New Land Conquest Licensing

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Locs. 616-619, 2031-2033, 2201-2227:

The first aspect of Conquest procedure was the use of legalistic measures to lend a veneer of validity to an expedition. Such measures typically included the reading out of a legal document, such as a conquest license or the so-called Requirement—the request for submission that was rather absurdly to be read to native communities or armies before hostilities took place. Also included was the declaration of a formal territorial claim….

The document, known as the Requerimiento (Requirement) informed natives of a sort of chain of command from God to pope to king to conquistadors, with the latter merely putting into effect the divinely sanctioned donation of all American lands and peoples by the pope to the Spanish monarch. Native leaders were asked, therefore, to recognize papal and royal authority (that is, to surrender without resistance)…

Requirement is usually viewed as a paragon of miscommunication or, in Las Casas’s words, communicational “absurdity.” Equally absurd were the circumstances under which the text was delivered. According to intellectual historian Lewis Hanke: “It was read to trees and empty huts. . . . Captains muttered its theological phrases into their beards on the edge of sleeping Indian settlements, or even a league away before starting the formal attack. . . . Ship captains would sometimes have the document read from the deck as they approached an island.” In addition to Las Casas, other sixteenth-century Spaniards denounced the delivery of the Requirement in terms ranging from the wry to the scathing. For example, Charles V’s official court historian, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, described how the text was delivered during the early decades of the Caribbean conquest, when natives were still routinely enslaved: “After [the captured Indians] had been put in chains, someone read the Requirement 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 Spaniards not failing to use the stick on those who did not go fast enough.” Here the wielding of the “stick” suggests that even if the content of the Requirement could not be communicated, the violent context of its delivery communicated its broader message of menace and hostility.

In another study, Seed persuasively showed how the message of the Requirement was rooted in Iberian Islamic tradition, specifically in the summons to acknowledge the superiority of Islam or be attacked. Part of the Requirement’s apparent absurdity is that it seems to demand that natives will not be forced to convert, provided that they convert. Like its Islamic antecedent, it leaves matters of conversion for later, demanding only a formal recognition of the religious and political superiority of the invader. This acknowledgment in the Islamic world was expressed in the form of a head tax, essentially the same manifestation of conquest as the tribute first claimed by Queen Isabella in 1501 and levied on every individual Native American in the Spanish empire for over three centuries. The Requirement’s assertion that acceptance of papal and royal authority would bring protection and privilege seems absurd in the context of conquest violence and colonial exploitation, but the concern of Spanish officials for native population levels (expressed in numerous colonial laws) was genuine, albeit based on economic interests. From the crown to local Spanish community leaders, the empire depended upon native tribute, whether paid in cash, goods, or labor. The Requirement’s offer of privilege seems risible because the document also appears to promise destruction. In fact, Spanish colonial rule confirmed and relied upon the integrity of native communities, for it was there that tribute was generated and collected.

Seen in this light, the Requirement becomes less absurd. In fact, in the context of open and blatant conquistador hostilities, it becomes irrelevant. More than that, it becomes an invader’s ritual less potentially confusing to the invaded precisely because it cannot be understood. As “babble” it can more easily be ignored and the nature of the Spanish threat be more clearly contemplated.

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Filed under Caribbean, language, Latin America, Mexico, migration, religion, slavery, Spain

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