Instructions to Conquistadors

Franco de los Cobos. 1517.

On Easter Sunday of 1528, Panphilo de Narvaez, who had landed in Florida near present-day Tampa, claimed the land for Spain and the holy Catholic Church using the proclamation below. The Narvaez expedition, recorded by Cabeza de Vaca, is one of the most amazing in the annals of North American exploration. Beset by hardship, survivors of the original 600 settlers and soldiers made their way into Mexico some nine years later. De los Cobos' instructions are interesting because of the absolute confidence they exhibit in extending the claims of the church to the lands of the Indians and because they so completely reflect the background of European theology and politics that serve as the context and reference point for all American religion through the Colonial period.


Translated from an entry made in a book entitled Treslados de ls Florida, Ospituladonis Admtos, * * * de Gobernadora deeds of ollo 1517 hans 1578 existing in the Archiso de Indias at Sevilla.

In behalf of the Catholic Crearean Majesty of Don Carlos, King of the Romans and Emperor over Augustus, and Dona Juana his mother, Sovereigns of Leon and Castilla, Defenders of the Church, ever victors, never vanquished, and rulers of barbarous nations, I, Panslo de Narvaes, his servant, messenger and captain, notify and cause you to know in the best manner I can, that God our Lord, one and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman of whom we and you and all men in the world have come, are descendants and the generation, as well will those be who shall come after us: but because of the infinity of offspring that followed in the five thousand years and more since the world was created, it has become necessary that some men should go in one direction and others in another, dividing into many Kingdoms and Provinces, since in a single one they could not be subsisted nor kept:

All these nations God our Lord gave in charge to one person, called Saint Peter, that he might be Master and Superior over mankind, to be obeyed and b head of all the human race, wheresoever they might live and be, of whatever law, sect or belief, giving him the whole world for his kingdom, lordship and jurisdiction.

And He commanded him to place his seat in Rome, as a point most suited whence to rule the world; so He likewise permitted him to have and place his seat on any part of the earth to judge and govern all people, Christians, Moors, Jews, Gentiles and of whatever creed beside they might be: him they call Papa, which means admirable, greatest father and preserver, since he is father and governor of all men.

This Saint Peter was obeyed and taken for King, Lord and Superior of the Universe by those who lived at that time, and so likewise have all the rest been held, who to the Pontificate were afterward elected; and thus has it continued until now, and will continue to the end of things.

One of the popes who succeeded him, to that seat and dignity of which I spake, as Lord of the world, made a gift of these islands and main of the Ocean Sea, to the said Emperor and Queen, and their successors, our Lords, in these kingdoms, with all that is in them, as is contained in certain writings that thereupon took place, which may be seen if you desire. Thus are their Highnesses King and Queen of these islands and continent, by virtue of said gift; and as Sovereigns and Masters, some other islands, and nearly all where they have been proclaimed, have received their Majesties, obeyed and served, and do serve them as subjects should, with good will and no resistance, and immediately without delay, directly as they were informed, obeying the religious men whom their Highnesses sent to preach to them and teach our Holy Faith, of their entire free will and pleasure, without reward or condition whatsoever, becoming Christians which they are; and their Highnesses received them joyfully and benignly, ordering them to be treated as their subjects and vassals were, and you are held and obliged to act likewise.

Wherefore, as best you can, I entreat and require you to understand this well which I have told you, taking the time for it that is just you should, to comprehend and reflect, and that you recognise the Church as Mistress and Superior of the universe and the High Pontiff, called Papa, in its name, the Queen and King, our masters, in their place as Lords, Superiors and Soereigns of these islands and the main by virtue of said god and you consent and give opportunity that these fathers and religious men, declare and preach to you as stated. If you should do so you will do well in what you are held and obliged; as their Majesties, and I, in their royal name, will receive you with love and charity, relinquishing in freedom your women, children and estates without service, that with them and yourselves you may do with perfect liberty all you wish and may deem well; you shall not be required to become Christians, except when, informed of the truth, you desire to be converted to a Holy Catholic Faith, as nearly all the inhabitants of the other islands have done, and when His Highness will confer on you numerous privileges and instruction, with many favors.

If you do not this, and of malice you be dilatory, I protest you, that, with the help of Our Lord, I will enter with force making war upon you from all directions and in every manner that I may be able, when I will subject you to obedience to the Church and the yoke of their Majesties; and I will take these persons of yourselves, your wives and your children to make slaves, sell and dispose of you, as Their Majesties shall thus fit; and I will take your goods, doing you all the evil and injury that I may be able, as to vassals who do not obey but reject their master, resist and deny him: and I declare to you that the deaths and damages that rise therefrom, will be your fault and not that of His Majesty, nor mine, nor of these cavaliers who come with me.

And so as I proclaim and require this, I ask of the Nobility here that he give me a certificate; and those present I beseech that they will hereof be the witnesses.

Froo. De Los Cobos

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