Protector of the Indians

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Protector of Indians (Spanish: Protectoría de indios) was an administrative office of the Spanish colonies, that was responsible for attending to the well being of the native populations, including speaking on their behalf in courts and reporting back to the King of Spain.


The first steps towards the implementation of protection policies for indigenous peoples is believed to have commenced in 1516, when several Hieronymites friars were sent to the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean to evaluate the consequences that colonization was having upon the demographic decline of the native population and the effects of forced conversion. The report made by Fray Bartolome de las Casas to Cardinal Cisneros is probably the first documented attempt of those efforts, when the bishops took upon themselves the task of exercising protective actions on the native population.[1]

Cisneros granted the title of Protector de Indios to Bartolomé de las Casas, and he was given instructions to serve as an adviser regarding issues concerning the native population, as well as to speak on their behalf during legal proceedings, reporting back to Spain. Other notable protectors included Juan de Zumárraga (appointed 1527) and Hernando de Luque (appointed 1529).


Zumárraga proposed in 1529 to appoint a trusted group of secular officials from different religious orders to be elected as such protectors and intervene in Indian civil and criminal cases. However, the Crown would not yield to the regular clergy full sovereignty over the indigenous population and in 1530 decreed that all issues regarding the natives were to be handled by government officers elected by the local Audiencia. [2]

The lack of legislation and official recognition produced many difficulties when trying to define the roles of the protector of the Indians, that were mostly exercised by the bishops during the early period. It wasn't until the publication of the New Laws in 1542 that there was an official prohibition of the enslavement of the natives with added provisions for the gradual abolition of the encomienda system.

The first provisions directly addressing the Protector de Indios as such are first known to appear in the Cedulario Indiano compiled by Encina Diego in 1596, and later in the Compilation of the Laws of the Indies, Volume II, Book VI, Title V.[citation needed] Other related provisions within the Laws refer to the treatment of the Indian subjects, their evangelization and the good care of their lives, with specific instructions to not oppress them in any way and to regard them as vassals of the Crown. It also required from the prosecutor of the local Audiencia to watch over the treatment given to the natives by colonial representatives with the obligation to punish any violation of the law and notify the Council of the Indies.

On April 9, 1591 the Crown issued a Royal Decree and a letter to Luis de Velasco, viceroy of New Spain, that laid down the legal basis for the creation of a specific agency dedicated to the defense of the natives in the colonies. The office was to be headed by an attorney general and a consultant to the legal procedures involving natives.[3]


Following the repeal of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 the Protectoría de indios was dismantled, and although it was temporarily restored following the Trienio Liberal, it disappeared completely from the American colonies after their independence, leaving the indigenous population subject to a completely different legal status.


  1. ^ Bayle, Constantino (1948). El protector de indios. Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1945. pp. 12–13. 
  2. ^ Bayle, Constantino (1948). El protector de indios. Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1945. p. 7. 
  3. ^ Borah, Woodrow (1985). El Juzgado General de Indios en la Nueva España. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica. p. 137. ISBN 968-16-1749-5. 


  • Cutter, Charles R. 1986. The protector de indios in colonial New Mexico, 1659-1821. University of New Mexico Press.
  • Ruigómez Gómez, Carmen. 1988. "Una política indigenista de los Habsburgo: el protector de indios en el Perú" Madrid: Instituto de cooperación iberoamericana. ICI,
  • Curiel, José Refugio de la Torre. 2010. Un mecenazgo fronterizo: El protector de indios Juan de Gándara y los ópatas de Opodepe (Sonora) a principios del siglo XIX Revista de Indias, Vol 70, No 248 (2010)
  • Martín, Ascensión Baeza. 2010. Presión e intereses en torno al cargo de protector general de indios del Nuevo Reino de León: el caso de Nicolás de Villalobos, 1714-1734. Anuario de Estudios Americanos, Vol 67, No 1 (2010):209-237