See here and here for more information.
From the time Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492 the Spaniards had been divided about how they should regard the Indians and how should they treat them. Were they rational beings capable of coercion to Christianity? Were they the lawful owners of their property? Or were they inferior creatures, savages who could legitimately be subjugated? in regards to the rationality and Christianization of the Indians.
The Spanish Crown had long been concerned with the morality of conquest, and employed theologians and jurists to advise on behaviour. One result of this was the Requirement (Requerimiento), a document that had to be read out to the Indians prior to an attack. This was often read in Spanish to Indians who did not understand the language, or was even proclaimed out of earshot to them.
The Spaniards governed through an institution set up by Ferdinand and Isabella known as the encomienda. By this policy, land belonged to the Spanish Crown and the Indians were compelled to work it on behalf of their Spanish master or encomendero. In return, they were to be afforded the protection of the Crown, instruction in the Christian faith and a small wage. In practice this meant enslavement and work in very harsh conditions.
In 1511 Antonio de Montesinos, one of the first Dominicans to arrive on Hispaniola preached a sermon attacking the conduct of the colonists, the break-up of families and social structures, the forced labour, and the deaths from diseases:
‘I am the voice crying in the wilderness...the voice of Christ in the desert of this island...[saying that] you are all in mortal sin...on account of the cruelty and tyranny with which you use these innocent people. Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Must not you love them as you love yourselves?’A year later the Spanish crown issued a series of laws intended to regulate Indian-Spaniard relations.
Montesinos’ criticisms provoked a fierce reaction among the colonists, who chose a Franciscan friar Alonzo de Espinal to present their case to King Ferdinand. However Ferdinand professed outrage at what he heard and commissioned a group of theologians and academics to come up with a solution. In December 1512 the 35 Laws of Burgos were promulgated, the first codified set of laws governing the behaviour of the Spanish colonists. The laws forbade the ill-treatment of natives (the forced removal from their land and their placing into encomiendas) and endorsed their conversion to Catholicism. But the laws were never truly endorsed and had little impact in the New World.
In 1515 the landowner and lay catechist, Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566) (depicted above) left Santo Domingo and returned to Spain to plead for better treatment of the Indians. In 1523 he joined the Dominican order and four years later while serving as the prior of the convent of Puerto de Plata he began to write his Historia apologética, which was to serve as an introduction to his Historia de las Indias. In 1531, 1534 and 1535 he sent three letters to the Council of the Indies in Madrid in which he accused persons and institutions of the sin of oppressing the Indians, particularly through the encomienda system.
In his 1537 bull, Sublimis Deus, Pope Paul III confirmed the Indians’ capability to understand and receive the Christian faith. This was another way of legitimizing Spain’s presence and religious duty in the New World.
Neither the Laws of Burgos nor the Sublimis Deus, however, had much impact. In 1539 Las Casas set out again for Spain, arriving there in 1540. He horrified the court with his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, a highly descriptive, but also somewhat exaggerated account of Spanish cruelty in the Caribbean in which he accused them of what today we would call genocide. His work seemed to be crowned with success when the New Laws were promulgated in 1542. These laws were designed to abolish the encomienda system within a generation by outlawing its perpetuation through inheritance. To ensure the enforcement of these laws, Las Casas was named bishop of Chiapas in Guatemala, and in July 1544 he sailed again for America with 44 Dominicans. But his determination to enforce the regulations led to vehement opposition and in 1547 he returned to Spain.
Back in Spain he came into conflict with the theologican Ginés de Sepúlveda composed his Latin dialogue, 'Democrates secundus' (‘Concerning the Just Cause of the War against the Indians’), in which he sought to justify the wars of conquest in the New World according to the Aristotelian doctrine of ‘natural’ superiors and inferiors.
Las Casas finally confronted him in 1550 at the Junta (Council) of Valladolid. Sepúlveda argued that if they refused to accept Spanish rule, they could be enslaved. Furthermore, if the Indians resisted enslavement, the Spaniards had the legitimate right to wage war on them. The Junta did not reach any clear-cut decision regarding the rationality and Christianization of the Indians. The jurists and theologians of Valladolid could not have conceivably recommended to Charles V to stop all wars of conquest in the New World and to merely seek the peaceful Christianization of the Indians, as Las Casas had proposed. On the other hand, if Sepúlveda’s harsh attack on Indian culture was intended to influence the Spanish crown to revoke the 1542 New Laws, he failed, for Las Casas effectively frustrated any immediate attempts by the encomenderos to have the laws revoked. But this did not mean that the conditions of the Indians improved in practice.
Outside Spanish America, the debate also had some impact. When the Philippines were conquered in 1571, there was a further debate, as the Dominicans once again challenged Spanish dominion.
In 1552, las Casas published his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Very Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies), a highly-coloured account of the abuses that accompanied the colonization of New Spain, and especially Hispaniola. He compared the indigenous Arawaks to tame ewes and wrote that when he arrived in 1508,
'there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it'.This was an accusation of genocide nearly four hundred years before the term was coined.
The work of Las Casas was translated into English, French and Dutch and provided powerful anti-Spanish propaganda and thus created what is known as the Black Legend. It was first cited in English with the 1583 publication The Spanish Colonie, or Brief Chronicle of the Actes and Gestes [Deeds] of the Spaniards in the West Indies, at a time when England and Spain were preparing for war in the Netherlands. Las Casas's population figures are almost certainly exaggerated, but there can be little doubt that widespread slaughter took place.
So: the Spaniards certainly committed atrocities in the New World, but they it was also the first European power to consider seriously the moral issues raised by colonization.