Perhaps no where else in the Indies were the natives subjected to the abominations of slavery to the extent that they were in Central America in the years following the Conquest. From Chiapas to Panama Indians were branded as chattels with little regard for the royal legislation that limited the practice. Despite much vacillation on the part of the Crown, it became generally recognized that two types of Indians could be legally enslaved: 1) esclavos de guerra, or those who persisted in resisting Spanish dominion by resort to arms; and 2) esclavos de rescate, or those who had been slaves in their own native societies. But the ways in which these qualifications could be circumvented were legion, and the enterprising slave trader continued to practice his evil with little interference. To considerable degree the responsibility for this condition lay with the lax officials, who were charged with the wellbeing of the native peoples. Whether from indifference, collusion, fear (or perhaps merely discretion in the face of threatening conquistadores), the early governors and other royal officials were notably remiss in preventing illegal slavery.

If slavery was the most heinous abuse, various other burdens were imposed on the Indians, who were used as tamemes or naborías and forced to give personal service in almost every imaginable way. The forced labor extended to both women and children. An especially pernicious aspect of the system resulted from the concurrence of native caciques in enslaving their own people. The social consequences of these violences are apparent: children taken from the breasts of their mothers, young girls violated, husbands tom from their wives and offspring, and the whole lot suffering incredible fatigues and physical maltreatment. Many of them succumbed in their own lands from these atrocities; others, packed into ships of slavers, fell in alien parts. More than six thousand were taken out of Nicaraguan ports alone during the early years, bound for servitude in Panama or Peru.1 So dreadful were the conditions that, according to one source, not one in twenty survived.2 Pestilence, especially smallpox, carried off thousands.3 Their prospects were so grim, one writer asserted, that during a period of two years some of the Indian couples did not cohabit for fear of producing more slaves for their masters.4 Under these circumstances there was a very real threat to the survival of the native race.

There were of course those who raised their voices in bitter denunciation of these practices. The Crown itself was no doubt greatly perturbed by developments, but the multiplicity of considerations involved pitted its Christian conscience against the demands of Realpolitik. Put very simply, it was not only that the ambitious foreign policies of Charles V required ever-increasing quantities of precious metals from American mines, but also that conquistadores demanded compensation for their sacrifices. To deny both by liberating the Indian would be to jeopardize the foundation of Catholicism in the Old World and to invite exodus in the New. And there were other factors of a more philosophical nature that have been discussed at length elsewhere. The resulting lack of resolve on the part of the Crown encouraged further violations.

The number of individuals who criticized the excesses is greater than is generally recognized. Certainly the one best known for his defense of the Indians was the Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, who was the most forceful and, ultimately, the most successful, advocate of the cause. But in Central America he was in constant conflict with other Spaniards, lay and religious, who held him in contempt, while fearing that his campaign would destroy their whole way of life. The fact is that his fulminations during the years he spent in those provinces bore little immediate fruit, and he was thwarted on all sides. When he became too personal in his attacks in Nicaragua the governor’s bravos pulled him out of the pulpit.5 In retrospect, one may marvel that his life was not forfeited on that violent frontier. Others were no more successful, and despite numerous complaints on the part of thoughtful Spaniards, and notwithstanding the frequent admonitions of the Crown, the indigenous peoples appeared doomed.

Certainly a turning point in the relationship between the two races was the publication of the New Laws for the good treatment of the Indians (1542-1543). This humanitarian legislation remained a dead letter for years, however, for much the same reasons that earlier reforms had been frustrated—that is, outraged reaction on the part of the conquerors. Blasco Núñez de Vela was appointed to implement the New Laws in Peru, and his fate is well known. In New Spain Viceroy Mendoza proceeded more thoughtfully, and his example was imitated in Central America.

The new legislation also created an Audiencia (de los Confines) for better administration of Central America. Its first president was Alonso de Maldonado, who had many years of solid experience behind him in the Audiencia of Mexico. Maldonado, “el bueno,” was no reformer. In fact, he became exceedingly circumspect in the matter of Indian labor, for he had married the daughter of the Adelantado Francisco de Montejo, through whom he came into many encomienda Indians. As one objective of the New Laws was the gradual erosion of the encomienda system, he could envision the decline of the house of Maldonado with the same clear sense as any other encomendero. And perceiving no really serious opposition from Spain, the president allowed business as usual, much to the appreciation of the colonists.6

But gradually conscience was overcoming pragmatism in the court. If anyone doubts it, witness the commissioning of licenciado Alonso López de Cerrato to replace Maldonado. There was little question as to where Cerrato stood on the issue of humane treatment of the natives, and his commitment was not solely to the spirit. His policies in the Audiencia of Santo Domingo were clear indication that the King and Council knew what they were about, for Cerrato had already shocked the settlers in Española with his reforms. He had arrived at the island as an oidor in January, 1545, and forthwith began examining the titles to slaves to determine if those Indians branded on the face had been wronged. He learned that there were about 5,000 native slaves on the island, some of whom were by law free men. Furthermore, he began to try preventing the exporting of slaves to other regions.7 His instructions from the Crown had authorized him to liberate all slaves not proved to be esclavos de guerra, and his actions were approved by Spain.8 One who admired his work was las Casas, residing in Santo Domingo at the time, and the Dominican’s praise is some measure of Cerrato’s zeal.9 Another prominent figure present was Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, the chronicler, then alcaide. Considering his dislike for las Casas and his trouble with Cerrato in the matter of alleged malfeasance, the historian was remarkably objective in his assessment of Cerrato; but he could not resist remarking that Cerrato had a loose tongue and that the residents of Española rejoiced at his leaving.10 Yet despite his reforming vigor, Cerrato had not effectively checked illegal slavery, and he feared the complete disappearance of the natives. Arriving too late, and lacking support, he was unable to prevent that disaster, which was already well advanced.11 Nonetheless, his activities had brought him into contention with other Spaniards, and by March, 1547, he requested license to return to Spain, noting that he already had spent more time in the Indies than he had planned.12 Instead, the King appointed him second President of the Audiencia de los Confines to succeed Maldonado.

Whether at the prompting of las Casas or not, the Crown was sufficiently impressed with Cerrato’s zeal to grant the new commission in 1547, though the orders did not reach Santo Domingo until January of the following year. In spite of his earlier sentiments, the instructions to take the residencia of Maldonado and his oidores and to assume the presidency seemed to revive the spirits of Cerrato, who wrote the King to express his gratitude for the new opportunity.13 He was detained in Española, not finally reaching the seat of the Audiencia at Gracias a Dios (Honduras) until May, 1548.

His first task was to try the incumbent judges, and the nature of his judgments gave clear indication of his intentions. While Cerrato found the entire Audiencia (the president and three oidores) negligent in the protection of Indians, Maldonado was charged with prime responsibility. The new president wrote Charles V that, since Maldonado had been the president and a person with broad experience as an oidor, the others had followed his example, which was to give little favor to the natives when his own interests were at stake.14 Aside from the exorbitant tributes exacted, “every encomendero did as he wished, and although they killed and robbed Indians, or enslaved them, there was no punishment.” It was not simply a case of the Audiencia’s ignoring the laws, but rather that the oidores themselves actually broke the laws.15 Because, Cerrato asked,

How can Indian slaves be liberated when the oidor himself has 200 or 300 slaves? And how can personal service be taken away when the oidor has 50 Indians in his house, carrying water and wood and fodder and other things? And how can tamemes be taken away by an oidor who has 800 tamemes in the mines, and when even his dogs are carried by tamemes?16

The judges were guilty of using encomienda Indians as tamemes to carry supplies to their mines, and even renting them to others. Furthermore, the encomienda Indians were perhaps worse off than some slaves, because the provision calling for the freedom of those unjustly enslaved made no mention of those held in encomienda.17 With the highest royal officials exploiting the natives in this manner they could hardly restrain the vecinos from doing the same. Such behavior on the part of the bureaucracy was not uncommon, and their abuses were perhaps no more extreme than those of other oidores during the early years of the colonies. This was especially true in the more remote provinces, whereas one might expect that by this time in Mexico the presence of a viceroy would have the effect of checking corruption. Those who exerted influence early in Central America were not of the character of Cortés, Zumárraga, or Mendoza. If Mexico’s first audiencia set a poor example, the second court had by the early 1530s established a good measure of justice. Coming years later, the first Audiencia de los Confines, was comprised of licenciados experienced in Mexico and Santo Domingo, who seemingly lowered their scruples when they reached the isolation of Gracias a Dios. With no higher authority anywhere near to curb their excesses, the judges simply sought to supplement what they considered to be insufficient salaries. Cupidity fed on opportunity, leading to an aggravated conflict of interest. All of this shocked the virtuous Cerrato, who characterized their administration as “the golden age of slavery.”18 Imagine Cerrato’s reaction on learning later that Maldonado had been appointed to replace him as President of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo! But what must have appeared as bitter irony for Cerrato seems merely to indicate the insouciance with which the Crown regarded misbehavior at the higher levels. Or was it that Cerrato had exaggerated Maldonado’s defects to the exclusion of his virtues?

President Maldonado was to have been replaced in any event; however, Cerrato faced a dilemma in staffing his new court because of the lack of qualified men in the region. Much as it appalled him, he was left with no recourse but to reappoint the same judges, with one exception. Licenciado Herrera was relieved after the pesquisa resulted in grave charges involving a priest and some Negro slaves. All of the oidores, according to witnesses, had led scandalous fives, both in their personal affairs and in their commercial dealings, as a result of which Cerrato had little regard for their probity. He complained that, far from assisting him, they hampered his reforms.19 Accordingly, when he put his plan to liberate the Indians into practice it was done almost singlehandedly.

The new president’s policies were closely observed by others, and while he was still in Honduras, the cabildo of Santiago (Guatemala) wrote him, on September 26, 1548, with respect to his activities. They had heard of his commission concerning the slaves, but they, the regidores, felt that since Cerrato had been ill-informed about the true state of affairs he would reconsider. And, they continued:

Know, your Lordship, that the discharge of his Majesty’s conscience, and yours in his name, and the good government of these parts, do not consist in freeing these Indians who are called slaves, because their number is as nothing, compared with the rest. At present it is better for them to remain in our company than out of it, because we consider most of them as though they were our own children. And, if in times past there was some carelessness in their treatment, it is no longer true—rather, they are beholden to us for having reared them.

The point is that they are in the mines, and for that reason your Lordship . . . should consider what we have said, that is, that a great part of our well-being and contentment hangs upon this bit of gold. Consider also that his Majesty has never completely clarified the matter [of the liberation of the slaves]. When he, as our Lord, commands that it be done, then let it be done and we shall humbly obey. . .. 20

While the reasoning of the regidores appears at first glance to be little more than a delaying tactic, it is possible that, owing to the indecision of the Crown over the years, there was in fact a question as to the royal intent. There was, after all, encouragement to be taken from the Emperor’s irresolute attitude toward the New Laws up to that time. In any case, given the uncertain nature of communication between the court and Guatemala, the strategy of stalling for clarification was a common one, and so effective that the cabildo could hope to forestall reforms for many months, especially with an audiencia that was sympathetic. As it happened, the court of Cerrato was not.

A few months later, despairing of altering the president’s course by appealing to him personally, the vecinos sent Bernal Díaz del Castillo to the royal court to represent their interests. He carried a detailed list of grievances for the Crown’s edification21

Shortly after the residencias were completed, Cerrato decided to remove the seat of the Audiencia to Santiago de Guatemala, the largest settlement in Central America.22 En route he passed through San Salvador, where he found many Indians held as slaves. The president ordered their masters to present titles proving that they were justly held. “No one produced them.” Cerrato noted, “nor did they even try, because in truth all of them were from encomienda pueblos, and none was taken in just war or any kind of war.” 23 In that small province alone he freed about five hundred Indian slaves from some forty vecinos.24 When the residents challenged his authority he showed them a royal cédula, by virtue of which he had liberated other Indians in Santo Domingo. The vecinos denied that this was in proper order, though they were in error. Moreover, they contended that they had held the slaves for a long time and had brought and traded them, so that titles could not be presented. Nevertheless, Cerrato had the arms of the Indians branded “free,” and they were released.25

Having liberated the slaves in San Salvador, the president moved on to the new capital at Santiago. Again, he lost no time in calling to account those who held Indian chattels. Many of those natives were used in cuadrillas to work the mines, and without their labor the mining stopped. Cerrato announced that the Spaniards involved had ten days within which to demonstrate their legitimate hold on the slaves. The cabildo grumbled that this was done “without admitting doubt or giving the parties a hearing; and notwithstanding the causes they gave him ... he freed the slaves and took fifty cuadrillas that were taking gold and silver out of the mines, so that Your Majesty lost a great quantity that went to his fifths.” Again the brand - “libre” - was placed on the arms of the liberated Indians.26

Next Cerrato turned his attention to Chiapas where, as in Guatemala, las Casas wrote that “the great number of slaves they made is incredible.”27 Conditions in that province were so bad that the Council of the Indies had sent a juez pesquisidor from Mexico to investigate, but his influence had been ephemeral.28 Cerrato then sent his cousin, Gonzalo Hidalgo de Montemayor, armed with the authority of a royal judge and invested with broad powers to liberate the slaves and to reassess the heavy tributes. Arriving at Easter, he released the slaves along with the naborías.29 The president dispatched other agents to effect the same reforms in Nicaragua, where there had been flagrant abuses.

The alacrity with which Cerrato moved stunned the conquistadores and put them hors de combat before they could effectively rally their defenses. When they recovered, it would be to base their appeals on various positions: the brusque character of Cerrato; the resulting loss of revenues for the Crown; the threatened evacuation of the provinces; the exaggerated claims of abuses against the Indians; and the need for Spanish supervision over the conquered peoples. Even though the liberation of most of the slaves was very quickly a fait accompli, some colonists remained sanguine of repeal. If the Emperor could be convinced of the errors of Cerrato’s ways, perhaps the crisis would pass like the earlier threat of the New Laws.

“It seems,” the cabildo of Santiago wrote, “that this man was sent only to put fire to this land.”30 “The president is so rigorous and so unpleasant, and gives us such bad responses, that we are afraid and terrified. He has us in his grasp.”31 He was, the regidores stated, “so wild, so coarse and ill-bred that none can stand him nor give him recognition because of what he says and does.” His presence, they added, was ruining the economy of the country because no ships would put into port for fear of the president.32

Not only did the members of the cabildo consider Cerrato to be a boorish tyrant, but they were of the opinion that he was unfit because of senility. According to them, he countermanded his own orders the same day he issued them, to suit his caprice. He insulted the Spaniards, calling them traitors, thieves, and other names that were unmentionable. He was so unrefined that,

If he invites someone to eat who is not married, he says, “Get married;” and if the guest answers that he does not have the means, but that if Cerrato would provide them, he would marry, Cerrato answers that he does not have charge of such things. And if some conquistador or poblador who is married is invited by Cerrato to eat, Cerrato says . . .. “Why did you get married?” And he adds that Your Majesty owes him nothing.33

After the president dealt harshly with one of the regidores, an elderly and honored conquistador, the cabildo members said they dared not even form a meeting, as was customary and mandatory.34 They suggested that Cerrato’s behavior must have been motivated by the design of Satan.35

One of the most prolix of the president’s critics was fray Francisco Bustamante. After praising the Emperor’s great benignity and clemency in treating with the rebellious Lutherans (all of which, the writer said, had moved him to tears), he finally got to the point: that since His Majesty had had the magnanimity to pardon the heretics, it should not be difficult to be reasonable toward the good souls of Guatemala, who had, contrary to the Protestants, remained very loyal; that surrounded by fire (the treason of Pizarro, the Contreras rebels, and earthquakes), they had not been burned. The fact was, he continued, that others had tried to persuade him not to write to the King about the sorry state of affairs in the colony because of the influence Cerrato had at court, and, “that to write something that shows his faults would be like spitting at the sky, and tantamount to putting a stigma on the writer in the eyes of Your Majesty.”36

The cabildo of Chiapas wrote that, “Cerrato arrived in this land with such fury and arrogance that if we had rebelled against Your Royal Crown we would not have expected such wild measures or bad language.” If Cerrato remained, the land would be on the brink of hell.37

It has been observed that Cerrato enjoyed the confidence and support of las Casas, and his work found favor with the Dominicans generally. But such harmony was not invariably the case with other men of the Church. Bishop Marroquín of Guatemala was widely held in high esteem, and historians have viewed him as one of the few of his time in Central America who demonstrated qualities of statesmanship. At the same time, his title of “Protector of the Indians” notwithstanding, it can hardly be said that he defended his charges with any passion. On the contrary, he chose a moderate course that had the effect of indulging the Spaniards, more than protecting the natives. Despite the excesses of Pedro de Alvarado, the prelate had supported the adelantado on most issues. Hence it is not surprising that Marroquín clashed with las Casas, and the conflict extended to Cerrato. Relations between the bishop and the president were not unfriendly in the beginning, but then Marroquín began to press unsolicited counsel on Cerrato.38 Cerrato was not a man to be easily dissuaded, and when the prelate’s advices went unheeded Marroquín began writing to Spain to protest, as well as signing some of the cabildo correspondence wherein Cerrato was vilified. In response, the Crown not only supported its president, but also rebuked the bishop by writing that, “we are astonished at your bad opinion of what Licenciado Cerrato had accomplished.” Marroquín was reminded that he was charged with the well-being of the natives and that his duties did not include disapproval of what the Crown had decreed for their benefit. Furthermore, Cerrato’s performance was considered to have been a service, and the bishop was admonished to cease his criticism and to assist in the implementing of the president’s reforms.39

The prelate’s dignity was further wounded by a cédula written two weeks earlier. Reference was made to the implication of his malfeasance in the disbursement of Church funds, without his having rendered an account; of not co-operating with other officials; and of utilizing Indian slaves for the construction of a church. The final cut was its order that the matter of financial accounting be entrusted to Licenciado Cerrato, “of whose rectitude and conscience we are aware.”40 Bancroft states that “Bishop Marroquín’s remonstrances with Cerrato only developed hostile feelings in the latter which were publicly evinced by his absenting himself for a long time from the services of the church, conducted by the prelate.”41 However, the president’s own explanation of his absence was that he was suffering so much from a kidney stone and an illness of the urine that he had to spend six months in bed. He went on to say that if he missed regular services, he also had Mass said to him daily in his house.42

The stance of Marroquín was crucial because of his position in the community. For years the bishop had commanded the respect of his fellow Spaniards and, at least before the coming of Cerrato, that of the Crown as well. Following the death of Alvarado in 1541, Marroquín had even shared power in the secular administration of Guatemala. The rude intrusion of Cerrato in community affairs not only diminished the bishop’s influence locally, but resulted in his loss of prestige at court. Marroquín, backed by the secular clergy and many prominent vecinos, was an opponent Cerrato could ill afford.

Cerrato was often critical of the secular clergy. He was persuaded that many of them had shirked their responsibilities and that the problems of the land were in no small measure their fault. In his residencia he faced charges that he had entered a church armed, thereby giving a bad example to Spaniards and Indians alike. Moreover, it was alleged that he was in the habit of calling some priests “scoundrels, thieves, robbers and other similar names.”43 There is no persuasive evidence to indicate Cerrato’s lack of piety, and it was primarily his concern for the natives that brought him into collision with the churchmen, as with the encomenderos. In rebuttal to the accusation that he had dealt too severely with priests, he insisted that the clerics had beaten the Indians and exploited them, selling them wine and taking their cacao.44

The president acknowledged, however, that the task of the men of the Church was difficult because of conflicting interests with the encomenderos:

There was no doctrine among the Indians, nor [was there a] friar or religious who dared to preach it or enter into the villages to do so, because they [the encomenderos] said that it was not necessary for the Indians to know any other “doctrine” except to serve their masters and to pay them their tributes. And in all the ways they could they prevented the Indians from knowing that there was justice or anything else except to serve and pay tribute to their encomenderos. And if some friars or religious went to preach to them [the Indians] or to indoctrinate them, they [the encomenderos] threw them from the village and did not consent. And it happened that while a friar was preaching to the Indians their encomendero (or one of his slaves) entered, and with slaps and blows took the Indians out of the church so that they might serve their master and not hear the doctrine.45

It was the monks of the Dominican Order who wielded the most influence of any in the Church, both among the Indians and with respect to official policy. This was especially true in Chiapas, where there had been bitter confrontations between the settlers and the bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas. Since his views were in concert with those of Cerrato, many perceived some conspiracy against the colonists. Some went even further by contending that the president was a tool of the friars and that it was they who really gave the orders. Antonio de Remesal later would write that Cerrato greatly favored the Dominicans, and that he gave great credit to them in everything that touched on the natives.46 The regidores of Ciudad Real (Chiapas) stated that the friars had taken over the services of the freed slaves for them-selves, while at the same time reporting infractions on the part of the colonists to Cerrato.47 Equally incensed was the cabildo of Santiago, whose members wrote the Emperor that the president feared to cross the monks, whose ambitions were such that they wanted to defend their interests “with sword and lance,” and not as religious. As a consequence, they were going to ruin everything. The ex-slaves now served the Dominicans in their former capacity, and the friars enjoyed more personal service than the colonists ever had. Tamemes had been taken from the Spaniards, the regidores noted, but they continued to serve the churchmen in the same old way. Just a few days before, they said, a large group of 400 tamemes had entered the city loaded down with cargoes, and though Cerrato and his judges saw them, they excused it because the Indians were carrying goods for the friars.48

There is little doubt that the presence of the Dominicans was a mixed blessing; for if many of them did perform outstanding services to the benefit of the natives, it is also true that they did not uniformly follow the philosophy of their brother las Casas. Aside from their use of Indian labor in commercial schemes, they exploited their charges in various other ways. They did not always hesitate to use the lash to cope with what they considered to be intransigence on the part of the Indians.49

Despite the alleged meddling of the friars, however, it was the Audiencia that enforced the legislation-or, more precisely, Cerrato. For the Spaniards inferred that the other oidores of the Audiencia were nothing more than creatures of Cerrato, holding their posts at his pleasure. Consequently, they had little voice in affairs. According to this view, Licenciado Pedro Ramírez had stated that he was Cerrato’s oidor, not the King’s.50 Ramírez had, nonetheless, written the Crown, acclaiming the good work of the president, especially with the Indian policy, and he elaborated as follows:

He has such care and rectitude in complying with that which touches on the service of Your Majesty that it seems to me convenient that he alone provide for the things of government, and that he be given a private commission; because at times matters that are expedient await provision because of not all [the oidores] being present, as it sometimes happens. Nor, even, are they done with such care when charged to many as when the charge is to one only. And even the distribution of the Indians can be made by him alone rather than by all. In the visitation of the district it is suitable that the president name the provinces that each oidor has to visit, because each one wants to go to the best land and to where there is less expense and less work.51

Ramírez wrote this opinion about a year after Cerrato arrived, but it is quite possible that the oidor later became disillusioned. Or it may have been that he was anxious to avoid responsibility and to disassociate himself from the controversial reforms, in which case we may surmise that praise was merely an oblique ruse by which Ramírez hoped to extricate himself from the unpleasantness that lay ahead. It does seem entirely clear that Cerrato dominated his audiencia, but he disclaimed sole responsibility; to the contrary, he resented the inference that all the reforms were his doing alone. Decisions, he insisted, derived from the consensus and votes of both Ramírez and Licenciado Rogel, yet all the blame fell on him, so that he alone was seen as the enemy of the colonists.52 The president’s concern doubtless went beyond considerations of his popularity in Central America. He must have been acutely familiar with the chaos that had followed the attempt to enforce the New Laws in Peru, and it is understandable that he was reluctant to take sole responsibility in the event of such developments in Guatemala. His fears were at least partially justified, as he was later blamed by some for the rebellion in Nicaragua. Moreover, it is likely that the vision of Núñez de Vela’s end had crossed his mind.

The president’s detractors could produce little that translates as concrete malfeasance. The closest they came to it was to bring charges of indiscriminate nepotism. Cerrato felt little constrained to put up a forceful defense of the practice, because it was a charge to which almost every official in the Indies would have had to plead guilty. The ubiquitous relatives gathered for the spoils, and scrupulous as he was in most respects, Cerrato gratified their desires.53 Perhaps most meaningful is the fact that those who censured him for this deviation stressed not so much the principle involved, but rather what they considered to be the disastrous consequences of his appointments. The cabildo of Gracias a Dios, complaining of his choices, wrote the King, requesting a decree to the effect that only oidores could be named visitadores, “because many times your president and oidores provide as visitors personas idiotas who have eyes only for their own interests and do not provide justice.”54

Inasmuch as Cerrato’s own character was central to the vecinos’ case, it is pertinent to note their comments on the nature of his nepotism, for it was one of the few aspects of his administration subject to proper criticism. Doubtless, the settlers hoped to discredit the president’s whole program by putting the man himself in disrepute, and if that proved futile there was at least the satisfaction of putting into question his integrity. The disgruntled Francisco de Bañuelos, whose services had been rejected by Cerrato, sent a dispatch to Charles V, in which he made allusion to the impoverished conditions of the conquistadores. He repeated the old charge that, while those men had gained the Indians in warfare, many of them were left without encomiendas. At the same time, the president was parceling out Indians and polítical plums to friends and relatives who arrived after the land was pacified. In the province of Nicaragua he had given his brother, Dr. Cerrato, two repartimientos belonging to Captains Machuca and Calero, distinguished for the exploration of the desaguadero. President Cerrato sent his cousin, Gonzalo Hidalgo, “a man of very low manner,” to visit Chiapas, where he stole two thousand pesos from the settlers and took away their Indians. To Nombre de Dios and Panama the president sent as governor and juez de residencia a Juan Barba Vallezillo, his close friend from the Santo Domingo days. According to the writer, this official stole more than ten thousand castellanos during his seven months there, after which he fled to Guatemala where he was given refuge by the president. Cerrato’s friends and servants were sent to Nicaragua on three different occasions as visitadores, and their actions contributed to the rebellion that subsequently occurred there.55

The cabildo of Santiago added that Cerrato appointed a cousin to the post of contador, while a servant was made relator and awarded a corregimiento. Another servant was named portero of the Audiencia and also given a corregimiento. But when honorable conquistadores requested assistance they were given pittances. In particular Cerrato’s largess to his brother was resented. Dr. Cerrato, in addition to the repartimientos in Nicaragua, had a corregimiento and an expense account. Even though, as a lawyer, he was a man with qualifications, it was said that he had killed a man in Spain. And, the regidores asserted, despite his having arrived a short time before in very reduced circumstances, he quickly became rich.

Furthermore, the cabildo pointed out that another of Cerrato’s cousins was named visitador de minas. The president sent a friend as juez de residencia to Yucatán where, “wishing to imitate the president in cruelty,” he caused a great scandal. In order to ingratiate himself in Spain, Cerrato had awarded to the brother-in-law of Gregorio López, a member of the Council of the Indies, some Indians in Gracias a Dios, without the recipient having been in the land for even a year. To a wealthy miner who was married to a sister-in-law of the same López, he also gave an encomienda.56 Finally, it was said that the president had passed encomiendas to his daughter and a niece.57

Later, in his residencia, Cerrato did not deny that he had favored his relatives and friends, though he did attempt to mitigate the circumstances. He rejected the accusation that other worthy individuals had been ignored, and he pointed out that, in fact, he had given Indians to conquistadores, listing sixteen such grantees. More than that, he named twelve married men to whom he had given encomiendas, including at least one recipient who had disparaged him Bernal Díaz del Castillo.58

Cerrato admitted that he had given grants to his brother and Gonzalo López, but added that they were in Nicaragua, a land “muy doliente y peligrosa.” Owing to the nature of that province, both Dr. Cerrato and his wife had died, as had López. He had given Indians to his son-in-law, Sancho Cano, but that was before Cano had married his daughter. In any event, the encomienda was in San Miguel, which he described as a sad and lonely place. In that province Cano, three of his sons and two nephews had died. All these people, the president stated, had come with their families to settle the land as honorable citizens. There were many repartimientos in Santiago which by themselves were worth more than all of those given to his relatives.59

Cerrato was clearly culpable in the matter of favoritism, but he was merely indulging in what had been established practice in the Indies from the beginning of Spanish occupation, and the charges apparently caused no great concern at court.60 Although administrators were enjoined to give primary consideration to conquistadores and married men among the earliest settlers when dispensing repartimientos and offices, it was customary for favorites of those in power to be rewarded. Conversely, those at odds with those governing, regardless of their qualifications, were often given little or nothing. A change in power ordinarily saw a turnover of encomenderos. While this custom was to the detriment of many deserving Spaniards, it came to be accepted as a matter of course, as a consequence of practical politics. Cerrato’s response consisted of weak rationalizations in the matter of nepotism, but his overall record is remarkably free from corruption. It is significant that in all of the various charges posted against him there was no attempt to show that Cerrato personally took advantage of his position for financial gain, as was the case with so many other officials.

We can reasonably assume that much of the invective aimed at Cerrato was hyperbole; but even if we concede that there was some substance to the allegations regarding his idiosyncrasies, the fact remains that much of the criticism was dissimulation and simply not germane to the critical issues. The Crown had given its fiat liberating all slaves held illegally, and the president had executed the mandate. Instead of complaining about the character of Cerrato, there were those who saw that the more rational approach was to convince the Crown of the integrity of two basic premises: 1) that the slaves were, in truth, not so badly treated, and that 2) without slavery the King’s colony would collapse. The vecinos would be hard put to convince humanitarians of the first of these, though the second had possibilities.

If conditions had actually been as some colonists stated, policy makers in far off Spain could easily enough have justified perpetual slavery because of the concomitant benefits to the Indians. But the speciosity of the proposition becomes evident to one familiar with the realities of the situation. No doubt there were masters who treated favorite slaves with kindness or even affection, but unless the documents greatly deceive us, the lot of most slaves was detestable. Yet, in their fancy, the vecinos could write of the close and amiable relationship that existed. The regidores wrote that, “In no manner can these [Indians] we have here be called slaves either in esteem or in treatment. The only ones lacking doctrine are those gathering gold, and that could easily be remedied.”61 The cabildo went on to say:

Know, Your Majesty, that the slaves of this city and pueblo have been—and are—so well treated that almost all of them have so much freedom that it is excessive; because the owners have no accounting of them, other than to see that they make some plantings for themselves and their masters, with very moderate service.

And they go where they wish and return when it pleases them. They have, and know, the doctrine in abundance. All this liberty comes because their masters love them so much, and they are not considered as slaves, but as true sons.

We promise Your Majesty that for no price would the Spaniard give one of them away because he loves them. And there are many who, if they had wished to sell them, would have had to have seven, or eight, or even ten thousand pesos for them.62

Such patently absurd remarks as the last are intriguing because one cannot help being astonished by the extremes to which the writers were willing to go. At a time when a slave could be purchased for about fifty—and certainly not more than a hundred—pesos, what possessed the regidores, presumably the most distinguished men of the community, to make such an incredible statement to their sovereign? Surely the members of the Council of the Indies would dismiss these wild protestations with ridicule. But such, apparently, was the desperation of the vecinos, seeing the crumbling of their estates.

Later, complaining that the friars had alienated the affections of the Indians for the settlers, the cabildo wrote that, “the truth is that we love them [the Indians] very much, more so than they [the friars] do; and we wish them all the good that they could wish for themselves.”63 This affection felt by the Spaniards for the natives had been mutual, or so the Emperor was informed. But the machinations of the Dominicans, and now the temerity of Cerrato, had spoiled this familial relationship. The friars, they lamented, considered the colonists to be enemies of the Indians, and they had convinced the natives of it. With the favor shown to the Indians by the president, affairs had come to such a state where the Indians were impudent; “they do not recognize us; rather, they despise us. How much harm this might be only time will tell.”64 The disaffection of the Indians was, the vecinos maintained, a traumatic experience for the natives.

While this fine of reasoning was on the whole rather pathetic, there were more rational arguments offered which might have warranted a more gradual transition, as opposed to the abrupt cleavage favored by Cerrato. Even though most of the appeals for moderation derived more from emotion than logic, the letter of fray Francisco Bustamante, written to the Monarch in 1551, put the matter into a better perspective. He pointed out that there were various categories of slaves, and that some distinction should be made among them. Cerrato, Bustamante said, had freed all the slaves belonging to Spaniards, while allowing native caciques to retain theirs. The justification for that procedure was not quite clear to the writer. His proposal to the president had been to allow a year or two to provide for the progressive diminution of slaves in the mines to avoid the serious economic dislocations that would surely result from immediate and general manumission. During this phasing-out period Negroes could be acquired to take over duties of the Indians. Until then the native slaves could be paid for their labor, and it could be seen that they were well treated and not used in excessively dangerous or arduous work.

Granted that the Indians working the mines suffered considerably, those working in the fields, in Bustamante’s view, were in altogether different circumstances. Those laborers, he noted,

worked the land with the master giving them their own land to till, and in some cases even a house in which to live. They worked so many days of the week for themselves and so many for their master. Can these be called slaves, Your Majesty? I told him [Cerrato] that it appeared to me that they were like the renteros of Spain, and that it was not slavery; that if the days they worked for their masters were many, this could be moderated and reduced. But they should not be taken away. That would be a great harm to the republic because those milpas of wheat and com were the principal provision of this city, and if the slaves were to be taken away there would be no one to plant and harvest.65

As for those occupied in households, their conditions were comparatively favorable, though they should be free and paid for their labor. But as they did not have excessive work and could remain with their families, they should be obliged to serve the Spaniards. Quite a different matter still was the situation of the slaves who served as apprentices to master artisans. After the Spanish maestro had spent three or four years teaching an Indian a trade, the apprentice was taken away from him so that he was not able to recover his investment. This was contrary even to the arrangement between master and apprentice in Spain, where the student had to repay his teacher.66 All things considered, there was some merit in what Bustamante said, but Cerrato would have none of it.

It was the contention of the vecinos that the Indians, removed from the paternalism of their masters, were worse off than before, going around “like crazy men,” confused about what was taking place. “And if we are discontented,” the Santiago cabildo wrote, “much more so are the natives.”67 In addition, the disturbing changes were making them indolent. The Indians no longer feared the Spaniards, and they were becoming covetous and shameless.68 It was also pointed out by Bustamante that by 1551, two years after Cerrato’s arrival in Guatemala, the natives had less Christianity than ever, and that there was less order and more carnality, thievery and idleness. He went on to say that,

Drunkenness is almost continuous and very common in the last two years in this area; and it is the root of all their evil and sins because from this comes idolatry, incest and enormous sins committed with mother, daughter and sister. . .. And if we tell him [Cerrato] to punish them because it is an infernal vice among them and deserving of great punishment, he replies that the Indians should not enter the faith because of beatings and whippings; and that the Moriscos of Granada also get drunk as do some Christians.69

There was persistent criticism that Cerrato preferred the Indians over the Europeans, and that the president himself admitted it. According to the regidores, this had led to lack of respect among the natives for the colonists, so that they were emboldened to the point of maltreating the Spaniards.70 The Indians were becoming so independent that some of them refused to supply food even for the religious.71

Leaving aside the many diversionary arguments, the crucial factor was the economic pinch in which the vecinos found themselves. For although Cerrato’s principal concern was the liberation of the slaves, his broad reforms also resulted in the downward revision of tribute assessments, as well as the limited use of tamemes and other forms of personal service. Given the excessive dependence upon the Indians, these changes affected the whole style of life for the Spaniards. It was not just that their incomes were drastically reduced, but that they could no longer count on the many services which had lent some air of gentility to their otherwise crude frontier existence. Still, the most stunning blow of all was the abolishment of slavery, because it had the effect of almost halting mining production, agricultural output and construction work. So severe were the economic consequences that, if we can believe the many protests sent to the court, the very life of the colony was in great jeopardy. And the complaints rarely omitted reminding the Emperor of the losses to the royal coffers. The matter was complicated by the fact that liberated Indians had no desire to work even though they were paid wages. Instead, they became vagabonds.72 Not disposed to work themselves, many Spaniards had indeed packed up to seek opportunities in Peru or other areas, and some lost hope and returned to Spain.

The image of Cerrato, the man, based on the descriptions of his critics is quite different from his own self-effacing comments. Considering his actions, and bearing in mind that almost everyone in that turbulent kingdom detested him, we could easily enough conclude that he was a man of iron, indifferent to threats and slander. But on April 1, 1549, less than a year after his arrival in Central America, he wrote to Charles V as follows:

I am in no condition for the Indies, and I am going on sixty years of age. I no longer have any teeth, nor hair, nor beard, nor sufficient strength for so much work. I ask for no other mercy than the license to go to Spain to die as a Christian.73

A few months after arrival at his new post Cerrato had observed that the position was very demanding for one of his years, especially in a land of such unruly people.74 He was well aware of the intense dislike of the colonists for him, as he told his sovereign that he was regarded as a heretic, traitor, destroyer and depopulator. And, he said, “I have worked-and still work-so hard that [the Indians] might be well treated that I am so hated by the Spaniards for this reason that it is incredible.”75 Probably the only other person so heartily detested was Bartolomé de las Casas. Both were seen as ruinous: the friar for his diatribes that helped bring about the New Laws, and the president for having applied them. Of the two, Cerrato has remained by far the more obscure. Most of his views were contained in official reports to the Crown, uncolored by the drama that characterizes the polemics of the Bishop of Chiapas. Cerrato’s remarks tended to be pithy and concerned with practical matters, while las Casas drew on spectacular examples and was more preoccupied with the philosophical arguments. Cerrato was more a man of action than a thinker. But perhaps the restrained writings of the president were in their way almost as influential as those of las Casas, at least with regard to conditions in Central America in the middle of the sixteenth century. Certainly the reports of Cerrato were the more credible, and the Dominican’s assertions must have been suspect in Spain, even to his adherents. For example, he and the Bishop of Nicaragua, alluding to the misbehavior of the first audiencia, alleged that President Maldonado and his associates held more than 60,000 Indians.76 While las Casas weakened his cause by such obvious distortions, Cerrato gave figures that probably were close to the mark.

Aside from the reforms Cerrato effected, there were other reasons for vecinos to write against him. Like all officials, he made some enemies in the course of his administration, and he protested that it was for personal reasons that some complained of him. In his residencia, following custom, he fisted several witnesses whose testimony was suspect. From some he had taken encomiendas; others had been fined for various infractions; one man’s wife had been convicted by Cerrato as a procuress and exiled; a clergyman had been imprisoned for whipping an Indian who denied him his daughter; one vecino had threatened “to drink my blood,” because he did not receive sustenance from the president, and so on.77 If the officials of Seville were going to take the word of ill-humored Spaniards returning to Spain, there was nothing left to do, Cerrato said, “but to order me to cut off my head.”78

It was doubtless owing to the fact that royal laws had been flouted for so long that Cerrato’s vigorous application of them was seen as fanaticism, and the colonists of the Audiencia district resented their being “persecuted” while other kingdoms were exempt. The president wrote Charles V, with the signature of the oidor Ramírez affixed, of the position in which he had been placed merely for having executed the royal will:

It is very much thrown in my face that neither this nor anything like it is observed in the Audiencia of Mexico; and so it seems to them that we do them [the vecinos] a great harm, and it gives them a great opportunity to complain about us. We humbly request that Your Majesty order what would best serve in a way that the complaints about us would be excused, and that [the laws] be carried out the same in all parts; because there is no reason to do it in one area and not in another.79

In view of the violence that was so prevalent in Central America at the time, Cerrato ran a real risk of being assassinated. Indeed, there seems to have been such a conspiracy.80 Moreover, in a period when rebellions were not uncommon, it is curious that there was no direct uprising against Cerrato and his reforms. To be sure there were tumultuous reactions in Nicaragua, but owing only in part to the actions of the second Audiencia. Perhaps the best explanation is that there was no truly unified opposition. As it was, Cerrato had dared to risk the wrath of the colonists and, somehow, made the reforms stick. With Crown support, there was at last an efficacious liberation of Indian chattels. By 1550 the lot of the natives was, in most respects, notably improved. It is true that abuses of the Indians would continue in different forms,81 but there is a very perceptible change evident in the manuscripts dated after the middle of the century, and in large measure the improvement can be attributed to the courage of Alonso López de Cerrato.

Despite his illness and advanced age, Cerrato was not allowed to return to Spain to die, as he had wished. He continued to serve in Guatemala until his death in 1555, which occurred before the completion of his residencia. His fellow Spaniards never ceased to curse him during his lifetime, even though by the time of his passing it was becoming apparent that the provinces would survive the momentous changes that had taken place. While the colonists still depended upon wage-earning Indian laborers, there was also an increased use of Negro slavery. And some settlers no doubt gave positive consideration to what las Casas had in mind when he defended the reforms made by Cerrato:

If the tributes of the Indians of the province of Guatemala are not enough for a hundred vecinos of the city of Guatemala [Santiago], nor for the seventy of Chiapa, [then] let the Spaniards restrain themselves so that there will not be so many who eat and do not work, and so that many will return to their crafts (for they used to be craftsmen), and so they might quit being “caballeros” by the sweat and blood of the miserable and afflicted [Indians].82

Cerrato’s role in Spanish colonial history is singular because of his enforcement of the New Laws at a time when other officials hesitated to do so. Once he demonstrated that it could be done, even in the face of great opposition, other kingdoms quickly followed his course. For this reason his successful implementation of royal legislation was a significant victory for the Crown in its struggle for control in the colonies. Furthermore, his reforms, and the subsequent application of the laws elsewhere, effectively ended the shameful chapter of institutionalized native chattel slavery in the colonies. That such changes would first take place in tumultuous Central America is all the more curious, especially in view of the relatively weak royal bureaucracy there. Much of the credit must go to the disinterested zeal of Cerrato himself, but there are other considerations which probably had a bearing on his success. The failure to implement the New Laws in Peru may be attributed to the anarchy that prevailed in that kingdom. In New Spain Viceroy Mendoza chose to withhold the legislation to prevent a possible rebellion; but had he been willing to risk the consequences it would certainly have strengthened royal authority and probably would have led to earlier application of reforms in other regions. In the instance of the Audiencia of Guatemala two distinct factors were present which helped Cerrato accomplish his ends. First, his actions came five years after the publication of the New Laws, as a result of which later reforms were not totally unexpected; other decrees from the Crown calling for enforcement of the Laws had led to a gradual awareness of the growing royal concern, as opposed to the sudden shock of 1543. And second, Pedro de Alvarado had been killed in 1541, and no other strong caudillo type emerged to effectively unite the conquistadores in resistance to the Crown. Had there been such a powerful individual to lead the vecinos Cerrato very likely would have failed.

But most important was the fact that Cerrato dared to make the attempt where others, understandably, had retreated. By defying almost all segments of Central America’s Spanish population, he set a precedent and performed one of the most amazing feats of administration in the history of Spanish colonial America. It might be argued—as indeed it was at the time-that Cerrato’s methods were so harsh and unyielding as to be counter-productive. Would a more moderate approach, such as that suggested by Bustamante, have been more beneficial? Perhaps so. But experience had shown that nebulous rulings invited confusion, delay and bitter misunderstandings. Taking into account all the various elements that combined to frustrate a just policy for the Indians, a clear and firm imperial plan had to be applied by a resolute official. In Cerrato the Crown found such a man.


Licenciado Alonso López de Cerrato to the Crown (Santiago: September22, 1548), Archivo General de Indias (hereinafter cited as AGI), Guatemala 9. Twelve years earlier, Bartolomé de las Casas had written from Granada, Nicaragua, that 52,000 slaves had been taken out from that province—27,000 to Peru and another 25,000 to Panama. Henry R. Wagner and Helen R. Parish, The Life and Writings of Bartolomé de las Casas (Albuquerque, 1967), p. 82.


Cartas del Perú, 1525-1543, Colección de Documentos Inéditos para la Historia del Perú, publicado por Raúl Porras Barrenechea (Lima, 1959), pp. 170-171. The writer, Francisco Sánches, maintained that in Nicaragua the native population had been reduced by four-fifths because of the cruelty. A third of them had been illegally branded as slaves and shipped out of the area, which was the same as a death sentence.


Licenciado Francisco Castañeda to the Crown (León: May 1, 1533), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Historia General de los Hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra-Firme del Mar Océano, 4 vols. (Madrid, 1726-1730), Dec. IV, Lib. III, Cap. II.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: June 1, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cerrato to the Crown (Gracias a Dios: September 28, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 9. According to Cerrato, the attitude of the oidores was in part prompted by their desire to be well liked by the vecinos.


Cerrato and Licenciado Grajeda to the Crown (Santo Domingo: April 24, 1545), AGI, Santo Domingo 49, ramo 1.


Prince Philip in Provisión Real to Cerrato (Valladolid: April 24, 1545), AGI, Santo Domingo 868, lib. II, fols. 244v-245, and Prince Philip in Provisión Real to Cerrato (Madrid: December 13, 1545), AGI, Santo Domingo 868, lib. II, fols. 278v-279v.


R. P. Fray Tomás de la Torre, Desde Saimanca, España, hasta Ciudad Real, Chiapas, Diario del Viaje, 1544-1545, prólogo y notas por Frans Blom (México, 1944-45), pp. 94-95.


El Capitán Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra-Firme del Mar Océano, (Madrid, 1851-1855), 158. Cerrato protested that Oviedo had criticized him in blasphemous terms, adding an accusation of malfeasance against the chronicler. Cerrato to the Crown (Santo Domingo: July 29, 1546), AGI, Santo Domingo, ramo 5.


Cerrato to the Crown (Santo Domingo: December 18, 1547), AGI, Santo Domingo 40, ramo 5. Cerrato was not exaggerating when he told the King that he feared the complete disappearance of the natives on Española, as subsequently proved to be true.


Cerrato to the Crown (Santo Domingo: March 19, 1547), AGI, Santo Domingo 49, ramo 5.


Cerrato to the Crown (Santo Domingo: January 10, 1548), AGI, Santo Domingo 49, ramo 5.


Cerrato to the Crown (Santiago: April 8, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Cerrato to the Crown (Gracias a Dios: September 28, 1548), AGI Guatemala 9’


Cerrato to the Crown (Santiago: January 26, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Cerrato to the Crown (Santiago: April 8, 1549), AGI Guatemala 9.


So Cerrato called the period of the first Audiencia in his residencia (1553-1555), AGI, Justicia 301, fol. 738v.


Cenato to the Crown (Gracias a Dios: September 28, 1548), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Lesley B. Simpson, Studies in the Administration of the Indians in New Spain: IV, The Emancipation of the Indian Slaves and the Resettlement of the Freedmen, 1548-1553. Ibero-Americana, No. 16 (Berkeley, 1940), pp. 6-7.


Ibid., pp. 32-36. This remarkable document is also discussed in Silvio Zavala, Contribución a la Historia de las Instituciones Coloniales en Guatemala, Jomadas, No. 36 (México, 1945).


At that time Santiago probably had about 100 vecinos, though there were many more in the city without that status. It was reported that Santiago had 80 repartimientos. Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: April 30, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cerrato and Licenciado Ramírez to the Crown (Santiago: May 21, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Cerrato to the Crown (San Salvador: November 3, 1548), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: April 30, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41. Regarding the authority of the cédula brought from Santo Domingo, Zavala, Instituciones Coloniales en Guatemala, 41, writes, “Ya sabemos . . . que el presidente Cerrato tenía autorización para aplicar la cédula de Santo Domingo en la Audiencia de los Confines.”


“Testimonio” de la Audiencia (Santiago: March 22, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 965. It was not stated how many slaves were set free. The size of a cuadrilla varied, but some had as many as 100 slaves.


Bartolomé de las Casas to the Council of the Indies (n.p., n.d.), AGI, Patronato 252, ramo 9.


Francisco Ximénez, Historia de la Provincia de San Vicente de Chiapa y Guatemala de la Orden de Predicadores, 3 vols. (Guatemala, 1929-1931), I, 463. See also Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Central America, 3 vols. (San Francisco, 1882-1887), II, 333.


Residencia of Cerrato, AGI, Justicia 301. See also Antonio de Remesal, Historia General de las Indias Occidentales, y Particular de la Gobernación de Chiapa y Guatemala, 2 vols. (Guatemala, 1932), II, 237.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: March 10, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: May 6, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: January 29, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: January 24, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: April 30, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: March 10, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Fr. Francisco Bustamante to the Crown (Santiago: March 22, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 168.


Cabildo of Ciudad Real de Chiapa to the Crown (Ciudad Real: May 1, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Francisco de Bañuelos to the Crown (Santa Fe de Guatemala: June 15, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 45.


“Respuesta al obpo de guatimala (sic),” (August 4, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 393, lib. III, fol. 172.


Real Provisión (August 19, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 393, lib. III, fols. 181v-182.


Bancroft, Central America, II, 327.


Residencia of Cerrato, AGI, Justicia 301.


“Cargos” in Ibid.


“Descargos” in Ibid.




Remesal, Historia General, II, 203.


Cabildo of Ciudad Real de Chiapa to the Crown (Ciudad Real: May 1, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 44.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: June 1, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


There are many instances documented. See, for example, Friars Cárdenas and de la Torre to the Crown (Estancia de Çoncocuylco” November 12, 1552), AGI, Guatemala 168.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: September 15, 1549), and Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: January 25, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Lic. Ramírez to the Crown (“Guatemala”: May 25, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Residencia of Cerrato, AGI, Justicia 301.


This custom came to gall the colonists, who were most often the victim of the practice of nepotism, because it was from them that sinecures and Indians were usually taken. When a new governor was to be named for Nicaragua in 1535, the vecinos wrote the King, begging him not to appoint one from Spain, because “even though he was a saint he would destroy the land.” The reason, as they had learned by experience, was that officials arriving from the Peninsula generally came in need, with debts, relatives, friends and servants. Since the officials felt obliged to provide for all of them, every kind of abuse resulted. Cabildo of Granada to the Crown (Granada: July 30, 1535), cited in Cartas del Perú, pp. 169-170, and Francisco Sanches to the Crown (Granada: August 2, 1535), in ibid., pp. 170-171.


Cabildo of Gracias a Dios to the Crown (Gracias a Dios: April 10, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 44.


Francisco de Bañuelos to the Crown (Santa Fe de Guatemala: June 16, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 45.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: January 25, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Ciudad Real de Chiapa to the Crown (Ciudad Real: May 1, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 44.


“Descargos” in Residencia of Cerrato, AGI, Justicia 301.




However, in 1552, Prince Philip did send a provision in which he noted the encomiendas given to Dr. Cerrato and Cano, and ordered that the conquistadores and married pobladores be given first consideration. At the same time, Cerrato was cautioned to be more moderate in the language he used with merchants. Prince Philip in Provisión Real to Cerrato (Monçón: June 11, 1552), AGI, Guatemala 386, fols. 44-44v.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: May 6, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.




Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: September 15, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.




Fr. Francisco Bustamante to the Crown (Santiago: March 22, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 168.




Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: September 15, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: May 6, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Fr. Francisco Bustamante to the Crown (Santiago: March 22, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 168.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: January 24, 1550) AGI, Guatemala 41.


Fr. Francisco Bustamante to the Crown (Santiago: September 15, 1551), AGI, Guatemala 168.


Cabildo of Santiago to the Crown (Santiago: January 24, 1550), AGI, Guatemala 41.


Rodolfo Barón Castro, La Población de El Salvador (Madrid, 1942), p. 190.


Cerrato to the Crown (Gracias a Dios: September 28, 1548), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Barón Castro, La población de El Salvador, p. 190.


Francis A. McNutt, Bartholomew de las Casas, His Life, His Apostolate, and His Writings (New York and London, 1909), pp. 255-256.


Residencia of Cerrato, AGI, Justicia 301.


Cerrato to the Crown (Santiago: April 8, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 9.


Cerrato and Lic. Ramírez to the Crown (Santiago: May 21, 1549), AGI, Guatemala 9. See Simpson, Administration of the Indians, for comments on the liberation of slaves in other regions.


“Interrogatorio” in Residencia of Cerrato, AGI, Justicia 301.


Exploitation of native labor by the beginning of the seventeenth century is discussed in William L. Sherman, “Abusos contra los Indios de Guatemala: Relaciones del Obispo, 1602-1605,” in Cahiers du Monde Hispanique et Luso-Brésilien (Caravelle), No. 11, 1968.


Sobre la Libertad de los indios esclavos que poseían los españoles en la provincia de Guatimala (sic),” B. de las Casas to the Council of the Indies (n.p., n.d), AGI, Patronato 252, ramo 9.

Author notes


The author is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska.