Indian Shortage: Labor of the Dominicans

Looking to end once and for all the conflicts between the encomenderos, in 1545 King Ferdinand issued a final distribution that gave half of the 25,503 Indians that were left to a select group of which some lived in Spain and 250 locals of medium riches. The rest of the Spanish population was left without Indians being forced to work the land or emigrate to other newly discovered zones.

According to the numbers presented by Lic. Roberto Cassá, the amount of Indians that disappeared by 1519 would be as follows:
1494: 300, to 350,000
1504: 150,000 aprox.
1508: 60,000 census
1514: 25,503 to 30,000 aprox.
1519: 11,000 aprox.

These facts make it easy to understand the insistence of the Dominican friars when they all signed letter after letter to the King, specifying the urgency to stop the encomiendas even temporarily, in order to save the few lives that remained, describing the most horrendous acts committed against the Indians and even involucrating him directly as the only one capable of stopping the misfortune. "to his very illustrious sire we entrust the conscience for the passion that the Son of God suffered, remember judgement day...we also believe that if we can remedy this, God will pay special attention."25

The religious proposed the establishment of a model of Christian society in the Indian villages, with legal standing as subjects of the Crown and guided in a fraternal manner by the evangelist friars. This model was achieved later on in other regions of the American continent, having been highlighted by the Dominicans since the first years, "such calm and peaceful people, so obedient and so good that if the preachers would enter alone, without the force and violence of those low minded Christians, I think that one could build a church with them almost as excellent as the primitive Church."26

A great part of the initial movement was owed to friar Pedro de Cordoba, who arrived in Hispaniola in 1510 and was vicar of the order and later friar Anton Montesinos and a few other friars, began the construction of the convent of the Dominicans, one of the few places where Indians found education and help. Later in this same locale, the Univesity of Santo Domingo would be founded, first in America.

doctrina cristiana primera edicionDoctrina CristianaCordoba's labor is commendable, since, as well as fighting tirelessly for the Indian's fate, he was the principal organizer of the pronouncements of the early colonial church, and editor of the first gospel manual of the new colonies, the "Christian Doctrine for the instruction and information of the indigenous peoples by way of history", printed in Mexico in 1544. In this work, friar Pedro stressed that indigenous peoples and Spaniards were equal in the eyes of God and that they must be peacefully evangelized, not forced into labor or robbed of their property and goods. "Very loved brothers; you know very well that we love you with all our hearts, and because of this love that we have for you, we take very great labors coming from very far lands and suffering deathly dangers to get here; and to tell you the marvelous secrets that God has revealed; so that we tell you: and share with you part of the assets that God has given us and the great joys and delights that we are to receive in heaven".27

The most important person to continue the labor initiated by Cordoba was friar Bartholomew de Las Casa, who had arrived in Hispaniola as a young cleric at the beginning of the XVI century and was an eye witness to the majority of the success, becoming a Dominican friar later and relating most of the history of the conquest, published in his History of the Indies, Apologetic History of the Indies, and A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Las Casas also traveled to Spain a few times carrying letters and denouncing and pressuring the crown for years until achieving the abolition of the encomiendas with the New Laws of 1542. Some authors consider that in some passages he would exaggerate in his eagerness to protect the indigenous people, however, in his writing he reiterates, "all this labor and others, strange in all human nature, were seen by my eyes."28

When the shortage indigenous people of the Hispaniola began, indigenous people were imported from other islands such as the Bahamian islands, the lesser Antilles and Gulf of Darien. They were captured and transported tightly in one or two caravels, resulting in half of the cargo dying en route. These indigenous people imported had the status of "permanent naborias", meaning, not subject to distributions laws but private property of their buyer. Little is known about the fate of these foreign groups, some were naborias until past the New Laws of 1542, others managed to escape to the wilderness or died the same as the local natives.