Project 500 Years
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Project 500 Years

Key developments of 1536, and notes on Catholicism and the Spanish Empire

The Turkish actor Okan Yalabik playing Ibrahim Pasha in the hit 2011 t.v. series Muhteşem Yüzyıl.

The main themes of 1536 CE that had a bearing on the continuing emergence of European-origined empires were as follows:

  • In January, the Spanish-backed Franciscans established the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, in Mexico City. It was described as “the oldest European school of higher learning in the Americas.” The Franciscans, it turns out, were key allies of Charles V in his empire-building ventures in the Americas. (As were, at various stages the Dominicans and the Jesuits.) This raises a number of interesting questions. How did the Franciscan monks get to deviate so very, very far from the eirenic teachings of Francis of Assisi? And more broadly, what were the roles of Catholicism and Catholic religious institutions in the Spanish imperial project? A little more on this below. But it’s also worth noting that the 1536 experiment of the Colegio was later deemed a failure, with the natives “considered too new in the faith to be ordained.” English-WP tells us that in 1537 Pope Paul III did graciously issue a bull, Sublimis Deus, declaring that natives “were capable of becoming Christians.”
  • Lots more religious roiling in the heartland of Europe. Including that William Tyndale, who’d translated the Bible into English was burned at the stake in Flanders.
  • Lots more founding of Spanish settler-cities in Central and South America, and seizing by conquistadores of new lands, including in Chile.
  • In England, Henry VIII was on a roll. Parliament enacted the Dissolution of the Monasteries and I’m guessing that all the riches contained therein conveyed directly in the state coffers. (Take that, Pope!) However, Henry had already tired of Anne Boleyn and had her executed, speedily marrying Jane Seymour instead.
  • Meantime, the legal system of Wales was incorporated into that of England… But up in the North of England there was a popular uprising against Henry’s reforms of the church.
  • The rivalry/enmity between Spain’s King Charles V and France’s Francis I continued. In February , the French concluded a very favorable-looking trade agreement with Charles’s longtime enemy Suleiman the Magnificent. Then, the two west-European monarchs sparred for control/influence in some parts of northern Italy.
  • In April, in Cusco (Cuzco), Peru, the current Incan emperor Yupanqui escaped from the prison the Spanish had been holding him in, and in May, rallying his supporters outside the city, he started a 10-month siege of the conquistador forces (led by Pizarro) who were holed up inside it.
  • In Turkey, Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who had been Suleiman the Magnificent’s Grand Vizier (Chief Minister) since 1523 and who was credited with much of the success of Suleiman’s diplomacy, was killed at the behest of Suleiman’s wife Roxelana, who then became her husband’s chief political advisor.

A quick first note about Catholicism and the Spanish Empire:

There will a lot more to say about this as we go forward. I should say at the outset that among European-heritage Christian bodies the Catholics were certainly not the only ones to become deeply embroiled in the project of empire. Just about all the other Christian denominations of Europe- including the Church of England in which I grew up, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) of which I’m now a member- were also deeply involved. Those involvements included not only the active participation by church bodies in the project of building settler colonies in lands conquered by European armies but also (and crucially) in providing essential ideological justification for the settler-colonial projects themselves and also for the very widespread practice of slavery that that accompanied them: the enslavement of the indigenes of those lands and of the millions of captive Africans or others who were transported thereto.

However, the Catholic church was the pioneer in fulfilling these essential functions for colonialism- and particularly, in regard to Spain’s very large-scale colonial project in the Americas.

We have seen, earlier, how the fight of the Iberian Catholics against Muslim control of some parts of the peninsula (the “Reconquista”) had led almost seamlessly into the first steps by both Portugal and Spain to “discover” the routes to, and then set up their different kinds of empires on, increasingly distant continents… And how the Portuguese, at least until their king established his captaincies in Brazil in 1534, had generally (but not always) contented themselves with building trading links with the established administrations of distant cities. But the Spanish, from the very beginning, seemed intent on capturing large tracts of land in distant places and all the human and natural resource contained therein; on controlling the indigenes there with whatever degree of brutality that required; and on implanting into those distant lands colonies of Spanish or Spanish-controlled peoples who could control the conquered lands in a continuing way.

To do that, they very evidently needed a strong religious justification for their actions. Indeed, for them, it was not just that their Catholic faith allowed them to pursue their brutal form of settler colonialism: it required that they do so, since their goal to was “Christianize” the whole world. Just as they had succeeded in doing in the Iberian Peninsula, with their Inquisition and everything else they had imposed on the native peoples there during the “Reconquista”- now, they set out to achieve the same outcome in the newly discovered Americas.

This informative 2013 blog post by Anton Stjepan Cebalo provides a good survey of the topic “Catholic Evangelism & Spanish Colonialism.” He writes:

Throughout the Spanish Empire, the Catholic Church worked alongside colonial interests to build on its influence although its prevalence was most prominent in the formative years of the empire. Many conquistadors pursued conquest for materialist and religious aims. Declarations titled Requerimiento were read aloud by Spanish authorities upon calling a new region their own, citing divine law and God’s plan as their justification. Written by Juan López de Palacios Rubios, a Council of Castile jurist, these degrees were given credibility through the Catholic Church and its dominion. The language was purely Catholic, naming Saint Peter and his Papal successors as proper evidence that God had the right to rule over the entire earth. Naturally, by association, God had given this authority to the Spanish monarchy. And if the indigenous people refused to be converted or ruled, they were threatened with murder, torture, and enslavement. Oftentimes, such theological justifications were read to indigenous people despite language barriers and to empty towns as a rationalization for murder and destruction. Dominican friars usually accompanied the conquistadors as they read the declarations, granting the decree holy justification. Despite enriching the coffers of the Spanish ruling class, the Requerimiento was abolished in 1556, since it was deemed unjust to impose a religion by threats if the victims had never heard of Christ prior. However, Requerimiento served its purpose — it established the religious justification for Spanish imperialism.

Cebalo also provides a good account of the debate that grew up within Spanish Catholicism over the ethics of the colonial venture.

English-WP provides a translation of the entire text of the Requiermiento, here.

Originally published at https://justworldnews.org.

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Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.