New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, 1542

[Historical Note: In 1542, Spain's King Charles V instituted a sweeping administrative reform of his New World colonies. Designed to ensure fairer treatment for the Indians while weakening his more ambitious Spanish subjects, the New Laws sparked serious resentment and led to several rebellions against Crown rule. The oft-cited phrase "I obey but I cannot comply" is said to have originated when Spanish bureaucrats were unable to enforce the king's new legislation. Charles V subsequently suspended several of the New Laws--most notably those concerning the enslavement of Indians--until he could consolidate his power enough to guarantee their enforcement.

Despite the level of attention that the treatment of Indians received in the reforms, the New Laws dealt as much with issues of how the Spanish monarchy might extend and consolidate its power over its own peoples as they did with issues of how to treat new subjects. Like the Romans before them, and the globe-spanning empires to follow, the Spanish monarchs found that the challenges of empire often diminished the rewards of empire.

The Spanish arrival in the Americas arguably posed as many challenges for the Iberian monarchy and its peoples as it did for their New World counterparts. In a very short time span, Spain grew from a loose confederation of kingdoms into a global empire. Even as Christopher Columbus embarked upon his epic voyage to the West, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella struggled to consolidate their power over the Iberian peninsula. The more than 700-year effort to repel the Moorish invasion from North Africa had just ended in 1492, and the monarchs faced considerable obstacles. On the one hand, they had to contend with the question of how to assimilate peoples that geography, culture, and religion (the Moors, for instance, were Muslims) long had distanced from one another. On the other hand, and in the absence of a clearly defined common enemy, they had to find a means of maintaining and strengthening their hold over the sizeable population of nobles (hidalgos) who earlier had offered them their loyalty in exchange for the possibilities of material gain. With the fighting over, the monarchs could no longer offer the longstanding incentives of land, honor, and treasure as a means of reigning in the nobility. Ferdinand and Isabella sat atop a veritable powder keg. Ferdinand and Isabella sought to find in the Indians loyal and obedient subjects. The hidalgos, by contrast, sought to find uncivilized barbarians whom they could then rob, plunder, and enslave. By the time that Cortez and Pizarro began their conquests of Mexico and Peru, Spanish priests and missionaries already were complaining to the Crown of the conquistadors' abuses of the native populations.

Realizing that their control over affairs in the New World and over their Spanish subjects depended upon their ability to both administer the Indian populations and continue to provide material incentives to the hidalgos, Ferdinand and Isabella instituted the practice of the encomienda. Not to be confused with a land grant--since, after all, there was still considerable debate over whether the Indians were civilized enough to possess their own lands--the encomienda entrusted the indigenous inhabitants of a particular area or region to a hidalgo for the duration of his life. In exchange for administering, protecting, and Christianizing the inhabitants entrusted to him, the encomendero was entitled to some of their labor. The institution was, in sum, a short-term means of establishing control over the Americas and pacifying the Spaniards until an effective bureaucracy could be established in the New World. The encomienda often proved little more than a pretext for enslaving, robbing, and otherwise abusing the Indians. In their search for wealth, the encomenderos frequently placed their own material interests above the spiritual interests of the people they were entrusted with Christianizing.

By the 1530s, Spain's King Charles V recognized the severity of the crisis he faced. While engaged with conflicts in Europe, he had lost control of his new colonies. Nowhere was this more evident than in relation to the treatment of the Indians. Despite a 1537 papal bull declaring the Indians to be human beings, complete with souls and reason, and despite the protestations of Bishop Bartolome de las Casas, Spanish settlers continued to enslave and wage war upon the indigenous peoples in their care. The hidalgos demonstrated repeatedly their reluctance to obey any orders, whether from Church or King, that might conflict with their aims. Corruption and conflicts of interest virtually ensured that a fair administration of the new lands and their peoples would not be possible so long as the hidalgos were entrusted with such responsibilities. King Charles V subsequently focused his attentions upon the enforcement of his rule. The 1542 New Laws of the Indies were the king's response to affairs in the Americas.]
  • Whereas one of the most important things in which the Audiencias are to serve us is in taking very especial care of the good treatment of the Indians and preservation of them, We command that the said Audiencias enquire continually into the excesses and ill treatment which are or shall be done to them by governors or private persons; and how the ordinances and instructions which have been given to them, and are made for the good treatment of the said Indians have been observed. And if there had been any excesses, on the part of the said Governors, or should any be committed hereafter, to take care that such excesses are properly corrected, chastizing the guilty parties with all rigour conformably to justice. The Audiencias must not allow that in the suits between Indians, or with them, there be ordinary proceedings at law, nor dilatory expedients, as is wont to happen through the malice of some advocates and solicitors, but that they be determined summarily, observing their usages and customs, unless they be manifestly unjust; and that the said Audiencias take care that this be so observed by the other, inferior judges.
  • Item, We ordain and command that from hence forward for no cause of war nor any other whatsoever, though it be under title of rebellion, nor by ransom nor in other manner can an Indian be made a slave, and we will that they be treated as our vassals of the Crown of Castile since such they are.
  • No person can make use of the Indians by way of Naboria or Tapia or in any other manner against their will. As we have ordered provision to be made that from henceforward the Indians in no way be made slaves, including those who until now have been enslaved against all reason and right and contrary to the provisions and instructions thereupon, We ordain and command that the Audiencias having first summoned the parties to their presence, without any further judicial form, but in a summary way, so that the truth may be ascertained, speedily set the said Indians at liberty unless the persons who hold them for slaves show title why they should hold and possess them legitimately. And in order that in default of persons to solicit the aforesaid, the Indians may not remain in slavery unjustly, We command that the Audiencias appoint persons who may pursue this cause for the Indians and be paid out of the Exchequer fines, provided they be men of trust and diligence.
  • Also, we command that with regard to the lading of the said Indians the Audiencias take especial care that they be not laden, or in case that in some parts this cannot be avoided that it be in such a manner that no risk of life, health and preservation of the said Indians may ensue from an immoderate burthen; and that against their own will and without their being paid, in no case be it permitted that they be laden, punishing very severely him who shall act contrary to this. In this there is to be no remission out of respect to any person.
  • Because report has been made to us that owing to the pearl fisheries not having been conducted in a proper manner deaths of many Indians and Negroes have ensued, We command that no free Indian be taken to the said fishery under pain of death, and that the bishop and the judge who shall be at Venezuela direct what shall seem to them most fit for the preservation of the slaves working in the said fishery, both Indians and Negroes, and that the deaths may cease. If, however, if should appear to them that the risk of death cannot be avoided by the said Indians and Negroes, let the fishery of the said pearls cease, since we value much more highly (as is right) the preservation of their lives than the gain which may come to us from the pearls.
  • Whereas in consequence of the allotments of Indians made to the Viceroys, Governors, and their lieutenants, to our officials, and prelates, monasteries, hospitals, houses of religion and mints, offices of our Hazienda and treasury thereof, and other persons favoured by reason of their offices, disorders have occurred in the treatment of the said Indians, it is our will, and we command that forthwith there be placed under our Royal Crown all the Indians whom they hold and possess by any title and cause whatever, whoever the said parties are, or may be, whether Viceroys, Governors, or their lieutenants, or any of our officers, as well of Justice as of our Hazienda, prelates, houses of religion, or of our Hazienda, hospitals, confraternities, or other similar institutions, although the Indians may not have been allotted to them by reason of the said offices; and although such functionaries or governors may say that they wish to resign the offices or governments and keep the Indians, let this not avail them nor be an excuse for them not to fulfill what we command.
  • Moreover, We command that from all those persons who hold Indians without proper title, having entered into possession of them by their own authority, such Indians be taken away and be placed under our Royal Crown. And because we are informed that other persons, although possessing a sufficient title, have had an excessive number of Indians allotted to them, We order that the Audiencias, each in its jurisdiction diligently inform themselves of this, and with all speed, and reduce the allotments made to the said persons to a fair and moderate quantity, and then place the rest under our Royal Crown notwithstanding any appeal or application which may be interposed by such persons: and send us a report with all speed of what the said Audiencias have thus done, that we may know how our command is fulfilled. And in New Spain let it be especially provided as to the Indians held by Joan Infante, Diego de Ordas, the Maestro Roa, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Francisco Maldondo, Bernardino Vazquez de Tapia, Joan Xaramillo, Martin Vazquez, Gil Goncales de Venavides, and many other persons who are said to hold Indians in very excessive quantity, according to the report made to us. And, whereas we are informed that there are some persons in the said New Spain who are of the original Conquistadores and have no repartimiento of Indians, We ordain that the President and Auditors of the said New Spain do inform themselves if there be any persons of this kind, and if any, to give them out of the tribute which the Indians thus taken away have to pay, what to them may seem fit for the moderate support and honourable maintenance of the said original Conquistadores who had no Indians allotted to them.
  • So also, the said Audiencias are to inform themselves how the Indians have been treated by the persons who have held them in encomienda, and if it be clear that in justice they ought to be deprived of the said Indians for their excesses and the ill-usage to which they have subjected them, We ordain that they take away and place such Indians under our Royal Crown. And in Peru, besides the aforesaid, let the Viceroy and Audiencia inform themselves of the excesses committed during the occurrences between Governors Pizarro and Almagro in order to report to us thereon, and from the principal persons whom they find notoriously blameable in those feuds they then take away the Indians they have, and place them under our Royal Crown.
  • Moreover, we ordain and command that from hence forward no Viceroy, Governor, Audiencia, discoverer, or any other person have power to allot Indians in encomienda by new provision, or by means of resignation, donation, sale, or any other form or manner, neither by vacancy nor inheritance, but that the person dying who held the said Indians, they revert to our Royal Crown. And let the Audiencias take care to inform themselves then particularly of the person who died, of his quality, his merits and services, of how he treated the said Indians whom he held, if he left wife and children or what other heirs, and send us a report thereof together with the condition of the Indians and of the land, in order that we may give directions to provide what may be best for our service, and may do such favour as may seem suitable to the wife and children of the defunct. If in the meantime it should appear to the Audiencia that there is a necessity to provide some support for such wife and children, they can do it out of the tribute which the said Indians will have to pay, or allowing them a moderate pension, if the said Indians are under our Crown, as aforesaid.