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3.3: Control - Iberian Nations Manage their New World Territories

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    Three decades after Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World, the Spanish Crown began centralizing its control of the new territories. In 1524, the Council of the Indies was created, which oversaw developments in New Spain until the close of the colonial period. The Council was located in the mother country.

    New Spain was divided into four viceroyalties: New Spain (Mexico, Central America, and California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), whose capital was Mexico City; Peru (Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador), whose capital city was Lima; New Granada (Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and later Ecuador), whose capital city was Bogota; and La Plata (Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay) whose capital was Buenos Aires.

    Each viceroyalty was overseen by a viceroy, who exercised ultimate power over his viceroyalty in a manner reminiscent of a European monarch. The viceroy was also in charge of the Audiencia, a twelve to fifteen judge advisory council and court of law. At the end of each term, the viceroy was subjected to a Residencia, or a judicial review of his term in office. All appeals went directly to the Council of the Indies.

    The provinces were under the control of royal officials, the corregidores (governors whose territory was known as a corregimiento), the captains general (whose provinces were known as captaincies general), or alcaldes mayores, who held political and judicial power. The first governors of the provinces were the conquistadores themselves; this system did not last past the first decade. Most towns had a cabildo or town council, though these units did not represent democracy in the sense of the New England town meetings, as power was lodged in the hands of the royal officials. Adelantados were commanders of units of conquest or the governors of a frontier or newly-conquered province.

    The economic systems of Spanish America were also strictly-controlled hierarchical and economic endeavors. Spanish holdings were divided into mining zones when gold and silver was discovered and subsequently became extremely important to the Spanish economy. The rule known as the quinto specified that one-fifth of all precious metals mined in the colonies was to go to the Spanish Crown. Similar restrictions were placed on trade when there were only two designated ports through which colonial trade could go.

    Native laborers were provided through the encomienda system (called the mita in Portuguese areas), which was a grant from the King of Spain given to an individual mine or plantation (hacienda) owner for a specific number of natives to work in any capacity in which they were needed; the encomenderos, or owners, had total control over these workers. Ostensibly, the purpose was to protect the natives from enemy tribes and instruct them in Christian beliefs and practices. In reality, the encomienda system was hard to distinguish from chattel slavery. The Repartimiento, which granted land and/or Indians to settlers for a specified period of time, was a similar system.

    Portuguese Settlements

    In Brazil, economic development centered on sugar rather than silver and gold; thus, the main money maker for the Crown of Portugal was taxes on sugar. As the Indians were subdued, increasing numbers of sugar plantations emerged along the Atlantic coast. Those Portuguese who were wealthy enough to own a sugar mill as well as a plantation, the senhores de engenho or “lords of the mill,” were at the apex of the social system. They oversaw production by the slaves and freemen who lived in and around the mill, which was the social center of any area.

    Probably because the sugar taxes did not generate a large amount of revenue, the Portuguese Crown did not put forth an effort to create a similar highly-centralized system in New Spain until the mid-sixteenth century. Portuguese kings in the early sixteenth century, like John II in the fifteenth century, gave “captaincies,” or administrative units, to wealthy Portuguese who were willing to settle in the New World. Those who held captaincies were known as “proprietors” or donatários.

    Most of the labor on the sugar plantations came from African and Indian slaves, though the latter were especially resistant to control by the Europeans. In fact, many of the captaincies failed in part because of the resistance of the Indians. Because of ongoing rebellions, the Portuguese king in 1549 created a royal governor, or captain general, for Brazil; the powers of the donatários were consequently limited. The captain general was an office similar to the viceroys in New Spain.

    During the Iberian Union (1580-1640, a period when Portugal and Spain were ruled by a single dynasty), the Spanish created a Conselho da India (similar to the Spanish Council for the Indies) to regulate the Portuguese colonies. After Portugal regained its independence from Spain in 1640, this structure was maintained.

    The local provinces were under the control of governors, who were appointed for three-year terms; their military and political power was absolute. Before assuming the position of governor, a candidate had to present his qualifications to the Senado da Câmara, or town council. Judicial affairs were conducted by the Ouvidor and Juiz de Fora, who, like the governors, were appointed to three-year terms. Seven officials made up the Junta, or council, which decided the policies of the individual captaincy. The Junta consisted of the governor, the judicial officials, an attorney general, the secretary of the treasury, and two ports officials.

    Except for the sugar-holding areas along the northeast coast, most of the remainder of Brazil was sparsely settled through the sixteenth century. The Amazon was surrounded by rainforests, and the areas beyond the sugar coast were considered “dirt-poor cattle country.” Despite the efforts of the Jesuits to improve the treatment and conditions of the indigenous people, disease was rampant; the Indians, who had no resistance to smallpox and influenza, died in droves. By 1600, Africans, who had developed immunity to European diseases over centuries of interaction between the two continents, were replacing indigenous peoples as slaves on the sugar plantations.

    Indians in the Iberian Colonies

    There was a good deal of mistreatment of the American natives by both the Spanish and the Portuguese. Because the Catholic Church followed the adventurers, it was inevitable that attention would be drawn to the plight of the “pobres Indios” (as Bartholomew de las Casas referred to them). De las Casas is perhaps the most famous of the reformers, though he came to the New World originally as an adventurer and received an encomienda from the Spanish Crown. By 1514, however, he had had a change of heart and became an advocate for the fair treatment of the natives. Mainly as the result of his activities, in 1537, Pope Alexander VI issued a dictate stressing that the indigenous people were just that—people—who were not inferior to any other group. In 1542, the Spanish Crown issued the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians, which limited and eventually ended the encomienda system.

    Similarly, in Brazil, because the expanding plantation economy demanded a greater and greater supply of cheap labor, slave hunting became a lucrative profession. As the supply of coastal natives depleted, the bandeirantes (or “men of the banner”) pushed further west and south in search of new sources of labor. As was the case in New Spain, one of the voices that spoke out against the exploitation of the natives was that of a Jesuit, Father Joseph de Anchieta, who wrote:

    The bandeirantes go into the interior and deceive these people [the Indians], inviting them to go to the coast, where they would live in villages as they did in their present lands… On arrival at the coast, [the Portuguese] would divide the Indians among themselves, some taking the women, others their husbands and still others the children, and they sell them.

    Screenshot (203).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Bartholomew de las Casas | Bartholomew de las Casas, though originally a conquistador himself, became an ardent proponent of fair treatment of “los pobres Indios” (the poor Indians) and wrote widely on their behalf. Author: Constantino Brumidi Source: USCapitol Photostream (Flickr)

    In 1549, as part of its effort to tighten control and to clarify relations with the American natives, the Portuguese Crown stipulated that military campaigns to “pacify” or subdue the natives would be accompanied by “evangelical campaigns of conversion.” In the 1570s the Portuguese Crown released a series of law intended to define the legal status of Indians in its colonies. Indians could still be enslaved, but only as the result of a “just war or for practicing cannibalism.”


    The years immediately following the conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires were a time of figuring things out and exploring options for the Spanish and Portuguese. They faced great challenges in ruling over colonies far from the mother country, and the time and distance involved in governance necessitated the establishment of institutions of rule and a colonial bureaucracy. Labor quickly became a defining need in the colonies, and many of the emerging policies and laws focused on the issue of the indigenous peoples. As the sixteenth century progressed, Portugal and Spain, now under one rule, began to officially address the status of the Indians and to recognize that the abuse of the earliest years must be rectified if peace were to be attainable in the Iberian colonies.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The system that helped provide labor for the Spanish mines and sugar plantations was the:

    1. Quinto
    2. Audiencia
    3. Encomienda
    4. Residencia


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The Brazilian economy was largely based on

    1. Sugar
    2. Coffee
    3. Indigo
    4. Silver


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The ____________ was part of the bureaucracy of Spanish rule and oversaw developments in New Spain until the close of the colonial period.

    1. Encomienda
    2. Mita
    3. Council of the Indies
    4. Donatários


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