The Requerimiento and Spanish Justification for Conquest in the New World

In what they referred to as "El Nuevo Mundo," Spain had found seemingly limitless lands with inexhaustible resources (particularly gold and silver), as well as what they thought to be an unending supply of "Indians" to be shipped off as slaves or pressed into service there (which amounted to slavery). There was also the attempt to "convert the heathens" to Catholicism. While there were a large number that believed in that and saw it as a goal, in practice, it became more of a way to justify a conquest that had the love of land and treasure as its primary reason.

In 1486, Pope Innocent VII issued the Bull of Grenada to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. It basically gave them the go ahead for conquest:

Our chief concern and commission from heaven is the propagation of the orthodox faith, the increase of the Christian religion, the salvation of the barbarian nations, and the repression of infidels and their conversion to the faith. Hence it is that Catholic kings and princes, athletes of Christ and tireless warriors battling in that cause, never fail to find in us their deserved assistance and favor. For the more precarious that freely embraced combat for the sake of immortal God, the greater their insistence on diligent and expert pressing of the contest and the better they realize that, beyond the salvation of their souls, the Apostolic See grants them the most abundant recompense. This we gladly confer, and as a reward of their crusade make them rulers, guardians, and keepers of the lands they conquer and of the people their resident.
One year following the "discovery" of the Americas, Pope Alexander VI issued Bulls Eximiae Devotionis and Inter Caetera (May 3,1493). Portugal (which was in West Africa, collecting slaves, treasure, and fighting/converting Muslims) already had the Church's "blessing" on their endeavor.

In much stronger terms they were given "full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities and other properties and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery." It clearly gives them permission to do what they ended up doing, essentially enslaving and killing off the vast majority of the Pre-Columbian population and taking the land as theirs.

[aside] It is often mentioned about the overwhelming numbers that died due to disease, as if that (whether intentionally or unintentionally) mitigates the actions of the Conquistadores. It is suggested that they were unknowingly infected by European disease. At first, this was true, but the Europeans became well aware of the correlation between disease among the Indians and contact with Europeans (despite having no "germ theory of disease"). They also knew that the Indians seemed overly susceptible to their sicknesses (which also left the Indian survivors less able to cope with indigenous afflictions).

And it all functioned together. Disease weakened and thinned the numbers so that they had trouble fighting back or escaping. Fewer numbers and weakened condition allowed easier enslavement which also led to more (more than the already large numbers of) deaths due to being overworked in the mines or elsewhere, or while being shipped to another location. It also led to the break-up of families and the destruction of culture, higher mortality and lower birth rates. The more that died, the more that were needed to replace them. The vicious circle continued to turn until there were few left for it to grind underneath. [end of aside]

To further justify themselves, Spain drew up a document (by Juan Lopez de Palacios Rubios) called El Requerimiento (The Requirement). It was a document meant to be read when the Spanish made contact with native peoples. It was to explain their justification for taking the land and to offer the "choice" of hearing the Gospel and conversion. It asserted the "truth" of Christianity and the need to swear allegiance to the pope. The basis for the claim to the land and rights over non-Christians was that Christ had given St. Peter (thus, by extension: the Church and the pope) "temporal authority," placing them above any "earthly dominion."

The Indians were supposed to be given a certain amount of time to decide whether to convert and accept the terms. After that, the Spanish pretty much had license to do whatever they deemed necessary (see below, final section). The first and most obvious problem with this was that it was read to the Indians with no attempt to translate or convey meaning. That was probably the least of the problems.

In practice, it rarely worked as it suggests. Often, the Indians were manacled before it was read to them (again: in a language they did not understand). It became mostly a legalistic pretense, a ritual prior to enslavement and conquest. In the words of a Spanish historian and conquistador:

After they had been put in chains, someone read the Requerimiento without knowing their language and without any interpreters, and without either the reader or the Indians understanding the language they had no opportunity to reply, being immediately carried away prisoners, the Spanish not failing to use the stick on those who did not go fast enough
(qt. in Stannard)
Of course, it isn't like the Spanish practices in the New World were really changed by the document. They had already taken land and enslaved probably thousands before reading it became a standard practice. On Columbus' second voyage (1495), alone, 1600 natives were gathered, of which 550 or so were taken back with to Spain. (Two hundred died in transit and were thrown overboard. Half of those remaining were sick or dying.) The difference was that now they could flaunt what they believed to be a combination of earthly and divine authority for their actions.
[I made some formatting changes to ease reading; the source was]

Drafted by Palacio Rubios, 1514

I, (name of the Spanish official), servant of the most high and powerful kings of Castile and Leon, the conquerors of barbarous nations, their messenger and captain, notify to you, and declare in as ample form as I am capable, that God our Lord, who is one and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all men who have been or shall be in the world are descended.

But as it has come to pass through the generations during more than five thousand years, that they have been dispersed into different parts of the world, and are divided into various kingdoms and provinces, because one country was not able to contain them, nor could they have found in one the means of subsistence and preservation: therefore God our Lord gave the charge of all those people to one man named St. Peter, whom he constituted the lord and head of all the human race, that all men, in whatever place they are born, or in whatever faith or place they are educated, might yield obedience unto him.

He hath subjected the whole world to his jurisdiction, and commanded him to establish his residence in Rome, as the most proper place for the government of the world. He likewise promised and gave him power to establish his authority in every other part of the world, and to judge and govern all Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles, and all other people of whatever sect or faith they may be. To him is given the name Pope, which signifies admirable, great father and guardian, because he is the father and governor of all men. Those who lived in the time of this holy father obeyed and acknowledged him as their Lord and King, and the superior of the universe. The same has been observed with respect to them who, since his time, have been chosen to the pontificate. Thus it now continues, and will continue to the end of the world.

One of those Pontiffs, as lord of the world, hath made a grant of these islands, and of the Tierra Firme of the ocean sea, to the Catholic Kings of Castile, Don Ferdinand and Donna Isabella, of glorious memory, and their successors, our sovereigns, with all they contain, as is more fully expressed in certain deeds passed upon that occasion, which you may see if you desire it. Thus His Majesty is King and lord of these islands, and of the continent, in virtue of this donation; and, King and lord aforesaid, most of the islands to which this title hath been notified, have recognized His Majesty, and now yield obedience and subjection to him as their lord, voluntarily and without resistance; and instantly, as soon as they received information, they obeyed the religious men sent by the King to preach to them, and to instruct them in our holy faith; and all these, of their own free will, without any recompense or gratuity, became Christians, and continue to be so; and His Majesty having received them graciously under his protection, has commanded that they should be treated in the same manner as his other subjects and vassals. You are bound and obliged to act in the same manner.

Therefore I now entreat and require you to consider attentively what I have declared to you; and that you may more perfectly comprehend it, that you take such time as is reasonable in order that you may acknowledge the Church as the superior and guide of the universe, and likewise the holy father called the Pope, in his own right, and His Majesty, by his appointment, as King and sovereign lord of these Islands, and of the Tierra Firme; and that you consent that the aforesaid holy fathers shall declare and preach to you the doctrines above mentioned.

If you do this, you act well, and perform that to which you are bound and obligated; and His Majesty, and I in his name, will receive you with love and kindness, and relieve you, your wives and children, free and exempt from servitude, and in the enjoyment of all you possess, in the same manner as the inhabitants of the islands. Besides this, His Majesty will bestow upon you many privileges, exemptions, and rewards.

But if you will not comply, or maliciously delay to obey my injunction, then, with the help of God, I will enter your country by force, I will carry on war against you with the utmost violence, I will subject you to the yoke of obedience to the church and king, I will take your wives and children, and will make them slaves, and sell or dispose of them according to His Majesty’s pleasure; I will seize your goods, and do you all the mischief in my power, as rebellious subjects who will not acknowledge or submit to their lawful sovereign. And I protest that all the bloodshed and calamities which shall follow are to be imputed to you, and not to His Majesty, or to me, or the gentlemen who shall serve under me; and as I have now made this declaration and requisition unto you, I require the notary here present to grant me a certificate of this, subscribed in proper form.

In fact, as the conclusion shows, the blame for what transpired was placed upon the Indians, themselves, leaving the Conquistadores " blameless."

(Sources:,, David E. Stannard's 1992 American Holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World)

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