Indigenous Policy

The Portuguese Crown’s indigenist policy in Brazil was influenced by: the papal bulls, which guided and legitimized the Iberian overseas expansion; the slave trade in Africa; and the colonization and ordering experiences developed by Castile in the West Indies. The bulls Romanus Pontifex, from 1455, and Inter Caetera, from 1493, are at the basis of an Atlantic geopolitics based on the “qualities of the peoples”, distinguishing the “Indians” from the “blacks and Guineas” and binding them to a project of religious expansion to the realization of the “universal republic of the Church”. In Brazil, the period between the 1510s and 1530s were/was market by the delegation of powers to the conquerors and donatarios, the beginning of an indigenist policy was drafted from/within the institution of the general government, in 1549, instigated by the bull Sublimis Deus, from 1537, and the Leyes Nuevas, from 1542. A second moment was drafted by the expansion of the slave trade, the new laws for the Hispanic America’s Indians and the conquest and colonization experiences under the government of Mem de Sá, which concluded with the law of March 20, 1570, and its reformulation, dated January 6, 1574. On the Castilian side it is worth mentioning the importance of the Ordenanzas of 1573 as a lasting landmark of the indigenist policy in Americas.

We then come to the indigenist policy developed for Brazil at the time of Spanish monarchy, which raises the following questions: the Castilian legislation served as a model for the new laws for the Indians from Brazil? Was there an intention to homogenize the indigenist policy for the Americas? Which were the bodies responsible for its dispatch and drafting? How the understanding and relationship between the Portuguese settlers and the indigenous societies of Brazil established the specificity of this policy? The incorporation of both sides of the Atlantic under Spanish rule and the new African enslaver trade expansion, between the end of the 16th century and the first decade of the 17th century, impacted on the indigenist policy? Beyond these questions, this entry intends to understand the last consequences of characterizing the indigenist legislation in Brazil as “dead letter” or as “ambiguous”, “contradictory” etc. because we believe that its apparent contradictions are an indication of political and social impasses still present in our country.

The indigenist legislation was the most important locus for the deployment of temporal and spiritual authorities over the Americas and for the establishing of the political relations between the Church, the Crown and colonial agents. The Portuguese residents were pressing the king for the recognition of their enslaving or manorial rights over the Indians, meanwhile the “indigenous freedom” was the defining legal figure for the royal legitimacy and sovereignty over the Americas and its peoples, as well as for the Church’s spiritual authority over them. In Brazil, the Jesuits were the privileged mediators of these relations, seeking to conduct and conciliate the missionary projects with the economical exploitation of the Amerindians.

The founding documents of the Ibero-Atlantic expansion were the papal bulls Romanus Pontifex, of 1455, and Inter Caetera, of 1493, which considered the services provided by Iberian kings in spreading the Christianity, in the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula and in subjection of gentiles and pagans in extra-European territories. Furthermore, these documents distinguished the “quality of the peoples” and the way of their incorporation into monarchies and Christianity. In the Romanus Pontifex bull, the “Guineans and other blacks” were characterized as gentile and pagan people, “deeply influenced” by the “sect of the most nefarious Mohammed”, with the slave trade being a path to their salvation. While, in the same document, the “Indians” were associated with the Christian kingdom of Preste João and, following this topic, the Inter Caetera considered them highly suitable “to embrace the Catholic Faith”, establishing the evangelization as a clause of the donation of legal rights over those lands and peoples. There is, therefore, a prior conception about the peoples of Guinea and the “Indians” – vaguely located between East Africa and the Indies, passing, from Columbus’ voyages, to the West Indies. The complementarity between the “Indians” evangelization and the African enslaver trade was established before the European discovery of the Americas. This geopolitical perspective shifted to the Atlantic and the maritime winds and currents confirmed this complementary perspective. The Inter Caetera bulls and the Treaty of Tordesillas announced this change of focus of the Iberian colonial expansion.

The Portuguese Crown’s policy concerning the indigenous from Brazil was inaugurated with the regiment of the first general governor of Brazil, Tomé de Souza, in 1548, six years after the Leyes Nuevas dispatched for Hispanic America and eleven years after Pope Paul III’s bull Sublimis Deus. Faced with news of the abuses perpetrated by the Spanish conquerors in the Americas, particularly in Peru, the Pope used the eminence of his apostolic power to report and intervene in the conquest process, strengthening the Indians’ domain right and freedom. The Spanish king Charles I reacted to the papal interference, but incorporated the political-legal sense of “indigenous freedom”, publishing, in 1542, the Leyes Nuevas, reformulated in 1549, to equally accommodate the interests and claims of the settlers. The indigenist policy is defined, in this sense, by the own ambivalence of the concept of dominium, between sovereignty, based on political-legal domain, in which the Indians would be subjects of the Monarchy and faithful of the Church, and the accommodation with the settlers’ seigneurial and property interests, in which they were encomendados to Christian lords or their enslaved. The notion of tutelage was the arrival point of this ambivalence, in which the Monarchy intended to establish its preeminence on the relations with the indigenous, legitimizing its political-legal domain over the Americas and mediating the relations of exploitation, amid the disputes among other social forces and institutions for their domination. Thus, the idea of tutelage will associate the “indigenous question” with the “economy of the bounties”.

Since Christopher Columbus, there was a perspective of characterization the indigenous by the Aristotelian category of “slaves by nature”, that their enslavement and trade were fair and could compete with the Africans themselves. The descimentos and the enslaved indigenous trade were a constant during the process of invasion and dispossession of the Americas by the Europeans. Particularly of the indigenous from America, so-called Portuguese, to the West Indies. From the mid 16th century, the Crown tried to curb this practice, later converted into a custom by the European settlers, and, for that, sought to control the war against the indigenous, through the notion of just war, and to define the legitimate titles of their enslavement.

It is important to note that, even before the Iberian Union, there was an approximation between the indigenist policy of Brazil and that of Hispanic America. Portugal recognized, since the Siete Partidas, the legal tradition of Castile, which had challenges for the deployment of royal power in the process of “reconquest” and over the different kingdoms of Hispania incomparable to those of Portugal. This tradition was reinforced with the Atlantic expansion and with the logic of the Portuguese expansion through the African continent and that of Castile toward the “Indians”. The drama of America’s conquest by the Spanish demanded from the Castilian monarchy the political-legal framework of the new lands and their people much earlier than that of the Portuguese kings. Portugal has developed in its own way the indigenist policy for Brazil, but followed the Castilian regulatory frameworks and incorporated some of its legal topics. As also happened in the West Indies, it was common for a law to be reworked a few years later, taking into account the different information and reactions that followed a royal law, as was the case of the reformulation of 1574. The general laws of 1570 and 1574 were complemented by the policy developed by Governor Mem de Sá and by other letters and permits that detailed other aspects of the relationship with the Indians. The king recognized the importance of the Amerindians receiving land for their subsistence and life, in addition to the obligation of the settlers to pay for their work on the farms.

Georg Thomas (1988: 111-112) starts his analysis of the indigenist policy in the period of the Spanish monarchy by reaffirming the status of the Treaty of Tomar that promised to preserve Portuguese autonomy – Carlos Zeron (2011: 332-333) repeats this perspective. This is a wrong starting point, a treaty of this order could only have this content and style. The safest way is to analyze the laws dispatched in the period, recognize their logic of dispatch and drafting, and then compare them with the Castilian policy.

The first measures of Philip II regarding the Indians of Brazil were issued in 1582, when the king was still in Portugal. They are not general laws, but rather charters, such as the one that demanded the restitution of land to the Indians. On February 24, 1587, the first general law for the Indians of Brazil of the period of Spanish monarchy was issued. Philip II, aiming for a continuity effect with the Portuguese indigenist policy, reproduced in its entirety the law of 1570, of his “nephew” D. Sebastião. The legislation about the indigenous presents itself as an important place for the reaffirmation of royal authority over the subjects here and overseas. Nevertheless, the new law has important innovations that bring it closer to the laws for Hispanic America. The law of 1587 was complemented by the regiment of the governor general Francisco Giraldes.

Another differentiation to be pointed out in the relationship with Hispanic America is the importance of Jesuits in mediating the relations of domination with the indigenous. On this point it is important to remember that the recognition of the Society of Jesus and its specific vow of obedience to the pope, in the turbulent years that followed the schism of European Christendom, was swiftly accepted and received by the Portuguese kings, while Charles I, and later Philip II, suspected the new religious order (Burrieza 2008: 198). However, Philip II recognized the significance of this mediation in the indigenist laws of 1595 and 1596.

The discovery of mines was a sensitive point of the Crown both in Africa and America. Settlers, from different parts of the empire, went to the Court seeking the king’s authorization and support for expeditions to the hinterland. The bounties received by the sugar plantation lord Gabriel Soares de Sousa, replicated to the governor of Angola, Luís Mendes de Vasconcellos, and by the governor general of Southern Department of Brazil, Francisco de Souza, are well known. However, many of these expeditions, both in Angola and Brazil, were associated with enslavement and native trade. The indigenist laws, from late 16th and early 17th centuries, sought to close the doors of indigenous enslavement at the same time as they stimulated the big deal of the African slave trade.

Despite the unconditional declaration of freedom, in the law of July 30 1609, of the Indians of Brazil, they were not recognized as subjects, another fundamental difference with the Castilian policy for Hispanic America. And the very idea of freedom needs to be nuanced by hierarchical conception of social relations in the context of the Old Regime. In the Leyes Nuevas, for example, the social hierarchies are thus described: Emperor Charles V, Prince Philip, President of the Council of the Indies, Viceroys, Presidents and Hearing Officers of the Audiences and Chancelleries, Governors, Alcaldes Mayores, Regents, Knights, Squires, Officers, Good Men, Captains, Discoverers, Settlers, Neighbors, Inhabitants, Established and Naturals; the latter being the indigenous. The ideal of justice, which was to give each one what was due according to their position, placed the indigenous person, and their freedom, in the lowest social condition, justifying, for example, their forced labor. The non-recognition of the indigenous people of Brazil as political subjects or citizens, and the tax exemption itself, determined the relation of tutelage and coercion as the only possible ones. The City Councils, on behalf of the “white” residents, demanded the repeal of the law, saying that “it is well known that the so-called gentiles enjoy greater freedom than the whites themselves” because they were not subject to the laws. The problem, therefore, was defining who would be responsible for this tutelage. If the indigenist law was “dead letter”, there wouldn’t be a need for a revolt on the part of the settlers. The laws were linked to the grace/mercy system that have strengthened the centrality and power of the Crown. 

Portuguese America’s economic development intensified the flow of enslaved Africans that came through agreements, asiento of blacks and the smuggling consciously encouraged by the Crown as an alternative, highly profitable, to the enslavement of indigenous and as a means of realizing its indigenist policy in the Americas. At the beginning of the 17th century, over a great part of Northeast Brazil, the number of Africans in the mills exceeded the number of enslaved or “administered” Indians, nevertheless, the Indian labor continues to be structural in Brazil’s colonial production.

After the colonial agreement, and the royal stamp, around the possibilities of Amerindians’ enslavement and administration in 1612, the enslavement expeditions – in the conquest of new territories and through ransom and just war – have considerably expanded. The Paulista attacks against the missions on the Paraná River, the conquest of Maranhão and the conflicts with the French and Dutch intensified the boarding of Indians and the resumption of internal and external enslavement trade, in the Hispanic America’s case, it is worth mentioning the enslavement and trade of the Indians from Chile.

These references call into question the idea of “transition from Indian to African slavery” developed by Stuart B. Schwartz in his book Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society (1985: 72-73) and advocated in the entry of the Dicionário da Escravidão e Liberdade (2018: 216-224). The argument was part of an explanatory schema based on an economic interpretation, Marxist-based, that associated the “transition” with the insertion of different parts of Brazil into European mercantilist capitalism. The argument had little documentation ballast and Stuart B. Schwartz himself used settlers’ comments about a supposed preference or superiority of African enslaved over indigenous that does not hold up by the experience of domination and exploitation of these populations. Even when African surpassed indigenous, its presence, and that of mestizos, remained relevant in these production units and composed the majority in overall terms even in the 18th century. Back in the 19th century, the dispossession of indigenous lands, descimentos and enslavement were important in different parts of the country and, even in the 20th and 21st centuries, these practices persist. Thus, the history of domination and exploitation of indigenous, Africans, descendants and mestizos, and later immigrants and migrants, needs to be analyzed in a complementary perspective and related to the political-legal practices of dispossession of lands and forced labor modalities.

In the reign of Philip IV, the Spanish Crown gave up on a broad-based regulation of the indigenous question. The colonial development, based on land grabbing and exploitation of indigenous, Africans and mestizos, became more independent from the Monarchy, which sought to act episodically to rein the attacks of its American subjects. The conclusion of this process occurred, again, with papal intervention and condemnation, now pointed towards the action of the Paulistas in the Jesuit Reductions. The bull Commissum Nobis of 1639, however, was not able to invert the anti-political and anti-legal logic which had settled into the colonial practices in Brazil. The general governor Salvador Corrêa de Sá, an experienced commander of violence against the indigenous, has given forgiveness to Paulistas and  the Jesuits made peace with the people of Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro, equally responsible for the attacks on the reductions.

It was only after the restoration of the Portuguese monarchy that laws sought to recall the indigenous question as a strategic element for the construction of Iberian sovereignty over the Americas and Americans. This reinforces the argument that the indigenist laws were, in the first place, a political-legal topic that sought to legitimize the Iberian domain over the Americas in the relationship with the Papacy and the Christian monarchies. In short, the base of the Iberian’s sovereignty legitimacy in a European international law logic, which took shape with the Spanish-Dutch (1648), Westphalia (1648) and Pyrenees (1659) treaties. The land expropriation, the reduction of the people in a new world and the African enslavement trade laid the foundation to an eurocentric ordering of the Earth. The Atlantic complementarity founded European modernity, the plundering of lands and riches, the commodification of things and people were the indelible marks of this civilization/barbarism.

In the second place, the “indigenous freedom” became a topic that legitimized the Crown’s intervention in colonial relations, as postestas extraordinaria, for the affirmation of its absolute power over the Americas, a mechanism that was very limited in the Iberian kingdoms, that reinforced the political centralization in the peninsula, particularly that of Castile over the other Spanish kingdoms. Finally, the Iberian Monarchies delegated to colonial interest groups the political adjustments regarding the expropriation of land and indigenous exploitation (Zeron 2011: 360). These three elements contest in an assertive way the images of an ambiguous, contradictory or hypocritical policy. The oscillations between freedom and slavery and between the right to land and its dispossession represent the own modus operandi of this policy.

If the Iberian Monarchies and their institutions, with emphasis on the Relação do Brasil, as well as the City Councils had acted against State’s own laws, in colonial times, and later National State’s, they would need to historically respond and the indigenous, African and descendant communities and populations that were unjustly expropriated and exploited are entitled to reparations. The same historical reflection and historical criticism needs to be done by the Church, the canonization of José de Anchieta by the Jesuit Pope Francisco highlights the lack of a relevant review of this history in the institution. For Anchieta, the Indians were like “hard, cold iron”, which could only be incorporated into the Christian faith and the monarchy by the hammering of the missionary blacksmiths. Well, the hard, cold iron resisted the Jesuit reduction and is still fighting today for their rights to life and culture. Those who consider themselves their interlocutors in this struggle need to review this history, listen to them and restore their historical rights.


  • Bonciani, Rodrigo F. (2016). Repúblicas da instabilidade: o domínio sobre os indígenas e africanos e a soberania régia nas Américas. História Unisinos. v. 20(3), p. 351-364.
  • Burrieza Sánchez, Javier (2008). “La compañía de Jesús y la defensa de la monarquia hispânica”. Hispania Sacra, LX, 121, enero-junio 2008, pp. 181-229.
  • Schwarcz, Lilia M.; Gomes, Flávio (2018). Dicionário da Escravidão e Liberdade. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.
  • Schwartz, Stuart B. (1988). Segredos internos – Engenhos e escravos na sociedade colonial.  São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.
  • Thomas, Georg (1982) [1968]. Política indigenista dos portugueses no Brasil 1500-1640. São Paulo: Edições Loyola.
  • Zeron, Carlos A. de M. R. (2011). Linha de fé: A Companhia de Jesus e a escravidão no processo de formação da sociedade colonial (Brasil, séculos XVI e XVII). São Paulo: Edusp.


Rodrigo F. Bonciani (Universidade Federal de São Paulo)

How to quote this entry:

Rodrigo Faustinoni Bonciani. “Indigenous Policy“. In: BRASILHIS Dictionary: Biographic and Thematic Dictionary of Brazil in the Spanish Monarch (1580-1640). Available in: Date of access: 13/04/2024.

Keep Reading