Discovery of the Mississippi

Above: Painting, entitled Discovery of the Mississippi, by William H. Powell, 1847, is located in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Right: Giovanni de Verrazzano, 1889, engraving by F. Allcarini, Tocchi, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Giovanni da Verrazzano

Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1500s

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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1512

    December 27, 1512 - Burgos' Laws announced by Ferdinand II of Aragon, under pressure of Catholic Church, to end exploitation of indigenous people in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Codified first laws governing behavior of Spaniards in America.

    Map of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico


    There had been concerns among certain segments of the Spanish clergy and leaders that treatment of the native population on the islands of the Caribbean which Spain had conquered since the three voyages of Columbus was below even conquistador standards. The numbers in the population itself suggest that, for the various reasons of conquest, treatment, and disease among others, that something had to change. In Hispaniola, it was reported that the native population dropped from several hundred thousand in 1492 to twenty thousand in 1512. While those numbers seem unlikely today, the dimunition of the population was accurate and beyond the measure of fair treatment of people, they were losing their labor force.

    By 1512, the King of Aragon, Ferdinand II, or Fernando to others, had been swayed to the sentiment that something must be done. During a sermon one year before, Dominican Friar Fray Antonio de Montesinos of Santo Domingo, had called for fair treatment of the native population. It was not initially recieved well by the authorites in the church or the crown or the colonists who had settled the region. The Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolome de las Casas, however, was in the crowd. He had begun to advocate for fair treatment as well, leading to not only the 1512 Burgos Laws, but debates that extended beyond Ferdinand II's reign. See Valladolid debate.

    These pressures from the clergy, although initially unwanted and not backed by the Spanish settlers who had been accused of the mistreatment, led to twenty sessions of discussion and the establishment of the Laws of Burgos, or the Royal Ordinances for the Good Governance and Treatment of the Indians, one year later. The King had been presented with both sides; he chose the words of Friar Fray Antonio de Montesinos and sided with the clergy that something must be done. The series of thirty-five laws dealt with a variety of topics, many to do with housing and the establishment of the encomienda and control of territory and people in Spanish America, less acknowledging the fact that conquest often meant inservitude to the Spanish in their greed for gold and other treasures of Hispaniola (today's Dominican Republic and Haiti) and the other islands of the Greater Antilles (Puerto Rico and Jamaica).

    What topics did it cover? Try demolition of the indigenous dwellings and establishment of homes near the Spanish so labor would be close by and controllable, both for work and religion. Churches would be established, with conversion of the population to Catholicism a priority. There would be a forty day rest period for the Indians involved in gold mining. Divorce and polygamy were banned. The native population would also not be subject to beatings, only be an indentured servant for two years, and a child could not be required to do adult labor until they were fourteen. Yes, the first child labor laws. Perhaps the most important outcome was acknowledgement that the native population were free men and had basic human rights. They were also to be paid for their work.

    Were the laws put into effect? In some ways, but not sufficiently per the clergy. Spain was far from the islands where the Laws of Burgos were supposed to take effect; it's hard to force good treatment on settlers when the central power to enforce was an ocean apart. While the Laws of Burgos were ineffective in many ways, they were the first of a series of laws and debates established over the next fifty years that had initial and significant impact on the treatment of the native population, slavery, and servitude. It would, however, take more than three hundred years before an even imperfect solution was attempted throughout Spanish America, even as it transitioned to the United States.




    Forward to the Laws of Burgos


    The King of Aragon, Fernando, issued the Laws of Burgos on December 27, 1512, with the established forward and introduction below. For the entire transcript, visit the Laws of Burgos via the faculty at Southern Methodist University.

    Whereas, the King, my Lord and Father, and the Queen, my Mistress and Mother (may she rest in glory!), always desired that the chiefs and Indians of the Island of Espanola be brought to a knowledge of our Holy Catholic Faith, and, Whereas, they commanded that certain ordinances be drawn up, which were indeed drawn up, by their Highnesses, as well as, at their command, by the Comendador Bobadilla and the Comendador Mayor de Alcantara, former governors of the said Island, and afterward by Don Diego Columbus, our Admiral, Viceroy, and Governor of it, and by our officers who reside there, and,

    Whereas, it has become evident through long experience that nothing has sufficed to bring the said chiefs and Indians to a knowledge of our Faith (necessary for their salvation), since by nature they are inclined to idleness and vice, and have no manner of virtue or doctrine (by which Our Lord is disserved), and that the principal obstacle in the way of correcting their vices and having them profit by and impressing them with a doctrine is that their dwellings are remote from the settlements of the Spaniards who go hence to reside in the said Island, because, although at the time the Indians go to serve them they are indoctrinated in and taught the things of our Faith, after serving they return to their dwellings where, because of the distance and their own evil inclinations, they immediately forget what they have been taught and go back to their customary idleness and vice, and when they come to serve again they are as new in the doctrine as they were at the beginning, because although the Spaniard who accompanies them to their village, as is there ordered, reminds them of it and reprehends them, they, having no fear of him, do not profit by it and tell him to leave them in idleness, since that is their reason for returning to their said village, and that their only purpose and desire is to do with themselves what they will, without regard for any virtue, and,

    Whereas, this is contrary to our Faith, and,

    Whereas, it is our duty to seek a remedy for it in every way possible, it was considered by the King, my Lord and Father, and by several members of my Council and by persons of good life, letters, and conscience, and they, having informed themselves from others who had much knowledge and experience of the affairs of the said Island, and of the life and customs of the said Indians, gave it as their opinion that the most beneficial thing that could be done at present would be to remove the said chiefs and Indians to the vicinity of the villages and communities of the Spaniards--this for many considerations--and thus, by continual association with them, as well as by attendance at church on feast days to hear Mass and the divine offices, and by observing the conduct of the Spaniards, as well as the preparation and care that the Spaniards will display in demonstrating and teaching them, while they are together, the things of our Holy Catholic Faith, it is clear that they will the sooner learn them and, having learned them, will not forget them as they do now. And if some Indian should fall sick he will be quickly succored and treated, and thus the lives of many, with the help of Our Lord, will be saved who now die because no one knows they are sick; and all will be spared the hardship of coming and going, which will be a great relief to them, because their dwellings are now so remote from the Spanish communities, so that those who now die from sickness and hunger on the journey, and who do not receive the sacraments which as Christians they are obligated to receive, will not die [unshriven], because they will be given the sacraments in the said communities as soon as they fall sick; and infants will be baptized at birth; and all will serve with less hardship to themselves and with greater profit to the Spaniards, because they will be with them more continually; and the visitors who have them in charge will visit them better and more frequently and will have them provided with everything they need, and will not permit their wives and daughters to be taken from them, as now happens while they live at a distance; and many other evils and hardships will cease which the Indians now suffer because they are so remote, and which are not described here because they are notorious; and many other advantages will accrue to them for the salvation of their souls, as well as for the profit and utility of their persons and the conservation of their lives; and so, ...

    Therefore, for these reasons and for many others that could be adduced, it was agreed that for the improvement and remedy of all the aforesaid, the said chiefs and Indians should forthwith be brought to dwell near the villages and communities of the Spaniards who inhabit that Island, so that they may be treated and taught and looked after as is right and as we have always desired; and so I command that henceforth that which is contained below be obeyed and observed, as follows:


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    Who was the King of Aragon?


    Well, first, let's acknowledge, that the man had a lot of names and titles. In Spain, he was known as Ferdinand II, aka Ferdinand the Catholic. There were those that referred to him, in Spanish, as Fernando, aka Fernando de Catolico. In southern Italy, which he also ruled, he was known as Ferdinand III of Naples or Ferdinand II of Sicily. No wonder history can be confusing.

    Born in Aragon on March 10, 1452, he was sixty years old when the Laws of Burgos were issued and had ruled Aragon and Castile as King since 1479 with his joint wife sovereign, Queen Isabella I until her passing in 1504. During his rule, the kingdoms of Spain were united into one nation and his reign corresponded to their foray into imperalism. Yes, he wanted to rule more than the Spain world; conquest of the New World was part of his agenda. Rule and conquest had been part of his world since partication in the Catalonian Wars was a family requirement.

    Image above: Map of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, 1638, Johannes Vingboons. Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia Commons. Photo below: King of Aragon, Fernando, and wife Isabel, 15th Century, Unknown author. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source info: South Methodist University; The Laws of Burgos: 500 Years of Human Rights, December 27, 2012, by Francisco Macias, Library of Congress; Encyclopedia Britannica; Text of the Laws of Burgos (1512-1513) Concerning the Treatment of the Indians, Ronald D. Hussey, 1932; The Burgos Laws of 1512, Historia del Nuevo Mundo; Wikipedia.



    King of Aragon, Fernando and wife Isabel




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