Religion in Colonial Latin America

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Christianity, a religion that controlled all of society including bells, holidays, and gender roles also played a huge role in creating a class system during colonial Latin America that categorize people by race due to the historical encounters between each culture. The year 1492 is a year occupied by achievements and failures. Christopher Columbus, a renowned Spanish explorer is well known for his first voyage of 1492 and his finding of the Americas. His voyage was financed by the Queen Isabel of Castile in hopes of benefiting her kingdom Spain and finding a quicker route to Asia.

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Queen Isabel also hoped that his voyage would spread Christianity. In addition, in the year 711, black Muslims known as Moors, captured the Iberian Peninsula from the Christians. The Iberian Christians traveled to the Peninsula because they believed that they had found the tomb of Santiago, Saint James the Apostle, who was known for killing Moors, and became the patron saint of reconquest and liberation (Chasteen 26). Christians spent 700 years reconquering, and it was not until the fall of Granada in 1492 the reconquest was accomplished. Christians tried to erase signs of the Moors existence, various buildings were demolished and converted into churches. Additionally, Christians tried to erase the language previously spoken in Spain to Castilla. Centuries of Christians reconquering the Iberian Peninsula influenced the mentality of the Spanish and Portuguese. Isabel, who was head of the Christian

Monarch, used religion as a powerful justification for intensifying complete and utter control. Moors and Jews who had associated with Christianity and accepted Christian rule, had families living in Iberian for thousands of years, or anyone accused of rejecting Christian belief was purged. In addition, 1492 was the year Jews and Moors were expelled from what is today Spain and Portugal. Spain and all of Europe used Jews, the largest community in Europe, as scapegoats. Jews were blamed for the plagues which was believed to be the preliminary step in a Jewish plan to rule the entire world (Chasteen 26). Jewish Massacres forced Jews to discern the limited options they had avoid to death, either convert to Christianity or face death which became a common slogan. However, converted Jews and Moors, who were known as “New Christians”, still faced discrimination throughout Europe.

When Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1942 he landed on what he believed to be to an island in the Indian Ocean, but was actually a island in the Bahamas. Christopher Columbus falsely called the natives of the Island “Indians”. Columbus was enthusiastic to share his discovery with the King and Queen to seek fame and riches. When Columbus returned to Spain, he wrote to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, exaggerating the size and beauty of the islands and promoted future economic profit from the the land, stating it was filled with wealth to make his voyage seem more successful than it was. In addition to bragging about his discovery, he also mentions a description of the native people. Columbus says “they are destiture of arms, which are entirely unknown to them, and for which they are not adapted; not on account of any bodily deformity, for they are well made, but because they are timid and full of terror…fearful and timid…guileless and honest”(“Columbus reports on his first voyage, 1493”). Columbus saw the natives culture as less then because of their lack of weapons and assures that their land could be conquered by Spain and could become “Christians and inclined to love our King and Queen and Princes and all the people of Spain.” Columbus was treated like an hero after his letters were printed and spread rapidly across Europe. Columbus brought back items from the New World that were in foreign in Europe–coconuts,tobacco, pineapples, sweetcorn, potatoes and natives he had captured, believing they would make great servants many of which died on the voyage back to Spain (“Columbus Controversy”). The King and Queen had high expectations of finding more riches they financed him to go back.

When the Spanish conquered the natives in the Caribbean, the Spanish Crown incorporated a labor system known as the Encomienda System. The encomienda system was put in place to convert Indians to Christians and obtain goal and silver from the Americas (“Spanish Empire”). The encomienda system allowed conquistadors, known as encomendas, to control the Indians and demand labor in return the Natives would be provided with protection. Instead the encomienda system brought the death of thousands of Native Americans due to diseases and extreme working conditions. Likewise, missions in Spain were set up by Roman Catholic church in hopes of converting Native Americans to Christianity and teaching them societal norms in Europe in order to integrate them into society. Some Spanish colonizers went as far as marrying natives to incorporate them into their culture. Although missionaries were for colonization, some were against colonization and tried to protect lives of

Native Americans from not being enslaved. Bartolome De las Casas, was a Spanish priest, who was one of the first people to fight for humanity and rights of the indigenous people. While De las casas was a young man, he was a eyewitness of the vile destruction of the natives, and was the first to disclose the events to the royal courts of Spain. In his Account of the Destruction of the Indies he exposed and dispraised Spain’s treatment of the Native Americans and states “The reason that the Christian have slain such an infinite number of souls has been the desire to take the Indians gold, to enrich themselves quickly, and raise themselves up to a high social rank that bears no relation to their humble origins in Spain…These lands were so rich and favored by God, and the inhabitants so humble and easy to subjugate that the Christians should have respected them, and yet they treated the Indians worse than beasts”(Chasteen 14). Bartolome de las casas was the protector of the indigenous people fighting to abolish slavery “the harshest bondage ever afflicted on man or beast.” In addition, Bartolome de las Casas advocated New Laws of the Indies (1542) that help put an end to the encomienda system (Chasteen 12).


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Religion in Colonial Latin America. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from