This presidential address was delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Dallas, December 28, 1977. Published in the American Historical Review 83, no. 1 (Feb., 1978), pp. 1-15.

Conquest, Capitulation, and Indian Treaties

In the first part of this address I shall describe the results of an investigation into a particular historical problem. In the second part I shall select from that investigation and that problem some topics of more general application and interest.

The problem begins with a question relating to Indian treaties. The question was posed some time ago by my colleague Robert Berkhofer in the course of a conversation on the varieties of European colonization in North and South America. Did the Spaniards ever make treaties with Indians? We knew that in North America the English and the French made treaties with Indians. The Dutch did so in the Hudson Valley. The Portuguese made treaties with the natives of Brazil. But why did we seem to lack evidence for Spanish treaties with Indians? And if indeed Spaniards did not make such treaties, how and when did the tradition of Indian treaty-making come to be established in this hemisphere? The question was the more intriguing because at the University of Michigan we place a special value on historical comparison. We once conducted a program precisely on comparative colonization in the Americas, identifying and contrasting the points of difference among the colonizing nations. Mr. Berkhofer’s question concerning Indian treaties thus struck a familiar chord, though it concerned a subject that had been quite overlooked in our previous investigation.

By way of response, I could recall some ad hoc alliances that Spaniards had made with Indians, as well as some loose oral agreements, promises of reward, and the like. Long ago I made a study of one of these supposed agreements, between Fernando Cortes and the natives of the province of Tlaxcala in Mexico, concluding that the matter had been much exaggerated, especially by the Tlaxcalan Indians themselves, who stood to benefit from the exaggeration in various ways.1 But even if the Tlaxcalan example could qualify as an agreement between Spaniards and Indians, one could still not speak of a treaty—supposing that a treaty is more formal and official than a simple agreement and that it is written and signed. Indeed, in the whole early history of Spanish America I could not recall anything that could properly be identified as an Indian treaty. It did seem to be the case that treaty-making had played more of a role in the policies of the other colonizing nations than it had in the policies of the Spanish.

A conclusion so tentative would surely prove inadequate for the series of related questions that were bound to follow. But it was at least congruent with the known character of the Spanish conquests in America. The conquistadores overran native American civilizations with such speed and vigor that few opportunities arose even for loose oral agreements. The first years of the Spanish American colony were years of license, dominated by private greed, in the absence of governmental sanction. Spaniards understood Indian peoples to be royal subjects, ready for Christianization and exploitation, but inappropriate for the kinds of bargaining and negotiation that might have resulted in treaties. And in all or most of these respects the Spanish experiences and attitudes differed from those of the other nations.

Of the related questions, assuming that we were correct so far, the most immediate and insistent concerned cause. If the Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English did make treaties with Indians and if the Spaniards did not, what could be the reasons for this difference? Was it a circumstantial matter, dependent simply on the location of the several colonies and the nature of the Indian tribes encountered? Or might one connect it with other attributes of the Hispanic world, or of the Dutch, French, English, and Portuguese worlds? Could some other historical tradition be shown to lie behind the different approaches to Indian treaties, possibly in European relations with non-Europeans (we thought vaguely of Africa) or in Christian relations with pagans at some earlier time? If so, what were the dimensions of that tradition, and why did Spaniards inherit, if they did, a legacy different from the others? Clearly this was a subject for which one needed more information on the European, and especially the Iberian, antecedents of American colonization.

In the Iberian peninsula the overriding institutional prototype and parallel to the Spanish conquests in America was the eight-hundred-year Reconquista, the Christian recovery of Spanish territory from the Moors, beginning in the year 718 in the Pyrenees in the north and ending in 1492 with the capture of Granada in the south. It is a widely held tenet of Hispanic studies that the reconquest heritage in Spain bears some relation to the history of conquest in the New World, as if the energies of the campaign against Granada spilled out into the overseas world at the same time that America was being discovered.

The two events, reconquest and conquest, were alike in that each was an expansionist war, each involved Christian penetration into non-Christian territories, each was declared by the papacy to be a crusade,2 and in each the non-Christian captives were employed or sold as slaves. Scholars as knowledgeable as Claudio Sanchez Albornoz have argued forcefully that the peninsular Reconquista and the American conquests were closely related phenomena.3

Reading further on these subjects I became aware of the many treaties and treaty-like documents drawn up between Christians and Moors during the Reconquista. Whatever other similarities there might have been between peninsular reconquest and American conquest, it appeared that in this matter of written agreements there was a major difference. Spanish reconquest history offered many examples of written agreements. Spanish American conquest history seemed to offer none. If it could in fact be established that Spaniards—unlike the other colonizers—refrained from making treaties with Indians, this could hardly have been a policy arising out of the Reconquista. Reconquista history suggests that the reverse should have been the case. Seemingly Christian Spaniards abandoned treaty-making in their dealings with non-Christians, and—whether by coincidence alone or for some reason not yet perceived—this presumed abandonment coincided in time with the discovery of the New World. Seemingly also the other nations, of course with much more limited traditions of Christian versus non-Christian warfare, adopted treaty-making some time after the Spaniards gave it up.

Among the types of agreement in the Spanish Reconquista the tregua, a peace accord or truce, and the capitulacion (capitulation) stand out. Peace accords were arranged between the Christian and the Moslem states as sovereign entities at war with each other. Thus in the fifteenth century—the final hundred years of the conflict—a treaty of peace signed in 1410 between Christian Castile and Moslem Granada was renewed for a time, then broken, and then replaced by peace treaties of 1439, 1464, and other years.4 Castile and Granada were separate states at this time, and the treaties mark the intermissions, the periods of recuperation, in their prolonged hostility. Capitulations, which are more complicated and, in the present context, more relevant, appeared when Moslems submitted to Christians, principally (at least as far as my reading went ) in the final decade of the Granada war, between 1482 and 1492. Capitulations might be signed by the Christian monarchs alone or by the Christian monarchs and the local Moslem leader together, and they recorded the privileges granted or the conditions imposed by the Christian conquerors on their newly incorporated subjects. Thus one could argue that they were not exactly treaties. But in all the cases that we know the capitulations were as much the outcome of negotiations between the two parties as were the peace treaties themselves, and they were very close to treaties in their historical significance and role.5

It will come as a surprise to some, as it did once to me, to learn that the term capitulation did not refer to surrender. What we have in a Reconquista capitulation is literally a series of chapters—capitulos in Spanish—or stated terms or conditions or subheads of an agreement. Indeed capitulum means subhead, for it is a diminutive form of caput, head, and the subheads provide the specification or enumeration of the items agreed upon. When we view the matter in this light, a number of other historical puzzles fall into place. Capitulations were lists of conditions that Holy Roman Emperors were expected to obey, and it is from this same perspective that we can understand why the famous agreement between Ferdinand and Isabella, on the one hand, and Christopher Columbus, on the other, signed at Santa Fe a few miles from Granada in April 1492, is entitled “Capitulations of Santa Fe.”6 The term capitulation, in both its Spanish and its English form, came to mean surrender only in a subsequent usage, presumably because acts of surrender, perhaps especially in the seventeenth century, were so often followed by capitulations, or enumerations of terms agreed upon. With this a connection was established—limited and verbal to be sure—between surrender, which is what Indians did to Spaniards in America, and agreement or treaty, which is what we were inquiring about in the first place. The one English vestige of the earlier sense that I think of is recapitulation—the “recap” of the media anchormen—which is a summing up of the principal points or subheads of what has already been said.

For the Granada war of the late fifteenth century, the historian has at his disposal an abundantly documented capitulation history. The actual capitulation terms, or contemporary or nearly contemporary accounts of the capitulation terms, survive for a number of Moslem towns taken by Christians in these years.7 When one deals with historical evidence of this type, a useful technique, in my experience, is to tabulate the critical features, and I am now in the process of making tables of the names of the towns captured in the Granada war and the capitulation conditions for each. I have decided to spare you the details. But let us look for a moment at what we may call a standard Granada capitulation, to identify the type and above all to see the matter from a point of view that will be meaningful in relation to subsequent Spanish dealings with Indians in America.

The capitulations of the 1480s and early 1490s identified the newly incorporated Moslems of Granada as vasallos, vassals of Ferdinand and Isabella. No longer enemies, they were to give up their arms. As vassals they were to receive the protection of the crown and live under their own laws with their traditional customs and religion. They would henceforth pay tribute to Ferdinand and Isabella, but the amounts to be paid would be no greater than those previously paid to their own Moslem emir. They could remain where they were, with their property; they could move north into Gastile and take up a new life there; or they could leave Spain and go south to Africa. If they chose emigration, their passage would be paid by the Christian state and they would sail in ships that Ferdinand and Isabella themselves would provide. As later in America two societies, two republicas, were projected for Granada, one dominant, the other subordinate. But from the vantage point of the student of colonial Spanish America the remarkable feature in Granada in the 1480s and 1490s is the promised preservation of Mohammedanism and of the non-Christian way of life in the subordinate society. In Mexico and Peru, thirty, forty, and fifty years later, the Aztec and Inca religions were to be destroyed. But in conquered Granada in the late fifteenth century Mohammedanism was to be respected, Islamic law would prevail, the rents of the Granada mosques would be protected by the Catholic monarchs, and Christians would be forbidden even to enter the Moslem places of worship.8

Individual Granada capitulations varied somewhat from this standard form, depending upon local conditions and the progress of the war. The city of Granada itself, with the fall of the Alhambra and the conclusion of the whole campaign in 1492, received the most liberal terms of all.9 But the case to which I would particularly invite your attention, because it stands as an exception to the continuing capitulation principle here, is that of the Moslem city of Malaga, taken by the Spanish Christians in the summer of 1487. Twice during the siege of Malaga the Christian attackers offered capitulations with standard terms. On each occasion the offer was rejected by the determined Moslem garrison. Finally the exhausted civilian inhabitants of Malaga found themselves ready to yield, and they persuaded the garrison to stand aside and let them, the populace, under the leadership of a local merchant, negotiate with the Christians. Overtures were made to this end. But it was the Christians who now proved adamant. Malaga’s request to agree on the terms of peace was rejected by Ferdinand on the grounds that the city had twice been offered the opportunity and had twice refused and now it was too late. Instead of achieving peace under the liberal capitulation terms of other Granada towns, Malaga was then conquered and subjugated, and the majority of its inhabitants were held to ransom as slaves. Malaga thus offers us a deviant case, one that resembles, in its severity and in the absence of written agreements, the Spanish enslavement practices in the West Indies much more than the customary leniency of the Granada war. But why should the exception in Spain before 1492 have become the rule in America after 1492?10

In searching for our answer to this question, we should not proceed immediately to the West Indies or Mexico or Peru. As we contemplate the transition from reconquest to conquest, we become aware that as with so many other transitions in historical reconstruction some intermediate steps must be taken. Spanish expansion did move from the peninsular reconquest to the American conquests. But en route we find diversions into other areas, to the point at which the basic transition appears much less immediate than it did at first. North Africa—close at hand, Moslem, and with a long heritage of contact with Spain—offered the most natural continuity. Within months after the fall of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella were sending spies to reconnoiter the cities of North Africa. Two decades later Spanish forces had occupied most of the prominent Moslem strongholds along the Mediterranean coast of Africa for a distance of over one thousand miles.11 It seems an extraordinary expansion, when we consider that the whole Reconquista distance from the Pyrenees to Granada is only four hundred miles, and it thus prefigures the accelerated pace of Spanish expansion in North and South America.

The point of interest for our present inquiry is that capitulations were drawn up between Christians and Moslems in North Africa. They contained provisions very similar to those of the recently completed Granada campaign. As in Granada the North African capitulations specify peace, vassalage to the Spanish crown, preservation of existing Moslem laws and customs, maintenance of Mohammedanism, and payment to Spain of the tribute previously paid to the Moslem rulers.12 Nothing is said of religious conversion or forced labor or other topics familiar in colonial Spanish America. Thus the evidence is unmistakable that Spaniards carried the Reconquista capitulation tradition intact or almost intact to areas outside the Iberian peninsula, into another continent, and into the sixteenth century. We have come to a time when Spaniards were already involved in the West Indies, we have come close to the historic conditions of America itself, and the capitulation principle remains strong. But how much farther can it continue?

We look then to a second transitional area, the Canary Islands, in the Atlantic off the African shore. It is another Spanish conquest zone, and it shares the traits that we have identified above for reconquest and conquest: expansionist war, strife between Christian and non-Christian, official classification as crusade,13 and enslavement of captives. The Canary archipelago, intermediate between Europe and America, has much to tell us about both sides of the Atlantic, and I might add that Canary Island historiography, like peninsular Spanish historiography, has been wonderfully improved and modernized in recent decades.14 But we want to concentrate for the moment on the question of treaties. Did the Spaniards make written agreements with the natives of the Canary Islands?

They did, though the evidence for their doing so still leaves something to be desired. Texts of the late fifteenth century make reference to peace treaties and capitulations, as well as to other agreements generally referred to as pactos, drawn up between Spaniards and Canary Islanders. The natives were pagans like the Indians of America, and not infidel Mohammedans as were the inhabitants of North Africa, and the pactos promised freedom from enslavement to those who converted or who promised to convert to Christianity. Unquestionably the military conquest of the Canaries was attended by a stronger Christian conversion program than were the conquests of Moslem Spain and the North African cities. By ancient tradition in Christendom, a captive taken in a supposedly just war could be legitimately enslaved, as many were in the peninsular Reconquista, in North Africa, in the Canary Islands, in America, and of course in the best known slave area, likewise developing at this time, Portuguese Angola. But especially in the Canary Islands an individual or a tribe or the inhabitants of a particular area might be exempted from such enslavement in advance through pactos.15

The Canary pactos thus enlarge and enrich our repertory of agreements between Christian and non-Christian. Rather than deteriorating as our investigation moves farther out into the Atlantic, the written-agreement tradition appears to be flourishing and still expanding. This is not what we would expect if it is true that Spaniards refrained from making written agreements in America, and it appreciably narrows the margin to which we may look for the turning point in policy.16 It would appear that there must be some crucial differences yet to be identified between the conditions of our “background” areas and the conditions of America.

We still cannot be certain what these crucial differences were. Did the great wealth of Aztec and Inca civilizations induce the change? Was it that Christian Spaniards retained a respect for Mohammedanism that they were unable to transfer to the native American religions? We need to know much more than we do know about the Jimenez de Cisneros reforms and, rather surprisingly, the real reasons behind the Spanish Christianization of the American Indian. In addition we may have made a basic error in assuming that the American conquests followed so closely the traditions of the Spanish Reconquista and the campaigns in North Africa and the Canary Islands. Some perceptive scholars in recent years have sought the origins of the American conquests in another kind of activity: the cabalgadas, private raids, and forays by sea, made by Spaniards against African natives and Portuguese, of course in the absence of capitulations or treaties with the enemy.17 Perhaps we should look much more to the very early Spanish experiences in the West Indies for the precedent-setting decisions that prohibited treaties with Indians. Then again it must be remembered that the lenient Christian capitulations with the Moslems of Granada had themselves been abrogated by the time of the conquests of Mexico and Peru. Thus we have some leads for further research. But it remains true that our inquiry, having brought us to the brink of the Spanish colony in America, has still failed to explain the critical differences between that brink and the colony itself.

It does not really bother me that we may fail. All inquiries fail in some sense, and in scholarship as in other pursuits one is prudent to be content with a limited outcome. Moreover, a presidential address sets its sights on more than the simple recounting of a single investigation, whether success or failure, and we must move on. Our association’s presidential addresses provide occasions for summaries and conclusions and lessons. They connect the problem under consideration with other historical problems and with a theory of problems. They make the subject being examined relevant to all history. They notify the young historian where we have been and where he is and what topics and methods he may usefully make his own. I cannot do all that. But I am tempted to offer a few further remarks, and in what follows my effort will be to place the topics we have just considered in some larger perspective.

A first point concerns failure and the reporting of failure. I think that we too often represent our researches as successes. Insistence on success can distort what our researches reveal by concealing some of their most important implications. In experimental science we have recently read of outright fraud committed by persons whose careers and reputations depend on the appearance of successful findings. That so noble an occupation as the search for truth can, in the conditions of our society, engender deception of this kind is an appalling irony. But will anyone claim that historical scholarship is free from similar dangers? The problem is a general one. It is related to the rapid inflation of knowledge, to the multiplication of specialties, to too pragmatic an understanding of what constitutes a contribution to knowledge, and to the insidious doctrine of “publish or perish.” The hunch that fails, the dubious assumption that goes conveniently unexpressed, the hypothesis that does not fully work out, the confusion that remains unclarified—as our graduate students discover to their dismay, these are more common in historical writing than would at first appear. I would argue that admitting them would not simply be in accordance with the doctrine that honesty is the best policy. I would argue that the admission of our occasional or frequent failures would improve our discipline and make us better historians.

A second point concerns the connection between historical inquiry and the secondary literature. We fail also as historians so long as we simply accept the words and ideas we read. I am thinking of the Capitulations of Santa Fe, the contract between Columbus and the Spanish monarchs in 1492. We thought we understood this title when we learned that the celebrated documents—for there were really several—were signed and agreed to in the siege city of Santa Fe. But why were royal contracts with Columbus and other explorers called capitulations? I had sometimes wondered if Columbus was supposed to have capitulated (surrendered) to Ferdinand and Isabella, or Ferdinand and Isabella to Columbus. Vaguely I had thought that when the crown made a capitulation with Columbus, or with any explorer or indeed with anyone, it was temporarily surrendering—“ yielding “ and “giving up” carry the same double meaning as “surrendering” here—some portion of its sovereignty. But this was incorrect, and, when we understand the meaning of capitulation, it makes no sense.18 So far as my knowledge went, no one dealing with Columbus, not Samuel Eliot Morison or anyone else, ever explained this, or even recognized it as something to be explained.19 W. H. Prescott used the phrase “treaty of capitulation,” which I take to be a clear indication of misunderstanding.20 One can see in the tone and wording of other writings in English and Spanish and additional languages too that sixteenth-century capitulation is something that is generally misunderstood in the twentieth century. I have read in twentieth-century writing that the articles of marriage between Ferdinand and Isabella were aptly named a capitulation of matrimony, the point being that Ferdinand’s role was slated to be secondary to the queen ‘s. But this is far off the track. Words, too, have their history. I paraphrase Marc Bloch in saying that, when we practice the art of history, we slip into presentism and anachronism more readily than we realize.

An additional and related matter concerns specializations in history and the boundaries that separate one specialization from another. At least for the Hispanic world I think it would be accurate to say that historians have kept the European side and the American side too far apart. The separation of American history from European history results from our self-conscious professionalism and our continued efforts to probe further into the same areas where we began. The implications carry over into our bibliographies, our researches, the courses that we take as students, and inevitably the courses that we offer as professors. In departments of Spanish, and even in departments of history, we may find factional divisions between Europeanists and Americanists. “Europe” and “America” are useful categories, to be sure, and we depend on them in much that we properly do. But in our dependence on the one or the other we neglect their interrelationship.21 I would add that we do the same with many other familiar historical categories, including chronological ones such as medieval and early modern. In Spanish American studies a huge gulf has traditionally separated researches on the pre-Columbian civilizations from researches on the colonial period, to the untold detriment of both. Specialization has moved us forward on many fronts. But I am saying that we institutionalize specialization beyond what is required and that our studies suffer accordingly.

This brings us to still another topic, or pair of topics, motivation and explanation, and the relation between them. Why was it that the Christian mission program assumed a larger dimension in the Canary Islands than in the Reconquista and North Africa, as if preparatory to the still larger dimension it would achieve in Spanish America? In our explanations of this should we emphasize, or even mention, the possible materialistic answers: that conversion was a step in the process of claiming land, that it helped to provide a title for territories lying outside the reconquest zone, that it reconciled the papacy and turned an expansionist conquest into a “just war”? Or could we draw this question still farther into the domain of our old standby in historical interpretation, the economic motive, noting that through bulls of indulgence, especially in the 1460s and 1470s, money became available for Christian conversion in Guinea and the Canaries? It is true that Ferdinand and Isabella were attracted to these funds and that they used them to bear the costs of warfare in the Canary Islands. A change from funded Christianization to funded war for Christianization did occur at this time, and religious war persisted in the history of the Canary Islands through the period of our attention.22

I want to express skepticism concerning such supposed motives and supposed explanations, both because they are too materialistic and because they are too simplistic. There surely are reasons for the enlargement of the Spanish missionary program in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as there are reasons for any historic change, but I doubt that we shall find them by looking at the royal revenue of Ferdinand and Isabella or their successors. Ferdinand was Machiavelli’s favorite king.23 But we should be certain of what we are doing before we attribute “Machiavellianism” to Ferdinand or anyone else. What I find in history is that people are more likely to deceive themselves than to succeed in deceiving others—though I grant some spectacular exceptions to this rule. Is it not an important fact that we ordinarily remain uncertain of the real motivation of our own political leaders and even our own acquaintances and friends, not to mention ourselves? How to arrive at reasonable, and reasonably accurate, estimates of motivation in past time remains one of the historian’s foremost responsibilities, and it is not something to be undertaken lightly. In my experience, students of history writing examinations and term papers, as well as their elders writing monographs and textbooks, characteristically underestimate the complexity of this subject, identifying motives that are too exclusive, too simple, or too hypothetical, and supposing that these provide adequate historical explanations.

Our final point concerns what is voluntary and what is involuntary in history and the attitudes of historical personages and historians toward these. We have here one of the oldest and most persistent problems of our discipline, and I propose to comment on it at a little greater length and connect it again and more explicitly with conquests, capitulations, and Indian treaties. There can be no doubt that Spaniards placed an emphasis on the presumed freedom of choice of the peoples with whom they dealt. With respect to Christian conversion, the prior volition of the convert was an obvious prerequisite. There existed a powerful tradition in Christianity denying the efficacy and forbidding the use of force in the process of conversion. To become a good Christian one should want to become a good Christian; one could not be compelled to become a good Christian. The doctrine of peaceful conversion did not prevail everywhere, of course; but it was an important view in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and with some exceptions it was adhered to during the postconquest Christianization of Spanish America.24

When a religious belief has been identified, a valuable exercise in historical reconstruction is to look for secular counterparts to it. There does exist a secular counterpart to this matter of the voluntary Christian convert, one that has not always been appreciated, at least in the histories that I have read. It is the belief that to be a good vassal of Ferdinand and Isabella one had to want to be their good vassal. Note the concern in the capitulations for the voluntary character of the submission of conquered peoples. Note the repeated Spanish disavowal of force. “By your own good act of will,” Ferdinand stated in the concluding capitulation with Algiers in April 1510, “you have been and are my vassals, and vassals of my royal crown, and you have sworn under your law that you will render faithful vassalage to me now and forever.”25 Some of our Hispanic sources present the matter of volition with an insistence and redundancy and legalism that appear almost ludicrous to modern eyes. Consider the following, from the capitulation of Boabdil, king of Moslem Granada, prior to his return to Africa in 1493: “I, King Muley Boabdil, voluntarily, freely, spontaneously, in a manner acceptable to myself, make known that I wish, I consent, I am pleased, to consider this capitulation and everything in it good, firm, agreeable, strong, stable, and valid now and for all time.”26 An obvious purpose of the capitulation was to place on record the promises, favors, and all the conditions to which the Spanish monarchs obligated themselves. But it would seem that another purpose was to record the willingness, or supposed willingness, of the other side to render vassalage and submission.

Would it be accurate to say that to modern eyes this insistence on the willingness of the other side seems hypocritical? Our twentieth-century inclination is to observe that overt force was applied by Spaniards in all the areas under consideration and that the non-Christian enemy would hardly have yielded to the Christians without such force. Our instinct as analytical historians is to examine the competitive features of the situation, to trace the process by which the loser yielded under duress, to note the progressive elimination of alternatives, and to view the outcome as the result of coercion. We are not “wrong.” But notice that, in taking the view that we characteristically take, we are reflecting our own society’s special awareness of influence and force. Inevitably, if a defeated people agree to become the vassals of a victorious monarchy, we attribute their doing so to the force that defeated them. They have, we say, no other choice. But in the Spanish mentality of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this was not the case. In religion one could reject Christianity and run the risk of enslavement—the wrong choice, perhaps, but nevertheless choice. Choice included the question of the timing of the choice. In the secular sphere one could fight on, choose not to yield, and wait too long, as did the defenders of Malaga. Clearly, the thesis of volition did not imply that force was wholly lacking. Choice might be strongly influenced, as in the Inquisitorial tortures, and, in situations like those that we are considering, success was measured by the degree to which choice could be properly induced. To the Spanish mind of the early modern period, this was not the same as forcing someone to do something.

So comprehensive, so total, was the Spanish response to the challenge of the New World that the freedom of the Indian in the Spanish colony became, as everyone knows, severely limited. Indians were expected to conform to Spanish norms, to convert to Christianity, to take their place as subjects of the Spanish king. In the phrase so frequently repeated during the sixteenth century, the Indians of America were declared to be “free vassals” of the crown. But observe some of the implications of this. The conquests and subsequent institutional controls provided little opportunity for Indians to declare themselves to be vassals, free or unfree, or even to understand what vassalage entailed. This modified at least the theoretical basis of historic vassalage, which in Spain and elsewhere, and perhaps more in Spain than elsewhere, depended upon agreement, fealty, homage, honor, a sense of duty, willing service—in short attitudes incapable of being coerced.27

Paradoxical as it may be, Spaniards did sometimes insist that the Indians of America had become vassals of the Spanish crown not through conquest or compulsion but through the Indians’ own decision. A number of documents make the point explicitly. One was the famous Requirement of 1513, which notified Indians beforehand that they had to choose, and incidentally outlined the dire consequences for the future if they chose wrongly. Students have emphasized the bizarre features of this Requirement. But when we have finished with its absurdity, we may note that its underlying philosophy on questions of volition, punishment, and enslavement—if not Christian conversion—is that of King Ferdinand at Malaga. The Requirement stands as a kind of generalized capitulation or pacto in advance for American Indians: voluntary vassalage will bring good results; continued resistance will bring slavery.28

Montezuma’s concession of the Aztec Empire to Charles V provides us with another illustration of the principle. Cortes and his fellow conquistador, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, are the primary authorities for Montezuma’s formal proclamation of subordination and transfer of Aztec territory to the king.29 That it was a voluntary act became one of the themes of Spanish imperial law and justificatory literature. “Montezuma placed himself under our authority by his own volition,” reads a statement by Philip II in 1577,30 and similar assertions echo through the centuries to the end of colonial times. In addition to their expression of theoretical voluntarism and their deprecation of force, such statements had a bearing on an important and practical subject, namely Indian tribute, which was exacted ostensibly in token of Indian vassalage and was one of the chief sources of royal revenue from America.31

Could it be that the supposed freedom of Indians had to be so meticulously recorded by Spaniards in part because there were no Spanish-Indian treaties to make the point? For it is in the nature of treaties that they express, or purport to express, agreements willingly entered into by both sides. Diplomacy is the give and take of wills in anticipation of such agreements, and though the will of one may be stronger than that of the other the assumption in the treaty is that a voluntary element remains and receives expression. The treaties that Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English made with Indians, for all the inequalities of strength on one side and weakness on the other, characteristically gave token recognition to Indian volition. We might hypothesize that the treaty was a preferred device of those nations in dealing with Indians precisely because of this fact, precisely because it bespoke an Indian free will that was, in realistic modern terms, extremely limited or even nonexistent. As the traditional instrument of negotiated accord, the treaty disguised but did not otherwise modify the strength of one side and the weakness of the other. In the imperial policies of other nations the treaty became the standard means for pretending that the niceties of international relations were being respected between whites and natives. In the Indian treaties of the United States after independence, as one would expect, there is a less prolix insistence on the defeated party’s freedom of choice than in the Spanish capitulation cases noted above. But the pretended assumption of Indian volition is there also, and the irony, dismay, and guilt attendant on this surely help to explain the Congressional rejection of Indian treaty-making and the substitution of a new system in the United States in 1871.32 What I am suggesting is that the treaties did perform, up to a point, the important function of expressing a supposed Indian volition and that in the absence of treaties Spaniards had to assert that volition in other ways.

A number of other events in the history of Spain in America might be cited to illustrate Spanish attitudes toward free will and necessity. Frequently they would not coincide with our own attitudes on these subjects, and that is also my point. Attitudes do change from one historical period to another. There would seem to be all the difference in the world between what we choose to do and what we are compelled to do. Yet the same act can appear to one age to be the one and to a subsequent age to be the other. Those historians who have identified the basic changes in attitude from one age to the next are rightfully regarded as masters of our trade. But I would have to say that, for the periods and places of history that I have studied, we are still a long way from sorting out, from truly understanding, the differences between how people thought in the former time and how we think now.

I believe that you are not expecting, and are not prepared for, my concluding statement, which is that I have lately learned of two genuine treaties between Spaniards and Indians. Both are from the United States borderlands in the late eighteenth century. One is with the Creeks in West Florida signed at Pensacola on June 1, 1784. The other is with the Alibamos, Chickasaws, and Choctaws, signed at Mobile three weeks later.33 The two treaties have a derived and non-Hispanic look, as if the Spanish nation, in the period of her full decline, found it necessary to adopt her enemies’ devices. Perhaps there were other treaties than these two, here in Texas or elsewhere in Spanish America, and if any of you know of others you are invited to notify me of them. If many more appear, we could attempt a tabulation, to juxtapose with that of the Granada capitulations for whatever the comparison may yield. But if too many appear I should have to retract much of what I have said this evening. Retraction would compound the consequences of failure. But I would still hope that it would be a good failure, one worth making and reporting. Between Granada and Texas we may still have learned something about conquests, capitulations, attitudes toward volition, and our other subjects. Besides, we have never quite denied that Spaniards may have made treaties with Indians. In our investigations into history, should we not always grant to the people and things we study the freedom, or volition, to take us and our audience by surprise?

Charles Gibson (1920–85) was an ethnohistorian who studied the Nahua peoples of colonial Mexico. His most significant works are Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (1952) and The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule.



  1. Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century, Yale Historical Publications, Miscellany, no. 56 (New Haven, 1952), 159-61. Another well-known example occurs in the conquest of Peru, where Pizarro notified the followers of Atahualpa that he would support them against the followers of Huascar, and where he notified the followers of Huascar that he would support them against the forces of Atahualpa. One could call such agreements treaties perhaps, but I think that most historians would prefer not to do so. Philip W. Powell, Soldiers, Indians, & Silver: The Northward Advance of New Spain, 1550-1600 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1952), 187, does speak of “peace treaties” on the northern frontier of New Spain in the period of Viceroy Villamanrique. But it does not appear that these were written, signed agreements in the tradition of European treaty-making. The question still remains problematical. []
  2. Antonio Antelo Iglesias, “El ideal de cruzada en la baja edad media peninsular,” Cuadernos de historia: Anexos a la revista Hispania, 1 (1967): 37-43; and Berthold Beinert, “La idea de cruzada y los intereses de los principes cristianos en el siglo XV,” ibid., 45-59. On indulgence as the criterion for crusade, see Jose Goni Gaztambide, Historia de la bula de cruzada en Espana (Vitoria, 1958), 46, passim. []
  3. Claudio Sanchez Albornoz, Espana, un enigma historico, 2 vols. (Buenos Aires, 1956), 2: 501, passim. []
  4. Jose Amador de los Rios, “Memoria historico-critica sobre las treguas celebradas en 1439 entre los reyes de Castilla y de Granada,” Memorias de la Real Academia de la Historia, 9 (1879): 1-153; Juan Torres Fontes, “Las treguas con Granada de 1462 y 1463,” Hispania, 23 (1963): 163-99; and Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, Granada, historia de un pais islamico (1232-1571) (Madrid, 1969), 105-18. []
  5. Miguel Garrido Atienza, Las capitulaciones para la entrega de Granada (Granada, 1910). The term was most often used in reference to agreements between explorers and the monarchy. But capitulacion could also be used in reference to a genuine treaty, e.g., the Treaty of Alcacovas (1479) or the two Treaties of Tordesillas (1494). Jose Lopez de Toro, ed., Tratados internacionales de los Reyes Catolicos con algunos textos complementarios, 2 vols. (Documentos ineditos para la historia de Espana, 7, 8; Madrid, 1952), 1: 125-78; 2:22-40, 41-58. []
  6. German Bleiberg, Diccionario de historia de Espana, 3 vols. (Madrid, 1968), 1: 672-74. []
  7. Examples are Almeria, in Coleccion de documentos ineditos para la historia de Espana (hereafter CDIHE), ed. Martin Fernandez Navarrete et al., 112 vols. (Madrid, 1842-95), 11: 475-79, and Purchena, in ibid., 7:403-07· Additional texts of this kind were assembled by Garrido Atienza, Las capitulaciones para la entrega de Granada. []
  8. Many historians have dealt with these capitulations. A well-constructed summary treatment is Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, Castilla y la conquista del reino de Granada (Valladolid, 1967), 69-97. On the meaning of vasallo, consult Alfonso Maria Guilarte, El regimen senorial en el siglo XVI (Madrid, 1962), 158 ff. []
  9. CDIHE, 8:411-36. []
  10. The siege of Malaga is described in a number of chronicles of the period, e.g., Andres Bernaldez, Memorias del reinado de los Reyes Catolicos, ed. Manuel Gomez-Moreno and Juan de Mata Carriazo (Madrid, 1962 ), 180-94. W. H. Prescott gives a graphic account: History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic, ed. John Foster Kirk, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1872), 2:17-42. Scholarly modern treatments are Miguel Angel Ladero Quesada, Castilla y la conquista, 72-77, and “La esclavitud por guerra a fines del siglo XV: el caso de Malaga,” Hispania, 27 (1967): 63-88. The capitulation for ransom is published in CDIHE, 8: 399-402. Of course I do not mean to equate the Malaga campaign and the American conquests in every respect. []
  11. The African campaigns are treated in some detail in the chronicle of Lorenzo de Padilla, CDIHE, 8: 5-267, and Geronimo Zurita (Zorita) y Castro, Anales de la corona de Aragon, 7 vols. (Zaragoza, 1510-21), 6: if. See also Angel Canellas, Fuentes de Zorita: Documentos de la alacena del cronista relativos a los anos 1508-1511 (Zaragoza, 1969), 39 ff., and the relevant documents. A pioneering modern study is Fernand Braudel, “Les espagnols et l’Afrique du nord de 1492 a 1577,” Revue africaine, 69 (1928): 184-233, 351-418. More recent scholarship is summarized in the volumes of Curso de conferencias sobre la politica africana de los Reyes Catolicos, 6 vols. (Madrid, 1951-53). Many other sources might be cited. []
  12. The best documented instance is Algiers in 15 10. See Zurita y Castro, Anales. []
  13. On this subject, see Goni Gaztambide, Historia de la bula de cruzada, 334 ff., and Antonio Rumeu de Armas, “Los problemas derivados del contacto de razas en los albores del renacimiento,” Cuadernos de historia: Anexos a la revista Hispania, 1 (1967): 79 ff. []
  14. Studies published in the Revista de historia (Tenerife) and the Anuario de estudios atlanticos are basic to this development. On the relation with America, see Silvio Zavala, Estudios indianos (Mexico, 1948), 7-94. []
  15. The bull Pastor bonus (1462) of Pius II speaks of a “pactum pacis et confoederationis aut securitatis” with the natives of the Canary Islands. See Ioseph M. Pou y Marti, ed., Bullarium franciscanum, continens constitutiones epistolas diplomata Romanorum Pontificum Calixti III, Pii II, et Pauli II ad tres ordines S. P. V. Francisci Spectantia, n.s., 2 (Claras Aquas [Quaracchi], 1939): 546. A good summary is Antonio Rumeu de Armas, La politica indigenista de Isabel la Catolica (Valladolid, 1969). Rumeu de Armas’s Document 31 is the ratification by Ferdinand and Isabella of a pacto with natives of Gran Canaria. But I have yet to see an actual pacto text. []
  16. A full treatment of this subject would consider also the Spanish conquests and colonization on the Atlantic coast of Africa, which was far from being exclusively Portuguese. Antonio Rumeu de Armas, Espana en el Africa atlantica, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1956-67), discusses this subject. []
  17. Richard Konetzke, El imperio espanol.’ Origenes y fundamentos, trans. Felipe Gonzalez Vicen (Madrid, 1946), 22 ff., 33, passim; and Mario Gongora, Studies in the Colonial History of Spanish America, trans. Richard Southern, Cambridge Latin American Studies, no. 20 (Cambridge, 1975), 1 ff. []
  18. In the best known case of Indian removal in Spanish America, the transfer of Tlaxcalans to the north to serve as teachers for the uncivilized Indians of the frontier in the late sixteenth century, the official document is called Capitulaciones. See Coleccion de documentos para la historia de San Luis Potosi, ed. Primo Feliciano Velazquez, 4 vols. (San Luis Potosi, 1897-99), 1: 177-83. []
  19. I could easily have missed it. The literature on this subject is enormous. []
  20. Prescott, Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, 2: 452. []
  21. See on this subject the presidential address of Carlton J. H. Hayes, “The American Frontier—Frontier of What?” AHR, 51 (1945-46): 199-216. On the combined European and American themes, see J. H. Elliott, The Old World and the New, 1492-1650 (Cambridge, 1970); and Fredi Chiappelli, ed., First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, 2 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1976). []
  22. Rumeu de Armas, Politica indigenista, 39 ff. The text of Pastoris aeterni (1472) and the royal cedula authorizing a military application of indulgence funds (1479) are published in ibid., 151-57, 188-89. Note also the use of papal funds by Enrique IV; see Tarsicio de Azcona, Isabel la Catolica:Estudio critico de su vida y su reinado (Madrid, 1964), 58 ff. []
  23. See Ramon Menendez Pidal, Los Reyes Catolicos segun Maquiavelo y Castiglione (Madrid, 1952). []
  24. On the subject of peaceful conversion, and the related subjects of just war, enslavement, crusade, papal authority, and “spiritual conquest,” there is a large and complex bibliography. []
  25. Zurita y Castro, Anales, 6: 222. []
  26. CDIHE, 8. 457. []
  27. In one form of Spanish senorio, vassals were entitled to change their lord once every twenty-four hours. []
  28. Lewis Hanke, “The ‘Requerimiento’ and Its Interpreters,” Revista de historia de America, 1 (1938):25-34. Annie Lemistre, “Les origines du Requerimiento,” Melanges de la Casa de Velazquez, 6 (1970): 161-209. []
  29. See the sources cited and the perceptive comments of Elliott, The Old World and the New, 84-85. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana, 2 vols. (Madrid, 1942), 1: 371-73, gives an affecting and detailed account of the incident. Subsequent renunciations by the “heirs” of Montezuma are examined by Silvio Zavala, Las instituciones juridicas en la conquista de America (Mexico, 1971), 319 ff. []
  30. Coleccion de documentos ineditos relativos al descubrimiento, conquista y organizacion de las antiguas posesiones espanolas de America y Oceania, sacados de los archivos del reino, y muy especialmente del de Indias (title varies), 42 vols. (Madrid, 1864-84), 6: 67-68. []
  31. E.g., Fabian de Fonesca and Carlos de Urrutia, Historia general de real hacienda, 6 vols. (Mexico, 1845-53), 1: 412. []
  32. Charles J. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs, Laws, and Treaties, 3 vols. (Washington, 1903-13). []
  33. I am grateful to Peter Zahendra for this information. For additional details, see his “Spanish West Florida, 1781-1821” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1976), 188-90, 228. []