The Spanish conquest of many parts of the Americas is one of the darkest periods in human history. Reading accounts of conquistadors, one gets the sense that they were psychopaths; white, bearded, and odorous psychopaths. While their actions were reprehensible, and they even had contemporary nay-sayers like Bartolomé de las Casas, they did create justifications for their actions. One of the best documents to examine this logic is the Spanish Requirement of 1513.
Known as the Requiremiento in Spanish, the Requirement of 1513 gave legal, moral, and religious justification for the Spanish conquests in the Americas. Often, this meant the slaughter of any natives who dared defend their homes; or who were simply at home when the Spanish arrived in town.
Written in the wake of Spanish expansion into the Mexican mainland, the Spanish Requirement of 1513 was designed be to read aloud to anyone the conquistadors wanted to conquer (read: everyone). The Requirement stated that the natives should accept the rule of the Spanish monarchy and “acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and superior of the whole world…”1 If these terms were accepted, the Spanish vowed to receive their new subjects with “all love and charity.” How nice. They also promised to leave the people and their lands “free without servitude.” Again, very gracious.
But, if the terms of the Requirement proved unacceptable, the conquistadors promised that:
“with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the mischief and damage that we can… and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.” 2
First off, the conquistadors always read the Spanish Requirement of 1513 aloud in Spanish, which the peoples of Mexico and Central America obviously didn’t speak. And, on top of that, the Spaniards usually read the damn thing without a translator present!3 So, while the Spanish read this document, which essentially said ‘surrender or die,’ their audience couldn’t make out a word.
Second, and just as messed up, the Requirement tells the reader, or listener, not to blame the conquistadors for the “deaths and losses which shall accrue” from the conquistadors’ invasions. In fact, it places the blame square on the shoulders of the native peoples the conquistadors sought to “make war against.” The ultimate deflection, the Requirement argued that the Spanish came in the name of their king and queen, to whom the Pope had “made donation of these isles and Tierra-firme.”
By the Requirement’s logic, the Pope “succeeded… St. Peter as the Lord of the world,” and thus had ultimate authority over all the world.4 So, the Pope had the right to give the Carribbean islands and Mesoamerica to the Spanish monarchy. The king and queen, in turn, granted the right of conquest to the conquistadors. And, to finish off the chain of command, the conquistadors read the Requirement in villages across the Americas, as the men in their ranks readied themselves for imminent slaughter.
At its root, the Spanish Requirement of 1513 provided the Spanish with psychological and moral justification. Many colonists probably did believe that “Indians, most blessed by the arrival of the Spaniards… were transformed from their former great misery to their present happiness…”5 But, somewhere in the back of their minds, the conquistadors had to have known they slaughtered innocent people.
Resources on the Spanish Requirement of 1513:
- The Spanish Requirement of 1513 accessed via http://www.indiana.edu/~kdhist/H105-documents-web/week02/Requerimiento1513.html
- Grant Oster, “Spanish Requirement of 1513,” Hankering for History
- The Spanish Requirement of 1513
- Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortez: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 80.