Term Paper: Conversion of Natives of Spanish and Portuguese Colonies to Christianity

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Conversion of Natives to Christianity

Christianity and the Native Peoples of Mexico and Brazil

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, European nations - especially Spain but to a lesser degree Portugal - began colonizing the Americas. They brought their Christian religion with them, of course, and this paper will critique some of the successes (and failures) that the Spaniards encountered in Mexico, and that the Portuguese encountered in Brazil. This paper examines the changes which were ostensibly instituted in the name of "faith and morals," albeit the Spaniards' concept of "faith and morality" - in hindsight - was tainted by greed, arrogance, pomposity and imperialistic obsessions.

The arrival of the Spaniards into Mesoamerican Mexico: Chapter 5 in The Oxford History of Mexico (Curcio-Nagy, 151-152) describes the native culture prior to the arrival of the Spanish as having "a religious belief system" that revolved around the "cosmos." The native peoples believed that the connection between themselves and the "divine" was "a filial one" (they were the children, God was the father).

And so, with this ancient yet remarkably self-sufficient society thriving in a unspoiled world they believed they understood, why was it necessary for an outside force to come in, take control, and re-shape the cultural the spiritual lives of the inhabitants? Why was it important for the Spanish invaders to re-invent the "faith" and "morals" of the people living in Mesoamerica, who were doing quite well on their own? They had faith in the cosmos, in the orderly flow of the seasons. So, asking why they "needed" a conqueror is a rhetorical question, of course, and an easy one to offer in hindsight. But from the Spaniards' point-of-view, the native peoples of Mexico were some form of a message from God: indeed, as Curcio-Nagy writes, the "devotion, humility, and obedience of the aboriginal peoples" apparently gave the impression to many Catholic friars that the Mesoamerican natives were "the prophesied Christians of the third age."

And because the Roman Catholic leadership in Spain saw the natives as part of a prophecy, a gift from Lord to enrich their Spanish culture, the Franciscan missionaries, the first priests in Mexico, used "indoctrination" as a term rather than "evangelization." The Spaniards reportedly believed that since God had placed these Native Americans on Mexican soil for the enhancement of Spanish culture and religion, that the natives merely needed the facts of Christianity (Roman Catholicism), not the full litany of evangelization. The Spaniards were wrong, of course, and they found themselves in the midst of a myriad of troubling situations they could not possibly have predicted.

And meanwhile the morally corrupt system of "encomienda" - putting native peoples into virtual slavery, a reward given to Spanish colonists for "Christianizing the indigenous population" (153) - began almost immediately upon the launch of the "Conquest" and was not halted until 1542. In fairness, as Curcio-Nagy writes on page 153, many clergy "sought to maintain a clear separation between their Indian charges and decadent Spaniards eager to exploit native labor." Indeed, some friars became "vociferous opponents of encomienda, especially the personal labor service clause, which they equated to (and rightly so) with native slavery.

It should also be noted that "many priests exploited native labor just as much as the encomenderos did, forcing the construction of monasteries and churches and living off what the natives produced."

Things did not go well for the Spaniards in 1680s and 1690s: In the book, Defiance and Deference in Mexico's Colonial North: Indians under Spanish Rule in Nueva Vizcaya (Deeds, 86-91), the author details what some historians have called "The Great Southwestern Revolt" and the "Great Northern Revolt" - and what in fact was a major rebellion against Spanish rule in the 1680s.

These rebellions were not just a result of backlash from Spanish rule, brutal in some cases, condescending in nearly all instances; rather, the rebellions were part of a major period of unrest due to "drought, famine, and disease episodes in the 1670s and 1680s." Yes, the Spanish believed they had brought a new and better "faith" to the native peoples and that the Spanish version of Christianity would instill an acceptable version of "morality" - and would change these natives from heathens to God-loving Christians.

But the cultural and religious changes the Spaniards had tried to impose did not sit well with many natives; and in fact while the rebellions were going on against Spanish rule - and Spaniards were greatly frustrated by the rebellions - other bad news was accumulating: indeed, the riches from Mexico that the Spaniards had exploited and had helped pay for the huge Spanish presence in Mexico began to fizzle out. "Mining revenues were down," writes Deeds (87), and some of richer silver veins "had played out...inhibiting further exploitation of these mines."

Add to that the fact that the Tarahumara Indians, a northern border tribe, which Deeds writes about in great detail, understood how to take advantage of the discord between the Spanish religious authorities, and the Spanish civil authorities, and you have the makings of a lot of discomfort in the Spanish hierarchy.

When the Tarahumara mission Indians had a chance to better their culture, they did, taking advantage in the Spanish where it was possible to do so; on page 89, Deeds writes that the Tarahumara ignored "other aspects of Spanish civilization" but took benefits such as "hoes, axes, knives, plows, cloth (even sheep to make their own wool), livestock manure, and new food sources."

But the Tarahumara would not participate in the "constructing of churches or digging the irrigation ditches that watered the mission lands." And so, the Tarahumara, like other bands of "mission Indians" put to work by the Spaniards to push the Roman Catholic faith, accepted "material goods and the small concessions of public compliance with ritual aspects of the mission program," but the Indians also would exhibit "withdrawal, evasion, deceit, dissimulation, feigned ignorance, and slander," as a rebellion against Spanish religious values.

Meanwhile, the "lack of obedience" on the part of many Mission Indian tribes, "coupled with their constant movement in and out of the missions," simply amplified the fears of the Jesuits that there would be more uprisings leading into the 1700s. "They imagined witchcraft all around them" (104) Deeds writes. This all took place in an environment where the "tendency on the part of both Spaniards and Indians was to answer violence with violence in relentless cycles of raids and offensives."

Jesuit priest Father Tomas Miranda raged at the cruel treatment of the Seri:

The Seri Indians were understandably angry after they lost valuable farmland and had their precious water supplies diverted by the non-missionary Spaniards who built a presidio near the Seri Mission in 1749. Father Miranda, assigned to the besieged mission at Nacameri, in Sonora, near where the presidio was to be built, was clearly an idealist and was shocked at what he was witnessing; he wrote a passionate letter of protest to his superior, Father Juan Antonio Balthsar, which was published in Empire of Sand: The Seri Indians and The Struggle for Spanish Sonora, 1645-1803 (Sheridan, 1999).

First of all, he writes that "I often have nothing" to eat, and even the pack mule was taken from him by the Seris - though the fact that his life was spared again and again is not lost on him as he describes his horrific living conditions in the letter. "There is neither a harness nor a single piece of silver with which to buy corn or wheat" (146)," he reports. "As long as this situation continues, one is not living but rather dying little by little because there area constant frights, surprises, and dangers."

The "situation" he alludes to begins with his grave concern for the Seris, about 50 families of Indians, whose land was taken from them in order for the presidio to be built. Having their land seized was only the beginning (148): "They are whipped, beaten, and forced to work as though they were evildoers," writes Miranda, a priest from Spain whose spiritual, physical and moral task was to try and protect these native peoples from heartless, slave-driving soldiers and colonists who have come here from his own country to conquer, by any means, the people he is duty-bound to serve.

The fifty families, he continues, "work every day from sunup to sundown and are underfed and quite badly mistreated, even the pregnant women." These are "Christian Indians, not rebels," he explains, and he fully understands why "they detest the name 'Spaniard'." Because these "good Seris," the Christians, were treated the same way as the "bad Seris," and had their weapons and land and water taken from them, "they are perishing of hunger." And as a result of that, Father Miranda asserts, "they are vengeful, treacherous, and desperate" and when they threaten killings (of Spaniards, in retaliation for their mistreatment), they carry those threats out.

The grave situation Miranda write about is made even more frightening since the political leader of that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Conversion of Natives of Spanish and Portuguese Colonies to Christianity.  (2006, November 25).  Retrieved May 22, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/conversion-natives-spanish-portuguese/2423272

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"Conversion of Natives of Spanish and Portuguese Colonies to Christianity."  Essaytown.com.  November 25, 2006.  Accessed May 22, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/conversion-natives-spanish-portuguese/2423272.