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An Ultimatum in God’s Name?

An Ultimatum in God’s Name?

“If you do not do this, . . . with God’s aid, I shall enter with power among you, and shall make war on you on all sides and in every way I can, and subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of his Majesty; and I shall take your wives and children and make them slaves, . . . and I shall take your property and shall do you all the harm I can. . . . The deaths and harm which shall thereby come, will be by your fault, and not that of his Majesty, nor ours.”

AS OFFICIAL declarations go, this may be one of the most bizarre. It is part of a proclamation known as the Requirement, el Requerimiento in Spanish, that during part of the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores had to read aloud when they landed in the Americas for the purpose of conquest.

What exactly did the conquistadores proclaim to the local people, and why?

Forced Conversion to Catholicism

Soon after Columbus set foot in the Americas in 1492, Spain and Portugal each claimed sovereignty over the new lands. Since both nations considered the pope to be Christ’s representative on earth, they called on him to settle their dispute. Under the pope’s direction, the church apportioned the newly found lands between Spain and Portugal—on the condition that these two countries send missionaries to convert the natives.

As the conquest progressed, the Spanish monarchy sought to legitimize the exploits of the conquistadores. The Spanish asserted that since the pope was acting in God’s behalf when he granted the lands to them, the conquistadores were free to dispose of the indigenous people and their goods and curtail their liberty.

 The Spanish drafted a document to inform the local inhabitants of the pope’s decision. The natives were required to accept Christianity and become subjects of the king of Spain. If they resisted, the Spanish felt entitled to wage a “just” war against the locals in God’s name.

“Violence was excusable in a just cause, so the reasoning went. Spain, therefore, had to concoct just causes.”—Francis Sullivan, Jesuit professor of theology

“Unjust, Impious, Scandalous”

The Spanish Crown had the Requirement read to ease its conscience and justify the colonial conquests. The conquistadores often read the proclamation on board their ship prior to a raid or on land to the inhabitants who did not understand European languages. Sometimes the document was read to the empty huts abandoned by terrified natives.

This attempted forced conversion resulted in bloodbaths. For example, about 2,000 Araucanians were slaughtered in a battle in Chile in 1550. Concerning those left remaining, conquistador Pedro de Valdivia told the king: “Two hundred had their hands and noses cut off for their contumacy, inasmuch as I had many times sent them messengers and given them commands [the Requirement] as ordered by Your Majesty.” *

The reading of the Requirement may have salved the conscience of the invaders. However, it did little to promote the religion of the Spanish. Sixteenth-century missionary friar Bartolomé de las Casas, an eyewitness to the Requirement’s effects, wrote: “How unjust, impious, scandalous, irrational and absurd this injunction was! I will not speak of the infamy it caused the Christian religion.” Chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo lamented that the atrocities committed against the indigenous peoples of the Americas gave them a very poor first impression of Christianity.

Is God to blame for such atrocities committed by political and ecclesiastical powers, purportedly in his name? The Bible states: “Far be it from the true God to act wickedly, and the Almighty to act unjustly!”Job 34:10.

^ par. 12 According to some sources, the Requirement was abolished in 1573.