Brown Theology, Critical Race Theory, and the Laws of Burgos

Brown Theology, Critical Race Theory, and the Laws of Burgos

The fervent cries of Montesino soon reached the ears of King Ferdinand.   On March 20, 1512, the king ordered Governor Diego Columbus to silence Montesinos under penalty of repatriation to Spain (Hanke, 18).   On March 23, 1512, the Dominican Superior in Spain followed suit and likewise rebuked Montesinos and the rebellious monks for their irksome teaching.  Undeterred, Montesinos held his ground.  To break the impasse, both the colonists and Dominicans sent representatives to Spain to argue their positions before the royal court.  The colonists appointed a Franciscan monk, Alonso del Espinal; the Dominicans selected Montesinos.  (Hanke, 22, 23).  Bewildered by the long list of abuses perpetrated against the natives, King Ferdinand convened a group of theologians and royal officials to examine the situation and to create laws which addressed the purported injustices.

In support of the colonist’s position, Friar Bernardo de Mesa asserted that the Indians should be subject to servitude because of their laziness.  By forcing them to labor for Spaniards, de Mesa reasoned, it would “curb their inclinations and compel them to industry” (Hanke, 23).   Drawing from Aristotle, a second court preacher, Licentiate Gregorio argued that forced labor was justified because the Indians were “natural slaves.”

According to Aristotle in Book 1 of the Politics, some human beings are born “natural slaves” (Smith, 110; 1254a21-24).  Natural slaves lack reason and have an aptitude for manual labor (Smith, 110; Politics, 1260a12; 3.1280a33-34).  Moreover, Aristotle asserts, a slave may be properly regarded as part of his master’s own body.  (Smith, 110; Politics, 1254b20-23).   In drawing from Aristotle’s natural slavery argument, Gregorio initiated a line of twisted theological reasoning which would later be used to justify conquest and colonization of all of the Americas, as well the enslavement of millions of African slaves.   Because the diverse indigenous populations of North and South America were “natural slaves” some would argue, it was morally acceptable to conquer their lands and force them to labor for enlightened Europeans.  As “natural slaves,” moreover, West Africans were less than human and therefore could be captured, shipped, and sold to Spanish, Portuguese, and English settlers.

After meeting more than 20 times, the royal junta came to several seemingly contradictory conclusions:  1. The Indians were free political subjects; 2. They were entitled to humane treatment;  3.  Nonetheless, they could be subject to compulsory labor for Spaniards; and, 4. The Indians should be forced to live in close proximity to the Europeans in order to allow for more effective religious inculcation and instruction.  (Hanke, 23).   These principles became codified in the first racially discriminatory laws in the history of the Americas called the Laws of Burgos (Hanke, 24).

Promulgated on December 27, 1512, The Laws of Burgos gave birth to race and racism in the Americas.   In the words of Critical Race theorist Ian Haney Lopez, “Race and racism are centrally about seeking, or contesting, power.  They have their origins in efforts to rationalize the expropriation and exploitation of land and labor” (White By Law, xvi).   Moreover, according to Lopez, law has historically played an important role in such racism, “shaping the social meanings that define races, and rendering concrete the privileges and disadvantages justified by racial ideology” (Lopez, xv).   The Laws of Burgos represent the first legislative effort by Europeans to rationalize the expropriation and exploitation of indigenous land and labor in the Americas.   These laws, furthermore, created the racial categories of Spanish and “Indian” and shaped their social meanings in such a way as to justify the privilege of Spaniards and the exploitation of the native populations.

Those lumped together in the Caribbean as “Indians” were actually a diverse group of indigenous peoples known as Tainos, Guanahatabeys, and Island-Caribs (Rouse, 5).   Modern scholars estimate that as many as 500,000 Taino inhabited the island of Hispaniola at the time of Columbus’ arrival (Rouse, 7); moreover, early chroniclers reported the existence of as many as 600,000 Tainos living on the islands of Puerto Rico and Jamaica.  Cuba was also home to a large number of both Taino and Guanahatabeys (Rouse 7, 20). Island-Caribs resided in the Windward Islands and Guadeloupe (Rouse, 21).   This same racial designation of “Indian” would later be applied to tens of millions of diverse indigenous peoples throughout the Americas such as the Nahuas, Mexica, Maya, Inca, Chumash, Hopi, Navajo, etc.

Tragically, the entire native population of the Caribbean would eventually disappear as a consequence of European colonization.  On the Island of Hispaniola, 90% of the Taino died within 25 years of contact with the Spanish (Wilson, ix).  By 1509, only 60,000 Taino remained alive in the Caribbean. By 1524 the entire Taino population ceased to exist as a separate population group.  Indigenous genocide resulted from forced labor, malnutrition, European diseases, rebellion, and outmarriage (Rouse).

The Spaniards invented race in the Americas by lumping these diverse indigenous ethnic groups together and calling them “Indians.”   It is significant to note that these various native communities did not possess an overarching social identity prior to the Spanish arrival.  To the Europeans, however, their Brown bodies made them all “Indian.”  As “Indians” they shared inherent cultural  characteristics which made them inferior to Spaniards and which justified their conquest and exploitation.  In the words of the Laws of Burgos, “by nature they [Indians] are inclined to idleness and vice, and have no manner of virtue or doctrine.”  To add insult to injury, these diverse native groups were incorrectly labeled “Indian” because Columbus believed he had arrived in the Indies of South Asia.

In addition to the creation of new racial, and racist, categories, the Laws of Burgos also gave rise to the first racially discriminatory labor system in the Americas known as the encomienda system.  In Spanish, “encomendar” means to “entrust.”  And so the encomienda system was a system by which groups of Indians were “entrusted” to Spanish landlords and overseers.   From the Spanish “encomendero” the Indians were to receive religious instruction and the salvation of their souls; in return, the Indians would provide compulsory labor and make the Spaniards rich.

The spiritual responsibilities of Spaniards were elaborated at great length in the Laws of Burgos.  Encomenderos were expected to be benevolent task masters who paternalistically oversaw the religious instruction of the Indians charged to their care:

“Also, we order and command that the citizen to whom the said Indians are given in encomienda shall, upon the land that is assigned to him, be obliged to erect a structure to be used for a church…and in this said church he shall place an image of Our Lady and a bell with which to call the Indians to prayer; and the person who has them in encomienda shall be obliged to have them called by the bell at nightfall and go with them to the said church, and have them cross themselves and bless themselves, and together recite the Ave Maria, the Pater Noster, the Credo, and the Salve Regina, in such wise that all of them shall hear the said person, and the said person hear them, so that he may know who is performing well and who ill, and correct the one who is wrong…and we also command that each morning, before they go to work, they shall be obliged to go to the said church and pray as they do in the evening; but they shall not be obliged on that account to rise earlier than is customary, that is, at full daylight.

Also, in order to discover how each one is progressing in things of the Faith, we command that every two weeks the said person who has them in charge shall examine them to see what each one knows particularly and to teach them what they do not know; and he shall also teach them the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins and the Articles of the Faith, that is, to those he thinks have the capacity and ability to learn them; but all this shall be done with great love and gentleness; and the person who fails to obey this shall incur a penalty of six gold pesos, two of which shall be for our treasury, two for his accuser, and two for the judge who sentences him and executes the sentence; and I command that the penalty shall be executed at once upon the persons of those who incur it.”

The Laws of Burgos also offered religious justification for the forced relocation of indigenous peoples.  According to the framers, natives were to be uprooted from their indigenous communities and required to reside in labor camps close to their Spanish overseers.  This would promote the retention of religious instruction:

Whereas, it has become evident through long experience that nothing has sufficed to bring the said chiefs and Indians to a knowledge of our Faith (necessary for their salvation), since by nature they are inclined to idleness and vice, and have no manner of virtue or doctrine (by which Our Lord is disserved), and that the principal obstacle in the way of correcting their vices and having them profit by and impressing them with a doctrine is that their dwellings are remote from the settlements of the Spaniards who go hence to reside in the said Island, because, although at the time the Indians go to serve them they are indoctrinated in and taught the things of our Faith, after serving they return to their dwellings where, because of the distance and their own evil inclinations, they immediately forget what they have been taught and go back to their customary idleness and vice, and when they come to serve again they are as new in the doctrine as they were at the beginning…

From the perspective of Brown Theology, the religious justification for the forced relocation and exploitation of the indigenous populations is the most insulting.   500 years later the sting is still unbearable.  In the name of Jesus, the Spanish Crown uprooted hundreds of thousands of Taino, Guanahatabeys, and Island-Caribs from their native villages and compelled them to work themselves to death for Spaniards who were charged with saving their souls.

The Laws of Burgos stand in stark contrast to the clear teachings of Jesus:

“16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matthew 28: 16-20.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Mark 12:31.

Jesus did not say, “Therefore go and colonize all nations, stealing their land and forcing them to labor on your behalf to make you rich.   Then, baptize them and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  The Laws of Burgos made a mockery of the Gospel of Jesus.   In the decades to come, numerous Brown theologians would rise up to challenge these oppressive laws and the encomienda system which they upheld.

Robert Chao Romero




Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America.

Ian Haney Lopez.  White By Law.

Irving Rouse.  The Tainos:  Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus.

Nicholas Smith.  “Aristotle’s Theory of Natural Slavery.” Phoenix, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer, 1983), pp. 109-122

Samuel Wilson.  Hispaniola:  Caribbean Chiefdoms in the Age of Columbus.