Instructions for the New World2021-05-28T14:12:11-04:00

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Instructions for the New World

Queen Isabella I’s instructions on the governance of Hispaniola in 1501 were the blueprint for the development of the Spanish colonies of the Americas.

Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault.

Document Text

Summary

The following are the things that you, Frey Nicolás de Ovando, Comendador of Lares of the military of Alcántara, are to do on the islands and mainland of the Ocean Sea, where you will serve as Our governor: Isabella opens by telling the governor that these are the instructions he should follow when governing the Spanish colonies in the New World.
First of all, you are to work diligently in those things that pertain to the service of God and ensure that divine services are conducted with much respect, order, and reverence. His first priority is making sure that everything is done in accordance with the rules of the Catholic Church and that Catholic Church services are held regularly.
Also, because it is our will that the Indians convert to Our Holy Catholic Faith and their souls be saved, since this is the greatest benefit We can desire for them, for which it is necessary that they be taught the things of Our faith in order to come into the knowledge of it, you are to take much care, without using any force against them, that the priests who are there teach and admonish them for this purpose with much love; so that they are converted as quickly as possible; and to this end you are to provide all the support and help needed for this. He must do everything in his power to promote the conversion of the Native people who live in the colonies, but must also make sure that force is not used against them.
Also, using Our provision, which you are taking with you, you are to see that all the vecinos and residents of the abovesaid islands and mainland submit to you personally and with their dependents, and that they obey you as Our governor in everything that you order on Our behalf. And you are to ensure that all live always in peace and concord and justice, treating all equally without exception; and you are to appoint for this purpose enough good subordinate officials and punish everything that justly should be punished. He must assert his authority over every Spanish settler who lives in the colony, and ensure that they are all treated fairly by the government.  To make sure that everyone lives together in harmony, he should appoint government officials and punish everyone who breaks the law.
Also, you are to ensure that the Indians are well treated and can walk safely throughout the country without anyone assaulting or robbing them or doing them any other harm, decreeing for this purpose the penalties that seem to you to be necessary and executing them in those found guilty and making all the prohibitions and announcements required. . . . He must ensure the safety of the Native people of the colony by declaring new punishments for anyone found guilty of a crime against a Native person, and carrying out the punishments when necessary.
Also, because We have been informed that some Christians in the above said islands, and especially in Hispaniola, have taken the Indians’ wives and daughters and other things from them against their will, you shall give orders, as soon as you arrive, that everything taken from the Indians against their will be returned, and you are to forbid anyone from doing such things in the future under severe penalties; and if Spaniards should wish to marry Indian women, the marriages should be entered into willingly by both parties and not made by force. Isabella acknowledges that Spanish settlers have been kidnapping and sexually abusing Native women, as well as stealing from Native communities. She instructs the governor to make sure everything stolen from Native people is returned, and set severe new punishments for this crime. She also requires that if a Spanish settler wants to marry a Native woman, the woman must be equally willing and cannot be forced.
Also, because it is Our will that the Indians pay our tributes and dues they owe Us as subjects in Our Kingdoms and Lordships, since paying tributes as here in Spain would be hard on them due to the quality of the land, you are to speak with the caciques and principales and whatever Indians you think necessary, negotiating with them the tribute and dues to be paid by each one of them each year in such a manner that they know they are not being done any injustice. He should negotiate the amount of tribute Native communities need to pay yearly with the Native leaders, to make sure they don’t feel they are being treated unfairly.
Also, because it will be necessary to take advantage of the service from the Indians in mining gold and other tasks We have ordered done, you are to require the Indians to work in the things of Our service, paying to each the salary that seems fair to you with regard to the quality of the land. . . . Isabella acknowledges that the government needs Native people to be the labor force of the colony. She tells the governor that he can make work mandatory, but must pay Native people a fair wage.
Also, because it is necessary to found some towns on Hispaniola, and since it is impossible to determine how this should be done from here, you are to inspect the places and sites on the island, and in accordance with the quality of the land and the sites and people besides the existing towns, you are to establish towns in the numbers and at the sites that seem best to you. He should conduct a survey of the land and found new towns in the best locations.
Also, because it is Our will that the Christians in the abovesaid island of Hispaniola live together from now on rather than being scattered through the countryside, and that no one lives outside the towns that are established on the island, and that each Spaniard may build a small house or hut on his farm, in which to take shelter when he goes to look it over or cultivate it. Every Spanish citizen is now required to live in the towns established by the governor.
Also, since the security of the land requires the construction of some forts, you are to determine the manner of building these forts and build up to three, which should be reasonably strong and well supplied. . . . He should build up to three forts wherever he thinks they are most necessary. The finished forts should be strong and well supplied.
Also, since We have been informed that good practice has not been followed in the cutting of brazilwood, many trees being cut down to the base so that more dye can be obtained, thus doing great damage to the forests, you are to give orders that no one is to cut down the trees at the base, and that where brazilwood is cut, the branches rather than the trunks should be cut, and if some trees have to be cut down it should be as few as possible. Isabella says that the valuable brazilwood that grows in the colony has been harvested irresponsibly, and gives specific instructions for how the trees should be preserved.
Also, since there is the possibility of much deceit and fraud in the collection and smelting of gold and We may be defrauded in the share that We should receive, you will give orders that the extraction of gold be done by cuadrillas of ten persons, or whatever number seems best to you; and for each cuadrilla, you shall appoint a trustworthy person to be present when they gather the gold and to accompany them when they take it to the smelting house. And you are to decide where to establish the smelting furnaces, where everyone is to come to have their gold smelted. And you shall order, under severe penalties, that no one shall do any smelting except in these furnaces in the presence of Our overseer, so that there will be no fraud. . . . To prevent the theft of gold that belongs to the Crown during mining operation, Isabella establishes rigid systems for the mining and smelting of gold.
Also, because it benefits Our service that those who are foreign to Our Kingdoms and Realms not live in the abovesaid islands, you are not to allow foreigners to settle in the said islands and mainland. And if there are some who have already settled there, you are to order them to leave, and if any of them have any landed property and wish to sell it you must have it done in accord with the law. And if there is there any factor of the Admiral that is a foreigner, you must inform Us who the person is and of what quality, so that We can order you what should be done. Isabella does not want any foreign people living in the Spanish colonies. The governor is to kick any non-Spanish or non-Native person out of the colonies, and ban any new foreigners from settling there. If there are foreign born people in the government, the governor must write to the Queen and King to find out what should be done with them.
Also, in order that Christians and Indians shall live together in peace, friendship, and harmony, and that there be no fights or quarrels among them, you shall order that no one give or sell offensive or defensive weapons to the Indians nor exchange such weapons with them, establishing the penalties that seem appropriate for this. And if you should find such weapons in the possession of the Indians, you shall take them in payment of their taxes, tributes, and dues and turn them over to Our factor. . . . To maintain peace between the Spanish settlers and Native people, Isabella outlaws the sale of weapons to Native populations, and instructs the governor to confiscate any weapons he finds in Native communities in lieu of taxes.
Also, forasmuch as We have the responsibility for bringing about the conversion of the Indians to Our Holy Catholic Faith, and since the arrival of persons of suspect faith could offer an impediment to this conversion, you are not to allow or consent to the passage of Moors, Jews, reconciled, heretics, or persons newly converted to our faith, except for black slaves or other slaves who were -born in the power of Christians, and who are Our subjects and natives of Our Kingdoms. Isabella believes that if people of diverse religions are allowed in the colony, it will interfere with the conversion of Native people to the Catholic Church. She instructs the governor to ban Muslims, Jews, heretics, and others. The only exception to this rule is enslaved people, whose beliefs are considered irrelevant.
Also, since there will be other things that cannot now be acted on from here as they should be, you are to inform yourself as soon as you arrive of what problems need to be dealt with and how, and you are to report to Us at length concerning this by means of the ships you are taking with you, so that We can order the proper action. . . . Isabella acknowledges that she doesn’t know everything about the present state of the colony. She asks the governor to investigate everything and then write a long report for her, so she can offer further advice.
Done in Granada the 16th of September, 1501. Signed in Granada, Spain. September 16, 1501.

“Instructions to Commander Nicolás de Ovando, Third Governor of Hispaniola, from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain [Excerpts],” 1501. New Iberian World: A Documentary History of the Discovery and Settlement of Latin America to the Early 17th Century, Vol. II. Ed. John H. Parry and Robert G. Keith. (New York: Times Books, 1984). Translation revised in 2018 by Anthony Stevens, with the assistance of Dr. Carmen del Camino Martinez and Dr. Reyes Rojas Garcia.

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To read and download the full instructions from Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to Commander Nicolás de Ovando, click here.

Background

Isabella I, Queen of Castile and co-ruler of Spain with her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, was a central figure in early development of Spain’s colonies in the New World. It was Isabella who funded Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492, and Isabella who recognized that the new lands represented an opportunity to spread Catholicism and Spanish influence around the globe.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI declared Isabella and her husband the joint rulers of the Americas, so long as they made Native conversion to Catholicism a top priority of their new settlements. Isabella took her role as a “Catholic King” very seriously. She condemned the way Columbus and other early explorers and conquistadors murdered and enslaved the Native people of the New World. Instead, she issued orders that they be converted to Catholicism and forced to conform to Spanish social norms.

About the Document

These 1501 instructions to the governor of Hispaniola outline Isabella I’s vision for the organization and administration of the Spanish colonies in North America. Of particular importance are the passages that relate to the governance of Native people. The policies set forth by Isabella in this letter would influence Spanish interactions with Native people for decades to come.

Vocabulary

  • admonish: Warn.
  • brazilwood: The heavy wood from tropical trees, used to make red dye.
  • caciques: Native chiefs.
  • conquistador: The name for the Spanish or Portuguese military leaders who conquered Central and South America in the 1500s.
  • conversion: Changing religion.
  • Comendador of Lares of the military of Alcántara: Commander of the Alcántara military group.
  • cuadrilla: Team.
  • factor: Businessman.
  • heretic: A person who holds beliefs outside the Catholic faith.
  • Hispaniola: An island in the Caribbean Sea, which is today divided into the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
  • Moors: Muslims.
  • Ocean Sea: Atlantic Ocean.
  • pope: Leader of the Catholic Church.
  • principals: Leaders.
  • provision: Official legal document.
  • reconciled: A person who is not fully a member of the Catholic Church.
  • smelting house: Place where ore is heated to purify it. In this case, mined gold ore is being smelted into gold bars for transport back to Spain.
  • tribute: Payment made to a ruler.
  • vecinos: Spanish freemen with higher social status.

Discussion Questions

  • What is Isabella’s first instruction to Commander Nicolás de Ovando? What does this reveal about her interest in the colony?
  • What do these instructions reveal about the early years of Spanish colonization?
  • What instructions does Isabella give for the governance of Native people in the Spanish colonies? What do these instructions reveal about her attitude toward Native people?
  • Why do Isabella’s instructions to Commander Nicolás de Ovando matter to the history of the Spanish colonies?
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Suggested Activities

  • Include this document as part of any lesson about the establishment of Spanish colonies in the Americas.
  • Invite students to use Isabella I’s instructions to make an annotated diagram of the government structure of the Spanish colonies.
  • Pair Isabella’s instructions with the illustration of life on an encomienda to facilitate a discussion of Isabella’s ideals vs. the reality of the Spanish conquest.
  • Ask students to consider how Isabella’s instructions lived on to impact the lives of each of the women below: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Zuni Craftswomen, Life Story: The Gateras of Quito, Life Story: Malitzen, and Life Story: Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche.

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

Source Notes
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