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The “New Laws” of 1542 were a series of laws and regulations approved by the King of Spain in November of 1542 to regulate the Spaniards who were enslaving the natives in the Americas, particularly in Peru. The laws were extremely unpopular in the New World and directly led to a civil war in Peru. The furor was so great that eventually King Charles, fearing that he would lose his new colonies entirely, was forced to suspend many of the more unpopular aspects of the new legislation.
Conquest of the New World
The Americas had been discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus: a papal bull in 1493 divided the newly-discovered lands between Spain and Portugal. Settlers, explorers, and conquistadors of all sorts immediately began heading to the colonies, where they tortured and killed the natives by the thousands to take their lands and wealth. In 1519, Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico: about fifteen years later Francisco Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire in Peru. These native empires had much gold and silver and the men who participated became very wealthy. This, in turn, inspired more and more adventurers to come to the Americas in the hopes of joining the next expedition that would conquer and loot a native kingdom.
The Encomienda System
With the major native empires in Mexico and Peru in ruins, the Spanish had to put a new system of government in place. The successful conquistadors and colonial officials used the encomienda system. Under the system, an individual or family was given lands, which generally had natives living on them already. A sort of "deal" was implied: the new owner was responsible for the natives: he would see to their instruction in Christianity, their education and their safety. In return, the natives would supply food, gold, minerals, wood or whatever valuable commodity could be extracted from the land. The encomienda lands would pass from one generation to the next, allowing the families of the conquistadors to set themselves up like local nobility. In reality, the encomienda system was little more than slavery by another name: the natives were forced to work in fields and mines, often until they literally dropped dead.
Las Casas and the Reformers
Some opposed the ghastly abuses of the native population. As early as 1511 in Santo Domingo, a friar named Antonio de Montesinos asked the Spanish by what right had they invaded, enslaved, raped and robbed a people who had done them no harm. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican priest, began asking the same questions. Las Casas, an influential man, had the ear of the king, and he told of the needless deaths of millions of Indians-who were, after all, Spanish subjects. Las Casas was quite persuasive and King Charles of Spain finally decided to do something about the murders and torture being carried out in his name.
The New Laws
The “New Laws,” as the legislation came to be known, provided for sweeping changes in Spain's colonies. The natives were to be considered free, and the owners of the encomiendas could no longer demand free labor or services from them. They did need to pay a certain amount of tribute, but any extra work was to be paid for. Natives were to be treated fairly and given expanded rights. Encomiendas granted to members of the colonial bureaucracy or the clergy were to be returned to the crown immediately. The clauses of the New Laws most disturbing to the Spanish colonists were the ones that declared forfeiture of encomiendas or native laborers by those who had participated in civil wars (which was nearly all of the Spaniards in Peru) and a provision that made encomiendas not hereditary: all encomiendas would revert to the crown upon the death of the current holder.
Revolt and Repeal
Reaction to the New Laws was swift and drastic: all over the Spanish Americas, conquistadors and settlers were enraged. Blasco Nuñez Vela, the Spanish Viceroy, arrived in the New World in early 1544 and announced that he intended to enforce the New Laws. In Peru, where the former conquistadors had the most to lose, the settlers rallied behind Gonzalo Pizarro, last of the Pizarro brothers (Juan and Francisco passed away and Hernando Pizarro was still alive but in prison in Spain). Pizarro raised an army, declaring that he would defend the rights that he and so many others had fought so hard for. At the battle of Añaquito in January of 1546, Pizarro defeated Viceroy Núñez Vela, who died in battle. Later, an army under Pedro de la Gasca defeated Pizarro in April of 1548: Pizarro was executed.
Pizarro's revolution was put down, but the revolt had shown the King of Spain that the Spaniards in the New World (and Peru in particular) were serious about protecting their interests. Although the king felt that morally, the New Laws were the right thing to do, he feared that Peru would declare itself an independent kingdom (many of Pizarro's followers had urged him to do just that). Charles listened to his advisors, who told him that he had better seriously tone down the New Laws or he risked losing parts of his new empire. The New Laws were suspended and a watered-down version was passed in 1552.
The Spanish had a mixed record in the Americas as a colonial power. The most horrendous abuses occurred in the colonies: natives were enslaved, murdered, tortured and raped in the conquest and early part of the colonial period and later they were disenfranchised and excluded from power. Individual acts of cruelty are too numerous and dreadful to list here. Conquistadors like Pedro de Alvarado and Ambrosius Ehinger reached levels of cruelty that are nearly inconceivable to modern sentiments.
As horrible as the Spanish were, there were a few enlightened souls among them, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos. These men fought diligently for native rights in Spain. Las Casas produced books on the subjects of Spanish abuses and was not shy about denouncing powerful men in the colonies. King Charles I of Spain, like Ferdinand and Isabela before him and Philip II after him, had his heart in the right place: all of these Spanish rulers demanded that the natives be treated fairly. In practice, however, the goodwill of the king was difficult to enforce. There was also an inherent conflict: the King wanted his native subjects to be happy, but the Spanish crown grew ever more dependent on the steady flow of gold and silver from the colonies, much of which was produced by slave labor in the mines.
As for the New Laws, they marked an important shift in Spanish policy. The age of conquest was over: bureaucrats, not conquistadors, would hold power in the Americas. Stripping the conquistadors of their encomiendas meant nipping the burgeoning noble class in the bud. Although King Charles suspended the New Laws, he had other means of weakening the powerful New World elite and within a generation or two most of the encomiendas had reverted to the crown anyway.