The New Laws of Spain

Charles I issued two laws that prohibited the enslavement of indigenous peoples and countered the colonial aristocracy’s attempts to challenge the Crown’s authority by misusing the encomienda system. The New Laws marked the beginning of the end for an abused system intended to entrust indigenous families to the charge of colonists so they could be Christianized and “civilized” but not enslaved.

Summary of Event

The New Laws of 1542 and 1543 directly addressed the problem of labor supply in the frontier regions that were the Spanish New World. They also reflected an attempt by Charles I, king of Spain, to solve two specific problems. The first dealt with the reconciliation of the Crown’s avowed aim to protect indigenous laborers from unscrupulous settlers while guaranteeing a continuance of the economic exploitation of the new lands. The second was the apprehension of the establishment of a Spanish-American neofeudal nobility that could physically challenge royal control of the Spanish colonies. Colonization;Spain of the Americas
New Laws of Spain (1542-1543)
Charles V (1500-1558)
Las Casas, Bartolomé de
Cortés, Hernán
Charles I (king of Spain)
Cortés, Hernán
Las Casas, Bartolomé de

These problems, as Charles Gibson has indicated, may be traced to the very earliest days of Spanish settlement. The Spaniards as settlers were not willing, and often not able, to produce sufficient goods and services for their own basic needs, so they looked to the indigenous peoples to support them. The Native Americans at first acquiesced, but when the demands made upon them became intolerable, they revolted.

After a number of clashes, the principle of the encomienda
Encomienda was established. This institution had its historical roots in the feudal situation of the Spanish Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. In America, through a formal grant of encomienda, the settlers were said to “hold” designated indigenous families. These families were then entrusted or commended to the charge of a Spanish colonist who thus became the encomendero. At first the encomenderos were permitted to exact both commodity tribute and labor service from the indigenous people under their control. In this manner, they were able to exploit labor groups without risk or effort. In return, they expected to render military service to the Crown and to Hispanicize the indigenous people committed to their charge.

During the early years of the conquest, the encomienda was generally an irregular, uncontrolled, and highly exploitative institution, as was common in frontier situations. Despite insistence that the encomienda was a contract with rights, duties, and limitations on each of the contracting parties, the indigenous peoples were treated as slaves.

The problem for the Crown lay in reconciling economic needs with the professed Christian purposes of Spanish imperialism. The monarchy never deviated from its position that the indigenous population was technically free. Native Americans were not chattels, even though granted to an encomendero. The principal objects of the encomienda were to Christianize pagan peoples through the ministrations of the Spanish Christian encomendero, and to “civilize” them by encouraging orderly habits of industry. Royal declarations of indigenous freedom, however, had little connection with the manner in which actual indigenous people continued to be treated in the Americas. To the encomendero the encouragement of orderly habits was usually interpreted to mean that permission was given for forced labor.

The excesses of the Spanish settlers were attacked by missionaries Missions;Dominicans in the Americas in the New World, notably by Dominicans, who made strong humanitarian protests against the actual conduct of the encomenderos. The Crown answered the Dominican accusations with the Laws of Burgos (1512) Burgos, Laws of (1512) , a code of Spanish-indigenous relations that expressed the Spanish government’s first considered and official position on the question of encomienda. The Laws of Burgos sanctioned the encomienda system but sought to surround it with specific directives that would protect the indigenous population from excessive exploitation. However, despite good intentions, it is doubtful whether any encomendero modified his conduct as a result of the Burgos legislation.

The encomienda continued to flourish despite the misgivings of the Crown. In 1520, Charles I ruled that the entire system of encomienda was to come to an end. Hernán Cortés, then conquering the Aztec Empire of Mexico, did not obey the order, however. He granted his soldiers encomiendas, and afterward, the institution spread with the soldiers of the conquest.

As Spanish settlement of the new lands became more established, the encomenderos made repeated efforts to reinforce their status. Their aim was to transform the encomienda system into an instrument for complete and lasting control not only of the indigenous peoples but of the colonies as a whole. To this end, they sought to make encomiendas inheritable possessions and to make themselves a perpetual colonial nobility.

While the encomienda was becoming an established institution, it had been the monarchy’s theoretical contention that the contract establishing an individual encomienda was limited to a tenure of a few years or to a single lifetime. The first encomenderos proceeded to bequeath their holdings to their heirs, though, and these legacies were not disputed by royal officers. From the Crown’s point of view this development was regarded as a bid for power by the incipient colonial aristocracy against the monarchy, and it became the task of Charles I to establish the dominance of royal authority in America. The foremost effort to achieve this goal was the legislation known as the New Laws, promulgated without warning in 1542 and 1543.

The New Laws were actually expressed not in terms of the struggle for power but in terms of humanitarian policy toward indigenous peoples, a policy to which the Crown repeatedly gave theoretical priority. The New Laws prohibited enslavement of the Indians, even as punishment. They forbade the granting of new encomiendas. They ordered ecclesiastics and royal officers to relinquish immediately any encomienda holdings they might have acquired. Other encomenderos were to retain their grants but were not to bequeath them to their heirs. This regulation was calculated to destroy the encomienda system within a generation. Tributes taken from indigenous people were to be fixed and regulated, and were not to be exorbitant. The New Laws were far less ambiguous and far more extreme than the earlier Laws of Burgos. The difference in mood between 1512 and 1542 is attributed to the more confident authority of Charles I and to the influence of his humanitarian advisers, especially the Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas.

At most the New Laws could be termed only partially successful. The outcry of the encomendero class against them was general throughout the Spanish colonies. Rebellion, which threatened everywhere, erupted seriously in Peru, where it added a further element of disorder to the continuing civil war. The first viceroy of Peru was beheaded by a group of rebellious encomenderos when he attempted to enforce the New Laws.

Francisco Tello de Sandoval was the special emissary of Charles, sent from Spain to implement the New Laws in New Spain, but a cautious viceroy tried to restrain him from enforcing the laws in Mexico.

Alarmed at the reaction that the New Laws caused, the Crown made certain changes. The prohibition of inheritance was repealed, and it was decreed that most encomiendas then in force should be continued. Such actions in 1545 and 1546 were hailed everywhere in the colonies as a signal victory for the encomendero class.

Encomienda was thus given a certain reinforcement and a renewed sanction in the 1540’, despite the New Laws. Although abolition could not be made effective, much restrictive legislation remained in effect, and the strength of the monarchy was everywhere more visible. Royal enactments after the mid-1540’s abandoned the effort to terminate encomienda immediately and completely. Crown policy was aimed at more attainable goals: control over existing encomiendas, the limitation of encomendero behavior, and the gradual reduction of encomienda so that it might no longer threaten monarchial rule. In law, and to a large extent in practice, the mid-1540’s represent the highest point of encomienda influence.


The New Laws were promulgated at the peak of encomendero power and influence. While they were adjusted to the realities of the pressure exerted by the colonists, they also mark the beginning of the decline of the encomienda system and the collapse of any serious threat to the Crown’s absolute power. In the history of the Spanish colonies, the New Laws do not exemplify the most successful legislation enacted by Spain to rule its American colonies. However, the New Laws do serve as a subject for studying the indirect forces that exist and influence the governing policies of the most openly absolutist states.

Further Reading

  • Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico. Translated and edited by Anthony Pagden. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Nota Bene, 2001. Letters written in the heat of battle by the conquistador, detailing conditions in Mexico during the conquest and giving insight into the character of Cortés.
  • Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517-1521. Translated by A. P. Maudslay. Edited by Genaro García. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1996. A classic, riveting, first-person narrative of the conquest recollected by Díaz. Although Díaz believed that he was never given his just due—he was rewarded with a paltry encomienda in Guatemala—his account is relatively balanced.
  • Gibson, Charles. Spain in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. An excellent survey of the Spanish colonial experience that places the New Laws within the context of Spanish imperial policy.
  • Hanke, Lewis. The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America. 1949. Reprint. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965. The aim of this excellent volume is to recognize that Spain’s enterprise in America was to a large extent a spiritual undertaking whose highest significance was the longing for justice that actuated it.
  • Hazing, C. H. The Spanish Empire in America. 1957. Reprint. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963. Another survey placing the New Laws in relation to Charles I’s imperial and colonial projects.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Maltby, William. The Reign of Charles V. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Monograph balances biography of Charles with broad analysis of his foreign and domestic policies and their historical consequences.
  • Simpson, Lesley Byrd. The Encomienda in New Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. A concise and clearly written survey of the encomienda system from the time of Queen Isabella through the sixteenth century.
  • 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

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

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

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

1537: Pope Paul III Declares Rights of New World Peoples

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

1552: Las Casas Publishes The Tears of the Indians

1565: Spain Seizes the Philippines