New Spain: The right of conquest

articles Aztecs History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

An article by Mr. Morgan Bedford entitled “New Spain’s Fifty Magical Years (1492-1542)” appeared in the July, 1999, issue of the Ojo Del Lago. A more accurate title would have been “New Spain’s Fifty Years of Rape, Pillage, Murder, and Slavery.” Mr. Bedford highly praises the achievements of Cortes and other Spanish explorers and conquerors in spreading the Spanish empire over such a vast area of the world in so short a time. In only fifty years, these dozen or so “incredible” explorers created an empire out of “millions of square miles of jungle and ocean.” Our author goes on: “A dozen men under the flag of Spain created by the right of discovery and conquest one of the greatest empires of all time.” It is true, as Mr. Bedford points out, that according to the “principles of international law as understood by the then civilized powers of Europe,” the Indian peoples of the Americas were deemed to be mere temporary occupants of the soil and therefore subject to the absolute property rights of any European nation who claimed the land upon “discovery.”

Mr. Bedford is not alone in justifying the brutal actions of the Spaniards against the Aztecs and other native peoples on the grounds of the “Right of Discovery and Conquest.” The very popular but highly biased historian of the Conquest, William Prescott, appeals to this so-called “Right of Conquest” to justify any and all such acts committed by Cortes and his men during the period of the Conquest of Mexico, referring specifically to the fall of the Aztec capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1521. For example, during his march to Tenochtitlan in 1519, Cortes – with the help of his new Indian allies – slaughtered an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 unarmed Indians at Cholula in less than two hours of butchery on the mere suspicion that the people of Cholula were planning to ambush him. More likely, Cortes launched this preemptive strike to make himself appear more formidable to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma who did everything in his power to hinder Cortes’ march to Tenochtitlan. Shortly after the hapless Moctezuma welcomed Cortes, he was made a prisoner in his own palace. Preemptive strikes on suspicion alone were as effective then as they have been in recent times.

Prescott, among other historians, assumes that Cortes was not only in imminent danger but also completely justified by “Right of Conquest.” However, the account in Sahagun’s Florentine Codex recorded from Aztec informants shortly after the Conquest is very different. According to the Aztec account, the unarmed Cholulans waited peacefully in the temple courtyard. Assisted by his Indian allies, the Tlaxcalans and the Cempoallans, Cortes then treacherously closed all the entrances and stabbed and beat to death most of the men and enslaved the women and children. On the other hand, Chimalpahin, another early historian, says the Cholulans met Cortes in battle.

In dealing with conflicting historical accounts of the Conquest of Mexico we can assume, in general, that there is a certain amount of bias on both sides. But there is no doubt about the final outcome. Armed with the latest military technology of 16th century Europe and fortified by the conviction that it was God’s will that they search for gold and other treasure in the Indies, Cortes and his handful of men did indeed succeed in causing the greatest genocide in human history. They did so on the basis of this so-called “Right of Discovery and Conquest.” Many similar atrocities committed by the Spaniards were justified on these grounds not only by the Spaniards themselves but by successive generations of professional and amateur historians like William Prescott and Mr. Bedford.

The “Right of Discovery and Conquest” was in fact a mere fiction created by the Roman Catholic Church to justify the exploitation of the territories supposedly “discovered” by Columbus in 1492. A series of Papal Bulls or proclamations by different popes set the stage for “New Spain’s Fifty Magical Years,” as Mr. Bedford put it. These Bulls of Donation granted this so-called “right” to Catholic rulers in Spain and Portugal and instructed and authorized Catholic priests to convert the Indians at all costs. The authority of the Bulls of Donation was backed up by the threat of excommunication of those who disobeyed the pope.

Pope Nicholas V issued the Bull Dum Diversas ( June 18, 1542) authorizing Alfonso V of Portugal to “…reduce any Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers to slavery.” This papal Bull paved the way for the Portuguese slave trade in West Africa and the eventual slave system of the encomienda in Mexico. This same Pope issued the Bull Pontifex Romanus (January 4, 1455) to this same ruler of Portugal, extending all rights and benefits, grants and donations, to all the Catholic countries of Europe to search out and vanquish all “enemies of Christ” wherever they are found, to take full possession of all their goods and lands, and to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” In response to the former Bulls in favor of Portugal, Pope Alexander VI then issued the Inter Caetera (May 4, 1493), which was highly favorable to Spain and marked the beginning of Spanish colonization and Catholic missions in the Americas. Later papal Bulls granted even more rights and privileges to Spain. For example, the Bull of September 25th, 1493, entitled Extension of the Apostolic Grant and Donation of the Indies, granted even more territory to Spain. Finally, to pacify Portugal, the Treaty of Tordesillas (1493) arbitrarily divided up the Americas between Spain and Portugal. The papal recognition that no Christian nation could infringe upon the domains of another Christian nation was the beginning of the so-called “Law of Nations” which, in effect, guaranteed only the rights of the rich and powerful.

It is against this ecclesiastical background that we can best understand and assess the Conquest of Mexico and the allegedly “incredible” achievements of Spain during its so-called “magical years” of exploration in the New World. Obviously, we cannot apply present day standards to the thoughts and actions of over-zealous “Christian” militants in 16th century Mexico. However, the ensuing ingenious and tortuous legal arguments based on this early concept of “Right of Discovery and Conquest” have persisted to the present day and are still sometimes reflected in current government policies toward native peoples throughout North and South America. In 16th century Mexico, this meant that the non-Christian Aztecs, for example, were subhuman by definition and therefore had no legal rights to their property or persons as defined by the Roman Catholic Church – at least in the 16th century. Today some of these historical violations of Human Rights are being redressed. But however you interpret the “Right of Conquest,” past or present, the conquered or oppressed people generally have very little say in the matter. The basic principle remains the same: “Might is Right.”

Published or Updated on: December 1, 2008 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2008
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