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Two— New Spain's Inquisition for Indians from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century
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New Spain's Inquisition for Indians from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century

Roberto Moreno de los Arcos

It is common knowledge that the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was expressly prohibited from interfering in cases involving Indians. "Thank God," the distinguished Spanish historian Guillermo Céspedes del Castillo adds recently in the volume dedicated to the colony from his Historia de España .[1] What has not been made common knowledge is that this does not imply in any way that the Indians were exempt from punishment for transgressions of the faith. In effect, throughout the entire colonial period and well into the nineteenth century, there existed an institution expressly dedicated to punishing the Indians' religious offenses, identified by various names: Office of Provisor of Natives, Tribunal of the Faith of Indians, Secular Inquisition, Vicarage of the Indians, Natives' Court. This institution generated an enormous number of trials, very few of which have come to light.[2]

Ignorance of this tribunal's existence is based partly on the fact that historiography on the colonial Church is basically furnished by clergymen and Catholics eager to exalt Spain's efforts in America and to cover up the incidents that might appear negatively to liberal minds. The undeniable existence of the Holy Office of the Inquisition has been so well documented—so worn out yet so poorly understood by politically liberal writers—that this other capacity the Catholic Church had (and still has) to inflict punishment should have been discovered. What is evident is that a great number of colonial books do exist, clearly revealing all the details of the inquisitorial procedure regarding Indians, but it seems that we cannot see the forest for the trees.

Most of the known trials of that tribunal have been published and


studied as "sources" of indigenous ethnohistory. This they are, in effect, but primarily they are trials that can be used as a source for many other investigations, although it seems to me that the first one should be the study of the particular institution that generates them. In and of themselves, like any other documents, they are of no use as a study of what they do not contain.

It would be unjust to affirm that there has been a universal ignorance of this institution's existence. Obviously, those who created it knew about it, as did those it punished. I am more concerned with emphasizing the recent investigations of this institution, and I will refer to only two.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a Mr. Carrión, a Protestant, published a gallery of renowned Indians.[3] Among the Indians in that gallery was a Dominican Indian, Friar Martín Durán, whose existence was invented, and who was supposed to have been burned at the stake by the Holy Office for heresy. Don José María Vigil, director of the Biblioteca Nacional at the time, consulted with the scholar don Joaquín García Icazbalceta regarding this case. The latter had already published a letter debunking the myth, and with his characteristic prudence, had arrived at the conclusion that the falsifier's intention was to create the existence of a pre-Lutheran Indian in sixteenth-century New Spain. Among Icazbalceta's many arguments refuting the truth of this history is that of jurisdiction. He demonstrates that an Indian would have been subject to trial not by the Holy Office but instead by the authority of the ecclesiastical judge (i.e., the bishop or archbishop) through the Natives' Court.[4]

Much more recently, Professor Richard E. Greenleaf, with great insight and acumen, has clarified the issues. In an article published in 1965 in The Americas , he studies both tribunals, the Holy Office and the Office of Provisor, along with what he terms "jurisdictional confusion." This article allows us to clarify the underlying causes regarding the punishment of the Indians' transgressions of the faith as well as to establish a historical perspective of the facts. In this first essay, Professor Greenleaf's principal subject is the Holy Office.[5] His second article, published in the same journal in 1978, deals with inquisitorial trials against Indians as ethnohistorical sources and presents a compilation of invaluable information on this theme. It also includes a list of trials initiated against Indians, derived from the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), principally from the Inquisitorial branch, as well as half a dozen from the National Welfare branch.[6] In these investigations as well as in the author's other works dedicated to studying the Holy Office, the problem I am focusing on has been well outlined.

My investigation of the subject takes a different approach. It focuses


uniquely on the Office of Provisor, ignoring the Holy Office completely, except when for some reason they coincide. This is, in short, the history of an institution's ecclesiastical-jurisdictional power over the Indians. As can be easily understood, this is a major undertaking that must confront enormous difficulties. We are dealing with vast documentation generated throughout three centuries, very difficult to access, of the dioceses and archdioceses of Mexico City (in this case the sources are located in part in the AGN, Bienes Nacionales, and in part in a locale which I cannot recognize since the destruction of the Mitre in the earthquake of 1985), Oaxaca (which involves its own difficulties), Chiapas (which is organized and now publishes a bulletin), Yucatán, Michoacán (now publicly accessible since it is considered the property of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia), and Guadalajara. The undertaking is impossible without a team of historians. I trust I will be able to organize one and offer the initial results by 1992, with catalogs of the trials and lists of the provisional judges of each diocese. The bibliography of the colonial books I have discovered on this material is presented in this essay and will soon be published, in an identical edition, as the Bibliotheca Superstitionis et Cultus Idolatrici Indorum Mexicanensium , beginning with Diego de Balsalobre's classic treatise. In this essay, I offer a summary of the problem and will allude to the progress of the investigation.

No one is unaware that the Church's power over society, like that of the state, has two axes composed of its authority and its territory—that is, its jurisdiction or power to set standards, to revise sentences, to correct, and to punish, and the territory or demarcation within which all of this can take place. As an example that will serve for what follows, we remember that many medieval Spanish cities contained more or less isolated precincts known as Moorish mosques and Jewish synagogues. Civil jurisdiction over these spaces fell to the state; the Church had no jurisdiction over them. The Christians would enter by force in order to baptize Moors and Jews, thus making them liable to ecclesiastical jurisdiction. They were prosecuted afterward if they willingly apostatized or attempted conversion through peaceful entrance into the precinct, a privilege enjoyed only by the Franciscan order. Those who were Christianized in this way were known as moriscos or judíos conversos . If this was not the case, then they maintained their own faith and could not be forced, a fact which is, it will be recalled, the cornerstone of Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas's argument in his defense of the Indians.[7] Jurisdiction and territory are also the axes in the Americas of what Ricard, a Catholic, called "spiritual conquest,"[8] and Duviols, a liberal, called "destruction of the indigenous religions."[9]

Primarily, jurisdiction over the "faithful" is exercised by the bishop


or ecclesiastical judge within the confines of his territory, which are almost always clearly delimited. The necessity of conserving the faith and its orthodoxy led to the creation, generalized in the Old World, of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition against Heretical Perversity and Apostasy. Its jurisdiction, which was above that of the bishops, exceeded the diocese but not the kingdom. The principal crimes that it originally prosecuted were Christians' acts of heresy, that is, departure from or error concerning dogma in its two forms, material (i.e., through ignorance or confusion) and formal (through pertinacity),[10] and apostasy, or the rejection of the true faith in order to embrace another religion, which was fundamentally the case with the conversos .[11] This last crime was punished with the severest penalties. The catalog of punishable crimes expanded with the passage of time, and the Tribunal of the Holy Office gained enormous importance and respect. It is worth remembering here that "inquisition" simply means "investigation." It was the tremendous weight of the Tribunal of Faith that led to the semantic change, so that its exclusive claim to inquisition was recognized and sanctioned.

The encounter with the New World created many problems. To understand what occurred jurisdictionally, we must refer to the theological underpinnings. The Holy Scriptures, dictated by the Holy Spirit, say in the New Testament that Christ's apostles preached throughout the entire world.[12] Such a decisive affirmation thus authorized created quite a difficulty for Catholic theologians, since the New World was populated by millions of human beings, none of whom were Christian. In the face of such a reality, some explanation had to be found. The most ingenious theologians postulated that the intentionally lost apostle, St. Thomas, had preached in the Americas. The foundations were taken from the indigenous myths like that of the priest Quetzalcóatl, whose alleged kindheartedness the Catholic priests were set on promoting. This thesis, which also occurred in Peru with some variations, arose in the sixteenth century and was expunged by the nineteenth.[13] It did not actually flourish, because among other things, it implied the brutal fact that the entire continent had apostatized. The practical solution was to declare that the existence of the New World was a mystery and that the Indians were "gentiles" (that is, without ever having received Christian doctrine), and to set about evangelizing them. The Church was able to do this because they deemed the Indians "idolaters," among other negative things.

Idolatry is an unpardonable error for Christianity. It consists of offering latria , or worship and service owed solely to God (the worship of the saints is called dulia ), to an idol, an image created by human beings.[14]


Fig. 3.
"Bonfire of clothing, books, and items of idolatrous priests burned by the friars."


That the Indians were idolaters provides one of the principal justifications for what Spanish historiography continues to call the "just titles" of the conquest of the New World. This implies that if Spain had conceded the existence of the Indians' own religion, it would not, in terms of what has been said above, have had Christian jurisdiction over them. As far as civil jurisdiction was concerned, the Indians were alleged to be, among other things, drunkards and sodomizers.

In spite of some heroic attempts to slacken the zeal, Spain proceeded with the conversion of New World Indians. The process turned out to be more difficult than had been anticipated. The main problem is that, in spite of the friars' investigations which are our principal sources, the Indians had their own religions and were unfamiliar with Christianity, unlike the Moors and the Jews, who had centuries of contact with Christians. The two religious mentalities confronted each other without mutual understanding: one exclusive, that of the Christians, and one inclusive, that of the indigenous peoples. This reality has been conceptualized in terms of "syncretism" or "nativism," and yet these terms are not completely satisfactory. The fact is that the Christian Church expanded its battlefronts. It did not simply have to contend with the heretical deviations or the apostasies with which it was familiar in the Old World, but now saw itself forced to employ its imagination regarding the novelties that the Evil Spirit manifested in America.

The Church held that the Devil was the guilty party. I have already compiled some notes toward an essay that could be entitled "The Devil in the New World."[15] He was the one responsible for the veil that hid these lands and peoples from European eyes. He had fooled the Indians into worshipping him with excrements in place of the sacraments of the Church of God and as a mockery of divinity. He was responsible for the fact that the Indians committed crimes against the faith after having been baptized. All of this resulted in the primary necessity of exorcising lands, animals, plants, and people. This resulted, I believe, in the initial Franciscan practice of limiting the baptismal rite. It also resulted in indispensable and constant vigilance in order to detect and punish all deviations, that is, to exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

According to Llorente, inquisitional jurisdiction was introduced in America when, by order of Charles V, the cardinal inquisitor Adriano named don Alfonso Manso, bishop of Puerto Rico, and Friar Pedro de Córdoba, vice-provincial of the Dominican Islands, as inquisitors of the Indies and other islands on 7 January 1519.[16]

Regarding New Spain, jurisdiction arrived with the famous "first twelve" Franciscans headed by Friar Martín de Valencia. This privilege


was derived from Pope Adrian VI's bull dated 10 May 1522, entitled Exponi nobis and known as Omnimoda , which stated that "in case there were no bishops," the friars could act as secular clergy and exercise the jurisdiction corresponding exclusively to the bishops.[17] This produced two interesting historical outcomes. The first generated a peculiar conflict that lasted for almost three centuries regarding the Spanish state's efforts to secularize the Indian parishes, finally achieved with great effort around 1770. The second concerns the topic I am now addressing.

The first twelve Franciscans received episcopal jurisdiction as well as jurisdiction of the Holy Office and that of inquisitors of the Indies, on their passage through the West Indies.[18] The Franciscans arrived in New Spain with this power, prepared to exercise their authority. The head of the faculty was, obviously, Friar Martín de Valencia. We have incomplete information about the number of trials he initiated, but as he formed part of that reality which severely punished apostates, we know that in 1526, one year after the evangelization of Tlaxcala, he ordered the hangings of at least six men and one woman from among the "most principal caciques" in various autos de fe , as attested in diverse sources and portrayed in two illustrations in the codex that accompanies Muñoz Camargo's work.[19] I have always believed that these acts deprived Valencia of the honor of sainthood that his order wished to bestow upon him.

Since jurisdiction could be delegated and the Franciscans had complete control in this area, it is on record that in the following year, 1527, Friar Toribio de Benavente, the humble Motolinía of our literature, sentenced the conquistador Rodrigo Rangel to one day at mass with a candle and nine months in a monastery for blasphemy.[20] Scant information exists regarding this primitive inquisition by the secular clergy.

I do not know whether it was intentional, but everything seems very well thought out. The Spanish Crown sent to Mexico Franciscans whose vocation was conversion, as we noted earlier. The first bishop of Mexico, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, was also Franciscan, with ample experience in the extirpation of witchcraft in the Basque provinces. The "elect one," as he was called, arrived in New Spain with episcopal jurisdiction in 1528. Since it fell to Zumárraga, Friar Martín de Valencia and his companions immediately yielded the jurisdiction they had exercised for four years, "although he refused it," according to the document of cession.[21] In 1534, Zumárraga was invested by delegation with the office of inquisitor. In this capacity he carried out dozens of trials, among which many of the published ones are of increasing interest.[22] The most well known is that of the cacique don Carlos de Texcoco, which ended with his death at the stake in 1539.[23] When the king found out about it, he


Fig. 4.
"Great punishment of five major caciques and one woman for obstinancy 
and returning to idolatry after becoming Christians."


angrily issued a decree condemning Zumárraga's action, saying that since the cacique's life could not be returned to him, all his belongings should be returned to his kinsmen, and he prohibited the maximum penalty for Indians, "tender shoots in faith."[24] This decree thereafter saved Indians from execution on grounds concerning the Christian religion.

The following and third chapter on jurisdiction concerned the inspector Tello de Sandoval, who, between 1544 and 1547, was employed as apostolic inquisitor and carried out various trials.[25] Zumárraga had been tacitly relieved of this function, although his episcopal jurisdictional powers were not suspended.

Between 1548 and 1569, jurisdiction reverted to the bishops, since the Holy Office had not named any inquisitors. Very little is known about the trials during these years. At any rate, the Omnimoda bull was not abolished, and the evangelists were able to exercise their authority in areas without bishops. Between 1561 and 1565, Friar Diego de Landa authorized trials in Yucatán leading to harsh denunciations which he was able to dispel in Spain, aided by the aforementioned bull.[26] As far as we know, the missionaries exercised jurisdiction in areas without bishops (as in the case of the Jesuits in Baja California in the eighteenth century—a fact which certainly must have terrorized the enlightened Hegel).

After much hesitation, the Spanish Crown resolved to reestablish the Inquisition in American territories in 1569.[27] Their purpose had much to do with the prosecution of the old crimes of heresy and apostasy that were its traditional target, given that the colonies were being infiltrated in an effort to avoid the Old World tribunals, as was amply demonstrated later on. In the document regarding the creation of the Holy Office in America, the king expressly prohibited interference in Indian cases and preserved the bishops' authority.[28] Beginning at that time, in civil as well as ecclesiastical matters, New Spain was decidedly split into two republics, that of the Indians and that of the Spaniards (including all types of Europeans, criollos, mestizos, blacks, mulattoes, etc.).[29]

Consequently, after 1571, when the Holy Office of the Inquisition was formally established in Mexico, two tribunals of the faith existed until 1820, at which time the first tribunal was definitively closed and the bishops published edicts proclaiming their recuperation of total jurisdiction.[30] We are thus studying a very active institution that arose in 1548 and disappeared—if indeed it has formally disappeared—quite recently. It is well worth our efforts to make a thorough study of it.


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