Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

The Cruelty of the Spaniards to the Indians

Never were a people more terribly treated than the natives of America under the Spanish adventurers. The often told story that the Indians of Hispaniola were annihilated in one generation after the settlement of that island is sufficient evidence of the frightfully inhuman treatment to which they were subjected. The laws of Spain provided for justice and humanity in the dealings with the Indians, but the settlers, thousands of miles away, paid no attention to these laws, and the red men were, almost everywhere reduced to slavery, or where free and given political rights, were looked upon as far inferior to the whites. In every district Spain placed an official called the "Protector of the Indians," but it does not appear that they were much the better off for their "Protectors." It is our purpose here to say something about the cruel treatment of the natives in South America.

The Spanish settlers had three terms which applied to their dealings with the Indians, the encomiendo, the mitad, and the repartimiento, each indicating a form of injustice. The conquerors divided the country between them, and the encomiendos  were rights granted them to hold the Indians for a number of years as workers in their fields or their mines. Under these grants, the natives were converted into beasts of burden, and forced to do the hardest work without the least compensation. They were obliged to labor all day long under the burning tropical sun, to dive into the sea in search of pearls for their masters, or to toil buried from the light of day in the depths of the mines. It is not surprising that these miserable slaves, accustomed to a life of indolence and ease, perished as if exposed to a killing plague.

Indians of the plateau


The mitad  was a law formed for their protection, but it soon became one of the worst of the abuses. Under it every man from the ago of eighteen to fifty was required to render bodily service, the natives of each mining colony of South America being divided into seven sections, each of which had to work six months in the mines. Every mine-owner could demand the number of Indians he needed. In Peru alone fourteen hundred mines were worked, and labor of this kind was in constant demand.

As to the kind of labor they had to do, we need only say that when any man was called upon to work in the mines he looked upon it as a sentence of death. Before going he gave all his possessions to his relatives, and they went through the funeral service, as if he were already dead. They well knew the usual end of labor in the mines. A mass was said for him at the church, and he had to take an oath of fidelity to the king. Then he was sprinkled with holy water and sent away to his deadly service. Deadly we may well call it, for it is said that scarcely a fifth part of these miners lived through their term of labor.

Lowered from the light of the sun into the deep underground shafts and galleries, and passing from the pure air of heaven to a pestilential atmosphere, excessive labor and bad food soon robbed them of strength and often of life. If they survived this, a species of asthma usually carried them off during the year. We may judge of the results from the calculation that the mitad  in Peru alone had eight million victims.

The law limited the mitad  to those living within thirty miles of a mine, but laborers were often brought by force from hundreds of miles away. As for the small wages paid them, the masters took part of it from them in payment for their food, and usually got the remainder by giving credit for clothes or liquor or in other ways. In fact, if by good fortune the Indian had not lost his life at the end of his term of service, he might be brought into debt which he could not pay, and thus held a slave for life.

The repartimiento  was another protective law, which also became a means of oppression. Under it the district officials were required to supply all things needed by the Indians, there being, when the law was passed, no pedlers or travelling dealers. This privilege was quickly and shamelessly abused, the natives being sold poor clothing, spoiled grain, sour wine, and other inferior supplies, often at three or four times their value when of good quality. They were even made to buy things at high prices which were of no possible use to them, such as silk stockings for men who went barefoot, and razors for those who had scarcely any beard to shave. One corregidor  bought a box of spectacles from a trader, and made the natives buy these at his own price, to wear when they went to mass, without regard to the fact that they were utterly useless to them.

The oppression of the natives was not confined to the laity, but the clergy were often as unjust. They forced them to pay not only the tithes, but extravagant prices for every church service, forty reals being charged for a baptism, twenty for a marriage certificate, thirty-two for a burial, etc. Such sums as these, which fairly beggared the poor Indians, enabled the clergy to build costly churches and mission houses and to keep up abundant revenues.

These general statements very faintly picture the actual state to which the Indians were reduced. This may be better shown by some instances of their sufferings. The Timebos Indians, for example, of the province of Velez, New Grenada, were reduced to such extreme misery by the embezzlement of the funds, that whole families flung themselves from the top of a rock twelve hundred feet high into the river below. One night, in order to escape from the cruelty of the colonists, the whole tribes of the Agatoas and Cocomes killed themselves, preferring death to the horrors of Spanish rule. Many Indians strangled themselves when in peril of being enslaved by the Spaniards, feeling that a quick death was better than a slow one under the torture of incessant toil.

In one instance, when a party of hopeless natives had come together with the intention of killing themselves, an intendant came to them with a rope in his hand, and told them that if they did not give up their purpose he would hang himself with them. This threat filled them with such horror at the prospect of meeting a Spaniard in the spirit world, that they fled from the spot, preferring life with all its terrors to such a companion.

As may well be imagined, the natives did not all yield resistlessly to their tyrants. Thus, in exasperation at the quantity of gold-dust which they were forced to pay as tribute, the people of Aconcalm, in the province of Canas, seized the brutal Spanish collector one day, and gave him melted gold to drink, "to satisfy in this way his insatiable thirst for gold."

In December, 1767, the descendants of the two tribes which had owned the mining valley of Caravaya descended on the white inhabitants in revenge for a usurpation of their lands which had taken place more than two centuries before. They settled the question of ownership by burning the city and killing all the inhabitants with arrows and clubs. When news of this was received by the viceroy, Don Antonio Amat, he swore on a piece of the true cross to kill all the savages in Peru. He was prevented from carrying out this threat only by the prayers of the actress Mariquita Gallegas, whom he loved, and who convinced him that it was his duty as a Christian to convert them to the religion of Christ rather than to massacre them.

In 1780 there began a memorable insurrection of the persecuted natives. It was especially notable as being led by a direct descendant of the Inca Tupac-Amaru, who had been beheaded by the Spaniards in 1562. This noble Indian, the last of the Incas, had been well educated by the Jesuits in Cuzco, and became the cacique of Tungasac. His virtues were such as to gain him the respect and esteem of all the Peruvian Indians, who venerated him also as the lineal descendant of their ancient emperors.

One day this cacique, exasperated by the rapacity of the corregidor  of Tuita, who had laid three repartimientos  on the Indians in a single year, seized the tyrannical wretch and strangled him with his own hands. Then, taking the name of his ancestor, Tupac-Amaru, he proclaimed himself the chief of all those who were in rebellion against the Spaniards.

His error seems to have been in not fraternizing with the creoles, or white natives of the country, who hated the Spaniards as bitterly as the Indians themselves. On the contrary he treated these as enemies also, and thus greatly augmented the number of his foes. The Indians, their memories of their ancient freedom aroused by his call, joined his ranks in enthusiastic numbers and won several victories over the whites, the whole of Upper Peru breaking out in insurrection. Lacking fire-arms as they did, they kept up the struggle for a year, the outbreak being brought to an end at last by treachery instead of arms. Betrayed by a cacique to whom the Spaniards promised a colonel's commission,—a promise they did not keep,—the Inca was taken prisoner by his enemies, and conducted to Cuzco, the ancient capital of his ancestors. Here he was tried and condemned to death, and executed with a frightful excess of cruelty that filled with horror all the civilized world, when the terrible tale became known.

Conducted to the place of execution, his wife and children, and his brother-in-law, Bastidas, were brought before him, their tongues cut out, and then put to death by the Spanish method of strangling before his eyes. His little son was left alive to witness his death. This was one in which the most brutal tortures of mediŠval times seemed revived. His tongue being torn out, his limbs were tied to four horses, which were driven in different directions with the purpose of tearing him limb from limb. The horses proved unable to do this, and he remained suspended in agony, until one of the more merciful of the Spaniards ended his torture by cutting off his head. During this revolting scene the little son of the victim gave vent to a terrible scream of agony, the memory of which haunted many of the executioners to their death.

The legs and arms of the victim were sent to the rebellious towns, his body was burned to ashes, his house was razed, his property confiscated, and his family declared infamous forever. One of his brothers was sent to Spain and condemned to the galleys, in which he remained for thirty years. Such were the means taken by the Spaniards to overcome the love of liberty in the natives of Peru.

As for the natives themselves, what few privileges they had retained were taken from them, their meetings and festivals were forbidden, and for any one to assume the name of Inca was declared criminal. These severe measures were thought sufficient to intimidate the Indians, but they only exasperated them, and they took a terrible revenge. Andres, a cousin of Amaru, who had escaped capture, and another chief named Catari, led them in a campaign of revenge in which they fought with the fury of despair. The lives of five hundred Spaniards, it is said, paid the penalty for each of the victims of that dread execution in Cuzco.

Andres besieged the city of Sorata, in which all the white families of the vicinity had taken refuge with their treasures. The artillery of the fortifications seemed an invulnerable defence against the poorly armed besiegers, but Andres succeeded in making a breach by turning the mountain streams against the walls. Once within, the exasperated Indians took a terrible revenge, 'a single priest being, as we are told, the sole survivor of the twenty thousand inhabitants. In the end the Spaniards put down the insurrection by treachery and cunning, seized the chiefs, and sent Andres to Ceuta, in Spain, where he remained in prison till 1820.

We shall only say in addition that the Portuguese of Brazil treated the natives of that land with a cruelty little less than that shown by the Spaniards, sending out hunting expeditions to bring in Indians to serve as slaves. Those who opposed them were shot down without mercy, and it is said that, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, peasants infected with the virus of smallpox were sent to the Botocudos, as a convenient means of getting rid of that hostile tribe. As a result of all this, the greater part of the tribes of Brazil completely disappeared. The natives of South America obtained justice and honorable treatment only after the people of that country had won their liberty.