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The document known as the Leyes de Burgos (Laws of Burgos) was promulgated on December 27, 1512 in Burgos, Spain. They were the first codified set of laws governing the behavior of Spanish foreigners in America, particularly with regards to native Indians. It enumerated a number of laws for the government of the indigenous peoples of the recently discovered New World. They forbade the maltreatment of natives, and endorsed their conversion to Catholicism. The cause of its creation was the legal problem that had arisen from the conquest and colonization of the Indies, where the common law of Spain was not applied. The laws were never truly enforced, and little change came in New Spain because of these laws.

The scope of the laws was originally restricted to the island of Hispaniola, but was later extended to Puerto Rico and Jamaica. These laws authorized and legalized the colonial practice of creating encomiendas, where Indians were grouped together to work under colonial masters, limiting the size of these establishments to a minimum of 40 and a maximum of 150 people. However, they also established a minutely regulated regime of work, pay, provisioning, living quarters, hygiene, and care for the Indians in a reasonably protective and humanitarian spirit. Women more than four months pregnant were exempted from work.

The document finally prohibited the use of any form of punishment by the encomenderos, reserving it for officials established in each town for the implementation of the laws. It also ordered that the Indians be catechized, outlawed bigamy, and required that the huts and cabins of the Indians be built together with those of the Spanish. It respected, in some ways, the traditional authorities, granting chiefs exemptions from ordinary jobs and granting them various Indians as servants.

Too poor fulfillment of the laws in many cases lead to inummerable protests and claims. In fact, the laws were so often poorly applied that they were seen as simply a legalization of the previous poor situation. This would create momentum for reform, carried out through the Leyes Nuevas (New Laws) in 1542.

Origins

The cardinal archbishop of Seville named Domingo de Mendoza, heard reports of the abuse of the American Indians and sent a group of Dominican missionaries to Hispanola to try and stop the terrible treatment. Though they couldn’t physically stop it, the missionaries stirred up enough trouble that the settlers feared they would lose their interests; Fray Antonio de Montesinos preached to the colonists that they were sinning and didn’t possess the right to force the Indians to serve them, claiming there could be better uses for them, like to convert them to Christianity. The colonists disagreed and decided the best way to protect their interests was to come together as a group and choose a Franciscan Friar named Alonso de Espinal to present their case to King Ferdinand of Spain and refute Montesinos’ accusations. Their plan backfired, though, and King Ferdinand was outraged by the abuses against the Indians; he pleaded ignorance, and to help remedy the situation commissioned a group of theologians and academics to come up with solution. In the city of Burgos on December 27th, 1512, thirty-five laws were put into effect to secure the freedom of the American Indians, and also to make sure they converted to Christianity.

Summary of Each Law

1: The Indians are to be removed from their land and placed into encomiendas. For every fifty Indians, four lodges shall be built (thirty by fifteen feet). This land cannot be taken from them since they were taken from their original land. Their original land will be burned so that they cannot return to it. The Indians will do the planting of all of the food. During the proper seasons, the encomenderos (men looking over the Indians) will have the Indians plant corn and raise the hens.

2: The Indians will leave their land voluntarily to come to the encomiendas so that they shall not suffer from being removed by force.

3: The citizen to whom the Indians are given must erect a structure to be used as a church. In the church must be a picture of Our Lady and a bell with which to call the Indians to prayer time. The person who has them in the encomienda must go with them to church every night and make sure they cross themselves and sing several hymns. If an Indian does not come to the church, he is not allowed to rest the next day.

4: To make sure the Indians are learning Christianity properly, they shall be tested every two weeks and taught what they do not know by the Encomendero. He shall teach them the Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Articles of Faith. Any encomendero that does not do this properly will be fined six gold pesos.

5: A church will be built equidistant from all estates. On Sundays, Mass shall be observed and a feast will be eaten. If the encomendero does not bring his Indians, he will be charged ten gold pesos.

6: If The church is too far away, another will be built.

7: The priests who collect tithes from the estates must have priests continually in the churches of the estates.

8: There shall be churches built at the mines so that the Indians working the mines may hear mass on Sundays.

9: Whoever has fifty Indians must chose one boy who the encomendero thinks is able, to be taught to read and write, and also the importance of Catholicism. This boy will then teach the other Indians because the Indians would more readily accept what the boy says then what the Spaniards says. If the encomendero has one hundred Indians, two boys shall be chosen. The faith must be ingrained into their heads so the souls of the Indians are saved.

10: If an Indian falls sick near where there is a priest, the priest must go to him and recite the Credo and other profitable things of the Catholic faith. The Indian shall make confession without being charged a fee. If the Indian is to die, he shall be buried with a cross near the church. If he is not buried, the encomendero owes a fine of four gold pesos.

11: The Indians must not be used as carriers for transporting things to the Indians at the mines.

12: All Spanish inhabitants who have Indians in an encomienda must have the infants baptized within a week of their birth.

13: After the Indians have been brought to the estates, gold shall be searched for as follows: Indians in an encomienda must search for gold for five months a year and at the end of the five months are allowed to rest for forty days. During the forty days, the Indians are not to be employed, unless they are a slave and accept to plant the crops. During the forty days, the Indians will be further instructed in faith since they have more time do learn.

14: The Indians must be allowed to perform their sacred dances.

15: All citizens who have Indians are required to feed them breads, yams, peppers, and on Sundays feed them dishes of cooked meat. For every offense, a fine of two gold pesos shall be paid.

16: According to Catholicism, the Indians are not allowed to have more than one wife at a time and they are not allowed to abandon their wives.

17: Sons of the chiefs of the Islands who are under the age of thirteen are to be given to the Friars so they can be taught how to read, write, and other things about Catholicism. When the sons reach the age of nineteen, they are to return to the encomienda and teach the others.

18: Pregnant women are not to be sent to the mines or made to plant the crops. They shall be kept on the estate and made to do household duties such as cooking and weeding. After the child is born, she can nurse it until it is three years old. After this time, she can return to the mines and other duties.

19: The Indians should not sleep on the ground. Each encomendero should provide his Indians with hammocks.

20: The Indians are to be given one gold peso every year to pay for clothing.

21: Indians may not change their masters. One encomendero cannot employ or house an Indian belonging to another encomendero.

22: The Indian chiefs are allowed two Indians to perform personal duties for every forty of their subjects. Also, visitors to the estates must treat the Indians well and teach them what they know of Catholicism.

23: Official inspectors must keep records of the activities and also the treatment of the Indians in the encomiendas. They must keep track of the population and how much gold is being mined.

24: The Indians are not to be physically or verbally abused for any reason.

25: The Indians are not to be used in private trade or for any other economic interest.

26: Encomenderos that have their Indians working in distant mines shall combine efforts with other estates to help provide food for the Indians.

27 Indians from other lands must also be taught the things of the Catholic faith. They are to be treated kindly, unless they are slaves.

28: If an encomendero dies, his successor takes control of the Indians.

29: Two inspectors should be appointed to each Estate.

30. The inspectors are to be chosen by the Admiral, judges, and officers. These people should be compensated by being given Indians in encomienda.

31. Villages should be inspected two times a year, once in the beginning of the year, and once in the summer.

32: If there is a runaway Indian, inspectors cannot apprehend them. They must be given to a man of good conscience who will find the Indians' encomendero.

33: All inspectors should hold a copy of the Laws of Burgos, signed by the Governor.

34: Inspectors must be provided residencias.

35: One person may not have more than one hundred and fifty Indians and no less than forty Indians in encomienda at one time.

Amendments were added to the Laws or Burgos on July 28th, 1513.

1: Indian women married to Indian men are not to be forced to serve with their husbands at the mines or anywhere else unless it is by their own free will or unless their husbands wish to take them.

2: Indian children do not have to do the work of adults until the reach the age of fourteen. They are then made to do the tasks of children, like weeding or working in their parents estates.

3: Unmarried Indian women who are under the authority of their parents have to work with them on their lands. Those not under the authority of their parents must be kept apart so they don’t become vagabonds.

4: After two years of service, the Indians are free to go. By this time they will be civilized and proper Christians, able to govern themselves.

The Laws of Burgos did nothing to save the Natives of Hispaniola. The American Indians were still heavily exploited. This arose the conscience of Bartolomé de Las Casas, a former Encomendero who regretted his ways and spent the rest of his life working to bring freedom back to the Indians. He wrote, “What kind of Doctrine could be taught by unlettered and worldly laymen, commonly for the most part ignorant even of crossing themselves, to infidels of a language very different from Castilian who never learned but these few words: ‘Give me water; give me bread; go to the mines; go to work,’ and who had yet be taught the first principles of the Christian Faith?”

He believed that the New World was granted to Spain and Portugal solely for the conversion of the Heathen. The Indians, he believed, should not be used for other purposes, especially not for profit. The only solution was to remove the Spanish colonists from the Indians, except for missionaries who brought the message of Christ.

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