Pathways to Vassalage in Tierra Firme: Conflict, Negotiation, and Rebellion in Early Colonial Panamá



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Vassalage in the context of this paper is defined as a position of subordination or submission and the homage, fealty, or services du from being a vassal of a political power, in this case the Spanish Church and monarchy. The agenda was to make Christians and vassals of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. As vassals they would be expected to give up what the Spanish viewed as “evil” or “barbarous” ways to labor in mines, cultivation, and building processes. In exchange they would be indoctrinated into the Christian faith, provided food and shelter, and allowed to remain in their own lands. Those who did not comply were forced to labor. In this thesis, I argue that Spanish explorers and settlers were not diplomats and had little interest in the effort and expense of evangelizing, feeding, or sheltering the Indigenous peoples. As long as they prospered off the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples and, later, Africans, they did not uphold the laws as they had expected to be followed. I argue that vassalage, at this time, was used as an ultimatum or an opportunity to exploit. Those who did not agree were enslaved and those who did agree had often been intimidated to do so. Enslaved Africans had arrived with the Spaniards in their first voyages. However, it wasn’t until the cheaper Indigenous labor declined, and the laws protecting them began to be enforced in earnest, that the Spaniards began to lean more heavily on enslaved Africans as a labor resource. The African path to vassalage was very different from the Indigenous. It was not as readily offered until self-emancipated Africans, or cimarrones, soon dominated the region, crowned their own king, collaborated with Spanish enemies, and began raiding Spanish mule trains along the Camino Real, the vital trade route that transported Peruvian gold along the isthmus between Panama City on the Pacific side to Nombre de Dios on the Atlantic side. As conflict escalated vassalage would become a bargaining tool to establish peace.



Panama, vassalage, cimarrones, Indigenous people, corsairs