Beginnings Of Colonial Administration And Policy
The Casa de Contratación.—For ten years Fonseca remained at the head of American affairs, being in effect colonial minister. In 1503 the Casa de Contratación or House of Trade was established at Seville, to direct commerce, navigation, and all related matters of the Indies. In charge of the Casa was a board of officials, including factors, treasurer, auditor, and notary. They maintained a warehouse for receiving all goods and treasure going to or from the islands. They were required to keep informed of the needs of the Indies, assemble and forward supplies, organize trading expeditions, and instruct and license pilots. Later on a professorship of cosmography was established for the purpose of instructing pilots, who were required to keep diaries of their voyages. This provision resulted in the accumulation of a vast amount of historical and geographical information in the government archives, much of which is still extant.
The Council of the Indies.—Spanish America was a possession of the sovereigns of Castile, as heirs of Queen Isabella, under whose patronage America had been discovered. At first, legislative and political matters relating to the Indies had been considered by the sovereigns in consultation with Fonseca and other personal advisors, but to supervise these matters a new board was gradually formed. In 1517 it was formally organized, among the members being Fonseca and Peter Martyr, the historian. In 1524 the board was reorganized as the Council of the Indies. This body was the supreme legislative and judicial authority, under the king, of Spanish-America. The Casa de Contratación was subordinate to the Council, which likewise supervised all civil and ecclesiastical appointments in the colonies. Usually some of the members of the Council had served in the Indies.
The governors-general and the audiencia.—Ovando ruled in Española until 1509, when Diego Columbus, son of Christopher, after a struggle for his hereditary rights, was made admiral and governor-general of the Indies. Complaint against Diego's administration led to the establishment at Santo Domingo of a superior court with appeals from the decisions of the governor-general. This was the germ of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo, which, for a time, was the administrative head of the greater part of the Indies. By decree of September 14, 1524, the Audiencia was formally established, with a president, four judges, a fiscal, a deputy grand-chancellor, and other officers.
The towns.—In the early sixteenth century the colonial towns showed some political activity. In 1507 the municipalities of Española sent delegates to Spain to petition for the rights enjoyed by Spanish towns. The request was granted, and, among other privileges, fourteen towns were granted coats-of-arms. Conventions of delegates from the towns were often held in these early days, to consider common needs and to draw up memorials to the home government. In 1530 Charles V decreed that such conventions should not be held without his consent, and the tendency thereafter was toward stronger absolutism and away from local political life. But there never was a time when the right of petition was not freely exercised, and with great effect on actual administration. In the sixteenth century the towns sometimes elected proctors to represent them before the Council of the Indies. In the seventeenth century they sometimes employed residents of Spain for this purpose.
In the colonial towns, both Spanish and native, there was some degree of self-government. Each Spanish town had its cabildo composed of regidores. In 1523 the regidores were made elective, but the tendency was to secure the office by purchase or inheritance, as was the case in Spain. The functions of the cabildos were similar to those of a New England town council, embracing legislation, police matters, care of highways, sanitation, and analogous functions.
Emigration.—The notion sometimes voiced that Spain did not "colonize" America is unfounded. Emigration to America was encouraged by subsidies and other means, and in early days large colonies were sent by government authority. It has been seen, for example, that on his first three voyages Columbus took over about 100, 1500, and 200 colonists respectively, and that Ovando took 2500. During the entire sixteenth century the emigration to America averaged from 1000 to 2000 persons per year. In general, emigration was restricted to Spaniards of undoubted orthodoxy, hence Jews, Moors, and recent converts were excluded. Naturalization was relatively easy, however, and by means of it many foreigners were admitted. Portuguese, for example, were numerous in the Indies, especially among the seamen. Charles V adopted the liberal policy of opening the Indies to subjects of all parts of his empire, but Philip II returned to the more exclusive practice. Later on, as the trade monopoly broke down, it became necessary to admit foreign traders to American ports, but they were required to return within specified periods.
Married Spaniards emigrating from Spain were urged or even required to take their families but the emigration of unmarried Spanish women was discouraged. Intermarriage of Spaniards with native women was favored by the authorities and, as a large majority of the immigrants were single men, the practice was common, either with or without formal sanction. An effort to supply the lack of women by sending white slaves to the islands failed, and in 1514 marriage with Indian women was approved by royal order. With the opening of Mexico and Peru the island colonies were in danger of depopulation. To prevent this from happening, migration to the mainland was forbidden under heavy penalties (1525-1526), and the recruiting of new conquering expeditions in the islands was prohibited. To secure settlers for Española, in 1529 attractive feudal lordships were offered to founders of colonies.
Agriculture.—Agriculture in the West Indies was encouraged by all means available. Duties on imports were remitted for a term of years. In 1497 the sovereigns ordered a public farm established to provide loans of stock and seed, to be paid back by colonists within a term of years. Free lands were granted to settlers, with a reservation of the precious metals to the crown. Special orders were given for mulberry and silkworm culture. These efforts to promote agriculture in the West Indies, however, were made largely nugatory by commercial restrictions and the superior attractions of the mainland.
Indian policy.—Columbus found Española inhabited, it was estimated, by a quarter of a million of Indians, and the other islands similarly populated. He was instructed to treat the natives well and to do all in his power to convert them. The sovereigns frequently repeated these orders, and commanded that the natives be treated as free men and paid for their work. But the shortage of a labor-supply and the relative position of the two races led quickly and almost inevitably to the practical enslavement of the weaker.
Encomiendas.—Following the rebellion of 1495, the subdued natives were put under tribute in the form of specified amounts of products, commutable to labor. In 1497 a practice was begun of allotting lands to Spaniards, the forced labor of the natives going with the land. Complaint being made by priests and seculars that the Indians could neither be made to work, nor be taught or converted without restraint, in 1503 it was ordered that they should be congregated (congregados) in permanent villages and put under protectors (encomenderos), who were obliged to teach and protect them, and were empowered to exact their labor, though for pay and as free men. This provision contained the essence of the encomienda system, which was designed to protect and civilize the native, as well as to exploit him. But there was always danger that the former aim would yield to the latter, and, contrary to royal will, the condition of the natives fast became one of practical slavery.
Depopulation of the islands.—Moreover, in a very short time the islands became nearly depopulated of natives. Many were slain in the wars of conquest and during rebellions, or died of starvation while in hiding. Perhaps a greater number died of smallpox, measles, and other diseases brought from Europe. The result was that by 1514 the native population of Española was reduced to 14,000. A similar reduction of native population occurred in the other islands as they were successively occupied.
Indian slavery.—Indian slavery was not generally allowed in theory. But the Lesser Antilles, the Bahamas, and Florida were found to be inhabited by hostile cannibals, who were regarded as fair prize for enslavement. As early as 1494 Columbus suggested that permission be given to sell Caribs. In 1498 he took a cargo of six hundred of them to Spain. Soon it became an accepted legal principle that cannibals and rebellious Indians could be enslaved. The idea was encouraged by the lack of Spanish laborers, and by the disappearance of the native population of Española. Slave-hunting was soon extended, therefore, to the coasts of Florida, Pánuco, and other parts of the mainland. The practice was continued, as the frontier advanced, to the eighteenth century when, for example, Apaches of Texas and Pawnees of Kansas were often sold to Work on plantations in Louisiana or Cuba.
Las Casas.—Numerous prominent Spaniards in the Indies early opposed encomiendas on moral grounds. Among them the most aggressive was Father Bartolomé de las Casas. He had come to the Indies as a layman, had held an encomienda after becoming a priest, but in 1514 had renounced it. In the following year he went to Spain, secured the appointment of a commission of Geronymite friars to enforce the laws regarding Indians in the islands, and was himself made Protector of the Indians. In 1516 he returned to Española, but, being dissatisfied with the work of the commission, he returned to Spain, where he favored negro slavery as a means of sparing the natives. In 1521 he tried to found a Utopian colony on Tierra Firme, to furnish an humane example, but through unfortunate circumstances it failed completely.
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