mixed bloods who had not been assimilated into European or Indian society and who were presumed to have an African taint.1 As in chapter 3 "race" isdefined here not as a biologically distinct population but as a belief held by human groups that they are different from other groups by virtue of their innate and immutable physical characteristics, that these characteristics are intrinsically related to cultural attributes, and that such differences are a legitimate justification for invidious distinctions among peoples. The Republic of Spaniards and Its Ordering The Spaniards made the rules and therefore constituted the superior order. Regardless of rank or provenance, they perceivedthemselves as descendants by 391 3 9 2 A M E R I C A N S O C I E T I E S A N D I D E N T I T I E S legitimate lineage of a race of conquerors, as gente de razon (rationalhuman beings capable of living in polity), and as Catholics of impeccable orthodoxy. They pretended to "purity of blood," whichin the Indies meant freedom from African and pagan Indian contamination as well as from Jewish and Moorish taint. Their self-perception also had physicalovertones.They saw themselves as vigorous, robust, and light complexioned, a hue that they ordinarily described as bermejo (ruddyor florid) rather than white (bianco). In law they possessed a wide range of behavioral and occupational freedoms and enjoyed exemptions from personal taxes. The Aristocracy The concept of functional orders continued to influencethe internal constitution of the Republic of Spaniards, but important changes occurred in sources of status. The encomendero class, more or less conterminous with the sons of conquerors and first settlers, continued to be the most aristocratic group in colonial society, and the king declared its members to be benemeritos de Indias (the well-deserving in the Indies) by virtue of services rendered by their ancestors. It did not, however, complete its evolution into a true noble estate. Through its inability or unwillingness to fulfill its military obligations, the defense of the realm passed into the charge of municipalmilitias and royal companies and battalions. The king refrained from granting it the fuero of hidalgos on a wholesale basis, and, through the New Laws and subsequent antiencomienda legislation, he deprived encomenderos of senorial rights and refused them perpetualtenure of their fiefs, an attribute essential to the existence of a nobility. Finally, the continuing decline in the indigenous population eroded the economic and territorial bases of their influence. Meanwhile a new aristocracy emerged consisting of moradores and latterday adelantados who created large haciendas. Although ownership of landeven in great amounts, did not automatically conveyhonor and esteem,it furnished an economic and territorial base for social advancement that hacendados exploited in various ways. They entailed their properties if they could afford to do so. They acquired resident work forces and, through the territorial union of their land and dependent labor, gained a form of de facto senorio much more durablethan the encomienda. Like the old encomendero class, they maintained imposing houses in towns of their provinces and obtained seats in cabildos . They reinforced their civil sources of status with officerships in local militias. Landowningfamilies intermarried, thereby consolidating holdings and forming an ever-widening network of kinship influence. A M E R I C A N S O C I E T I E S A N D I D E N T I T I E S 3 9 3 A certain fusion between old and new aristocracies took place. Enterprising encomenderos created haciendas that they worked with their Indians. The crown gave vacant or escheated encomiendas...


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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