(LATIN AMERICA in the 17th CENTURY – continued)

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Class and Racial Blending in Spanish America in the 1600s

Most Spanish colonists had been poor early on, but into the 1600s many prospered. Some of them became rich in land while exploiting Indian labor. They bred and grazed horses and cattle, planted and harvested crops and traded directly with Spain. Where Indian labor was inadequate, they began importing slaves from Africa.

Some Indians lived free of Spanish control, with their ancient customs and language except that they now might have a burro or oxen brought to the Americans by the Spaniards.

Those Indians that the Spaniards controlled were concentrated into villages, often near the Spaniard town, making the Indians available for labor. Spaniard authorities forbade these Indians to live off the land elsewhere. To survive, these Indians remained dependent upon work from the Spaniards, and some of them labored on the large farms, not as slaves but kept in debt by their employers.

Like conquerors before them, the Spaniards left a puppet Indian chieftain in charge of his fellow Indians, and such chieftains often showed their contempt for the common Indians under them, the same contempt they had before the arrival of the Spaniards but now a show of their own worthiness for the Spaniards, while some Indians were finding solace in the Spaniard's alcohol.

Colonial authorities considered Indians in general to be too simpleminded for education. However much difficulty Spaniards had in recognizing talent, a few talented Indians were offered special attention, while education was almost exclusively for those of Spanish ancestry.

Some Indians advanced on their own. They learned European trades. A few in Peru acquired wealth by independent mining. Some rose as businessmen, and some joined the clergy and worked alongside European priests. Eventually, however, the Church decided that Indians were unsuited to the Catholic priesthood and dismissed them.

While the colonists were growing in number, the Indians were diminishing. Counted at 3.34 million in 1570, the Indians were counted at only 1.26 million in 1646. Imported diseases had killed many of them, and mining had taken others.

Spaniards in the Americas remained class conscious. At the top were the families of authorities sent from Spain, called Peninsulares (as in the Iberian Peninsula). Below the top were the Criollos (pronounced kree-OH-yoo), those born in America claiming pure Spanish blood. In 1570, the Peninsulares are said to have numbered 6.6 thousand and the Criollos 11 thousand. By 1646 the Peninsulares had risen to 13. 8 thousand and the Criollos to 168.6 thousand.

The Criollos called themselves the decent people (gente decente) while below them were the people of mixed blood, called Mestizos. Some of this was Criollo pretense. Daughters of Indian nobility had married into upper class white families early on. In Asunción and Santiago, those with some European genetic heritage were considered fully European, while across Spanish America the genes of Indians and blacks were slowly creeping into the DNA of some Criollo families who continued to claim an unmixed racial heritage. With few white women available, common Spanish men had been taking native concubines or wives. And blacks were mixing with Indians. Across generations people of mixed blood were increasing in number, while Indians who dressed like whites and spoke Spanish joined those who were labeled Mestizo. Some were counting them, and Mestizos in 1570 are said to have numbered 2,437 and in 1646 to have risen to 109,042.

Every Criollo community had its church, or churches, some of them Romanesque with a round dome, and some were of Italian Renaissance design. Criollo men and women prayed to their saints, and all of the religious festivals were celebrated. Many Criollos lived in fine houses and wore luxurious clothing, while below them a small middle-class was developing, made up of all races but predominately European.

People from different parts of Europe had been drifting into Spanish America, and some came from China and India. Many of those who arrived were deserters from ships that had touched on the continent. A few of these men had worked their way into the middle-class through trading – much of it contraband.

Criollo families sent their sons to a Jesuit university in Spanish America or perhaps to a university in Spain, and the Church was in control of education. Books by Jews, Muslims or Protestants were forbidden. So too were books supporting any disrespect for established authority, including books about spreading political power to common people. Church authorities in Spanish America were on guard against any smuggled books that might create doubts about the need for obedience.

The Inquisition, however, was less active in the Americas than it had been in Spain. Ideologically unreliable people had been denied legal passage to the Americas. In three hundred years of Spain's rule in Mexico City only 41 heretics would be burned at the stake – and some of these were captured Protestants.

Among the Spanish in America, Protestants were despised. They called England's sailors Luteranos (Lutherans), and the Spaniards paraded their English prisoners of war through town streets, flogging them before joyful crowds of colonists.


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Latin American Civilization , Colonial Period, by Bailey W Diffy, 1967

Missionaries, Miners and Indians: Spanish Contact with the Yaqui Nation of Northwestern New Spain 1533-1820 , by Evelyn Hu-DeHart, University of Arizona Press, 1981

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The Roots of American Civilization: a history of American colonial life, by Curtis P Nettles, Second Edition, 1965

Argentina 1516-1982, by David Rock, 1985

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The Brazilian People, by Ribeiro Darcy, University of Florida Press, 2000

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

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