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 Hispañola (La Española) 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 puertorriqueño, 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.
Las Casas completed Montesino's work. In September 1515, he personally went to Spain to expedite the solution of the "status" of the natives from the point of view of theology of law, and of environmental reality. The Catholic King was dead, and Cardinal Cisneros was Regent. Confronted with a diversity of opinions on the matter, he decided to send some personal representatives of the Crown to the Indies to see if they could arrive at a just decision there. The personas chosen were Fray Bernardino de Manzanedo, Fray Luis de Figueroa, Fray Alonso de Santo Domingo, and Fray Juan de Salvatierra as assistant -- all from the Order of Jerome.
The Jerome Fathers left Spain on November 11th, 1516, and reached San Juan Bautista on the 14th or 15 of December of the same yar, staying there a few days before leaving for the city of Santo Domingo in La Espa~nola. The native question was resolved by the Jeromes in a temporizing fashion. Taking into account the theory of the rights of Indian, the Christian principles and the necessity for the invaders to have labourers in order to survive, the Jeromes -- opposed to the system of allotments, searched for a formula that would slowly eliminate the system of encomienda, giving time for the necessary adjustments to avoid disruption of the economy.
The first step, taken in 1517 was to determine that those absent did not profit from the encomiendas of the aborigines. This decree affected the King himself, since he, as well as other powerful Court officials, had natives under his command. When the decree was put into effect it was also decided that the natives left free, having been allotted to absent persons, would remain emancipated and could not be allotted, persons living on the Island. The Royal Decree was put into effect and was also decided that the natives left free, having been allotted to absent persons living on the Island. The Royal Decree that collectively emancipated these natives is dated July 12th, 1520, and is directed to Judge Antonio de la Gama. Included among those with rights of emancipation were those at large due to deaths of the encomenderos, or other juridical causes, such as violation of rules demanding good treatment for the natives. The aborigines not included in this decree remained allotted, but even these had a toehold to complete liberty by way of the Complementary Declaration of July 28th, 1513, that established that those natives who were clothed, Christians, and were capable, could live their own lives, of course remaining subject to the same obligations sustained by the other vassals.
The Jerome Fathers decreed that native villages should be established, of four hundred to five hundred inhabitants each, close to the villas of the encomenderos. In this fashion they hoped to counteract the cultural upheaval caused by the Spaniards when they broke down the Cacique Regime to establish the encomienda system. It would have been more appropriate to try and return to the old cacique system, but that would have lessened the economic yield of the encomienda and would have ..nined the plan for Christianization. To obtain at least part of both objectives the Jerome Fathers thought up the former plan. The communities would be exclusively native, with the exception of the settling if a married Spaniard, who would then show them how to live a peaceful orderly life and to handle their haciendas, and a clergyman who would be in charge of their religious instruction. (It is not strange that by the Spaniard's point of view the natives had to wait for their arrival so as to be taught everything they had been doing for centuries. This is the mania of all invaders of the past and present, "civilize" the countries they subdue, even when the country subdued might have an older civilization than the conquering country.)
Since many of the encomenderos did not carry out the orders of the encomienda system, the attacks on the institution continued. Therefore, in 1544, Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany decided to abolish it. The decree declared the natives to be as free as any Spaniard. It is worthwhile clarifying, so as not to be classed as naive, that the declaration in itself did not really compare the conquistador with the conquered, and that the abuses of powers continued, but at least they were considered as abuses and not as legal procedures. In Peru' the Royal Decree was set aside in fact when the "mita" * was introduced, a measure which obliged the natives to work under compulsion in the interests of common good. The "mita", appearing just and fair on paper, was a source of abuses on behalf of the conquistadores, and although the Spanish governmental system provided the natives with means to get even, their weakness in the social whole nearly always impeded the laws from being fulfilled. *(Note: The institution was of Inca origin.. See Salvador De Madariaga, The Rise of the Spanish American Empire, New York, The Macmillan Co., 1947. Chapter VI of the "Revista de Historia de Puerto Rico", Vol. I, n.3, Chapt. IX, pp. 228-240.)
There is no evidence showing that the Puerto Rican natives were considered legally bound to continue working for the whites. When the decree arrived, on Rodrigo de Bastidas was Bishop, and he held a ceremony in the city of Puerto Rico (San Juan) where according to his report, sixty natives, old and young heard the reading of the royal decree. This figure has been currently interpreted to mean that the natives had almost been exterminated at that early date. Salvador Brau comments that since Governor Manuel de Lando's census in 1530 reports the existence of one thousand, one hundred and forty-eight natives, it must be surmised that a tremendous amount of deaths had taken place to explain this decrease in numbers. Moreover, this same Bishop later discovered that the landowners had lied about the number of natives allotted to them when they heard about the abolition of the decree. Six years later the lawyer, Governor of Puerto Rico, Dr. Vallejo, found a great number of natives on the rural farms, all mixed up with African slaves and subject (as the salves), for sale and purchase. * In spite of Brau's claims, the idea that has survived from generation to generation is that the Spaniards exterminated the Indians in thirty-six years. The padded figure of 6,00,000 inhabitants given by Fray In~nigo Abbad in his history is also accepted, to make the extermination more brutal. This figure must be rejected as it is impossible that the Arawak economy, with its rudimentary agriculture and lack of livestock, could have supported such a high population in an autarchical plan. The Puerto Rican archeologist, don Ricardo Alegria, based on the archeological remains of the Precolombian people, calculates that at the most there were some 30,000 inhabitants. *(Note: Brau, Salvador: "Historia de Puerto Rico" quoted edition, p. 80 "... We can assume that even the figure given by Olando, as pointed out before, cannot be absolutely correct.")
If we accept the lesser figure we may conclude that the relatively small population could not survive the nazards of the epidemics brought by the white and blacks, the low birth rate after the conquest, the later exodus after the defeat in war and, most of all, the impact of crossbreeding with the whites and blacks, since the autochthonous element was not augmented by immigrations. For this reason we have no pure native or half breeds as occurs in other countries of Latin America. Some characteristics do survive in the total sum of modern Puerto Rican inhabitants, in some cases more than others.
Our country's natives seem to have been typed as "Indians" until the beginning of the XIXth century when Governor don Toribio Montes, faced with the difficulty of fixing ethnic origins, banded all the non-whites together under the title of free colored people (pardos). In the census made at the end of the XVIIIth century by order of Carlos III, proof is given that the natives were not exterminated in the first half of the XVIth century, since in 1778 there was a contingent of 2,302 pure natives living in the country, which seems to have settled in the Central Cordillera, in those places known up to now as "Indieras". * (Note: Please note that there was a majority of non-whites. In 1771, 38,259 comparted to 31,951, and in 1778 56,295 compated to 46,756. Please note, moreover, that crossbreeds are not specified (native with White) or other mixtures, under the term free coloured peoples. If we compare this census with O'Reilly's made in 1765 we see an increase in the number of slaves from 7,592 in 1771 and 11,560 in 1778, compated to 5,037 slaves in 1765.
If we take all this data into account it is evident that the time has come to throw overboard the fallacy of the extermination of the native population. Of course there were grounds for the creation of this fallacy and for the subsequent transmission to future generations, as the documents of the first half of the century repeat that the "native Indians" had been eliminated. It is quite possible that the royal officials were referring to the natives subject to encomienda (remember that by the Jerome decree there were a number who were not subject to it), especially since the declaration was made with the object of pointing out to the Crown the necessity of sending Negro slaves to perform labor. When they spoke out of this context they admitted the existence of natives on the land. It might also have been true that the colonists who held natives under the encomienda exaggerated the dissapearance of the native element to force the limitless introduction of Negro slaves, which were not subject to the ordinances or scruples that impeded the exploitation of native labourers.
To sum up, as far as the physical absence of natives in Puerto Rico is concerned, the term to be used is absorption, not extermination. The absorption was also cultural, although we are not aware of that. How can we distinguish today, in the intricate cultural pattern, what comes from the natives, and what from the Negro, especially in zones such as culinary art, quackery, superstitions and all the folk knowledge inherited by the new generations over and above modern science? It is not due to this crossbreeding that we do not consider ourselves Arawaks, nor Spaniards, nor Negroes, but rather as Puerto Ricans?
All this process of the native question helps us to understand that the Spanish conquest was different to the other European conquests and to clarify the concept we ought to have of ourselves as a cultural entity, distinct and separate to the other entities, and to take a look at ourselves in the mirror of the history of the Arawak people, owners and lords of this land until 1493, when the Spanish boats arrived in their dominions.
* The results of the Census were the following: Year 1771 Year 1778 Whites............... 31,951 46,756 Indians.............. 1,756 2,302 Free Colored......... 24,164 34,867 Free Negroes......... 4,747 7,866 Mulato Slaves........ 3,343 4,657 Negro Slaves......... 4,249 6,603
By: Loida Figueroa
The Native Issue
Book: Colonization of Puerto Rico
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Gladys M. Hernández
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