Puerto Rico Amerindians
Several times during our narrative we have alluded to the ethical- political-economic matters labelled as the native issue, arising exclusively the lands conquered by Spain. None of the other nations, except Portugal, which had been, and later became once more, part of Spain, were concerned with the moral and/or juridical personality of the inhabitants found in the conquered territories.
The matter was brought up in the Spanish dominions by the clergy (regular), as was logical, since the majority of the conquistadors could not have had such lofty perceptions. Fray Antonio de Montesinos has the honor of being the first to lift up his voice against the servitude of the natives.
As early as 1511 he preached to the colonists of Hispanola (La Espanola) who surely believed they were not sinning when they arrived in strange lands and forced the natives to serve them under the law of conquest. The Friar questioned if they had this right, especially since the conclusion has been reached that the natives were rational beings, susceptible to Christianization.
This issue produced a storm of protest from the colonists, who viewed the Dominican's invective as an attack on their interests. They immediately sent a proctor to the King, the Franciscan Friar, Alonso del Espinal, to refute Montesino's charges. The King, perturbed at the narration of the offences against the natives, founded a board of theologians and officials charged with the study of this question and the rending of a verdict.
The board recognized the right of the natives to liberty and human treatment, but stipulated that they had to be subject to Spanish dominion or their religious conversion, this being absolutely necessary. The "encomienda" system was judged to be essentially just, although they supplemented it with an ordinance code issued in Burgos on September 7th, 1512.
These debates did not resolve the question of whether the Christian Princes had legal title to the natives of the discovered lands, and the Crown ordered various theologians and jurists to present their written opinions.
Two opinions have been preserved, that of Matias de Paz and of Juan de Palacios Rubios. In them, the politics dominion is valid, if conversion to the Christian faith is achieved by inviting the "infidels" (our quotation marks, since it is absurd to term them thus when they were not yet Christians) to accept the faith.
The natives could not be held as slaves unless they refused to obey the Prince or to accept Christianity Having been converted it was legal to require certain services from them, even greater than those required of Christians in Spain, but to a reasonable extent, so as to be able to cover the expenses of the trip and the colonization. (Cedulario puertorriqueno, Tomo I, vol. III, of the Historia documental de Puerto Rico, my Monseignuer Vicente Murga Sanz, UPR. Editions, Rio Piedras, 1961).
It could be justly said that these opinions reflect an attempt to rationalize the interests of the conquistadores, but it would be more apt to point out that the attempt, made during a very early epoch when nobody else even considered these questions, is a real monument to Spain.
Those who doubt it do not have to search much to prove it. In the doorway to the XX century, in our own grounds, the transfer of Puerto Rico from Spanish hands to the United States was justified by having to pay war expenses -- a war that had nothing to do with the Puerto Ricans.
The very honesty of some Spaniards contributed to the initiation of what is known as the black legend of Spain. All conquests are unjust and cruel, then, now and always; moreover the fact that Spain's rights to the conquest were questioned was used by her enemies to weave a legend making Spain appear as the only country to commit cruelties. The principal source used by the foreigners were the writings of Fray Bartolome' de las Casas. During the epoch that Montesinos was setting forth his claims.
Las Casas was living in Cuba as an "encomendero". Later he embraced the ecclesiastic career, and reached the conclusion, as time went by, that the "encomienda" was unjust. He based his arguments on a very advanced concept when he insistently pronounced that all people of the world were men. It is true that at the moment he was only thinking of the American natives, because they had been born in the invaded countries.
For this reason he suggested that in order to avoid the sinking of the colonial economy -- the argument given by the conquistadores -- negro slaves should be brought over, since these last did not fall under the same principle. Before dying Las Casas perfected his ideas to include all people as equal, and repented of having accepted Negro slavery as a good thing.
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