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New Spain - Introduction

Spanish Colonization

On the beach at Guanahani, October 12, 1492, Columbus -- with banner, and flags, and the required declarations --  took immediate possession of this portion of the New World "for the king and the queen his lords" in plain sight of the many "naked people" who gathered there, remarking in his journal that "they should be good and intelligent servants" and "would become Christians very easily" (Dunn and Kelley 65-69).  Early in the next year, on Columbus's return to Europe, Pope Alexander VI immediately gave title to these lands to Spain with a staunch reminder of "your duty, to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion." 

A generation and two later, however -- after encomienda, which, in effect, enslaved Indians; after the Laws of Burgos, which aimed at destroying Indian culture; after the Requerimiento, the "requirement" for Indians to make an instant choice between life and death; and after the ravages of Cortes and similarly ruthless conquistadores from Jamaica, to Peru, to Yucatan, to Kansas -- Bartolome de las Casas would dramatically chronicle the stunning rapacity of his countrymen and would question who is civilized, who savage.  But the plight of the Indians did not lead even Las Casas to question the right to the land or the mission to christianize.

The now vexed image of our ur-ceremony of possession -- memorialized by John Vanderlyn in the United States Capitol rotunda -- is perfectly captured by Robert A. Williams' description of Columbus as both "celebrated Admiral of the Ocean Sea" and "the first great slavemaster sent by the Old World to the New World" in his seminal chapter on New Spain in The American Indian in Western Legal Thought (83).  It is hard now not to be vexed reading in the Requerimiento, called a "charter of conquest" by Williams (91), that if you Indians do not submit, we Spanish "shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall submit you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses . . . , and we shall take away your goods and shall do to you all the harm and damage that we can, . . . and we protest that the deaths and losses that shall accrue from this are your fault."

"Law," writes Williams, "which Europeans have long revered as their instrument of civilization, became the West's perfect instrument of empire in the heart of darkness that was America" (93).

We hope that other students and faculty, even beyond Lehigh University, will build on this work that Anne DeLong completed in spring 2004, so we welcome suggestions, corrections, questions, and, especially, appropriate contributions of all types from bibliographical entries through full essays.

Contact Professor Edward J. Gallagher, Department of English, Lehigh University via e-mail at