International | South American government and religion since Columbus

Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002


Spain and Portugal claim the same South American land, so Pope Alexander VI draws a Line of Demarcation dividing the world: Spain gets all the land not held by a Christian ruler west of the line, and Portugal the land east of it. But after Portuguese protests, the next year Portugal and Spain sign the Treaty of Tordesillas, moving the line 930 miles west and placing the land that became Brazil in Portuguese hands.


Navigators and conquistadors hungry for glory and gold begin coming to South America. "We came here to serve God and the King, and also to get rich," says one. On the ships also come clergymen who attempt to convert New World inhabitants. By royal statute, Spanish conquistadors must establish a church in every part of the colonies with 300 or more inhabitants.


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The Vatican creates the first American diocese. By 1600 five archbishoprics and 27 bishoprics exist in Spanish America. Catholic missionaries-primarily Dominicans, Jesuits, and Franciscans -pour in to convert, teach, and eventually defend the Indians against cruel treatment. The Jesuits, through their missions in Paraguay and northeastern Argentina, establish a quasi-collectivist society, prescribing rules for conduct, work, art, and recreation among the Guarani.


Diego Columbus, son of Christopher Columbus, governs Spanish territories from his base, Santo Domingo in Hispaniola, from 1509 to 1526; he creates there the first audiencia (royal court of justice). Spanish authorities also establish a traditional form of labor service, known in Spain as encomienda; Spanish settlers are supposed to care for, pay decent wages to, and instruct Indian workers in the Christian faith, but most ignore the law.


First slaves shipped from Africa to South America via Spain.


Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos delivers a famous sermon warning the conquerors that they are "heading for damnation" for "destroying an innocent people." The sermon so moves Bartolome de las Casas that he renounces his encomienda and eventually becomes a Dominican friar.


Vasco Nunez de Balboa becomes the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, conquistadors have discovered most of the Atlantic coast of South America. They soon enslave many Indians and import black slaves from Africa. Until the 1540s about 94 percent of Spanish immigrants to the Indies are female. Spanish males depend mostly on native women for sexual relations, and Paraguay becomes known as "the paradise of Muhammad" because Spaniards there live openly with large numbers of women.


Francisco Pizarro sails south from Panama with 180 men and 27 horses to Peru and wins an easy victory over the Indians. By 1533 he has conquered most of the Inca empire. One of his officers, Pedro de Valdivia, conquers northern Chile and founds Santiago in 1541. His men cart off enough gold and silver to fill a 12' by 17' room to the height of a man's extended arm. Three years later, Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada overwhelms the Chibcha and founds the city of Bogota in Colombia.


The Spanish crown establishes a viceroyalty in Peru, but local officials have considerable flexibility and autonomy; occasionally they respond to royal decrees with "obedezco pero no cumplo" (roughly, "I accept your authority but will not execute this law"). The church teaches that man is fallible and only by God's grace are some less fallible than others. The goal of politics is to bring the less fallible to power so they can interpret and execute God's will in a superior way. The ruler, once in power, is responsible to his own conscience and to God-not to the will of the people.


Founders of San Marcos de Lima establish the first university in South America.


Diego de Losada founds Caracas; two years later Francisco Alvarez de Toledo becomes viceroy of Peru. A class and caste system dominates all of South America, with European-born Spaniards and Portuguese on top both in the government and the church. Criollos, those born in the New World from supposedly pure European descent, are next, while the mestizos, or mixed bloods, are far below the other two classes but ahead of Indians and Negro slaves.


The Spanish Inquisition establishes a tribunal in Lima.


Sir Francis Drake leads a British attack on Santo Domingo. Spanish viceroys and Portuguese aristocrats try to control trade for the benefit of their mother countries, but England, France, and the Netherlands, jealous of Spain's giant revenues from the lands and treasures in the New World, invade the Spanish Main.


Sao Paulo slave traders begin penetrating the interior of Brazil; soon, Portuguese Jesuits found missions in southern Brazil. The Portuguese are also major importers of slaves from Africa; over the next two centuries Brazil imports perhaps a million more slaves than all of Spanish America combined.


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