HIST66: Spain and its Empire
of Spain’s Treatment of Ethnic Communities
Spain was widely known for its devout Catholicism,
and this was heavily demonstrated in the manner it was ruled. Church and state
were not separate; religion and politics intertwined. In this time, Spain used
its religion as a means to justify the mistreatment of diverse and ethnic
communities and to continually perpetuate prejudice and discrimination into
state legalities. This ostracizing allowed the “othering” process to take
place, which was a tactic to simultaneously extend power and unify Spanish
citizens. However, the mistreatment, injustices, and expulsion of these ethnic
groups were detrimental to Spain as a whole as there was a decline in culture and
innovation and these brutal practices were implemented in the New World, which caused
destruction of the natives’ culture and way of life.
Convivencia, or living in coexistence,
described the conditions in Spain in which people of different religions had to
live next to each other. This coexistence allowed influences from different ethnic
groups. Namely, the Muslims that ruled in Andalusia left their influence on the
Spanish language as well as the architecture in the southern area.1 However,
evidently, this convivencia was not
harmonious or continuous.
711 to 1492, the Reconquista was only
part of the beginning of history of documented mistreatment of non-Catholics
and ethnic groups.2
The Reconquista was not a straightforward
march by the Catholic Spanish against the Islamic Moors; it was a long,
difficult, and arduous process to reclaim the territory that the Moors had
conquered in 711.3
The Christian persecution of the Muslims pushed them south toward Granada,
which was the last standing kingdom of the Moors. In 1492, the Spanish succeeded
in their conquest of Granada, completing the period of the Reconquista. This victory became a celebrated moment by subsequent
monarchs and the notion of Catholic triumph over the “other” was born.4
1492 was a significant year in terms of Spanish history of the treatment of
ethnic groups. In addition to the defeat of the Moors, Queen Isabella I had
decided to expel all Jews, including the conversos
who converted to Christianity and no longer practiced Judaism, in attempts to
rid Spain of the false converts or marranos
who converted to Christianity but still practiced in secret.5 This
decision was Catholically motivated and a measure of unification (using an “us
against them” mentality) by scapegoating the Jews. The process of othering was
clear: to be Spanish was to be Catholic; those who were not Catholic were not
Spanish, and therefore, were considered others. However, this decision caused
problems for Spain later—the expulsion rid Spain of elite, hardworking people,
even those who were an important part of the mercantile and financial community.6
Expulsions and the othering process were applied to other ethnic and religious minorities
as it challenged the “pure center” of Spain.7
concessions were made in the surrender treaty of Granada, which allowed the
Moors to maintain their way of life and practice their own religion.8 However,
a meager seven years later in 1499, the Catholic monarchs defaulted on these
The Muslims were given an ultimatum to either convert to Christianity or to leave
Spain. Most had converted, but the Catholic Spanish questioned the veracity
behind the conversions. Accompanying this maltreatment was the continued
mistrust and anti-Muslim sentiments in Spain. These sentiments were demonstrated
by the document of demands by the Comuneros in their revolt, which stated that
war was “just and willful” against Moors and presumably other non-Christians.10
1566, the moriscos’ rights as human
beings were further violated with a new law demanding adoption of Christian
practices; rightly so, the moriscos
rebelled, but unfortunately were defeat and scattered throughout Spain.11 Christian
prejudices and intolerance in combination with the fear of Islamic power prompted
the decree to expel the moriscos in
1609.12 The wrongs
brought against the moriscos seemed endless:
first, they were forced to convert to Christianity, and then to move after
their unsuccessful rebellion, and were finally forced to leave Spain or meet their
deaths that were considered justified by the Spanish crown.13 The moriscos played a strong role in certain
communities as civil servants holding public offices or as agricultural
laborers; it was detrimental as these communities relied upon them for their
After they were expelled, their fates did not improve as they were sent to the
north African coast, where the center of the Mediterranean slave trade was, and
many died on route. Spain’s treatment of the moriscos was cruel and undeserved; some even had to experience
these injustices until their deaths. While
religion was part of the conversation in expulsion of the moriscos, the fear of the possibility of the moriscos in Spain collaborating with the Ottoman Turks was
overwhelming, and the fear that the Reconquista
would be for nothing was enough for the monarchy to sanction the expulsion of
The process of othering was clear again: the Spanish considered the Turks
enemies, and by association, moriscos
were too. Also, monarchs deemed this othering the best way to unite a kingdom
and bring citizens together to fight them.
Reconquista helped ensure the success of a pastoral economy
Peasants farmed the land, and as the Spanish monarchs had to rely on these
conquered people’s knowledge since they were not accustomed to agricultural
society. Although agriculture was the golden goose, there were still prejudices
against the new peasant workforce because of the hidalgo mentality that agriculture was beneath them. Prejudices were
further exposed and became one of the causes of the peasant revolts. Even when
the ethnic groups were of help to the nation and its economy, they were still
discriminated against and treated in a fashion that no one deserved.
also commenced the Inquisition.17 The
Spanish Inquisition was an institution that was used for political purposes,
which clearly indicated that church and state were not separate entities.18 This
was a shift from convivencia as targeting
of minority communities took away diversity. Its “primary objective was to
defend the Catholic faith from any kind of deviation from orthodoxy.”19 This
led to the persecution of conversos
who were suspected of still practicing Judaism. People were again stripped of
their humanity, and tortured in order to get to the “truth,” which in reality,
is simply what the inquisitors wanted to hear as they were looking for reasons
to convict. The Inquisition was used as another othering tactic in order to
unite Spain against a common enemy of non-Christian believers. This practice
provided entertainment for Spanish citizens as they came to observe the others be
tortured and killed.20 In
fact, the Inquisition was a tool that was not only used by the monarchy, but
also by the citizens of Spain who informed or falsely accused their neighbors
for their own benefit.21 On top
of the latter, La Santa Hermandad was
a religious police force used by Queen Isabella I to enforce control on those who
disagreed with these policies.22
Inquisition corresponded with the concept of limpieza de sangre. Limpieza de
sangre, or purity of blood, was a notion that was discriminatory. Only
Spanish people who were of Catholic descent were deemed acceptable in society,
and diversity of any kind was not tolerated. People who were considered pure
were only of Spanish Catholic descent. People did not want conversos to run for public office in Spain, so pure ancestry
eventually became a requirement for membership of some Religious Orders and Colegios Mayores at the universities.23
“Graduates of the Colegios naturally
tended to carry with them the idea of discrimination as they attained high
office in Church and State.”24 This
principle further demonstrated how religion and politics were interconnected
and how these were motivations behind the discrimination against non-Christian
people. The concept of limpieza de sangre
led to the meaning of orthodoxy to be defined as “the profession of a strictly
orthodox faith, but also the possession of a strictly orthodox ancestry.”25 The
implications affected nobles as it was easier to trace their ancestries and
find impurities in their lineages in comparison to the poor. The Inquisition
and the principle of limpieza de sangre
enveloped problems of class and race and these discriminative practices were
offensive and dehumanizing.
mistreatment of ethnic groups did not cease at the geographical borders of
Europe; it continued across the Atlantic Ocean when Spain expanded Spain
expanded its empire to the Americas. The native ethnic groups were not exempt
from the inhumane treatment. The Caribbean was treated as an “imperial
laboratory”, in which it was the “testing grounds for colonial institutions.”26 The
Spanish seemingly based their conquests on the way the Moors conquered, and
inherited that tradition.27 Bartolomé
de Las Casas, a priest who had witnessed massacres of the natives, had even
called the conquering of the natives an Islamic practice, which indicated a
high level of disdain and outrage for those conquering natives.
to concerns about the ethics of conquests, Spain set up the Requerimiento, which was a document for
conquistadors to read to the natives of the New World to notify them of Spain’s
right to claim the land and right to do so by force if necessary.28 This Requerimiento was an absolute sham as it
was read in the Spanish language, often without translators, and read when the
natives could not hear it. This was a mere formal legality and was simply done
to “assuage the conquerors’ consciences.”29 This
was a direct form of disrespect toward the natives as it was clear that their
basic human rights and way of life did not matter to the Spanish conquistadors.
had set up their own society in place of the natives’ and imported items to
support their lifestyle. Natives had no say in the taking of their lands or in
the direction of their own bodies. The Spanish crown put into place the encomienda system, which was a legality
used on the native population to try to define their inferior status. This was extremely
detrimental to the natives as it enforced a social hierarchy in which the
Spanish foreigners placed themselves at the apex.30 In this
system, natives were divided and given to Spanish individuals as a labor supply
in exchange for Christian instruction. In practice, “it came to assume
characteristics which at times made it barely distinguishable from outright
The fact that the Spanish considered the natives “infidels” did not grant them
to right to conquer and enslave them.32
1550, the repartimiento system
replaced the encomienda.33 It was
just managed differently, in which natives provided forced labor for a set time
period each year. The repartimiento
was intended to reduce abuse toward the natives, but in reality, it was not
much better than the encomienda. The
natives were abused in physical, emotional, and spiritual ways by being
subjected to these systems and religious conversions to the Catholic faith.
regard to the Christian instruction, many natives had actually embraced it but
still practiced prior polytheistic beliefs.34 Four
Indian chiefs had written to complain of the way missionaries had mistreated
and tortured them even after converting to Christianity. In this circumstance,
the natives had assimilated Christianity into their lives, but this did not
appease the Spanish outsiders who still proceeded to violate their human
situation was similar to the conversos
and moriscos situation that occurred
in the Spanish mainland. Plainly, whatever the natives did were not considered
up to standard by the Spanish foreigners.
Bartolomé de Las Casas was one of the first to
protest the Spanish crown to mitigate the mistreatment of the natives and to
confirm their humanity and proceeded to fight for this cause for the rest of
his life. Las Casas saw that the natives had their own hierarchies and
concluded that the Spanish had no right to rule over these people, not just to
treat them better.36
Although Las Casas was a proponent for the basic human rights that the natives
deserved, he still did not see them as equals, but rather as children that could
be taught Christianity in order to gain the capacity to be part of his people. In
opposition to Las Casas, Juan Ginés de Sepulveda made the racial distinction
between Spaniards and the natives.37 Sepulveda
was a proponent behind the idea that some were “masters by nature” (obviously,
the Spaniards) and “others being slaves” (the natives). Because of this idea,
he concluded that Spain had the right to rule over these natives as they see
fit. This argument was morally and ethically wrong as derogation of people solely
based on their ethnicity and religion was despicable.
the natives end up being replaced by African slaves as the workforce. Spain
imported slaves because they could not legally take natives as slaves. The
Spanish gave the Asiento, a contract
to the English to run the Atlantic slave trade in supplying African slaves to
the Spanish colonies.38 Racial
discriminations resulted as Africans were deemed to be “well-suited” for these
demeaning and laborious tasks. This contract changed attitudes toward natives
in Spain, where increasingly more people sided with Las Casas. However, there
were no advocates for enslaved Africans. Spain deprived these Africans of their
basic humanity. The Spanish monarchy was consistently known intolerant of
minorities, but the treatment of the slaves was inhumane as no group of people
should be traded as though they were cattle.
was a discriminative country that used its religion as a reason to shun new
ideas and non-Christians. Spaniards felt as though they were better than those
who did not believe in the Catholic faith. The rejection of new ideas came from
a “vain fear that they would do some damage to religion,” namely Christianity.39 In
addition, distrust of ideas from people of different nationalities or cultures
came naturally to the Spaniards. The idea of limpieza de sangre, the Inquisition, and the Reconquista caused a closing off of Spain from the rest of the
world when they were advancing with the Enlightenment and the Scientific
Revolution. Due to this self-imposed barricade, Spain was delayed in coming
toward the modern world as the kingdom lost cultural and intellectual
developments that other countries had. This was ultimately detrimental as it
was a disadvantage to lag behind in terms of developments.
retrospect, Spain was an impairment to itself. Spain’s pious nature and its
intolerance for diverse and ethnic communities perpetuated racial distinctions
and prejudices and impacted its legislature and politics. The othering process
was used to unify the Spanish population, but it was severely pernicious to
those that were non-Christian and deemed inferior. The Spanish monarchy deprived
the geographically domestic and foreign ethnic groups of civil rights and
liberties. In the end, these prejudicial and dehumanizing acts of expulsion and
derogation led to a stoppage of culture and modernization in Spain and a catastrophic
aftermath for the native ethnic groups in regard to their previous way of life.
Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716,
(England, Penguin Books, 2002): 13-44.
Elliott, “Reconquest and Conquest,” in Imperial
Spain 1469-1716, 45-76.
4 Cowans, “Document 3: The Conquest of
Granada,” in Early Modern Spain: A
Documentary History, (Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Press,
Elliott, “The Ordering of Spain: The Church and the Faith,” in Imperial Spain 1469-1716, 99-110.
Cross, Lecture 4: “New Monarchies” and
the Military Revolution, class notes.
Imperial Spain 1469-1716, 49.
“Document 33: The Moriscos of Granada,” in Early
Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 143-144.
Cowans, “Document 10: Demands of the Comuneros,”
in Early Modern Spain: A Documentary
Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716, 235-241.
Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716,
Cowans, “Documents 33-35,” in Early
Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 143-151.
Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716,
Elliott, “Race and Religion,” in Imperial
Spain 1469-1716, 212-248.
Cowans, “Document 2: Letter on the Inquisition,” in Early Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 10-11.
Cowans, “Document 12: The Inquisition,” in Early
Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 51.
Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716,
Lecture 7: Conquest, Conquistadors, and
Competing Accounts, class notes.
Seed, Patricia, “The Requirement: A Protocol for Conquest,” Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s
Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640, pp. 69-99
“Document 8: The Requirement,” in Early
Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 34-36.
Kenneth J., “The Spanish Atlantic System”, in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, ed. by Jack P. Greene and
Philip D. Morgan (Oxford, 2009), 55-73.
Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716,
Cowans, “Document 39: Indian Policy,” in Early
Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 163.
Cowans, “Document 14: Thirty Propositions,” in Early Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 64-68.
Cowans, “Document 24: Letter from Four Indian Governors,” in Early Modern Spain: A Documentary History,
Cowans, “Document 14,” in Early Modern
Spain: A Documentary History, 64.
“Document 13: Just War in the Indies,” in Early
Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 58-63.
Andrien, Kenneth J., “The Spanish Atlantic System”, in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, 55-73.
Cowans, “Document 50: Causes of Spain’s Backwardness,” in Early Modern Spain: A Documentary History, 212-216.