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  • “War by Fire and Blood” The Church and the Chichimecas 1585
  • Stafford Poole C.M.

“THE JUSTICE of warring against the notorious Chichimeca Indians of Mexico was a burning issue throughout the sixteenth century.”1 This simple statement covers more than half a century of theological, canonical, legal, and philosophical debate over whether or not the Spanish government was justified in waging total war a fuego y a sangre against the wild Indian tribes to the north of the capital. Should these Indians continue to be regarded, as they had been in the past, as wards of the Spanish Crown and so be punished as errant children, “delincuentes,” or should they all, men, women, and children, be declared enemies of the Spanish nation and the Christian religion and so be punished by being pursued, hunted down, subjugated, and either enslaved or exterminated? This debate went to the heart of the question of the nature and justice of Spanish rule in the Indies and it vexed the consciences of viceroys, audiencias, colonists, and churchmen.2 It was only natural, then, that the question should be submitted to the most important ecclesiastical gathering of colonial Mexico—the Third Mexican Provincial Council of 1585. Though passing references are sometimes made to the consideration given to the Chichimecan question by the Council, no serious study has ever been made of the discussions and arguments nor of the official stand taken by the Mexican Church. This is particularly to be regretted since such a study casts some interesting light on the mentality of the second generation of Spanish settlers in Mexico.3 [End Page 115]

Beyond doubt the Third Mexican Council, one of the outstanding meetings of its type in all Church history, was almost entirely the work of Pedro Moya de Contreras, the third Archbishop of Mexico.4 Just at what time the idea of convening all the bishops of New Spain occurred to him is uncertain, but it was definitely at an early period in his term as archbishop. However, for reasons now obscure, the first orders of convocation were not issued until the first part of 1584, and the opening of the Council, January 18, 1585, found all but three of the bishops of the Mexican province in attendance. Those present were, in addition to Moya himself, Fernando Gómez de Córdova of Guatemala, Juan de Medina Rincón of Michoacán, Diego Romano of Tlaxcala, Gregorio de Montalvo of Yucatán, Domingo de Alzola of New Galicia (Guadalajara), and Bartolomé de Ledesma of Oaxaca.5 The Council [End Page 116] also had a number of expert consultors, including representatives of the major religious orders, that is, the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Jesuits. Among the consultors were Fray Juan Salmerón, a Franciscan theologian; Father Juan de la Plaza, a noted Jesuit theologian; Hernando Ortiz de Hinojosa, catedrático in philosophy at the university and later presentado to the bishopric of Guatemala; Juan de Salcedo, the indefatigable and diligent secretary of the Council; and Doctor Fulgencio Vique, a well-known canonist.6

From its convocation to its adjournment (January 18 to October 20, 1585), the Council carried out the purposes first enunciated by Moya de Contreras, that is, the reformation of morals, the settling of controversies, the correction of excesses, and the determination of those things “which are opportune for the glory of God and the rule of this province.”7 This latter purpose was universal in scope and the Council did legislate on a bewildering variety of subjects. Yet the constantly recurring and fundamental problem that appeared in every deliberation was the status of the native population. Everything else quickly became secondary. And of the problems that concerned the Indians, two stood out: the repartimientos, and the lawfulness of total war against the savage and heathen Indians of the north, called Chichimecas.8 [End Page 117]

The Chichimecas

Contemporary accounts agree on the principal characteristics of the various stone-age Indian tribes who were called by the generic name of Chichimeca and who were the single greatest obstacle to Spanish expansion into the North of Mexico.9 They were among the most barbarous and ferocious that the Spaniards...


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