When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, he found many “naked people”, and remarked in his journal that “they should be good and intelligent servants” and “would become Christians very easily”. He was mistaken, and the Spanish struggled for hundreds of years to subjugate and convert the indigenous people of the Americas. When they did not cooperate, they were often either slaughtered and maimed, or enslaved to work for the Spanish colonists. King Ferdinand, receiving firsthand accounts of the barbaric ways these people were treated, sought to legitimize Spain’s actions in the eyes of the church and the Pope. The Requerimiento was one of these attempts.
The Requerimiento was a document written in 1510 (according to most sources) by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, acting in his capacity as a member of the Royal Council of Castile. Rubios was a doctor, a judge, and the King’s chief jurist. He was also very involved in Spanish politics. The Requerimiento was written with the expectation that it would be read by conquistadors to indigenous people they encountered in their conquest of new lands.
Juan López de Palacios Rubios was born Juan Lopez de Vivero. (He was later referred to as Palacios Rubios instead of ViVero because he was born in the province of Salamanca, Spain, known at the time as “Palaciosrubios”.) Rubios was a well-known and respected jurist who was advisor to the king and wrote several works upholding the legality of the Spanish actions in the New World. His treatise “Of the Ocean Isles” (circa 1512) used the writings of Hostiensis, a 13th century bishop, to justify Spain’s subjugation of “pagans” in defense of Christianity.
Pope Alexander VI had already granted Spain and Portugal power over newly discovered lands. Spain had claimed lands in Central and South America and the Caribbean in 1493 following Columbus’ return. In exchange for this power, the Pope expected the Spanish colonists to convert the indigenous people of these lands to Christianity, a duty that the clergy took very seriously. The colonists, however, were often more concerned with their businesses, and the free labor of the Native Americans increased their profits. The workers were forced into labor, and were often mistreated and abused. Many missionaries accompanied the Spanish settlers, and they were the first to speak up about the atrocities they witnessed against the indigenous inhabitants (see Bartolomeo de las Casas).
King Ferdinand II of Spain struggled with how to further the cause of Christianity in a way that did not go against the tenets of the church. There were already a number of political rationales for Spanish conquest of new lands, the strongest being that Christians could acquire lands and obtain power over the “pagan” inhabitants for the purpose of disseminating Chritianity. The King eventually turned to the Council of Castile for their help.
The Council knew that the conquistadors were pursuing a violent course of action when encountering native inhabitants instead of trying to persuade them to convert to Christianity. They decided to draw up a statement, the Requerimiento, or “Requirement”, which the conquistadors would then be required to read to the native inhabitants. The document gave them the opportunity to cooperate with the Spanish and convert to Christianity in the hope of avoiding bloodshed.
This document explained the Spanish view that the pope had God-given authority, and had used it to grant the king of Spain legal jurisdiction over the new lands. It also stated the various outcomes that would occur if the native populations refused to cooperate. Not only would war be declared upon them, but they would all be enslaved to work for the colonists, and their personal possessions would be taken from them. The Requerimiento stated that the native people would not be forced to convert to Christianity “unless you yourselves … should wish to be converted”. History shows that this was not the case. If the people refused to cooperate, then the document absolved Spain and the King of blame for the results, which would be enslavement or death.
The Requerimiento was important for a number of reasons. First, it formally expressed Spain’s rationale behind what it believed was its legal right to conquer new lands and people. Second, it was an attempt by King Ferdinand and the Council of Castile to offer an alternative to bloodshed and extermination.
However, the conquistadors charged with reading the Requerimiento usually read it in Spanish, when of course most indigenous people did not understand the language. Other conquistadors would read it from the decks of their ships, out of earshot. It was also read while standing outside of villages, with no villagers even in sight, or to their backs as they walked away.
Although the Requerimiento remained in force for many years, those who actually conquered new lands, as well as most colonists, favored violent subjugation and subsequent slavery of the native tribes they encountered rather than conversion to Christianity.
“Juan Lopez de Palacios Rubios.” Ed. Jennifer Stock. Vol. 8: Early American Civilizations and Exploration to 1600. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2015. p163-166.
Seed, Patricia (1995). Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World: 1492-1640. Cambridge University Press. pp. 69–71.
“New Spain”. The Literature of Justification, Lehigh University: http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/justification/newspain/intro/
Cook, Noble David. “Requerimiento.” Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, edited by Jay Kinsbruner and Erick D. Langer, 2nd ed., vol. 5, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008, pp. 522-523. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2077/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=onondaga&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CCX3078904704&asid=b69ce3727e96a6541f4aafa441730b10 . Accessed 18 July 2017.
Wolff, R. L.; Hazard, H. W. (ed.) / The later Crusades, 1189-1311
(1969). Chapter X: The Political Crusades of the Thirteenth Century, pp. 343-375
Spain and Portugal in the New World: 1492-1700 by Lyle N. McAlister. https://books.google.com/books?id=lFwnCYl85VEC&pg=PA90&lpg=PA90&dq=%22Of+the+Ocean+Isles%22+juan+rubios&source=bl&ots=mGBF4SVG45&sig=B4LZG7X7lF2xP9ru3hoOcYS3gi4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjPtb_Z9JLVAhWDVyYKHa3pApIQ6AEILTAB#v=onepage&q=%22Of%20the%20Ocean%20Isles%22%20juan%20rubios&f=false
- On behalf of the King, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana I, his daughter, Queen of Castille and León, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the Heaven and the Earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, all the men of the world at the time, were and are descendants, and all those who came after and before us. But, on account of the multitude which has sprung from this man and woman in the five thousand years since the world was created, it was necessary that some men should go one way and some another, and that they should be divided into many kingdoms and provinces, for in one alone they could not be sustained.
- Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be Lord and Superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole Human Race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.
- And he commanded him to place his seat in Rome, as the spot most fitting to rule the world from; but also he permitted him to have his seat in any other part of the world, and to judge and govern all Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles, and all other Sects. This man was called Pope, as if to say, Admirable Great Father and Governor of men. The men who lived in that time obeyed that St. Peter, and took him for Lord, King, and Superior of the universe; so also they have regarded the others who after him have been elected to the pontificate, and so has it been continued even till now, and will continue till the end of the world.
- One of these Pontiffs, who succeeded that St. Peter as Lord of the world, in the dignity and seat which I have before mentioned, made donation of these isles and Tierra-firme to the aforesaid King and Queen and to their successors, our lords, with all that there are in these territories, as is contained in certain writings which passed upon the subject as aforesaid, which you can see if you wish.
- So their Highnesses are kings and lords of these islands and land of Tierra-firme by virtue of this donation: and some islands, and indeed almost all those to whom this has been notified, have received and served their Highnesses, as lords and kings, in the way that subjects ought to do, with good will, without any resistance, immediately, without delay, when they were informed of the aforesaid facts. And also they received and obeyed the priests whom their Highnesses sent to preach to them and to teach them our Holy Faith; and all these, of their own free will, without any reward or condition, have become Christians, and are so, and their Highnesses have joyfully and benignantly received them, and also have commanded them to be treated as their subjects and vassals; and you too are held and obliged to do the same. Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require you that you consider what we have said to you, and that you take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it, and that you acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world, and the high priest called Pope, and in his name the King and Queen Doña Juana our lords, in his place, as superiors and lords and kings of these islands and this Tierra-firme by virtue of the said donation, and that you consent and give place that these religious fathers should declare and preach to you the aforesaid.
- If you do so, you will do well, and that which you are obliged to do to their Highnesses, and we in their name shall receive you in all love and charity, and shall leave you, your wives, and your children, and your lands, free without servitude, that you may do with them and with yourselves freely that which you like and think best, and they shall not compel you to turn Christians, unless you yourselves, when informed of the truth, should wish to be converted to our Holy Catholic Faith, as almost all the inhabitants of the rest of the islands have done. And, besides this, their Highnesses award you many privileges and exemptions and will grant you many benefits.
- But, if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him; and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. And that we have said this to you and made this Requisition, we request the notary here present to give us his testimony in writing, and we ask the rest who are present that they should be witnesses of this Requisition.