Spanish Inquisition in Colonial Latin America Research Paper

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Inquisitions have played a major role in the Catholic Church since early in the Church's history.[footnoteRef:1]. They are considered one of the most shameful part of the history of the Catholic Church and part of the darkest periods in Jewish history. One of the great Catholic theologians, St. Augustine, offered support for the Inquisition process by citing from the Book of Luke, 14:23. Then the master told his servant, "Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full." [1: Lea, Henry Charles. A History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages. Harbor Press, 1888.]

The purpose of the inquisitions was to allow the Church's bishops to inquire into possible heresies and punish heretics for violations regarding matters of faith and morals. Coincidental with the authority to inquire came the power to administer capital punishment, excommunicate conduct autos de fe, i.e. pronounce penance upon the violator. Underlying this grant of power was the Church's philosophy that "once a Catholic, always a Catholic." Conversion to Catholicism was allowed but once one entered the Church through Baptism the only way to exit was through death or excommunication.

The Inquisition procedure was initiated well before expeditions to the New World were ever envisioned. Pope Innocent III in the early 13th century authorized the first inquisition panel in an effort to take action against alleged heretics in Aix, Arles, and Narbonne in southern France. In addition, three separate Papal Councils approved the procedure and served to set out to proscribe the punishment procedures. The Inquisitions were largely informal until Pope Gregory IX (1227-1242) formalized them. An official office with authority over the full administration of Inquisitions throughout the world was instituted in 1549 by Pope Paul III. The newly organized office established its official headquarters in the Vatican.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain. New York: Random House, 2001.]

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were devout Catholics with the goal of having a homogeneous population that shared their religious viewpoints.[footnoteRef:3] Two groups living within the Spanish monarchy that Isabella and Ferdinand considered dangerous to their goal of a homogeneous society were the Jews and Moors. Both were considered to be evil influences. In 1484 the first Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in Spain with Tomas De Torquemada, Queen Isabella's confessor, being named as the Inquisitor General. [3: Prescott, William H. The History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Gutenberg Ebooks, 2004.]

The Spanish throne was very active in the settlement of the New World. From their initial sponsorship of Christopher Columbus' first voyage the Spanish monarchy aggressively established itself on both the North and South American continents. Due to the vast expanse of the New World and the monarchy's desire to minimize the power of anyone individual, the throne divided the New World colonies into viceroyalties. As the Spanish empire in the New World extended from what is now the United States southwest all the way to the tip of South America, it was required that several viceroyalties be established. One such of these viceroyalties was established as New Spain. New Spain consisted of what is now southwestern United States, all of Mexico and Central America, and the Spanish islands in the Caribbean and in the Far East. Its capital was in Mexico.

A little known fact is the role that Jews played in the discovery and settlement of the New World. Their unpopular role on the European continent is well documented and it was only natural that the New World offered them new opportunities. It is widely accepted that Columbus received significant financial support from a number of Jewish benefactors in regard to his initial voyage and that his second voyage was partially financed by possessions confiscated from Jews expelled from Spain. There is even some speculation, not yet fully documented that Christopher Columbus may have been Jewish, regardless, there is no denying that Jews were present in the New World as early as 1495. [footnoteRef:4] [4: Sachar, Howard M. A History of Jews in the Modern World. Vintage, 2006.]

The list of Jewish leaders being present within the Spanish settlements in the New World is extensive. Among Christopher Columbus' original crew were at least six Jews including an interpreter by the name of Luis de Torres. Ironically, Columbus' date of departure from Spain was also the day on which Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand decreed that the Jews of Spain either had to convert to Catholicism, depart from the country, or face death for defiance of the Monarchy.[footnoteRef:5]. This Edict marked the culmination of a century of conflict between Jews and non-Jews in Spain which resulted in the eventual expulsion of nearly 400,000 Jews from Spain. Because Columbus' original goal was to find a route to the Far East, de Torres' presence was considered essential due to his knowledge of oriental languages. Rodrigo de Triana, who may have been the first among the crew to sight land and Maestre Bernal, the ship's physician, were two additional Jews among Columbus' crew. [5: "Edict signed by Ferdinand and Isabella - The Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Spain." 1492]

Interestingly, subsequent to Columbus' voyages, the Spanish throne determined that they were going to ban Jews from taking part in the settlement of the New World. As colonization was the primary goal of the Throne, it was necessary that inducements of land be granted in order to encourage settlement. The Throne wanted the New World to be settled by loyal Catholics in order to satisfy the Vatican and, therefore, the Throne barred all Jews and their descendants from settling in the New World. Despite this pronouncement, there were several Jewish soldiers accompanying Narvaez in his attempt to capture Cortez in 1519.

The attractions of the New World, however, were substantial and somehow many Jews managed to find their way. Corruption among the monarchy bureaucracy was rampant and permits were easily obtained. Additionally, ship captains were subject to bribery as well and many Jewish immigrants were disembarked at strategic places along the Gulf of Mexico.

Once Spain obtained control of Portugal in 1580, the immigration of Jews increased substantially.[footnoteRef:6] The Inquisition in Portugal was particularly severe prompting many Jews to seek passage to the New World to avoid being brought before the Pope's tribunal. Coincidently, the Papacy was involved in a process known as the Portuguese penetration. The process was characterized by the massive use of bribery and potential Jewish immigrants utilized the opportunity to escape to the New World. During this period it is estimated that three to five thousands Jews established residency in Central and South America. By the early 1600's, almost every town in the Spanish Empire had Jewish residents. [6: William D. Phillips, Carla Rahn Phillips. A Concise History of Spain. Cambridge University Press, 2010.]

Concern regarding the presence of Jews in the New World was expressed by bishops as early as 1508. The Vatican reacted to these concerns by extending the right to perform inquiries i.e. inquisitions, to prelates on the monastic orders in the New World. Traditionally, such powers were limited to bishops but the shortage of priests in the New World necessitated that the powers be extended.

The first documented inquisition in the New World was in Mexico in 1528.[footnoteRef:7] Many confronted by the Inquisition agreed to be converted to Catholicism. Those who converted were called Marronos or Conversos. Others still risked capture, torture and possible death by continuing to secretly practice Judaism. Among those that did two Jews were burned at the stake and two others were reconciled. (Reconciliation meant anything from denial of civil rights to life imprisonment). By the early 1600's there is evidence of widespread inquisition tribunals throughout all areas of the Spanish New World Empire. [7: Altabe, David Fintz. Spanish and Portuguese Jewry Before and After 1492. Brooklyn: Sepher-Herman Press, 1993.]

Religious tolerance was prevalent in the New World. Many Catholics knew that their neighbors and friends were Jewish but they failed to inform the Catholic leadership in the area. Despite efforts by the Church to encourage disclosure, such as the posting of Edicts of Faith on the Church doors, or periodically informing their parishioners about the customs of Jews, disclosure by New World residents was not forthcoming.

The Inquisition procedure in the New World was nearly identical to that used in Europe. Whenever an inquisitor arrived in an area reportedly plagued by heresy, i.e. The presence of Jews openly practicing their religion, a month's "term of grace" would be declared. During this time accused heretics were afforded the opportunity to convert. At the end of the term of grace the accused were summoned to appear before the tribunal. Those who confessed were sanctioned with a minor penance such as public prayer. Seldom was a more severe punishment imposed such as imprisonment or the forfeiture of property at this stage of the proceedings.

In cases where no confession was forthcoming, it became necessary for…

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