How Did the Spanish Treat the Native Americans?

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Spanish treatment of the Native Americans was poor. Spanish explorers considered the natives inferior. Consequently, they forcibly converted natives to Christianity, confined them to slavery and murdered them.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola. Upon encountering natives in the new land, he notified Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, who instructed Columbus to make the natives subjects of Spain. The sailors were ordered to treat the natives humanely, and they were to be considered equal. The queen ordered the natives to be converted to Christianity and taught European behaviors. However, she did not authorize slavery. Columbus defied those orders, which eventually led to tensions between the explorers and the Spanish government.

First Interactions

After discovering the natives, one of the first actions Columbus took was enslaving them. He shipped hundreds of slaves back to Spain, which infuriated Queen Isabella, who demanded their return to Hispaniola. Columbus also forced native men to collect gold and return it to the sailors. If the men did not reach their 90-day quota, they were punished by death.

In addition to the unethical practices that the explorers launched against the natives, they also brought diseases with them from Europe. The natives, who had no immunity to those diseases, often perished.

In the 20 years following Columbus’s landing on Hispaniola, Spanish explorers extended their reach to other Caribbean islands. Native populations in Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba were also forced into slavery. By the end of their Caribbean conquest, the native populations among those islands were virtually destroyed.

Native Encounters in the Americas

Spanish exploitation of native populations gradually moved westward, as the explorers continued their quest for silver, gold and other valuable natural resources. They continued their inhumane treatment of native populations in South America, and eventually moved north into North America. In addition to forcing the native populations into slavery, the Spanish explorers forced them to convert to Christianity. Those who resisted were punished by a system called encomienda, in which natives were assigned to settlers through land grants as part of a deal. When settlers claimed a piece of land, they were also given a group of natives with it. The natives forcibly worked the land by planting crops and mining for the landowners. This allowed the settlers to maintain control over the natives without enslaving them.


While some priests converted the natives to Christianity without complaint, other Spanish clergymen were appalled at the accounts of horrific treatment that they heard from natives. In response, they demanded reform. One advocate for reform was Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican Friar. His demand for better treatment of the natives prompted passage of the Laws of Burgos, which were enacted in 1512. Believing that the Laws of Burgos were still too harsh, Bartolome de Las Casas, another priest, advocated for better treatment of the natives. He argued that Spain should strive to convert the natives in a non-violent manner. He also believed that natives should be free from slavery and retain land rights under the rule of the settlers.

In 1500, the Spanish government sent a ship to the New World and demanded Columbus’s return to Spain.