Indian Siutation In Colonial Latin America Essay

, Research Paper

The Indian situation in South America presented Spain with an interesting dilemma. At first, territorial expansion and the hunt for gold loomed over the New World, with Spain at the helm of the operation. Indians were obviously native of the area and their presence left Spain with several options if the New World was to become a “gold mine” of Spanish conquest. Economic progress took precedent in the eyes as well as the ideals of the Spanish regarding the “Indian situation”. There were attempts at preserving and even enhancing Indian cultural rights yet these issues did not seem mutually exclusive. I feel as if the Spanish reaction to these issues left the Indians with the option of either assimilation or perishing at the hands of their conquerors (in both the figurative and literal sense).

When the Spanish first encountered the Indians (explorers such as Columbus, Cortes, and Pizarro) they were appalled at the culture that they found. Human sacrifice and a seemingly obvious disregard for human life made the Indians’ customs appear primitive to the “enlightened” Spanish. One must notice that although the Spanish came with the intent to “baptize the world”, they persecuted the Indians that they encountered. The beliefs that the Catholic Spanish held were ones that the Indians did not want to obey or accept yet were forced to follow as a result of the Spanish might. As Cortes and Pizarro used the excuse of spreading Christianity to give their slaughter good meaning, it was blatantly obvious that the Spanish were hiding behind the Bible to justify their mistreatment and reapportionment of the Indians.

Economic opportunity gave the Spanish the notion that the Indians inhabiting the area were merely tools of imminent commercial success. Spanish legislators were clever enough to realize that Indians under the rule of their own nobles were subject to a life of servitude and the Spanish sought to exploit this with a dose of their own idealism. The Spanish crown was knowledgeable of the mita (labor tax), under the Inca Empire, and enforced this policy in their colonies to require the Indians to comprise the New World “working class”. As far as economics is concerned, a move such as this would be beneficial to the Spanish government for it places laborers (Indians) in the mines, and enhances the army’s strength. When looking at this from a Spanish perspective it almost seems fair because it is a humane alternative to the genocide (forced human sacrifice) that the Indians could have been subjected to under their own “gods”. However, the Spanish solution doesn’t allow the Indians’ any true continuance of culture. The Indians are truly the slaves of the Spanish Royal Crown at this point and their situation is not destined to improve under such an imperialist power that is in decline itself.

At the onset of the colonial expansion into the New World, encomiendas and repartimientos were common for the Spanish to possess. Indians were mistreated and many of them perished along the way as the Spanish “spread Christianity”. There were several Spaniards that felt as I do, that the Indians’ rights were being superceded by potential economic progress, and they attempted to appeal on behalf of the Indians. Those such as Las Casas, and Montesinos were opposed to forced slavery of the Indians as well as the Encomiendas. Each made their appeal for Indian rights, yet even when their pleas made it as far as Charles V even royal decrees could not prevent what was to happen in the New World.

Economic progression was potentially beneficial for the Indians of the “New World” as well but it meant assimilating into a Spanish culture that was indeed forced upon them. Even if genuinely interested in the welfare of the Indians (as people, not laborers) the Spanish Royal Crown was separated from the New World by an ocean’s distance and could not oversee all that they wanted. While occasionally the royal viceroys were able to emulate the wishes of the Crown (regarding the New Laws) there was a growing independence of the peninsulars, and creoles. In areas such as Peru, which was essentially an isolated colony, the Indians were subject to cruel masters whose ambitions could only be fufilled by exploiting their services.

It was not that the Spanish were evil, yet they held no regard for a culture that they obviously never truly cared to recognize. It was the Indian labor that mattered to the Spanish and as the New World expanded in commercial value as well as Spanish distribution of settlers the Indian situation did not progress. Perhaps the Indians’ culture had to be reformed to be “civil” yet they did not have to be dominated and abused by the Spanish. If spreading Christianity and preserving humanity was the goal of the Spanish then they failed miserably, but it is evident that they did have commercial success (as far as exporting precious metals from the New World). The New World offered the Spanish and the Indians a chance at future economic progress in Latin America but the benefit was mostly one-sided.


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