“The Spaniards have shown not the slightest consideration for these people, treating them (and I speak from first-hand experience, having been there from the outset) not as brute animals – indeed, I would to God they had done and had shown them the consideration they afford their animals – so much as piles of dung in the middle of the road. They have had as little concern for their souls as for their bodies, all the millions that perished having gone to their deaths with no knowledge of God and without the benefit of the Sacraments. One fact in all this is widely known and beyond dispute, for even the tyrannical murderers themselves acknowledge the truth of it: the indigenous peoples never did the Europeans any harm whatever; on the contrary, they believed them to have descended from the heavens, at least until they or their fellow citizens had tasted, at the hands of these oppressors, a diet of robbery, murder, violence, and all other manner of trials and tribulations.”
Bartolome d Las Casas, Historia de las Indias, 1550-1566

Americans grow up believing that our country pre-Columbus was lawless and a wide, open continent just itching to be exploited. But now we know that’s not the complete story. However, some Americans still believe in the “native savage” propaganda solidified by hundreds of western novels, movies, and TV.

This country has been enmeshed for the last few presidential campaign cycles about our Laws of the Land, with the backbone of the Constitution. Too many laws, not enough laws, there oughta be a law….

Because of the controversies over wars, health care, corporations are people, too, I’ve been compelled to read the U.S. Constitution for the first time. Sure, I read the Bill of Rights in my 9th-grade Civics Class, but I had never read the whole thing. It’s only about 19 pages (counting all of the amendments – modern printed version), with about half of that devoted to how our government is supposed to work. If the Constitution is the meat, the Amendments are the potatoes – none of them are more than a few paragraphs long.

Anyone can view the original of the Constitution at the National Archives; I have several times, trying to make out the tiny hand-written text on parchment. It is our country’s Holiest Document, a close second is the Declaration of Independence.

But let’s think about this – there were millions of Europeans making their marks on the continent long before the revolution, so was the Constitution the first set of laws post-Columbus? I’ve wondered about this a lot since we’re always talking about laws.

WARNING: If you believe that the first laws concerning the New World were created by pasty white Englishmen in powdered wigs who wanted to tax tea, and you want to keep believing that, STOP HERE.

As we’ve seen in the previous chapters, much of North, Central, and South America had been well-trodden by not only natives for 12,000 years or more but also large groups of Spaniards, Portuguese, and French.  Aztec, Incan, or Mayan towns and cities were taken over and were soon, well, decimated and then Europeanized.  For decades, millions of Native Americans were enslaved and murdered. Some Spaniards knew what was happening was wrong, and they tried to stop it.

What is interesting here is that there was recognition from a pretty early time that Ye Olde Laws of the Olde World might not work too well in the Americas. Distance was a real issue. If somebody broke the law, you couldn’t get your Ye Olde Sherriff on his trusty steed to ride over to the next village and settle it. Another issue was the ever-present influence of the Catholic priests, who had begun to wield much more power and influence in the Americas than they ever had in Europe  – remember the Church in Europe was in trouble from time to time and some of the Popes were hard-put just to keep their heads.

The other reason was the distribution of labor. The Conquistadors quickly became quite accustomed to a huge resource: Native Americans.* This hadn’t ever been really experienced ever before in the history of Europe. There were serfs and peasants, of course, and some of the richer nobility had a few slaves from Africa and the Middle East. But there were no big, huge farms or ranches, no industry to speak of (the Industrial Revolution still a couple of centuries away), so there was no need, or economy, for large quantities of slaves. But here was the New World, about 1000 times the size of all of Europe. Lots of land, lots of rivers, lots of gold and silver to dig. Lots of stuff to grow.

And millions of illiterate and unarmed people. Wow. It meant that any Spaniard ‘over there’ could now lay claim to hundreds of slaves, and most of those conquering Spaniards weren’t nobles. Partly because of de Las Casas and probably because of the insecurity of the nobles back home, some New Rules were needed.

First up: The encomienda

Here’s how it worked: The Spanish monarchy gave a person some natives (lucky them!) for whom they were to take “responsibility” which was kind of ill-defined. Sufficient food for survival, but perhaps not much else. The receiver of the grant did agree to protect the natives, teach them Spanish, and convert them to Catholicism. The natives had to work, mine gold or grow corn, wheat or chickens and give a lot of it to their new Spanish “father” – the encomiendas, roughly translated as Large Land Owners. But whipping, hangings, beheadings were common and seemed to be a right granted to the slave owner.

Before long, it became evident that the grantees were abusing the encomienda, both in intent and in actuality. Native villages were being exterminated, inhabitants forced into slavery, and the Spanish crown had little control. The encomiendas were just rules, after all.

Second Try: Leyes Nuevas

Drum roll for the New Laws – Leyes Nuevas – issued in November, 1542. The Leyes Nuevas were actually the first European-style laws to hit the New World. De las Casas had a strong hand in this law – he had quickly become known as the “Defender of the Indians” back home in Spain. The encomienda system, he wrote, had led to the brutality and slaughter of untold millions of people.

Did you Know? The writings of Las Casas and the New Laws he helped implement were the beginning of international law and are very similar to the United Nations declaration of Human Rights.  (Source: From Conquest to Constitutions: Retrieving a Latin American Tradition of the Idea of Human Rights by Paolo G. Carozza)

The New Laws, also known as the “New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians,” were intended to prevent the exploitation of the natives – and quickly became very unpopular.

The New Laws prohibited enslavement of the Indians and called for the gradual abolition of the encomienda system. Natives would be considered free persons, and the encomienderos could no longer demand their labor. The natives were only required to pay the encomienderos tribute, but if they worked, they had to be paid wages in exchange for their labor.

Natives also could not work in the mines except under certain circumstances, but they had to be paid and treated well. What’s more, public officials or clergy with encomienda grants had to return them immediately to the Crown – the grants could not be inherited, but instead would be canceled at the death of the individual encomienderos.

You can imagine what the response was. Peru, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, just refused to obey the New Laws, and started a revolution. Pizarro led protesting landowners who took to arms in order to “maintain their rights by force.” Wow, does that sound familiar or what? And the Second Amendment wasn’t even a gleam in anybody’s eye in 1542!

The revolution lasted about four years, and Pizarro was eventually caught and executed.

But the Spanish Crown had seen the light. Between 1545 and 1552, parts of the encomienda system were rewritten, and weaker versions of the New Laws were installed.

While the New Laws may have liberated thousands of natives – at least temporarily – the Spaniards now faced a bigger problem. The natives were dying like flies from smallpox, measles, and influenza and of course extermination by sword. Outsourcing, 16th-century style.

Spain had to look for another talent pool: Africa. The first African slaves arrived on the island of Hispaniola in early 1500 and were soon island-hopping (ankle chains compliments of the management) around the Caribbean from plantation to plantation. And this is how slavery started in the New World, from the deaths of millions of American natives, to what would become a legacy of blood and horror for the next four centuries.

Some final thoughts. Wandering the halls of the newly-opened Native American Museum is D.C. in 2004, I was struck by how empty the place seemed. But it had just opened a few weeks before so perhaps they just hadn’t had time to fill it up. I have visited since, the halls are still expansive and empty; perhaps the designers and curators have kept the empty spaces on purpose. Imagine what all of the islands and the main lands of the South, Central, and North American continents would have looked like to those first Spaniards who were used to crowded and smelly cities. Lush, pristine..

Estimates vary of how many Native Americans lived on the three continents pre-Columbus. It’s impossible to come up with a good figure, of course, but the numbers vary from 8 million to as many as 100 million – for North, Central and South America. (Sources: William Denevan, Russell Thornton)

Let’s be proactive and go with the 100 million figure (even though this figure is particularly depressing, since as many as 80% of those people in many areas died of European-carried diseases in the few years after ‘discovery.’ Imagine: 80 million people dead in just a couple hundred years. So, being proactive can be counter-productive if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person.

South America from the tip of Terra Del Feugo to the far reaches of northern Canada were well-peopled with indigenous tribes, Incas, Aztecs, Seminoles, Navajo, Cherokee, Apache, Algonquins, Mohawks, Aleutians, and hundreds of other named peoples.

And the Spanish populations in the New World after 1492? Perhaps by the end of the 16th century, about a quarter million Spaniards had left Spain for the Americas, (Source: European Colonization of the Americas, New World Encyclopedia). In the 17th century only more than half a million Spaniards lived in Mexico and Peru. The lands of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas were slowly being colonized by Spain, but since there was no gold, no silver, no fountain of youth and no Seven Cities, the lands were eventually given as rewards for service to a host of Spanish kings who held they had little value.

*We should take a moment to realize that the Aztecs used slaves. Lots of them, mostly captives from conquered enemies.