The Destruction And Transformation Of Indian Societies

The Destruction And Transformation Of Indian Societies

The various Indian peoples responded in many ways to the invasion of

America and the transformation of their societies. All of them suffered a

severe decline of population. This was a demographic catastrophe of incredible

proportions. On the main islands of the Caribbean, the Indian population had

virtually disappeared by 1540, a result of slaving, mistreatment, and disease.

In central Mexico, war, destruction, and above all disease brought the

population from an estimated 25 million in 1519 to less than two million in

1580. In Peru, a similar process brought a loss from 10 million to 1.5 million

between 1530 and 1590. Elsewhere in the Americas a similar but less

well-documented process took place. Smallpox, influenza, and even measles

wreaked havoc on the Indian population, which had developed no immunities

against these diseases.

While epidemic disease was the major cause of depopulation, the

destruction of the conquest and the weakening of indigenous societies

contributed to the mortality and made the Indian populations more susceptible

to disease. Population losses of this size disrupted Indian societies in many

ways. For example, in central Mexico the contraction of the Indian population

led the Spanish to concentrate the remaining population in fewer towns, and

this led in turn to the seizure of former communal farming lands by Spanish

landowners. Demographic collapse made the maintenance of traditional social

and economic structures very difficult.

The case of Mexico is particularly stark. The tremendous decline of the

Indian population was matched by the rapid increase in European livestock.

Cattle, sheep, and horses flourished on the newly created Spanish farms or on

unclaimed lands. In a way, the Indian population of Mexico was replaced by

European livestock.

Exploitation Of The Indians

Spanish desires to exploit the Indians as laborers or to extract a

tribute from them led to Spanish attempts to maintain those aspects of Indian

life that served colonial goals or at least did not openly conflict with

Spanish authority or religion. Thus, in Mexico and Peru, while the old Indian

religion and its priestly class were eliminated, the traditional Indian

nobility remained in place, supported by Spanish authority, as middlemen

between the tax and labor demands of the new rulers and the majority of the


The enslavement of Indians, except those taken in war, was prohibited by

the mid-16th century in most of Spanish America. Instead, different forms of

labor or taxation were imposed. At first, encomiendas were given to the

individual conquerors of a region. The holders of these grants, or

encomenderos, were able to use their Indians as workers and servants or to tax

them. While in the Inca and Aztec empires commoners had owed tribute or labor

to the state, the new demands were arbitrary, often excessive, and usually

devoid of the reciprocity of obligation and protection characteristic of the

Indian societies. Encomiendas were introduced after the initial conquest of a

region from New Mexico in the north to Chile in the south. In general, the

encomiendas proved to be destructive to Indian societies, and as depopulation

continued, the holders of the grants became dissatisfied. Finally, the Spanish

crown, unwilling to see a new nobility arise in the New World among the

conquerors with their grants of Indian serfs, moved to end the institution in

the 1540s. The crown limited the inheritability of encomiendas and prohibited

the right to demand certain kinds of labor from the Indians. While encomiendas

continued to exist in marginal regions at the fringes of the empire, in the

central areas of Mexico and Peru they were all but gone by the 1620s. With the

disappearance of the encomienda, the colonists and descendants of the

conquerors increasingly sought grants of land rather than Indians as the basis

of wealth.

Meanwhile, the colonial government increasingly extracted Indian labor

and tax through local royal officials. In many places, communities were

required to send groups of laborers to work on state projects, such as church

construction or road building, or in labor gangs for mining or agriculture.

This forced labor, called the mita in Peru, mobilized thousands of Indians to

work in the mines and on other projects. While the Indians were paid a wage

for this work, there were many abuses of the system by the local officials,

and community labor requirements were often disruptive and destructive to

Indian life. By the 17th century, many Indians left their villages to avoid

the labor and tax obligations, preferring instead to work for Spanish

landowners or to seek employment in the cities. This process eventually led to

the growth of a wage labor system in which Indians, no longer resident in

their villages, worked for wages on Spanish-owned mines and farms or in the


In the wake of this disruption, Indian culture also demonstrated

considerable resiliency in the face of Spanish institutions and forms,

adapting and modifying them to Indian ways. In New Spain, the Spanish

municipal councils established in Indian towns were staffed by the Indian

elite, and their operations reflected pre-conquest patterns within European

forms. In Peru and Mexico, Indians learned to use the legal system and the law

courts so that litigation became a way of life. At the local level, many

aspects of Indian life remained, and Indians proved to be selective in their

adaptation of European foods, technology, and culture.

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