Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pope Paul III declared the rights of New World indigenous peoples in three papal bulls that established the primacy of the Catholic Church in guaranteeing indigenous rights and privileges. The pope hoped also to restore a sense of Christian responsibility to the conquests in the New World.

Summary of Event

When Christopher Columbus first encountered the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, he likely was interested in them as slaves primarily. Caribbean Indians In the first decade after the arrival of Columbus, thousands of indigenous peoples were forced to work in mines and in agricultural fields under extremely harsh and brutal conditions. The death rate became so high that Spanish authorities became concerned. Slavery;Americas Native Americans;Pope Paul III and Charles V (1500-1558) Ferdinand II (1452-1516) Las Casas, Bartolomé de Paul III Paul III Ferdinand II (king of Spain) Ovando, Nicolás de Paz, Matias de Las Casas, Bartolomé de Minayo, Bernardino de Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Paul III

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI assigned responsibility for the peoples of the West Indies to King Ferdinand of Spain, who delegated authority over his new territories to his appointed representatives in the New World. In 1501, Governor Nicolás de Ovando of New Spain proposed a system of forced labor called the encomienda Encomienda , a system of employment that he hoped would reduce the horrors of slavery. Ferdinand approved this labor system, one that was similar to the system found in many parts of Spain, where impoverished peasants were required to work long hours under harsh conditions for their landlords. Native Americans;cruelty against

Under Ovando’s system, Spanish landowners in Mexico, Cuba, and South America, who were called encomenderos, were assigned a group of indigenous laborers who were required to work on Spanish-owned estates or in gold or silver mines. The workers were supposed to receive wages and were to be protected and instructed in the Christian faith by their masters. They would officially be “free persons,” with all rights belonging to free people, but they were temporarily assigned by the king of Spain, their true lord and master, to work for the encomenderos. Thus, in the eyes of legal authorities, the workers were not slaves. In reality, however, little difference existed between the new forced labor system and the old one. Indigenous men, women, and children were bought, sold, whipped, and otherwise abused by their Spanish masters, who showed little concern for their legal rights as free people. Whatever their status under Spanish law, the indigenous peoples of the New World were still treated as slaves.

Continued harsh treatment of the indigenous peoples led to intense criticism from a number of Spanish missionaries posted in New Spain. King Ferdinand called for a new set of laws to protect the rights of his New World subjects. To help develop these laws, he invited opinions from the best legal minds in Spain. The Dominican friar Matias de Paz responded with a lengthy defense of indigenous rights, which troubled the king deeply. Paz said that the Spaniards surely had a legitimate right to conquer and rule the indigenous peoples, because they were a weak, backward, and godless people. The conquest, however, also imposed great responsibilities on the conquerors. First, the Crown had an obligation to use every means possible to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. As good Christians, Spaniards were obligated to treat the indigenous as humanely and justly as possible.

Paz’s argument inspired the first series of laws aimed at protecting the peoples of the West Indies: the Laws of Burgos Burgos, Laws of (1512) of 1512. King Ferdinand realized that little progress had been made in improving the treatment of the Mexican, Central, and South American Indians since the establishment of the encomienda. Hence, laws were needed to guide the landowners in their treatment of their indigenous workers.

The protection for the Indians outlined in the new code included limiting the workers to five months of labor in a mine or in agriculture. After that time, encomenderos were required to give their workers forty days of rest. The encomenderos were also required to provide their workers with cooked meat and other food. In return, the indigenous were to receive instruction in the Catholic faith, conduct themselves as Christians, renounce their practice of having more than one wife, and sleep off the ground in hammocks. The Laws of Burgos went into effect but proved quite difficult to enforce. Many encomenderos simply ignored these laws, and royal officials in the New World had neither the time nor the staff to enforce them. Christianity;Native Americans

Bartolomé de Las Casas, a former slave-owning landlord in Cuba who had become a Catholic priest, criticized the lack of enforcement of laws protecting the Indians. He condemned the general attitude of Spaniards toward them, including the belief that Native Americans were ignorant savages who were better off because the conquest led them to Christianity. In many books and essays, Las Casas argued that the Indians deserved humane treatment, that their lands and freedom should be restored, and that slavery and the encomienda should be abolished. Supporters of the encomienda system argued that forced labor was necessary for the indigenous peoples because they did not know how to work for themselves; they were considered lazy heathens interested only in sleeping, making war, and eating the remains of their enemies.

The eloquent arguments made by Las Casas had little impact on political policy until the 1530’, when Pope Paul III, an energetic church leader, issued a series of papal bulls, or official messages, that promoted individual rights and legal protection for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The pope’s views were influenced by the writings of Las Casas and of Bernardino de Minayo, a Dominican priest who came to Rome in 1537 to report on the brutal treatment received by the peoples of the West Indies at the hands of Spanish conquerors. Law;Spanish colonies

The three papal bulls issued in 1537 reduced the powers of the Spanish monarchs over indigenous peoples and returned these powers to church authorities. In Altitudo Divini Consilii Altitudo Divini Consilii (Paul III) , Paul III placed all matters relating to baptism, instruction in Christianity, and other church matters under the guidance and control of church bishops, rather than encomenderos. In Veritas Ipsa Veritas Ipsa (Paul III) , indigenous slavery was severely condemned by the pope. The pope’s third bull, Sublimis Deus Sublimis Deus (Paul III) , condemned as false doctrine the view that Native Americans were subhuman, irrational beings without souls, incapable of receiving the Catholic faith. According to the pope, the American Indians “are truly men and they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic faith, but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” He concluded by asserting that

said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved.

Father de Minaya took copies of the pope’s statements to the New World without notifying or waiting for the approval of the Council of the Indies, the official law-making body for the Spanish colonies. He also neglected to notify the new king of Spain, a powerful monarch who also held title to the Holy Roman Empire as Charles V. Imperial authorities in the New World reacted by throwing Father de Minaya into prison, where he languished for two years. Paul III was forced to issue a note in 1538, indicating “that all other briefs and notes issued before in prejudice of the power of Emperor Charles V as king of Spain, and which might disturb the good government of the Indies,” were revoked. Charles did not object, however, to better treatment for native peoples, and he issued his own decree: the New Laws of Spain (1542 and 1543) New Laws of Spain (1542-1543) .


The New Laws granted legal protection and property rights to all Charles’s subjects in the New World. As in previous attempts to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples, however, Spanish royal officials found it difficult to enforce these laws. In many places in Mexico, Peru, and the islands of the Caribbean, indigenous peoples continued to be enslaved and exploited well into the nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliott, John H. Imperial Spain, 1469-1716. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 1990. Includes a detailed history of the legal and philosophical issues raised in the debate over the treatment of native peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. An excellent, brief survey of Spanish relations with native peoples that includes a full discussion of the encomienda system and slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keen, Benjamin. Essays in the Intellectual History of Colonial Latin America. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. This collection includes an essay surveying 460 years of Las Casas scholarship and another essay evaluating Las Casas’s legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Las Casas, Bartolomé de. History of the Indies. Translated and edited by Andree Collard. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. With this translation, Collard has provided an excellent introduction to the famous history written by Las Casas. Provides a vivid description of Indian-Spanish conflicts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lupher, David A. Romans in a New World: Classical Models in Sixteenth Century Spanish America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Study of the influence of Roman models of empire upon the Spanish imperial project in the Americas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parry, John J., and Robert G. Keith, eds. The New Iberia: The Conquerors and the Conquered. Vol. 1. New York: Times Books, 1984. Part of a five-volume collection of documents relating to Spain in the New World from the 1490’s to the early 1600’. Each document is ably introduced by the editors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Remesal, Antonio de. Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1474-1566, in the Pages of Father Antonio de Remesal. Translated and annotated by Felix Jay. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2002. Translation and commentary upon a life of Las Casas written sixty years after his death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shiels, William E. King and Church: The Rise and Fall of Patronato Real. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1961. Describes the background of Pope Paul III’s concerns for native rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. Decidedly conservative and Eurocentric history of Spanish colonialism.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

June 7, 1494: Treaty of Tordesillas

1495-1510: West Indian Uprisings

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

Categories: History