The discovery of the New World is the most important event in world history.

In three centuries the world expanded, coastlines were identified on maps, entire oceans were named, the New World was divided by the Spanish and Portuguese and this division would forever replace Jerusalem as the focal point of the world.

The process of expansion accelerated in time and the generation that lived in the late 15th and early 16th centuries—the generation of erasmus, Copernicus, Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci—witnessed the most rapid transformation in geographical, demographical, botanical, anthropological and historical knowledge and experience that the world has ever seen.

The name America was never used by the Iberians and the Spanish and Portuguese always referred to their colonies as Las Indias, or the Indies.

Due to the Portuguese exploration and exploitation of Africa Spain was forced to explore to the West of the Iberian Peninsula.

The powers of the Iberian Peninsula formed a separate state system within Europe, with its own national rivalries and jealousies.

The outline of Iberian political geography were instantly and magnificently mirrored in the political divisions of the New World, where Portugal would receive a part and Spain a larger part and where for a century no non-Iberian power was able to establish more than a temporary foothold.

There was a clear division between Spanish and Portuguese empires. This division had its basis in peninsular and papal diplomacy of the 1490’s.

From the mid-15th century on it had been customary for popes to grant to the Portuguese monarchs rights of sovereignty over lands discovered and of enslavement over non-Christian peoples in Africa.

Usually in these papal bulls the phrase was that Portugal controlled all land "as far as the Indies."

Unfortunately, for the Portuguese Columbus ventured upon the New World in 1492 and declared that the Indies were Spanish possessions.

Because of this peninsular and catholic rivalry that was developing between Spain and Portugal Pope Alexander VI was persuaded by the Spanish and Portuguese to issue a 4th papal bull and on September 26, 1493 the Treaty of Tordesillas was signed by the Pope, Spain and Portugal.

As late as 1516 nothing was officially known of Yucatan or of mainland Mexico.


Only in 1517-18 after the Mexican coastal journeys of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Juan de Grijalva did the colonists of the islands receive reports of wealthy native populations in Mexico.

The Aztecs were probably the best known of the American peoples won through the conquest and had an elaborate civilization.

The Aztecs developed a military state that waged aggressive warfare against surrounding tribes and brought an increasingly larger Mexican population under their control.

Under the emperor Moctezuma II, who succeeded to chieftainship in 1502, the final Aztec conquest of Indian towns on the Gulf of Mexico was accomplished.

Thus the very area that Cortes landed with his men had only recently been brought under Aztec control and there was much hatred of the Aztecs.

When Cortes landed in 1519 and after burning his ships he made alliances with the friendly Indian peoples of the area.

At Cholula the forces of Moctezuma planned an ambush of Cortes, but he was forewarned by friendly natives and his soldiers then executed a wholesale slaughter that quickly brought the anti-Aztec Indians to his side.

Several hundred Spanish soldiers were reinforced by many thousands of Indian allies by the time Cortes arrived at Tenochitlan in the autumn of 1519.

Cortes quickly seized Moctezuma and made him prisoner and ruled through him as a puppet emperor, as Spanish soldiers spread throughout the city gathering gold and plunder.

Things continued like this until the spring of 1520 when Cortes temporarily left the city the Aztecs rose up in rebellion and drove the Spaniards from the city to Tlaxcala on June 30, 1520 called Noche triste.

Cortes found many allies outside the city and in the summer of 1521 planned their final assault and it was successful. Moctezuma had been killed under mysterious circumstances and his nephew Cuauhtemoc was compelled to surrender to Cortes in August of 1521.

To the invaders Mexico City was a major prize. In Spanish hands the city served as the center of an expanding colonial territory. Cortes became the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca.

Yet Yucatan and what is now central America was a real struggle to conquer for the Indians used guerilla tactics and it was not until 1545 that Yucatan was nominally in Spanish control.

In the Andean highlands of the western coast of South America the Inca peoples had developed one of the most remarkable social and political systems of the non-European world.

The Incas were the creators of the most organized and rational society in all native America. Their paternalistic welfare government was headed by a chief Sapa Inca who was at once emperor and deity and whose queen was his own sister.

Dynastic succession was incestuous in order to prevent the introduction of any impure strain.

The court was composed of member of the imperial family, from among whom the main administrative posts were filled. The state exacted a labor tribute from a population divided according to age groups.

Public buildings, temples, waterworks, terraces and fortresses were constructed under the direction of professional architects and builders who were supported by the government.

An advanced system of roads connected outlying parts of the empire to its center, with postal stations for the rapid relay of messages to and from Cuzco, the capital city.

The Inca empire like the Aztec was still comparatively new in the 16th century and at the time of the Spaniards arrival was undergoing a severe internal crisis in the form of a civil war between two rival heirs to the Inca’s throne.

In 1531 Francisco Pizzaro sailed from Panama and landed at Tumbez and then proceeded to march overland towards Cuzco telling all that he was their liberator.

After the example of Cortes, Pizzaro captured the Incan leaders Atahualpa and employed his soldiers in the collection of treasure. When the Incas had given the Spaniards and entire room filled with gold Pizzaro would release Atahualpa.

The Incas complied and Pizzaro conducted a trial of Atahualpa, charged him with usurpation, idolatry and polygamy and then executed him.

Now the Papacy had confirmed, and the Spanish monarchy had accepted the duty of American christianization. But ethical guidelines were needed.

The earliest document issued by the royal government on the ethical issues of Spanish-Indian warfare was the Requerimiento, a copy which was to be carried by every conquistador.

It required that the Indians hearers recognize the authority of church, pope, and monarch, and it further detailed in graphic phrases the consequence should they refuse to acknowledge proper allegiance.

The central point of the reqerimiento philosophy was its insistence that Indians were to blame for the Spanish conquest.

This sparked a ferocious debated in church circles. On the side of the Indians was Bortolome de Las Casas who was Bishop of Southern Mexico and spent his career denouncing the conquest and its cruelty.

Las Casas agreed that the Indian should be civilized and Christianized and that the monarch and pope should exercise spiritual authority over them. But this was in no sense justification for the conquest.

On the opposite side of the debate was Juan Gines de Sepulveda who defended the doctrine of the just war or just-conquest.

He cited the Bible "Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in" (Luke 14:23) And just war was the only way to eradicate idolatry, polygamy and immorality among the Indians.

In Spain the Las Casas position had direct consequences in stimulating official caution toward the question of the conquest and adopted some of Las Casas’ ideas.

Part of the reason for this was that many Indians seemed to be dying for no apparent reason after contact with the Spaniards and this alarmed the crown.

In each of the three post-conquest areas there were three conflicting elements in colonial Latin American society.

The first was the encomendero class that consisted of former conquistadors and leading civilian colonists. This group formed an early colonial aristocracy.

The second was the colonial church, dedicated to the task of converting the Indians, preventing Indian exploitation by the encomenderos, and establishing a Christian society.

Though many Indians worked as virtual slaves in Church obrajes or factories.

The third element was the Spanish secular state, with its expanding colonial officialdom and its monarchical insistence on state control over all persons and parties in America.

Through a formal grant of encomienda, designated Indian families, usually the inhabitants of a town or of a cluster of towns, were entrusted to the charge of a Spanish colonist, who thus became the encomendero.

The encomenderos were permitted to exact both commodity and labor tribute from the Indians that they held, in return for defense, civilization and religious instruction to be provided by the encomendero.

When labor was not voluntarily given up it was extracted by force.

However, Indians were not to be treated as chattels and they could not be bought or sold.

Queen Isabella had been the protector of the Indians but when she died in 1504 Ferdinand allowed the encomendero class full freedom in exploiting the Indians.

The Dominican order protested loudly the cruelty of the Spanish to the Indians and this led Ferdinand to create the Laws of the Burgos that stipulated specific rules for the holding of Indians.

Often encomenderos operated through existing Indians leaders and engaged in relatively little contact with mass populations.

By the 1540’s the encomendero class was becoming too powerful in New Spain and Peru and this worried Charles V the Spanish king.

Charles was forced to establish royal authority in America and his foremost effort to achieve it was the legislation known as the New Laws of 1542-43.

The New laws prohibited Indian enslavement even as punishment and they forbade the granting of new encomiendas.

All church and political officials were to relinquish any encomiendas they might hold. Also encomiendas could no longer be passed on to heirs.

And tributes taken form Indians were to be fixed and regulated and were not to be exorbitant.

There was a tremendous outcry against the New Laws and rebellion erupted in Peru.

In Mexico the nervous viceroy forgot to announce the new legislation and the Spanish Crown quickly saw that the Laws were unenforceable and some of the measures were repealed in 1546-47.

By the early 1600’s the crown introduced royal officers as collectors of tribute from those Indians no longer in encomienda.

The progressive limitation of the encomienda was not due to the strength of the crown but was more due to the continuous decrease in Indian population.


By the 1540's all the caribe Indians were extinct in the West Indies. The most painstaking of modern studies records a decline in New Spain from nearly 30 million to about 1 million in the years between 1519 and 1605.


Disease traveled rapidly in America, more rapidly than encomienda. In fact it has been estimated that the population of the Inca empire had already been reduced in half or more by the early 1530's when Pizzaro reached the coast and began his conquest.


Smallpox, Typhus, measles and the common cold were the wholesale killers of Indian society. In the 17th century encomienda was formally abolished, but remnants of it continued in many remote areas.


The original encomienda was an important institution in Spanish America for it was a transitional device between conquest and settled society. It was politically crude but it still prevented the slaughter and enslavement of Indian populations.


Economically the encomienda performed the very real function of transferring Indian wealth to Spanish hands, in a procedure that was more orderly than outright looting of spoils.

The establishment of a patrimonial and centralized Spanish monarchy was the great achievement of Ferdinand and Isabella.


The Spanish monarchy first delegated political power in order that an empire might be founded.


Of the governing institutions for the American colonies the Council of the Indies remained most important in the 16th and 17th centuries.


The Council drafted and issued American laws and served as the appellate judicial court for civil cases arising in the colonies. In the matter of appointment to American religious and secular offices, the council exercised the royal power of nomination.


The highest ranking representatives of royal government were the viceroys, who ruled in the king's name and without exception were Spaniards born in the mother country. Their appointment was by the king and council.


The viceroy was the executive officer who would translate the royal legislation o of the Council of the Indies into political reality or irreality.


Viceroys were assisted by advisory and judicial bodies known as audiencias that also served as appellate courts.


Within the jurisdiction of the audiencias were subdivisions of authority over local areas governed by alcalde mayores, corregidores and gobernadores. Corregidores were municipal councils.


Alcaldes were judges as well as councilors.


This all seems very democratic in terms of divisions of formal authority structures.


But it is important to point out that almost all political positions were

bought and sold regularly and it should be stated that democracy was not practiced in Spanish America at any political level


The church was another key institution in the development of colonial Latin American society. In essence the strategy of the church was based on the mission system.


In many ways the mission under Vasco de Quiroga was created as utopian communities modeled on Thomas More's utopia, with communally owned property, communally performed labor and a representative government.

Indians responded enthusiastically to the new Christian religion, but they intended to interpret Christianity as a doctrine compatible with their own tolerant pagan religions.


Indians who were predisposed to polytheism almost necessarily reached a distorted understanding of the Christian Trinity and the Indians allowed Christianity and paganism to exist simultaneously as alternative or complimentary faiths.


A common Indian view was that you resorted to one religion or the other depending on how successful you were at getting what you wanted from the god or gods at the time.


The church and the encomienda became rival institutions, each in its own way seeking to control native populations.


The inquisition in Spain, established by Ferdinand and Isabella had been a royal instrument to purge the nation of Jews. It was formally transferred to America in the 16th century and the Inquisition set up tribunals in Mexico City, Lima and Cartagena.


Most significantly the tribunals were denied jurisdiction over the Indian.

As Indian populations continued to decline Christianization became less important and the lands vacated by the dead or dying Indians were consumed by the church.


By 1700 the church had emerged as the foremost landholding body in the colonies with a huge investment in buildings, ranches, cattle, mills and agricultural supplies.


By the 1700's the nature of the spiritual conquest had been altered and the presidio or fort competed with the authority of the mission as the agent of social control and defense.


By the 18th century the Jesuits were established in mission throughout South America and had established very prosperous missions and parishes.


In southern South America, because of slave raid from Portuguese in Brazil they had retrenched and concentrated their attention upon the Guarani peoples in the Uruguay and Parana valleys.


This was the area of the best known Jesuit reducciones or reductions.


Here the Jesuits imposed a discipline of Christian duties, with manual labor, partially common property and strict daily schedules. Contact with the outside world was limited and the Indian subjects in the mission were organized as in an army.


The Jesuits regulated all aspects of native life: food, clothing, living habits, prayer were all regulated. Their tendency was to close off the mission compound, forbid access or egress to or form it and govern the mission and reductions as isolated enclave states.


In 1767, in a sudden and devastating move, the crown expelled all members of the society of Jesus from the colonies.


This expulsion was related to the general Bourbon attack upon Jesuit society in Europe, the result of the Enlightenment ideas, religious nationalism, and resistance to papal authority.


In America one result of the expulsion of the Jesuits was in Paraguay and Parana was the decay of the large number of Jesuit institutions and the decculturation of Amazonian Indians.


Exploitation, desertion, crime and enslavement were the immediate consequences of the expulsion.


The late colonial church was less a missionary institution and more an institution of wealth, a holder of mortgages and real estate broker.