Robert Mackenzie.

America. A history



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Thirty miserable years passed, during which, although the incessant labours of Las Casas gained occasional successes, the colonists exercised their cruel pleasure upon the native population. The islands were almost depopulated, and negroes were being imported from Africa to take the place of the labourers who had been destroyed. Mexico had fallen, with a slaughter which has been estimated by millions. Of the numerous cities which Cortes passed on his way to Mexico, “nothing,” says a report addressed to the King, “is now remaining but the sites.” In Peru it was asserted by an eye-witness that one-half or two-thirds of men and cattle had been destroyed. The survivors of these unparalleled calamities had fallen into a condition of apathy and indifference from which it was impossible to arouse them. The conquerors had not yet penetrated deeply into the heart of the continent; but they had visited its coasts, and wherever they had gone desolation attended their steps.

1542 A.D. The Spanish Government had made many efforts to curb the lawless greed and cruelty of the conquerors. Now a Junta was summoned and a new code of laws enacted. Again the freedom of the Indians was asserted, and any attempt to enslave them forbidden. The colonists had assumed that the allotments of Indians made to them were not subject to recall. But it was now declared that all such allotments were only for the single life of the original possessor; at his death they reverted to the Crown. Yet further: compulsory service was abolished, and a fixed tribute took its place.

Official persons were sent to enforce these laws in Mexico and Peru. But the Junta had not sufficiently considered the temper of the provinces. It was found that Mexico would not receive the new laws, which were therefore referred to the Government for reconsideration. The Viceroy, who carried the laws to Peru, after bringing the country to the verge of rebellion, was taken prisoner by the local authorities and shipped homewards to Spain. The laws which the high-handed conquerors thus decisively rejected were soon after annulled by an order of the King.

The Spanish Government was thus baffled in its efforts to terminate the ruinous control which Spanish colonists exercised over the natives. The duration of that control was gradually extended. In seventeen years it crept up to three lives. Fifty years later, after many years of agitation, the fourth life was gained. Twenty years after, the still unsatisfied heirs of the conquerors demanded that a fifth life should be included in the grant; but here they were obliged to accept a compromise. The system continued in force for two hundred and fifty years, and was not abolished till near the close of the eighteenth century.

But although the Government yielded to the clamour of its turbulent subjects, in so far as the prolongation of Spanish control was concerned, it was inflexible in its determination to modify the quality of that control.

The prohibition of compulsory labour was firmly adhered to. The legal right of the conquerors was restricted to the exaction of a fixed tribute from their subject Indians. This tribute must be paid in money or in some product of the soil, but not compounded for by personal service. The Indians might hire themselves as labourers, under certain regulations and for certain specified wages, but this must be their own voluntary act. For many years the Spaniards yielded a most imperfect obedience to these salutary restrictions, but gradually, as the machinery of administration spread itself over the continent, the law was more strictly enforced.

The Spanish Government is entitled to the praise of having done its utmost to protect the native populations. In the early days of the conquest, Queen Isabella watched over their interests with a special concern for their conversion to the true faith. As years passed, and the gigantic dimensions of the evil which had fallen on the Indians became apparent, her successors attempted, by incessant legislation, to stay the progress of the ruin which was desolating a continent. None of the other European Powers manifested so sincere a purpose to promote the welfare of a conquered people. The rulers of Spain were continually enacting laws which erred only in being more just and wise than the country in its disordered condition was able to receive. They continually sought to protect the Indians by regulations extending to the minutest detail, and conceived in a spirit of thoughtful and even tender kindness.3131
  A regulation laid down by the Royal Order of 1601 illustrates the spirit which pervades Spanish legislation. Leave is given to employ Indians in the cultivation of coca. But inasmuch as coca is grown in rainy districts and on humid ground, and the Indians in consequence become ill, the master of the plantation is forbidden, under penalties, to allow Indians to begin work until they are provided with a change of clothes.


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In all that the Government did or endeavoured to do it received eager support from the Church, whose record throughout this terrible history is full of wise foresight and noble courage in warning and rebuking powerful evil-doers. The Popes themselves interposed their authority to save the Indians. Las Casas, when he became a bishop, ordered his clergy to withhold absolution from men who held Indians as slaves. 1520 A.D. Once the King’s Preachers, of whom there were eight, presented themselves suddenly before the Council of the Indies and sternly denounced the wrongs inflicted upon the natives, whereby, said they, the Christian religion was defamed and the Crown disgraced. Gradually efforts such as these sufficed to mitigate the sorrows of the Indians; but for many years their influence was scarcely perceived. The spirit of the conquerors was too high for submission to any limitation of prerogatives which they had gained through perils so great; their hearts were too fierce, their orthodoxy too strict to admit any concern for the sufferings of unbelievers. They were followed by swarms of adventurers – brave, greedy, lawless. Success – unlooked for and dazzling – attended the search for gold. Conquest followed conquest with a rapidity which left hopelessly in arrear the efforts of Spain to supply government for the enormous dependencies suddenly thrown upon her care. Every little native community was given over to the tender mercies of a man who regarded human suffering with unconcern; who was animated by a consuming hunger for gold, and who knew that Indian labour would procure for him the gold which he sought. In course of years, the persistent efforts of the Government and the Church bridled the measureless and merciless rapacity of the Spanish colonists. But this restraint was not established till ruin which could never be retrieved had fallen on the Indians; till millions had perished, and the spirit of the survivors was utterly broken.

When the English began to colonize the northern continent of America, their infant settlements enjoyed at the hands of the mother country a beneficent neglect.3232
  This neglect was continued almost to the close. The Duke of Newcastle, who had charge of the colonies during Sir Robert Walpole’s administration, neglected his duties so entirely that he ceased even to read the letters which came to him from America. “It would not be credited what reams of paper, representations, memorials, petitions from that quarter of the world lay mouldering and unopened in his office.”


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The early colonists came out in little groups – obscure men fleeing from oppression, or seeking in a new world an enlargement of the meagre fortune which they had been able to find at home. They gained their scanty livelihood by cultivating the soil. The native population lived mainly by the chase, and possessed nothing of which they could be plundered. The insignificance of these communities sufficed to avert from them the notice of the monarchs whose dominions they had quitted. And thus they escaped the calamity of institutions imposed upon them by ignorance and selfishness; they secured the inestimable advantage of institutions which grew out of their own requirements and were moulded according to their own character and habits.

In the unhappy experience of Spanish America all these conditions were reversed. There were countries in which the precious metals abounded, and many of whose products could be procured without labour and converted readily into money. There was a vast native population in whose hands much gold and silver had accumulated, and from whom, therefore, a rich spoil could be easily wrung. There were powerful monarchies, the romantic circumstances of whose conquest drew the attention of the civilized world. Spain, marvelling much at her own good fortune, hastened to bind these magnificent possessions closely and inseparably to herself.

The territories which England gained in America were regarded as the property of the English nation, for whose advantage they were administered. Spanish America was the property of the Spanish Crown. The gift of the Pope was a gift, not to the Spanish nation, but to Ferdinand and Isabella and their successors. The Government of England never attempted to make gain of her colonies; on the contrary, large sums were lavished on these possessions, and the Government sought no advantage but the gain which colonial trade yielded to the nation. The Sovereigns of Spain sought direct and immediate profit from their colonies. The lands and all the people who inhabited them were their own; theirs necessarily were the products of these lands. No Spaniard might set foot on American soil without a license from the House of Trade. No foreigner was suffered to go, on any terms whatever. Even Spanish subjects of Jewish or Moorish blood were excluded. The Sovereigns claimed as their own two-thirds3333
  This intolerable exaction was in course of time reduced to one-fifth, and finally to one-twentieth.


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of all the gold and silver which were obtained, and one-tenth of all other commodities. They established an absolute monopoly in pearls and dye-woods. They levied heavy duties on all articles which were imported into the colonies. They levied a tax on pulque– the intoxicant from which the Indians drew a feeble solace for their miseries. They sold for a good price a Papal Bull, which conveyed the right to eat meat on days when ecclesiastical law restricted the faithful to meaner fare. Acting rigorously according to financial methods such as these, the Spanish Crown drew from the colonies a revenue which largely exceeded the expenses of the colonial administration.

The results of the first two voyages of Columbus disappointed public expectation, and the interest which his discovery had awakened almost ceased. But when the admiral, after his third voyage, sent home pearls and gold and glowing accounts of the treasures which he had at last found, boundless possibilities of sudden wealth presented themselves, and the adventurous youth of Spain hastened to embrace the unprecedented opportunity. The old and rich fitted out ships and loaded them with the inexpensive trifles which savages love; the young and poor sought, under any conditions, the boon of conveyance to the golden world where wealth could be gained without labour: the King granted licenses to such adventurers, and without sharing in their risks and outlays secured to himself a large portion of their profits. So great was the emigration, that in a few years Spain could with difficulty obtain men to supply the waste of her European wars, and found herself in possession of enormous territories and a numerous population for which methods of government and of trade had to be provided.

The government which was established had the simplicity of a pure despotism. 1511 A.D. The King established a Council which exercised absolute authority over the new possessions, and continued in its functions so long as South America accepted government from Spain. This body framed all the laws and regulations according to which the affairs of the colonies were guided; nominated to all offices; controlled the proceedings of all officials. Two Viceroys3434
  These were increased to four, and finally to six, as the colonies became more populous.


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were appointed, who maintained regal state, and wielded the supreme authority with which the King invested them.

The early colonial policy of all European nations was based on the idea that foreign settlements existed, not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the nation to which they belonged. Under this belief, colonists were fettered with numerous restrictions which hindered their own prosperity in order to promote that of the mother country. Spain carried this mistaken and injurious policy to an extreme of which there is nowhere else any example. The colonies were jealously limited in regard to their dealings with one another, and were absolutely forbidden to have commercial intercourse with foreign nations. All the surplus products of their soil and of their mines must be sent to Spain; their clothing, their furniture, their arms, their ornaments must be supplied wholly by Spain. No ship of their own might share in the gains of this lucrative traffic, which was strictly reserved for the ships of Spain. Ship-building was discouraged, lest the colonists should aspire to the possession of a fleet. If a foreign vessel presumed to enter a colonial port, the disloyal colonist who traded with her incurred the penalties of death and confiscation of goods. The colonists were not suffered to cultivate any product which it suited the mother country to supply. The olive and the vine flourished in Peru; Puerto Rico yielded pepper; in Chili there was abundance of hemp and flax. All these were suppressed that the Spanish growers might escape competition. That the trade of the colonies might be more carefully guarded and its revenues more completely gathered in, it was confined to one Spanish port. No ship trading with the colonies might enter or depart elsewhere than at Seville, and afterwards at Cadiz. For two centuries the interests of the colonies and of Spain herself languished under this senseless tyranny.

Those cities which were endowed with a monopoly of colonial trade enjoyed an exceptional prosperity. Seville attracted to herself a large mercantile community and a flourishing manufacture of such articles as the colonists required. She became populous and rich, and her merchants affected a princely splendour. And well they might. The internal communications of Spain were, as they always have been, extremely defective, and the gains of the new traffic were necessarily reaped in an eminent degree by the districts which lay around the shipping port.

Once in the year, for nearly two hundred years, there sailed from the harbour of Seville or of Cadiz the fleets which maintained the commercial relations of Spain with her American dependencies. One was destined for the southern colonies, the other for Mexico and the north. They were guarded by a great force of war-ships. Every detail as to cargo and time of sailing was regulated by Government authority; no space was left in this sadly over-governed country for free individual action. In no year did the tonnage of the merchant-ships exceed twenty-seven thousand tons. The traffic was thus inconsiderable in amount; but it was of high importance in respect of the enormous profits which the merchants were enabled by their monopoly to exact. The southern branch of the expedition steered for Carthagena, and thence to Puerto Bello; the ships destined for the north sought Vera Cruz. To the points at which they were expected to call there converged, by mountain-track and by river, innumerable mules and boats laden with the products of the country. A fair was opened, and for a period of forty days an energetic exchange of commodities went on. When all was concluded, the colonial purchasers carried into the interior the European articles which they had acquired. The gold and silver and pearls, and whatever else the colonies supplied, having been embarked, the ships met at the Havana and took their homeward voyage, under the jealous watch of the armed vessels which escorted them hither.

The treasure-ships of Spain carried vast amounts of gold and silver; and when Spain was involved in war, they were eagerly sought after by her enemies. Many a bloody sea-fight has been fought around these precious vessels; and many a galleon whose freight was urgently required in impoverished Spain found in the Thames an unwelcome termination to her voyage. 1804 A.D. On one occasion England, in her haste not waiting even to declare war, possessed herself of three ships containing gold and silver to the value of two million sterling, the property of a nation with which she was still at peace.

But her hostile neighbours were not the only foes who lay in wait to seize the remittances of Spain. During the seventeenth century, European adventurers – English, French, and Dutch – flocked to the West Indies. At first they meditated nothing worse than smuggling; but they quickly gave preference to piracy, as an occupation more lucrative and more fully in accord with the spirit of adventure which animated them. They sailed in swift ships, strongly manned and armed; they recreated themselves by hunting wild cattle, whose flesh they smoked over their boucanes or wood-fires – drawing from this practice the name of Buccaneer, under which they made themselves so terrible. They lurked in thousands among the intricacies of the West India islands, ready to spring upon Spanish ships; they landed occasionally to besiege a fortified or to plunder and burn a defenceless Spanish town. In time, the European Governments, which once encouraged, now sought to suppress them. This proved a task of so much difficulty that it is scarcely sixty years since the last of the dreaded West India pirates was hanged.

Spain sought to preserve the dependence of her American possessions by the studied promotion of disunion among her subjects. The Spaniard who went out from the mother country was taught to stand apart from the Spaniard who had been born in the colonies. To the former nearly all official positions were assigned. The dependencies were governed by Old Spaniards; all lucrative offices in the Church were occupied by the same class. They looked with some measure of contempt upon Spaniards who were not born in Spain; and they were requited with the jealousy and dislike of their injured brethren. There were laws carefully framed to hold the negro and the Indian races apart from each other. The unwise Sovereigns of Spain regarded with approval the deep alienations which their policy created, and rejoiced to have rendered impossible any extensive combination against their authority.

The supreme desire which animated Spain in all her dealings with her colonies was the acquisition of gold and silver, and there fell on her in a short time the curse of granted prayers. The foundations of her colonial history were laid in a destruction of innocent human life wholly without parallel; influences originating with the colonies hastened the decline of her power and the debasement of her people. But gold and silver were gained in amounts of which the world had never dreamed before. The mines of Hispaniola were speedily exhausted and abandoned. But soon after the conquest the vast mineral wealth of Peru was disclosed. An Indian hurrying up a mountain in pursuit of a strayed llama, caught hold of a bush to save himself from falling. The bush yielded to his grasp, and he found attached to its roots a mass of silver. All around, the mountains were rich in silver. The rumoured wealth of Potosi attracted multitudes of the adventurous and the poor, and the lonely mountain became quickly the home of a large population. A city which numbered ultimately one hundred and fifty thousand souls arose at an elevation of thirteen thousand feet above sea-level: several thousand mines were opened by the eager crowds who hastened to the spot. A little later the yet more wonderful opulence of Mexico was discovered. During the whole period of Spanish dominion over the New World the production of the precious metals, especially of silver, continued to increase, until at length it reached the large annual aggregate of ten million sterling. Two centuries and a half passed in the interval between the discovery of the Western mines and the overthrow of Spanish authority. During that period there was drawn from the mines of the New World a value of fifteen hundred or two thousand million sterling.

When this flood of wealth began to pour in upon the country, Spain stood at the highest pitch of her strength. The divisions which for many centuries had enfeebled her were now removed, and Spain was united under one strong monarchy. Her people, trained for many generations in perpetual war with their Moorish invaders, were robust, patient, enduring, regardless of danger. Their industrial condition was scarcely inferior to that of any country in Europe. Barcelona produced manufactures of steel and glass which rivalled those of Venice. The looms of Toledo, occupied with silk and woollen fabrics, gave employment to ten thousand workmen; Granada and Valencia sent forth silks and velvets; Segovia manufactured arms and fine cloths; around Seville, while she was still the only port of shipment for the New World, there were sixteen thousand looms. So active was the demand which Spanish manufacturers enjoyed, that at one time the orders held by them could not have been executed under a period of six years. Spain had a thousand merchant ships – certainly the largest mercantile marine in Europe. Her soil was carefully cultivated, and many districts which are now arid and barren wastes yielded then luxuriant harvests.

But Spain proved herself unworthy of the unparalleled opportunities which had been granted to her. Her Kings turned the national attention to military glory, and consumed the lives and the substance of the people in aggressive wars upon neighbouring States. Her Church suppressed freedom of thought, and thus, step by step, weakened and debased the national intellect. 1492 A.D. The Jews were expelled from Spain, and the country never recovered from the wound which the loss of her most industrious citizens inflicted. The easily-gained treasure of the New World fired the minds of the people with a restless ambition, which did not harmonize with patient industry. The waste of life in war, and the eager rush to the marvellous gold-fields of America, left Spain insufficiently supplied with population to maintain the industrial position which she had reached. Her manufactures began to decay, until early in the seventeenth century the sixteen thousand looms of Seville had sunk to four hundred. Agriculture shared the fall of the sister industries; and ere long Spain was able with difficulty to support her own diminished population. Her navy, once the terror of Europe, was ruined. Her merchant ships became the prey of enemies whose strength had grown as hers had decayed. The traders of England and Holland, setting at defiance the laws which she was no longer able to enforce, supplied her colonies with manufactures which she in her decline was no longer able to produce.



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