“Hispanidad” and the Flowering of Human Rights
Isabel la Católica, queen of Spain, was the first European monarch to fight against slavery with legal means 520 years ago. On April 16, 1495, she consulted with theologians and canonists (experts on canon law) and ordered an investigation into the morality of slavery and human rights concerning the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
On June 20, 1500 the study was concluded with the royal decree forbidding the enslavement of the indigenous Americans. She granted all non-rebellious indigenous people Spanish citizenship and full legal freedom by royal decree.
Later, the Laws of Burgos (1512-1513 A.D.) condemning slavery and governing the encomienda system were passed by her husband, King Fernando (Ferdinand) el Católico, and her daughter Queen Juana of Castile, and were meant to further ensure the rights and freedoms of the indigenous peoples.
Encomienda, as mentioned, was governed by the Laws of Burgos and was akin to the peasant system. Encomienda was not slavery. The Laws of Burgos were very clear on how encomienda was to work. Encomienda was intended to safeguard the rights and dignity of the indigenous Americans during the time of evangelizing and civilizing the population.
Encomienda was grossly abused in the Caribbean islands who were the firends of the supporter of the Spanish African slave trade, Bartolome de las Casas, the so called “Protector of the Indians” including such people as the infamously cruel Nuño de Guzmán while he ruled in Pánuco and Nueva Galicia, both parts of modern Mexico.
The two first bishops of Nueva España, Juan de Zumárraga and Julián Garcés, sent the Dominican Fray Bernardino de Minaya to Rome with a letter of petition Pope Paul III to officially condemn slavery so that they could more forcefully combat the sins against human rights in their jurisdictions, and on June 2, 1537 Pope Paul III published the Papal Bull, Sublimis Deus which denounced slavery.
Those laws and the Papal Bull proved insufficient in safeguarding the human dignity and rights of the people, therefore in the year 1542 Isabel’s grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (also King Charles I of Spain) implemented the Laws of the Indies which were strongly influenced by the University of Salamanca.
Which brings us to the first philosophers really delving into human rights as we know them today, those of the School of Salamanca in the 16th century during the Spanish Renaissance.
The great thinkers, Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Francisco Suárez and company delved deeply into these subjects. We are in a position where these issues and ideas of human rights, slavery and so forth were hashed out by philosophers like Francisco de Vitoria and monarchs like Isabel la Católica, and neatly handed down to us. We are blessed to have been given this.
We have Isabel to thank for these leaps in Christian humanism, she who boldly proclaimed that her subjects, the Indians of America, were truly people with souls that needed conversion to the True Faith, while people in the Church were still debating whether these were people with eternal souls, with equal dignity to the people of Christendom. Human rights as you and I know them are thanks in large part to Queen Isabel.
Due to the horrible reality of what encomienda became in the Caribbean, Hernán Cortés was opposed to the system being brought to New Spain. Although he was forced to allow it, he won the autonomous governance of many of his indigenous allies in the war against the Aztecs which ended in 1521. He also helped to facilitate the transition of the caciques (chieftains) into becoming the alcaldes (mayors) of their towns and villages. Encomienda was outlawed not long after, in the year 1542.
In 1503 Queen Isabel wrote to Nicolás Ovando encouraging intermarriage by the Spanish with the indigenous “which are legitimate and recommended because the Indians are free vassals of the Spanish Crown.” Again, in 1514, King Fernando decreed that all marriages between Spaniards and indigenous were valid and legitimate.
Many of the surviving conquistadores of New Spain married indigenous girls. The Spaniards immediately intermarried with the indigenous in the Americas. They had a love for the people of the lands they discovered and conquered. This is the reason you will not find Aztecs or Spaniards in Mexico today, the two peoples completely intermarried, so much so, that even by the end of the 16th century more than half of all Spaniards in the Americas were married to indigenous women.
Often, when the conquistadores and those that arrived later were accused of crimes against the indigenous they were recalled to Spain for trial, and if found guilty punished no matter their prestige. So when the enemies (Guzmán and company) of Cortés leveled charges at him, he was recalled to Spain but found to be innocent of wrongdoing.
The accusers of Cortés were unjust and cruel men who were oppressing and enslaving the indigenous while robbing Hernán Cortés blind. Juan de Zumarraga, the bishop of happy memory, had written a letter to Emperor Charles V on all the happenings of the time leading up to Cortés’ recall to Spain. At the time the letter was written it was believed that Cortés was dead, as his enemies proclaimed him so in order to pilfer his property. Cortés was exploring Honduras at the time. Fray Zumarraga’s letter explains in a dispassionate way, rule under Cortés, as well as the evils that began to occur when Cortés left to explore Honduras.
After being found innocent of the superfluous charges, Cortés returned to New Spain as a still high ranking government official, but no longer retaining the full authority he previously held. His accusers had been found out, and the chief among them, Nuño de Guzmán, spent his final years imprisoned. To better explain the character of Hernán Cortés, it is worth noting that Cortés financially supported Guzmán and his family after Guzmán was imprisoned as an act of charity. He did this for the man that robbed and tried to ruin him, and had him sent to Spain as a criminal for trial.
After the oppressive leadership in the Caribbean had killed off 90% of the indigenous through cruel labor practices and outright murder, they started kidnapping (and purchasing from the likes of Guzmán) Indians from Mexico. Cortés was known to capture the ships and free the Indians as they were Spanish subjects. . Also, in his last will and testament, point XXXIX, Cortés instructs: “As there have been many doubts and opinions whether it is permitted in Good conscience to hold the natives as slaves, whether captives of war or by purchase, and up till now this has not been determined, I direct my son and successor Don Martin, and those who may follow him, to use all dilligence to settle this point for the purpose of my conscience and their own.”
Also of note, the Moctezuma line is part of European nobility to this day. There are many nobles throughout Europe with the Moctezuma royal heritage, including Juan José Marcilla de Teruel-Moctezuma y Jiménez, 5th Duke of Moctezuma de Tultengo, 15th Marquis of Tenebrón and Viscount of Ilucán, the noble house of Grau-Moctezuma de Toleriu, the Dukes of Ahumada, the Dukes of Abrantes, the Counts de la Enjarada, and the Counts of Miravalle.
It was 15th and 16th century Spain to which we owe the accolades of human rights, not the so called Enlightenment. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Amoris Laetitia (March 19, 2016) stated, “The lack of historic memory is a serious shortcoming in our society.” And I believe the current iconoclasm is a case of that. A lack of historic memory.
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