Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

The Spanish Colonies in America

Everybody knows that America was discovered by Christopher Columbus, who served under the King and Queen of Spain, and who made four trips, in which he discovered most of the islands now known as the West Indies and part of the central and southern regions of the American continent. Long before the English speaking colonies which now constitute the United States of America were established, the Spaniards were living from Florida and the Mississippi River to the South, with the exception of what is now Brazil, and had there established their culture, their institutions and their political system.

In some sections, the Indian tribes were almost exterminated, but generally the Spaniards mingled with the Indians, and this intercourse resulted in the formation of a new race, the mixed race (mestizos) which now comprises the greater number of the inhabitants of what we call Latin America.

African slavery added another racial element, which is often discernible in the existing population.

The Latin American peoples today are composed of European whites, American whites (creoles), mixed races of Indian and white, white and Negro, Negro and Indian, Negro and mestizo, and finally, the pure Indian race, distinctive types of which still appear over the whole continent from Mexico to Chile, but which has disappeared almost entirely in Uruguay and Argentina. Some countries have the Indian element in larger proportions than others, but this distribution of races prevails substantially all over the continent.

It would distract us from our purpose to give a full description of the grievances of the Spanish colonies in America. They were justified and it is useless to try to defend Spain. Granting that Spain carried out a wonderful work of civilization in the American continent, and that she is entitled to the gratitude of the world for her splendid program of colonization, it is only necessary, nevertheless, to cite some of her mistakes of administration in order to prove the contention of the colonists that they must be free.

Books could not be published or sold in America without the permission of the Consejo de Indias, and several cases were recorded of severe punishment of men who disobeyed this rule. Natives could not avail themselves of the advantages of the printing press. Communication and trade with foreign nations were forbidden. All ships found in American waters without license from Spain were considered enemies. Nobody, not even the Spaniards, could come to America without the permission of the King, under penalty of loss of property and even of loss of life. Spaniards, only, could trade, keep stores or sell goods in the streets. The Indians and mestizos could engage only in mechanical trades.

Commerce was in the hands of Spain, and taxes were very often prohibitive. Even domestic commerce, except under license, was forbidden. It was especially so regarding the commerce between Peru and New Spain, and also with other colonies. Some regulations forbade Chile and Peru to send their wines and other products to the colonists of the North. The planting of vineyards and olive trees was forbidden. The establishment of industry, the opening of roads and improvements of any kind were very often stopped by the Government. Charles IV remarked that he did not consider learning advisable for America.

Americans were often denied the right of public office. Great personal service or merit was not sufficient to destroy the dishonor and disgrace of being an American.

The Spanish colonies were divided into vice-royalties and general captaincies. There were also audiencias, which existed under the vice-royalties and general captaincies. The Indians were put under the care and protection of Spanish officials called encomenderos, but these in fact, in most cases, were merciless exploiters of the natives who, furthermore, were subject to many local disabilities. The Kings of Spain tried to protect the Indians, and many laws were issued tending to spare them from the ill-treatment of the Spanish colonists. But the distance from Spain to America was great, and when laws and orders reached the colonies, they never had the force which they were intended to have when issued. There existed a general race hatred. The Indians and the mestizos, as a rule, hated the creoles, or American whites, who often were as bad as, or even worse than, the Spanish colonists in dealing with the aborigines. It is not strange, then, that in a conflict between Spain and the colonies, the natives should take sides against the creoles, who did most of the thinking, and who were interested and concerned with all the changes through which the Spanish nation might pass, and that they would help Spain against the white promoters of the independent movement. This assertion must be borne in mind to understand the difficulties met by the independent leaders, who had to fight not only against the Spanish army, which was in reality never very large, but also against the natives of their own land. To regard this as an invariable condition would nevertheless lead to error, for at times, under proper guidance, the natives would pass to the files of the insurgent leaders and fight against the Spaniards.

Furthermore, it is necessary to remember that education was very limited in the Spanish colonies; that in some of them printing had not been introduced, and that its introduction was discouraged by the public authority; and that public opinion, which even at this time is so poorly developed, was very frequently poorly informed in colonial times, or did not exist, unless we call public opinion a mass of prejudices, superstitions and erroneous habits of thinking fostered by interests, either personal or of the government.

This was the condition of the Spanish American countries at the beginning of the nineteenth century, full of agitation and conflicting ideas, when new plans of life for the people were being elaborated and put into practice as experiments on which many men founded great hopes and which many others feared as forerunners of a general social disintegration.