The Spaniards' Most Powerful Weapon: Religion
Before the Spanish could justify the conquering of a people for theological reasons they had to assert their legal superiority over the natives of the New World. The Spanish could spin the religious aspect in many different ways, but the legal aspect had to be solid, even if it only made sense to them, the conquerors, and not to the conquered. In this sense the theological aspect served almost as a supplement to their already established legal and political authority. The religious aspect was, however, tossed around quite a bit and used as an all purpose justification that both served and hindered the Spanish wherever their political justifications ended.
The Spanish required legal justification in order to conquer a land and its people. This legal justification came in the form of the “Requierimiento,” a legal document which stated the Spaniards’ divine right to evangelize and/or make war with anyone who rejected Christianity. This step was very important because it lay down the Spanish political authority to conquer a land. This all seems very good, but when the Requierimiento was read to a bunch of natives that understood not a word of Spanish, this protocol starts to make less sense. One of the Requierimiento’s biggest critics was Bartolome de las Casas.
Spanish Tradition or Muslim Influence?
After reading the Requierimiento Bartolome de las Casas accused his fellow Spaniards of being Muslims because the entire performance, from the act of having it read by a messenger, to the demand of submission to a superior religion, to the threat of war, was very similar to the military version of the Islamic jihad. De las Casas wrote down his critiques in Historia de las Indias and demanded that a more “Christian” approach be taken with the natives. The Spaniards, although not liking being called “Muslims,” made no changes in this protocol for nearly twenty years. Finally, after much debate, small changes were made to make the document sound less “Muslim.” Practices, while not changing much at all, were re-labeled, erasing any ties to Islamic origins. The right to declare war, however, stayed intact. But where legal domination was perhaps, limited, religious domination took over.
Religion: The Ultimate Weapon
In order to assert their superiority over the natives it was necessary to demonstrate why. By defining the natives as irrational, or as “children,” the door was opened for their evangelization and the need for the natives to be placed under an authority figure’s care was established. In the same way that a child needs educational and moral guidance, the Spanish believed that the natives required educational and spiritual guidance. By reducing full grown adults to the status of children they become less of a threat and the desire to “help” them becomes more profound. Where the Requierimiento was harsh and oppressive, defining the natives as children inherently made the Spanish patriarchs of the New World. Here was something that Bartolome de las Casas would agree with. Instead of converting the natives with the sword the Spanish could not only convert, but rule over them as a father of a household would. This seemingly made things easier for both parties because children could not be held responsible for their irrationality and it was a father’s job to guide them along the path of righteousness through love and understanding.
Religion was used quite often during and after the conquest. Given its interpretive nature it could be customized to fit whatever need the Spanish had. Tribute collected was justified through religion. Any violence towards the natives was also explained through religion. The taking of their lands and possessions could easily be explained and justified through religion. In essence, religion seems to have been the Spaniards’ most powerful weapon.
Dean, Carolyn. “Sketches of Childhood,” Minor Omissions: Children in Latin American History and Society. (University of Wisconsin Press)
Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
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