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The two regions
Inca gold
     Spaniards and Indians
     Spanish colonial administration
     Portugal and Brazil
     Bahia and Rio de Janeiro
     American mission settlements

Independence movements
Bolívar & San Martín
Peru, Bolivia, Mexico
20th century

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Spaniards and Indians: 16th - 18th century

The settlement of the new Spanish colonies, and long-term reward for the conquistadors, is achieved by a system of grants known as encomiendas. Indians are 'commended' to a conquistador (himself the encomendero), giving him ostensibly the responsibility to protect them and educate them in the Christian faith. In return he has the right to receive tribute from them, usually paid in labour.

Entire Indian villages are often commended to an individual conquistador, giving him a status similar to that of a feudal lord.


The conquistadors are of necessity hard and ruthless men. In many cases they treat the Indians under their protection as slaves. But this causes a passionate reaction in defence of the Indians, promoted above all by a Dominican friar, Bartolomé de Las Casas.

Las Casas' humanitarian arguments receive a friendly hearing at the Spanish court, which is by now the most important secular arm of the Catholic Reformation. Charles V decrees in 1542 the so-called New Laws (Leyes Nuevas), putting in place regulations to protect the Indians on the encomiendas.


The New Laws at first have no effect in the Spanish colonies. In Peru the viceroy attempting to introduce them is beheaded by insurgent colonists. In Mexico the laws are not even proclaimed. Back in Spain, in 1545, many of the more provocative clauses in the legislation are revoked.

Nevertheless the direction pioneered by Las Casas eventually prevails. The encomienda system is brought to an end in the 18th century, replaced by more conventional wage labour. Spanish conscience in this matter is well ahead of its time. In this heated 16th-century debate, Spain's imperial administrators become by far the earliest of their kind to consider the rights of indigenous peoples.


Spanish colonialministration: 16th - 19th c.

The Spanish monarch is the first to be confronted with the problem of administering large tracts of conquered territory on the other side of an ocean. From the start careful measures are taken to control a difficult situation. Ferdinand and Isabella entrust the building of an administration, from as early as Columbus' second voyage in 1493, to their personal chaplain Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca.

Some of Fonseca's responsibilities are formalized in 1503 in the Casa de Contratación, dealing with trade. After his death in 1524 the political side of his administration becomes the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies, sitting in Madrid.


In America the king's authority is exercised by his viceroys, who live in great magnificence and wield much power. In the 16th century there are only two viceroyalties. The viceroy of New Spain, with his capital in Mexico City, governs the West Indies and all the Spanish territories on the mainland from Florida to California in the north down to Venezuela in the south. In 1571 the Philippines are added to his responsibilities. A galleon sails annually from Acapulco to carry his instructions to the governor-general in Manila.

The viceroy of New Peru, with his capital at Lima (founded by Pizarro in 1535), governs all Spanish colonies in south America except Venezuela.


In the 18th century these two viceroyalties seem unwieldy. They are split into four. New Spain keeps the West Indies and the mainland down to Panama (though the southern region, Guatemala, has semi-autonomy under a captain-general). New Granada has Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. New Peru retains only Peru, most of Chile and western Bolivia. The viceroyalty of La Plata governs eastern Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and the southern tip of Chile.

These vast regions are successfully controlled from Madrid until the independence movements of the early 19th century. British rule may later span more of the globe. But Spain's is the longest lasting of all the modern European empires - with the Philippines remaining in Spanish hands until 1898.


Portugal and Brazil: 16th - 18th century

The Portuguese, with imperial ambitions focussed originally on the east Indies, are slower than the Spanish in setting up any form of administration in America. Brazil is deemed to be part of their share of the globe, through the accident of the Tordesillas Line. The coast is reached in 1500 by a Portuguese navigator, Pedro Cabral. Vespucci explores the rest of the Brazilian coastline for the king of Portugal in 1501-2.

But it is not until 1533 that steps are taken to colonize this rich territory. The Portuguese call it Brazil because of a valuable natural product - pau-brasil, a red wood much in demand for the dye which can be extracted from it.


The first attempt to establish a Portuguese presence in Brazil is made by John III in 1533. His solution is ingenious but idle. He divides the coastline into fifteen sections, each about 150 miles in length, and grants these strips of land on a hereditary basis to fifteen courtiers - who become known as donatários. Each courtier is told that he and his heirs can found cities, grant land and levy taxes over as much territory as they can colonize inland from their stretch of coast.

Only two of the donatários make any success of this venture. In the 1540s John III is forced to change his policy. He brings Brazil under direct royal control (as in Spanish America) and appoints a governor general.


The first governor general of Brazil arrives in 1549 and makes his headquarters at Bahia (today known as Salvador). It remains the capital of Portuguese Brazil for more than two centuries, until replaced by Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

Colonists gradually move into the interior. Accompanying the first governor general in 1549 are members of the newly founded order of Jesuits. In their mission to convert the Indians they are often the first European presence in new regions far from the coast. They frequently clash with adventurers also pressing inland (in great expeditions known as bandeiras) to find silver and gold or to capture Indians as slaves.


These two groups, with their very different motives, bring a Portuguese presence far beyond the Tordesillas Line. By the late 17th century the territory of Brazil encompasses the entire basin of the Amazon as far west as the Andes. At the same time Portuguese colonists are moving down the coast beyond Rio de Janeiro. A Portuguese town is even established on the river Plate in 1680, provoking a century of Spanish-Portuguese border conflicts in the region which is now Uruguay.

Meanwhile the use of the Portuguese language gradually gives the central region of south America an identity different from that of its Spanish neighbours.


Bahia and Rio de Janeiro: 16th-18th century

The economic strength of Portuguese Brazil derives at first from sugar plantations in the north (established as early as the 1530s by one of the only two successful donatários). But from the late 17th century Brazil benefits at last from the mineral wealth which underpins Spanish America. Gold is found in 1693 in the inland region of Minas Gerais, in the southern part of the colony.

The discovery sets off the first great gold rush of the American continent - opening up the interior as the prospectors swarm westwards, and underpinning Brazil's economy for much of the 18th century. Diamonds are also discovered in large quantities in the same region in the 18th century.


American mission settlements: 16th - 18th century

In both Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Latin America the preaching orders of the Roman Catholic church - Franciscans, Dominicans and above all the Jesuits - play a prominent role.

The voyages of conquest have from the start proclaimed one of their main purposes to be the conversion of heathens to Christianity. Friars take part in almost every expedition.


In the early years conquest and conversion go hand in hand rather too easily for the spiritual side to be entirely convincing. Within ten years of Cortes landing in Mexico, one Franciscan friar claims to have personally baptized more than 200,000 Indians - including 14,000 in one day.

As the colonies settle down, the friars establish mission stations where Indians live as part of a Christian community. The friars also (as exemplified by the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas) become staunch defenders of the Indians against exploitation by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.


Most prominent in these activities are the Jesuits, the order founded as the spearhead of the spiritual crusade of the Catholic Reformation. In Brazil the efforts of the Jesuits contribute greatly to extending the province inland, as they press every further up the rivers to organize and educate the Indians in self-supporting frontier settlements.

In Paraguay the Jesuit settlements (known as reducciones) are so numerous and so successful that the order governs a virtually independent territory, protected by their own army and with a population of about 100,000 Indians.


The power and wealth of the Jesuits arouses much opposition, particularly in the anti-clerical mood of the later 18th century. They also make enemies by protecting the Indians against the predatory demands of colonists.

The move against the missions is led by Portugal. The Jesuits are expelled from Brazil in 1759. Spain follows suit in its American viceroyalties in 1767. The thirty-two reducciones of Paraguay are abandoned and fall into decay. It is all part of a broader reaction in Europe, leading to the suppression of the entire Jesuit order in 1773.


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