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Spanish Missions in America (Part I — Mexico)

Early Years of Spanish Rule

The first decades of Spanish rule in the Americas were confined mainly to Islands in the West Indies, especially Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica. Soon after Columbus discovered the islands gold was found on Hispaniola and a flood of adventurers, privateers, mercenaries, and speculators descended on the region and attempted to enslave the natives. The natives were not accustomed to hard labor and many committed suicide or rebelled rather than submit to Spanish abuse. Native rebellions led to massacres and within only a few years the population of Hispaniola was drastically reduced. The first slaves from Africa were brought to Hispaniola to work in the mines in 1503, barely ten years after Columbus first discovered the Island.

Spanish rule during this period was very chaotic. The first governor of the region was Columbus but he had many enemies and was unable to control either the Spaniards or the natives. Because the Spanish government did not have the resources to directly manage their colonies, the Encomienda system was established, whereby European colonists were given the right to extract work or tribute from natives in a region. In theory the Encomenderos would respect Spanish laws, but in practice many operated without effective oversight.

The discovery of gold inflamed the greed of all involved, brought in hundreds of additional adventurers and speculators, and made enforcing rules difficult even for man more suited to governing than Columbus. After seven years Columbus was forced to return to Spain, but the governors who followed him were just as ineffective, and governed with personal gain in mind rather than the best interests of the natives. During this period privately funded mercenaries and independent traders had few checks on their behavior, and their abuse made conversion of the natives nearly impossible.

Fortunately, conditions did improve, especially in Mexico under the early Viceroys. In other places, such as Peru where mining remained the primary economic activity, the encomenderos opposed laws aimed at protecting the Indians. Fortunately, however, there were many good Spaniards who objected to their enslavement eventually laws which benefited the Indians were enforced. The missionary friars, the scholars of Salamanca, and a number of admirable viceroys and judges made especially notable contributions to this end, and it was undoubtedly due to those protectors and defenders of the Indians that so many were eventually won over to the Catholic faith.

Timeline of the Spanish Empire in the Americas

This unit will focus on topics relevant to the conversion of the natives of Spanish America to the Catholic faith, but first a quick review of major historical events may be helpful.

1492 First voyage of Columbus to the Americas. New World claimed for Spain.
1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divides Western territories between Spain and Portugal.
1494-96 Discovery of gold in Hispaniola leads to enslavement of Indians, rebellions, and massacres.
1499 More Gold mines discovered. Privateers, merchants, traders, slavers flock to the New World.
1503 First Slaves brought from Africa to Hispaniola to work the mines.
1511-14 Spanish conquest of Cuba
1511 Dominican friar Antonio Montesino preaches against the abuse of Indian and Negro slaves.
1512 Spanish king promulgates the Laws of Burgos to protect the Indians, but they are not enforced.
1521 Hernando Cortez conquers Mexico for Spain. Rules as governor for six years.
1524 Cortez invites Franciscan Twelve Apostles of Mexico to convert the natives.   arrive soon after.
1530 Juan Zumarraga appointed first Archbishop of Mexico
1531 Our Lady of Guadalupe appears to Juan Diego in Mexico
1532 Pizarro conquers Peru for Spain -- Silver and Gold Mines found, Adventurers flock to Peru.
1532 Antonio de Mendoza appointed First Viceroy of Mexico
1542 New Laws for the Protection of the Indians promulgated by Charles V
1551 First Universities: University of San Marcos" in Lima, "University of Mexico in New Spain.

Notable Governors and Viceroys of Mexico

The Spanish government did a poor job of protecting the native Indians during the first chaotic generation of Spanish rule, but soon after Cortez conquered Mexico, the caliber of the Spanish governors and Viceroys improved dramatically. Cortes himself treated the Indian allies who had helped him defeat the Aztecs very well. Unfortunately he had many enemies, and after seven years Nuna de Guzman was appointed governor in his place. Guzman brutally mistreated many of the Indian allies of Cortes, but his reign was short and when word of his abuse got to Spain, much better governors were appointed.

The following are some of the early bishops and viceroys who deserve credit for protecting the natives of Mexico, and looking out for their interests. All are held in high regard by historians and were much respected by the Indians themselves. They enforced laws, punished those who abused the natives, encouraged the work of missionaries, built schools, hospitals, and universities, and set a positive example of Spanish leadership for generations to come.

  • Juan de Zumarraga (1468-1548) — First Archbishop of Mexico, served for almost 20 years under both bad and good governors, and was a critic of the violent governor Nuna de Guzman. Worked to protect the Indians. Worked with and encouraged missionaries.
  • Vasco de Quiroga (1478-1565) — Canon lawyer and judge appointed to lead the Second Audiencia that deposed Nuna de Guzman from power and tried him for treason. He made great efforts to protect the Indians and tried to replace the Encomienda system. Once a good Viceroy was installed he served as Bishop of Michoacan for 30 years, building hospitals and Indian villages at his own expense.
  • Nunez Vela (1490-1546) — First Viceroy of Peru, appointed in 1542. In 1546 he was charged by Charles V with enforcing the "New Laws for the Protection of the Indians" that outlawed enslavement of the Indians and force encomienda owners to pay taxes. This provoked a civil war in which Nunez Vela was killed.
  • Antonio de Mendoza (1495-1552) — First Viceroy of Mexico who worked closely with Archbishop Zumarraga to bring peace to rival factions, protect the Indians, establish Spanish rule, and found schools, Universities, and other civic institutions. Sought common ground and compromise rather than conflict between interests of Spaniards and natives.
  • Pedro Moya de Contreras (1528-1591) — Canon lawyer from the University of Salamanca who served as both Archbishop and Viceroy of Mexico and later the President of the Council of the Indies. He was sincerely committed to the protection and education of the Indians, and sought to remove corrupt and abusive officials from Spanish government. He passed laws permanently forbidding the enslavement of natives, and founded schools that taught catechism, basic literacy, and trades.

Protectors and Missionaries — Dominicans and Franciscans

The Dominican order was the first to recognize the problem of the Spanish treatment of natives in the Americas. Several notable Friars spoke out strongly against abuses and worked for reform.

  • Antonio Montesino (1475-1545) — Early Missionary to Hispaniola, who preached directly to the Spaniards, shaming them for their mistreatment of the Indians. His sermons caused such outrage he was sent back to Spain, where he exhorted the king to do more to protect the natives.
  • Bartholomew de las Casas (1484-1566) — Colonist who gave up his Encomienda, became a Friar, and spent his life advocating for better treatment for the Indians. Wrote 'An Account of the Destruction of the Indies', and later became bishop of Chiapas.
  • Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1556) — Scholar and jurist from the University of Salamanca who advocated for the rights of the natives, and worked with Charles V to draft laws to protect the Indians.

The most famous advocate for native Americans was Bartholomew de las Casas, but it was de Vitoria (founder of the 'School of Salamanca') who worked with Charles V to promulgate the New Laws of the Indies for Good Treatment of Indians of 1542. They were intended to replace the "Laws of Burgos" of 1512 which had established the Encomienda and set guidelines for treatment of the natives, but without adequate safeguards. In contrast, the "New Laws" clearly enumerated the rights of the Indians and included penalties for Encomederos who violated them. The laws were supported by both the Pope and the Spanish king and had they been successfully enforced, they could have dramatically improved living conditions of the natives. The New Laws:

  • Prohibited enslavement of natives, especially in mines.
  • Insisted Laborers got paid wages instead of being forced into servitude.
  • Gradually phased out Encomienda system.
  • Required Encomenderos to provide a priest and attend to religious instruction of the natives.

Unfortunately, the reception of the “New Laws” in Spanish America was not good!!!!! In Peru, the Pizarro brothers led a rebellion against Nunez Vela, the Viceroy who tried to enforce the law. In the civil War that followed, the Viceroy and many of the kings other supporters were killed. In Mexico, Mendoza was aware of the disastrous uprisings that had occurred in Peru and was much more cautious. He did not enforce all the laws at first but gradually complied with many parts and did what was possible to improve the conditions of the natives.

The Dominicans are best known as the 'Protectors' of the Indians and deserve credit for encouraging the Spanish government to pass and enforce laws that benefited them. But it was the Franciscans who are mainly responsible for widespread conversion of the natives to the Catholic faith. Most Dominicans took instruction in the faith seriously and declined to baptize neophytes until they had mastered their catechism. The Franciscans, on the other hand, were more willing to baptize all who requested baptism, and focused on instruction later. They sought to 'civilize' the natives through education and by encouraging them to adopt Christian morals and customs, rather than focusing on direct instruction.

There was some disagreement about priorities and methods between the two orders, but both Dominican and Franciscan orders had among them accomplished scholars, and were committed to establishing schools and seminaries in the New World. The first secondary school was founded in Mexico only a few years after the Spanish conquest, and the first Universities in the New World were established in both Mexico and Peru in the early 1550s. Some of the leading schools and Universities founded in the early years of Spanish rule include the following:

Schools and Universities of Latin America

  • University of St. Thomas Aquinas, established as a seminary for the Dominican order in 1518 on Hispaniola. It was upgraded to a University in 1538 but was not officially recognized by Royal Decree until 1558. It was operated continuously under Spanish rule until 1801 when in was closed during the French Revolution. It was closed permanently in 1823.
  • University of San Marcos, established by Royal decree by Charles V in Lima, Peru in 1551. It is the oldest continuously operating University in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, established by Royal decree by Charles V in Mexico City in 1551. It operated continuously and was the premier University in New Spain until it was closed by Republican revolutionaries in 1833.
  • Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, secondary school established as for the indigenous peoples of Mexico by Franciscans, including Bernardo de Sahagun in 1536. Students were instructed in their native Aztec language (Nahuatl) but also in Spanish and Latin. The school only lasted a short time, but it was extremely important in the early years of Spanish rule. Franciscan scholars associated with the School produced Nahuatl dictionaries, Aztec medicine manuals, and the Florentine Codex, an illustrated history of the Aztec civilization.

Historians and Scholars of Mexico

  • Bernal Diaz (1496-1584) — Spanish soldier who participated in the Conquest of Mexico, and later wrote the definitive history for the episode called 'True History of the Conquest of New Spain.'
  • Bernardino de Sehagun. (1499-1590) — Franciscan Friar and missionary to Mexico who spent a lifetime studying the Aztec language and history. He ran a school for Nahuati (Aztec) scholars and curated the Florentine Codex, the definitive Aztec history.
  • Toribio de Benavente Motolinia (1482-1568) — One of the Twelve Apostles of Mexico, who worked in Central America among the Nahua peoples. He wrote one of the earliest histories detailing the first encounters of the Central American peoples with the Spaniards.
  • Andres de Olmos (1485-1571) — Franciscan Friar and missionary who wrote the first grammar and dictionary describing the Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs.
  • Pedro de Gante (1480-1570) — Franciscan from Flanders and relative of Charles V who was one of the first Missionary friars in Mexico. Learned Nahuatl, and wrote a catechism. Opened on of the first schools for natives in the Americas.

Other Notable Missionaries and Saints of Mexico

A great many people, some saints, some martyrs, and some 'Servants of Gods' played important roles in the conversion of the Indigenous people of Mexico to the Catholic faith. These are some of the most important saints and Missionaries of Mexico that have not been mentioned previously.

  • Martin of Valencia (1474-1534) — Leader of the Twelve Apostles of Mexico
  • Juan Diego (1474-1548) — Indian peasant to whom "Our Lady of Guadalupe" appeared in 1531 near the hill of Tepeyac.
  • Child Martyrs of Tlaxcala (died 1527) — Three young Aztec boys, Christobal, Antonio, and Juan, were killed by village elders when they converted to Christianity and renounced the Aztec Gods.
  • Luis Cancer de Barbastro (1500-1549) — Dominican priest who made many converts in the West Indies and Guatemala before being martyred while trying to set up Spanish missions in Florida.
  • Philip of Jesus (1572-1597) — Native Mexican Franciscan who was martyred in Japan in 1597.
  • Pedro de Agurto (1544-1608) — Mexican priest who became a missionary in the Philippines and was appointed first bishop of Cebu.
  • Junipero Serra (1713-1784) — Franciscan Friar who traveled thousands of miles on foot and Established nine missions in California, many of which grew into the most important cities in California.

Spanish Rule in Mexico

Adapted from Sister of Notre Dame, Leading Events in Church History, Vol. IV

With Cortes, conqueror of Mexico, came numerous ecclesiastics. A band of Franciscans, led by Martin of Valencia (1524), began the work of conversion. In spite of the terrible war waged against them by the Spaniards, the Aztecs embraced the faith with such eagerness that they numbered above a million in 1550. A constant stream of missionaries had poured into the country and had achieved this splendid result. Churches multiplied all over the land, and when Jesuits arrived a university was founded. So thorough had been the conquest of Mexico by Cortes that the country was spared the long agony that so many other parts of America underwent before the white man had obtained the mastery over the red, too often by exterminating him.

Between 1542 and 1544 New Mexico and Texas, States adjacent to Mexico, were entered. Nearly a hundred years elapsed before any real progress was made in the first-named region. Band after band of missionaries was martyred, and nothing but the dauntless determination of the religious Orders to win all the peoples to the faith would have enabled them to persevere in the apparently fruitless task. But victory was won at last. In Texas, more directly under Spanish influence than New Mexico, the faith spread rapidly. Franciscans were the chief apostles of these regions, and they even penetrated into California as early as 1601, though the western coast peoples were not all converted till the end of the next century. A celebrated Franciscan, Juniper Serra, founded many missions, and was named Prefect Apostolic in 1774, leaving a large and very flourishing Church, which continues to develop.

No account of Spanish missionary enterprise would be complete without some notice of the advocate of the Indians, Bartholomew de Las Casas, Bishop of Chiapa, in Mexico. He had been among the first settlers in the New World, where he became a priest, and when the conquerors of Cuba divided among them both the newly-acquired territories and their Indian inhabitants, he received his share along with the rest. But he soon saw what revolted him in the treatment of the helpless natives by his countrymen, and he returned to Spain to implore protection for the victims. Sixteen times he crossed the ocean to try to wring concessions in favour of the Indians from the court of Spain. Hoping to mitigate the sufferings of a people too weak to perform the cruel tasks set them, he proposed that negroes should be sent to do agricultural work in the West Indies, hence he is often accused of being the originator of the slave-trade.

He endeavoured to induce Spanish peasants to settle in the New World, but in vain. He wrote several works to expose the frightful cruelties exercised on the Indians, and to claim justice for them. In this he was seconded by Pope Paul III., who, in 1537, declared that the Indians were men and not brutes, as the conquerors pretended, and had the rights of men. The bold words of Las Casas were not wholly unfruitful, for the "New Laws," restraining the powers of the settlers, were promulgated by Charles V., who, however, had the weakness to annul them some years later; but to the last the holy bishop, his heart torn with anguish at the sufferings of the hapless people of Central America and the West Indies, strove to mitigate their lot. He returned to Spain to die, after sixty years devoted to the cause of his beloved Indians. Yet he had accomplished but little. The Spaniards and Portuguese had come for gold, and they cared not how they wrecked the future of the country provided they gained the object of their desires. Nothing was allowed to come between them and the realization of their hopes. Hence, a country which would have been one of the most productive on the face of the earth was depopulated by as wholesale and reckless a slaughter as it is possible to conceive.