New Laws

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Cover of "Leyes Nuevas" of 1542.

The New Laws (Spanish: Leyes Nuevas), also known as the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians (Spanish:Leyes y ordenanzas nuevamente hechas por su Majestad para la gobernación de las Indias y buen tratamiento y conservación de los Indios), were issued on November 20, 1542, by King Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles I of Spain) and regard the Spanish colonization of the Americas. Following complaints and calls for reform from individuals such as the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, these laws were created to prevent the exploitation and mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by the encomenderos, grants of labor of a particular group of Indians, by strictly limiting their power and dominion.[1] The text of the New Laws has been translated to English.[2]

Blasco Núñez Vela, the first Viceroy of Peru, enforced the New Laws, resulting in a revolt of some encomenderos in which he was killed in 1546 by the landowning faction led by Gonzalo Pizarro who wanted to maintain a political structure based on the pre existing Incan model. Although the New Laws were only partly successful due to the opposition of some colonists, they did result in the liberation of thousands of indigenous workers which had remained in a state of semi-slavery.


The New Laws were the results of a reform movement spurred by what was seen as the less effective, decades-old Leyes de Burgos (Laws of Burgos), issued by King Ferdinand II of Aragon on December 27, 1512. These laws were the first set of rules created to regulate relations between the Spaniards and the recently conquered indigenous people, regarded as the first example of humanitarian laws in the New World. These were implemented only to a limited extent due to the opposition of some colonists. While some encomenderos opposed the restrictions imposed by the laws as against their interests, others were opposed because they regarded the laws as legalizing the system of forced Indian labor. During the reign of King Charles I, the reformers gained strength, with a number of Spanish missionaries making the case for stricter rules, including Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria. The goal was to protect the Indians against forced labor and expropriation and to preserve their lifestyle. The very legitimacy of the conquest and colonization was objected during discussions. Eventually, the reformists were able to influence the King to pass a new set of reforms that came to be known as the New Laws.


Main points

  • The obligation of the governors to take care of well being and preservation of the Native Americans (referred as indians by the law).
  • That there was no motive to enslave them in the future, not by war, nor due to rebelion, nor to ask for a rescue, nor for any reason or in any way.
  • That native Americans currently enslaved must be freed immediately unless the owner could prove (in Spain, which implied travelling back there) the full juridic legitimacy of such a state.
  • That the 'bad habit' of making Native Americans work as tamames against their will or without fair payment must be ended immediately.
  • That they must not be taken to remote regions to fish for pearls.
  • That only the viceroy had the right to establish encomiendas on Native Americans. The prohibition to establish encomiendas included all Religious orders, hospitals, commonalities and civil servants.
  • That the "distribution"(of people and lands) given to the original conquerors (as a feudal lordship of sorts) should stop immediately after their death and both land and people would become subject to the crown.[3]

Causes and goals

Some of these laws were redundant, and some established extra protections and rights for Native Americans that native Spaniards didn't have, as a result of the crowns inability to properly monitor compliance with more ambiguous laws, such as legal slavery in retribution for crimes and after the experience of how some Spanish laws didn't work once the royal army was an ocean away.

The main examples are the cases of slavery and encomiendas. The new laws included the solemn prohibition of the enslavement of the Indians and provisions for the gradual abolition of the encomienda system in America. The New Laws stated that the natives would be considered free persons, and the encomenderos could no longer demand their labour. This was all legally redundant. The prohibition of Enslavement of Native Americans was redundant, and the prohibition to enslave them "in any case, not even crime or war" was a right that did not apply to Europeans, or to native Castilians themselves. The enslavement of Native Americans had been illegal in Castile since 1501, when Isabella I declared native Americans as both people and subjects of the Castilian crown (the equivalent of Castilian citizens), and so subjected to the same rights and obligations as any other subject of the queen. Under those regulations, slavery was allowed almost exclusively as a penalty for a serious crime or some exceptional circumstances. Granting extra protection for Native Americans that Spaniards didn't have was an attempt to address the crown's inability to monitor, from Spain, the legitimacy of the claims regarding the reasons to enslave someone in America, and the acknowledgement of false claims being fabricated for slavery and exploitation's sake. The introduction and corruption of the encomienda system was also an example of both, a workaround for slavery and a Castilian institution that didn't work properly in America. The encomienda was a system that interchanged work for the military protection and had been part of the Castilian legal system since the Reconquista, where it was useful in ensuring the safety of the population of the border areas during the repopulation of the no-mans-land between Castile and the southern Muslim areas. It either required the consent of both parts or the direct intervention of the king, who was responsible to set reasonable conditions for them and intervene (militarily if required) in case of abuses.[4]

The encomienda system, however, was abused in America to create conditions similar to slavery in areas that did not require such protection at all. There were also authorities other than the king claiming the right to assign encomiendas and assigning to Natives the most unpleasant or dangerous jobs. As a result, the New Laws establish more specific regulations or write down the conditions that the king was assumed to ensure in the encomienda process: The natives were only required to pay the encomenderos tribute, and, if they worked, they would be paid wages in exchange for their labor. The laws also prohibited the sending of indigenous people to work in the mines unless it was absolutely necessary and under the same conditions than Spanish mine workers, and required that they be taxed fairly and treated well. It ordered public officials or clergy with encomienda grants to return them immediately to the Crown, and stated that encomienda grants would not passed on via inheritance, but would be cancelled at the death of the individual encomenderos.

Effect of the New Laws

In 1542, the King promulgated the New Laws on November 20. These laws reordered the overseas administration by founding several General Captainships, such as the Kingdom of Guatemala. The extinction of the encomienda was decreed, with encomiendas no longer hereditary but to end at the death of the current encomenderos; and the slavery of the indigenous people was banned, who (in theory and law, if not in practice) enjoyed the same rights and obligations of any vassal of the other kingdoms ruled by the Crown of Castile.

Resistance in Peru

When the New Laws were passed, every European man holding an encomienda in Peru learned that his grant of labor could be confiscated if he was guilty of having taken part in the civil disturbances of Francisco Pizarro and Almagro. As a result, the promulgation of the New Laws caused great unrest among the privileged Spaniards. In Peru it led to a revolt, led by Gonzalo Pizarro. Pizarro headed protesting encomenderos who took to arms in order to "maintain their rights by force".

Gonzalo Pizarro was invited by the Supreme Court to assume control over its government after marching from Bolivia to Lima with his troops. Pizarro forced himself upon Lima and Quito. The revolt led to the overthrow of Viceroy Blasco Núñez Vela, who had attempted to impose the decrees. Pizarro and his army defeated and killed Núñez Vela in 1546. Pizarro's power stretched all the way to Panama. Charles I and the court became alarmed and were convinced that the immediate abolition of the encomienda system would bring economic ruin to the colonies. To deal with the revolt, Charles I sent Pedro de la Gasca, a bishop and diplomat in the service of the king, without an army but with full powers to rule and negotiate a settlement. However, Pizarro declared Peru independent from the King. La Gasca saw fit to provisionally suspend the New Laws. Pizarro was later captured and executed, having been accused of being a "traitor to the King."

Level of compliance

Although in New Spain (Mexico), the initial reaction of encomenderos was noncompliance, there was no outright rebellion as in Peru. New Spain's first viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza prudently refrained from enforcing the parts of the New Laws most objectionable to the encomenderos and avoided rebellion.[5] Over time, there was compliance with most aspects of them. Most already maintained a horse and arms in case of Indian rebellion, established a residence in a Spanish settlement. They fulfilled the requirement of hiring a priest to minister to the Indians whose labor was granted to them. While they did not retain their encomiendas in perpetuity, the easing of the strictures to allow the encomienda to be bequeathed once was accepted. The specification that Indians' obligations were tribute only, not labor did not meet resistance. With population loss due to epidemic disease, encomenderos' incomes dropped.[6]


Finally, in 1545, the rule stating that the encomienda system would no longer be hereditary was revoked, and the place of the encomienda system was again secure. Although the New Laws were only partly successful, they did result in the liberation of thousands of indigenous workers.

Most of the ordinances of the New Laws went on to be incorporated into the general corpus of the Laws of the Indies, except where they were superseded by newer laws.

A weaker issue of the New Laws was issued in 1552.

See also

Further reading

  • Kenneth J. Andrien, Andean Worlds, 2001
  • Joseph Pérez. Historia de España ISBN 84-8432-091-X
  • Crow, John A. (1992). The Epic of Latin America. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07723-2. 
  • "Laws of the Indies". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  • "Pizarro, Gonzalo." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 6 Nov. 2008 <>.
  • "New Laws" <>.


  1. ^ García Icazbalceta, Joaquín "Colección de documentos para la historia de México" "Leyes y ordenanzas" (Dada en la ciudad de Barcelona, a veinte días del mes de Noviembre, año del nacimiento de nuestro Salvador Jesucristo de mill e quinientos e cuarenta y dos años) y addenda 4 de junio de 1543; 26 de junio de 1543; 26 de mayo de 1544 text on Internet Cervantes Virtual
  2. ^ Spain. The New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians. New York: AMS Press, 1971. ISBN 0-404-06159-1 Facsimile edition of a London, Chiswick Press, 1893 edition by Henry Stevens and Fred W. Lucas.
  4. ^ Alberto Pérez Amador Adam: "De legitimatione imperii Indiae Occidentalis. La vindicación de la Empresa Americana en el discurso jurídico y teológico de las letras de los Siglos de Oro en España y los virreinatos americanos." Madrid / Frankfurt: Iberoamericana / Vervuert 201
  5. ^ Mark A. Burkholder, "New Laws of 1542" in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, vol. 4, p. 177. New York: Charles Scribner's and Sons 1996.
  6. ^ James Lockhart and Stuart B. Schwartz, Early Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press 1983, pp. 94-95.
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