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Life in the Spanish Colonies

Written by: Mark Christensen, Assumption College

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain causes of the Columbian Exchange and its effect on Europe and the Americas during the period after 1492
  • Explain how the growth of the Spanish Empire in North America shaped the development of social and economic structures over time
  • Explain how and why European and Native American perspectives of others developed and changed in the period

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative should be assigned to students after the First Contacts Narrative. Connections can be drawn between this Narrative and the Las Casas on the Destruction of the Indies, 1552 Primary Source.

The reliance of Spain on the cooperation, tribute, and labor of Native Americans and Africans drastically shaped life in colonial Spanish America. Daily life was a complex combination of compliance and rebellion, order and disorder, affluence and poverty. On the one hand, Spaniards relied on Native Americans for labor, tribute, and assistance in governing the many Native American towns. On the other hand, many Native Americans realized the benefits of accommodating the Spaniards to maintain traditional ways of life. In short, cooperation served the interests of both parties, although it was negotiated daily.

Upon their arrival in the New World, Spaniards constructed their colonies and cities upon or alongside established Native American communities such as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, on the site that later became Mexico City. To establish political and economic control over their new colonies, the Spaniards created two “republics”: the República de Españoles and the República de Indios. They and their enslaved Africans (and even free Africans) were in the first, and Native Americans were in the second. Although both republics fell under the purview of Spanish law, they operated semi-autonomously, with each established town having its own town council. For example, Mexico City had both a Spanish and a Native American town council.

A map shows the city of Tenochtitlán. The rendering depicts waterways, sophisticated buildings, ships, and flags. Numerous causeways connect the central city to the surrounding land.

At its height, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of up to 200,000. After the conquest of the Aztec empire, the Spanish appropriated this floating city as their capital. Note the flag of Imperial Spain at the top left of the island city.

The town councils governed the daily affairs of each town and its inhabitants in each respective republic. Councils in Native American towns were run by Native American officers, often those who already held positions of power. For example, the Maya ruler in most preexisting Maya towns became the governor of the colonial town council. The Native American nobility in each town filled other local government positions. In short, the establishment of the republics, their towns, and their respective town councils allowed the Native Americans a great deal of autonomy and gave the original Native American elite a way to maintain their positions of authority in daily life. The Spanish relied heavily on these Native American elites not only to maintain order in the towns but also to redirect their systems of tribute into the hands of the Spaniards and assist in the establishment of Catholicism in their towns.

As subjects of Spain, Native Americans had various daily responsibilities. As Christians, they were to attend services and send their children to daily catechism classes. They also paid various religious fees and taxes designed to support the Church in the Spanish colonies. Local priests and officers of the Inquisition (a Roman Catholic tribunal established to investigate and suppress heresy) maintained spiritual order and orthodoxy among all inhabitants of the colonies. In addition, Native Americans had labor and tribute quotas to fill. Such duties provided many opportunities for confrontation and discontent, and the local Native American elite adjudicated many such situations through the town council. Indeed, the archives are full of petitions by Native American councils against corrupt priests and Spanish officials and complaints against excessive tribute quotas. Yet the council likewise mediated local affairs, including land disputes, bills of sale, and the filling of town positions. It even meted out punishments for wrongdoing. In many ways, the town councils in the República de Indios allowed Native Americans to continue governing Native Americans.

To govern and tax the Native Americans in the early decades of colonization, the Spanish relied on the encomienda, a grant of native labor and tribute given to Spanish conquistadors and settlers. Abuse and distrust of the system led to its gradual and sometimes incomplete phasing out, with control over Native American tribute and labor reverting to the crown, which tried to control corrupt colonial officials.

Tribute varied according to region and era but included mainly goods Spaniards could ship back to Spain for profit or sell on the local or regional market. Products presented as tribute included maize from Culhuacan, silk from the Mixteca Alta region, honey from Yucatan, pearls from the Caribbean, gold from Columbia, and even cattle from Argentina. After the initial years of colonization, Spaniards in central Mexico organized Native American labor around the repartimiento, or “allotment,” system. The repartimiento required those between the ages of eighteen and fifty years to give service in a variety of projects, from laboring in a Spaniard’s field to participating in large construction projects. The Native Americans were to receive payment for their labors, but it was often insufficient or withheld. In South America, labor was organized through the mita, an Incan system in which adult Native Americans were drafted for extended periods. For example, the silver mines of Potosí required the labor of thousands of Andean laborers, who were drafted from towns hundreds of miles away and required to serve one year of every seven. Eventually, the decline in the Native American population and difficulties with the forced-labor system led to the development of wage labor.

An image shows a drawing of a mountain in Potosi with homes at the base of the mountain.

The rich silver deposits of the Cerro Rico mountain in Potosi, in present-day Bolivia, supplied Spain with immense wealth in the sixteenth century. The Spanish appropriated the Incan system of labor tribute known as the mita to ensure a constant source of labor in the mines.

Although Native American tribute and labor served as the linchpin of colonial society, Africans also contributed to the daily life of the Spanish colonies. In general, Spaniards employed native labor whenever possible. However, where the supply was insufficient, they purchased African slaves to work in the more profitable industries such as mining and sugar. For example, after the decimation of the native population in the Caribbean, Spaniards brought thousands of enslaved people from West Africa to work the islands’ sugarcane fields. This drastically altered the Caribbean’s population demographics. Not all enslaved Africans worked in the mines or sugar plantations. In the cities and large towns, they were rented out and served in other domestic roles, including as wet nurses and maids. Africans also learned the skilled trades of their owners and became proficient tailors, blacksmiths, and artisans.

Because Spanish law allowed an enslaved person to purchase his or her own freedom, Spain’s colonies boasted a sizeable portion of free blacks who engaged in myriad trades; freed slaves became sailors, merchants, and even slave owners. Many joined militias and defended thousands of miles of coastline along the Spanish colonies against pirates – another common element of life in the colonies. They served in return for a salary, social advancement, and tax exemption. Moreover, free Africans formed their own Catholic brotherhoods – common among Spaniards and Native Americans – that supported an African-Christian worldview while providing monetary support for members by funding funerals and celebrations and even serving as banks.

Spanish cities and the activities within them modeled those found in Europe. Like their counterparts in Spain, the capitals of Mexico City and Lima housed universities, cathedrals, exquisite homes, central courthouses, and exclusive shopping. Cards, music, books, plays, bullfights, and parties occupied the time of the elite. Poorer citizens also partook in such activities but on a smaller scale, enjoying local ballads, cockfights, and town gatherings on feast days. The elite dined on wheat bread, olive oil, cured meats, and wine, while commoners ate maize tortillas, manioc, chilies, turkeys, and small dogs, and drank the local indigenous intoxicant. Cities boasted the most refinement and Spanish influence, whereas the countryside was denigrated for its overwhelming “Indian” feel.

Throughout the colonial period, sexual relations between different people from the Americas, Europe, and Africa created a growing mixed-race population known as the castas. Disregarded as a minor inconvenience at first, the castas eventually threatened the social hierarchy. The Spanish sought to maintain themselves at the top and keep Native Americans and Africans at the bottom, whereas the castas were allowed a place somewhere in the middle. In daily life, however, people were often racially categorized by how well they spoke Spanish, how they dressed, what food they ate, or their social circle of acquaintances. As a result, in practice, the hierarchy allowed for some flexibility.

Part a and part b both show paintings depicting mixed race families.

Castas paintings from the mid-1700s document the cultural blending seen in Spanish colonies. Do these images support the assertion that there was a degree of social mobility in the Spanish colonies? Why or why not?

Perhaps this flexibility best reflects life in the Spanish colonies. It consisted of specific obligations, religious institutions, and social hierarchies, to be sure. Yet Native Americans, Africans, and Spaniards negotiated their own experiences, from conformity to resistance, within these limits. Most lived somewhere between the two extremes, doing their best to adapt their traditional ways of life to a diverse colonial world.

Review Questions

1. Why did the Spanish build their colonies alongside Native American communities such as the Tenochtitlan?

  1. To capitalize on preexisting cities and power structures
  2. To show respect for the Native American towns and villages
  3. As a way to collaborate with the Native Americans and the African slaves
  4. As a means to extract even more natural resources from the Native Americans

2. Under Spanish law, Native Americans were required to

  1. attend church services and pay religious fees and taxes to support their conversion
  2. share their Native American culture with the Spanish to create a coherent community
  3. move their homes to Spanish-approved communities
  4. marry Spaniards and support their families by working

3. The Native Americans were required to submit to Spanish law, but

  1. many were able to preserve their culture while accommodating Spanish norms
  2. most resorted to outright revolt to resist new impositions
  3. many abandoned their culture to fully embrace the Spanish way of life
  4. few were able to understand the new culture and therefore were punished

4. The main purpose of the encomienda system was to

  1. establish a racial hierarchy for social situations
  2. alleviate the disputes that occurred between Native Americans and Spaniards
  3. govern and tax the Native American communities
  4. create a tolerant community with multiple religions and ways of governing

5. In practice, the encomienda system created a

  1. forced labor system to support plantation-based agriculture and mining
  2. labor system whereby Native Americans voluntarily paid tribute to their Spanish conquistadors
  3. collaborative labor system that encouraged Native Americans and Spaniards to work together
  4. labor system that paid Native Americans for their labor on large Spanish construction projects

6. A result of the Native Americans’ susceptibility to European disease was

  1. the importation of African slaves for labor purposes
  2. the hostile resistance of Native Americans to Spanish conquest
  3. the harvesting of high-caloric and diverse food stuffs for the European population
  4. the rapid evolution of a capitalist system in Europe

7. The Spanish law permitting a slave to purchase freedom allowed for

  1. a strict racial hierarchy in which African slaves were consistently at the bottom
  2. opportunities for free blacks to become sailors, militiamen, and blacksmiths
  3. additional conflicts between slaves and Spaniards
  4. the establishment of a Catholic church that excluded non-Spanish people

8. In practice, the castas system was

  1. very strict and rigid
  2. fluid, to a certain degree
  3. precisely articulated
  4. based entirely on bloodline

9. The social hierarchy created by Spanish settlers and Native American people resulted in

  1. the encomienda system
  2. the repartimiento system
  3. the castas system
  4. the cabildo system

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how the Spanish relied on existing social structures to maintain order in their colonies.
  2. Explain why social structure in the Spanish colonies could be considered both rigid and flexible.

AP Practice Questions

An image shows a painting of people of different races and mixed races.

An oil painting from 1777 entitled Las castas mexicanas (The Mexican Castes).

Refer to the image provided.

1. The image provided most likely represents

  1. the enslavement of Native Americans by colonizers in the Americas
  2. the dynamic social hierarchy in Spanish colonies
  3. the system of forced labor created to efficiently extract precious mineral resources
  4. Spanish reliance on Native Americans for political and economic advancement

2. The image provided most likely represents

  1. the encomienda system
  2. the repartimiento system
  3. the castas system
  4. the cabildo system

Primary Sources

Bartolomé de Las Casas Describes the Exploitation of Indigenous Peoples:

Suggested Resources

Boyer, Richard, and Geoffrey Spurling. Colonial Lives: Documents on Latin American History, 1550-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Elliott, J.H. Imperial Spain: 1469-1716. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Kamen, Henry. Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763. New York: Harper, 2004.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Schwartz, Stuart B. Victors and Vanquished: Spanish and Nahua Views of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Bedford, 2000.

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