Early Colonial Society, Spanish America

Early Colonial Spanish America may be subdivided in 4 spheres : the urban sphere, the sphere of private agriculture (hazienda sphere), the missions or reductions, and the sphere not controlled by the Spanish.
The Spanish had reshaped the cities of the Aztecs, Incas and Mayas after the model of Spanish cities. The temples had been destroyed; the Cathedrals resp. churches became the most conspicuous edifices in town, followed by city hall. Spanish language became dominant, guilds were organized, the cities, like their counterparts in Spain, acquired coats of arms, privileges etc. Within the cities, political power lay within the hands of a few families, who prided themselves in their Spanish ancestry.
The hazienda sphere originally consisted of entire Indian communities assigned to individual Spaniards for exploitation. With the influence of infectious diseases, the influx of immigrants from Europe, the conversion of the natives to christianity, it transformed; it was characterized by land in private ownership, usually owned by Spaniards, who made their living by exploiting the workforce of the Indios, in some regions such as the Caribbean also of negro slaves imported from Africa, and their descendants. Next to large scale enterprises such as mines and haziendas, there were also family farms owned by campesinos, often Indios. Both the urban and the hazienda spheres were controlled by the administration of church and state, which represented the interests of Spain and of the criollos (creoles), the land-owning elite of Spanish Latin America which took pride in tracing their heritage back to Spain.

The missions or reductions stood out, as they were exempted from the influence of the state administration. Formally the land of the missions was owned by the church; the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans organized communities in which work and harvests were shared equally, communist agrarian societies modelled after Thomas More's Utopia. While the Indios had to live as good Catholics, the missions, in most cases, offered them conditions much more humane than those they faced in the aforementioned spheres. Many missions (reductions) were successful, until they were forcefully dissolved in the 1750es and 1760es. Geographically, they developed on the margin of Spanish colonial society. The contacts between the reductions and Spanish colonial society were limited, mostly facilitated through the priests. Within the missions, mostly the native language was spoken. The most famous missions were located in and around Paraguay.
Then there was the area outside of permanent Spanish control, be it the Apacheria (Texas, Northern Mexico) where the Indios were capable to fend off Spanish intruders, or jungle regions the Spanish only cared to enter in order to 'collect' a labour force.

Spanish colonial society was stratified along ethnic lines. The peninsulares - a few office holders, born in Spain and appointed by the king - held the top offices, to the dismay of the Criollos, descendants of Spaniards, born in the Americas, proud of their Spanish heritage, and, as a group, owning most of the land. Mulattos (white father, negro mother), Mestizos (white father, Indio mother) formed a middle ranking group; they usually spoke Spanish and often functioned as foremen on plantations and in mines. Indios were treated as the lowest stratum in society.

The History of the Catholic Church in Latin America and Liberation Theology, by Gary Smith
Reductions in Paraguay, from Jesuitenstaat
REFERENCE The Mission, 1986, cc, featuring the dissolution of the Jesuit Missions in Guarani territory in the 1750es

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 27th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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