In the first episode of Aztec Empire, I wrote a scene in which the Spanish conquistadors formally read aloud a document to a group of perplexed and angry Maya. As far as the conquistadors were concerned, this document—the Requerimiento—legally sanctioned their actions in the New World, authorizing them to do pretty much whatever they wanted.
Written in 1513, the Requerimiento was a declaration of sovereignty and war that was read by Spanish military forces to natives in the Americas, usually without a translator. It declared that God, through the Pope, held authority as ruler over the entire Earth, and that Pope Alexander VI’s Inter Caetera Papal Bull of 1493 gave the Spanish monarchs ownership of the Americas.
The Requerimiento originated during Spain’s wars against the Moors in the 15th century. Spanish religious leaders asserted that because Muslims had knowledge of Christ yet rejected him, waging a holy crusade against them was legitimate. However, this theory did nothing to legitimize Spain’s wars against native peoples in the Americas, who had no knowledge of Christ. Thus the Requerimiento was written, providing religious justification for conquest of the Americas.
The first few paragraphs of the Requerimiento attempt to explain the origins of the Papacy to the natives, “as best we can.” Additional paragraphs then explain the “donation” of the Americas to Spain by the Pope. The document ends with a chilling threat to the wives and children of the natives if they don’t comply:
“I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses;
we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command;
and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him;
and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their Highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”