European Dilemma: How to Treat Native Americans

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A Brief History

On December 27, 1512, the King and Queen of Spain issued the Laws of Burgos, a set of rules for how Spaniards were to treat Native Americans in the Caribbean islands colonized by Spain.  Prior to this point there was haphazard ways of dealing with Native peoples, and ample incidents of cruelty and oppression.  The European “discovery” of the Americas was only 20 years old at this time, and by this time it had become apparent some consistent rules were needed to keep with Catholic and Spanish ideas of law and morality.

Digging Deeper

The name, Laws of Burgos, comes from the city of Burgos in Northern Spain, in the province of Castile.  King Ferdinand of Aragon had married the future Queen of Castile, Isabella, to cement the union of these major Spanish regions.  It was Ferdinand and Isabella that chartered Christopher Columbus to make his voyages of discovery, though Isabella had died in 1504 and was replaced by Ferdinand’s new wife, Germaine of Foix, the Queen consort of Aragon in 1506.  (King Ferdinand died in 1516, leaving Germaine without a throne.)

Prior to the Law of Burgos, there had been no coherent uniform policy toward the treatment of Native Americans.  The choice of enslavement as Catholic converts or death was routinely presented to the Native people by the Spanish.  Regional governors operated as they pleased, often to the great detriment of the Native populations and putting those Natives in conflict with the Spanish invaders.  The Laws of Burgos sought to inject Christian and European values into the relationship between Spaniards and Natives, partly by requiring the teaching of Catholic doctrine to the Natives and enforcing a rule against polygamy.  Also known by the more optimistic sounding Royal Ordinances for the Good Governance and Treatment of the Indians, the Laws did not really achieve any great relief to the Native people, as provisions requiring submission to the Spanish Crown and mandatory work schedules on behalf of the colonies were not necessarily (we kid you here, of course they were not appreciated by the Natives) appreciated by the Native peoples and did not prevent unrest.  An interesting facet of the Laws was that Natives were mandated to live among the Spanish settlers rather than be segregated in their own communities.  Some other minor rules allowed Native Chiefs and rulers a certain amount of autonomy and relief from the requirement for work, and even allocated servants (from among other Natives) to be assigned to serve those Chiefs and their families.  Native work forces were specifically limited in number, and pregnant women were given some relief from work.

The Laws of Burgos at first applied only to the major colonies of Hispaniola (modern Haiti and Dominican Republic), though they were later deemed applicable to Jamaica and Puerto Rico.  Natives were not to be subject to punishment by Spanish overseers and plantation owners but had to be referred to colonial government authorities for punishment when needed.  By 1542, the Laws of Burgos had shown its limitations and had to be replaced by the New Laws (Leyes Nuevas) to address some of the issues that caused friction between Natives and Spaniards.  Taking things even further, the Laws of the Indies  issued in 1573 came about after a debate in 1550-1551 about the treatment of Native people in colonial areas claimed by Spain (including the Americas and the Philippines), a more comprehensive collection of all applicable laws regarding treatment of Native people and the conduct of Spanish colonists towards those people.

Obviously, the Native people were not consulted in writing these various laws but were merely subjected to them by the paternalistic Spanish Crown.  We believe it is safe to say that Natives of the Americas and other Spanish colonial areas would not have agreed to the Spanish taking over their land at all.  At least these laws represent a first attempt at “fairness” to Native people, a novel idea at the time.

In North America, where the British and French later invaded and established colonies, friction between Europeans and Native people also manifested itself in violence at times.  Whenever possible, the Europeans ruthlessly displaced the Natives and took or “bought” (often from Native sellers that did not actually “own” the land they were selling, such as Manhattan Island), with the rationalization that the land was vast and the Natives could simply move farther inland, leaving the area to the Europeans.  The British had a tougher time with this colonization model than the French, who generally got along a little better with Native Americans, though certainly not without conflict.  A major problem between European American colonists and authorities back in Britain developed when the authorities deemed the area West of the Appalachian Mountains to be left to the “Indians” though the American colonists felt a constant urge to expand Westward.  The Royal Proclamation of 1763 at the conclusion of the French and Indian Wars made this policy the law of the land, a law ignored by Americans.

European colonization and hegemony in the New World created conflict between European settlers and Native people, with treaty and agreement after treaty and agreement coming and going like sand through the hourglass.  Neither side could comfortably abide by these various treaties, often negotiated by people not directly involved with the consequences of the so called agreements.  European effort, or lack thereof, to make an equitable arrangement with Native people and to live in harmony never really happened until the Native people were so decimated and defeated they had no choice but to submit to whatever charity was left to them by the Europeans, noble thoughts and efforts to the contrary.

The moral and legal dilemma of how to treat Native people and whether or not an outside country has any right to invade and colonize another land, even on the premise of that land being underutilized or on religious grounds, or even on preemptive grounds to prevent another outside power from seizing the land, is a philosophical question beyond this author’s capability to determine a “proper” course of action that “should” have been taken.  Perhaps our readers have the answers, and if so, please share those answers with us and your fellow readers!

Question for students (and subscribers): Does any country have a right to colonize another? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

James E. Seelye Jr. (Editor), Shawn Selby (Editor). Shaping North America [3 volumes]: From Exploration to the American Revolution. ABC-CLIO, 2018.

Pickett, Margaret and James Pickett. The European Struggle to Settle North America: Colonizing Attempts by England, France and Spain, 1521-1608. McFarland & Company , 2011.

The featured image in this article, Landing of Columbus (12 October 1492), painting by John Vanderlyn, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.  This image is a work of an employee of the Architect of the Capitol, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, all images created or made by the Architect of the Capitol are in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.