Conquering Tierra Firme: Labor Dependence and Conflict in Early Colonial Panama



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During the conquest of the Americas, many Spanish conquistadors prospered off the subjugation of the Indigenous peoples they considered savages. However, the Church's agenda was to make Christians and vassals of the Indians. Many of the clergy were critical of the actions of their fellow countrymen and, acting as their conscience, began advocating for better treatment. The clergy were among the first to voice concern over the devastation and regularly informed the crown of the cruelties the Indians have endured at the hands of Christian men. Nonetheless, many Spaniards murdered, robbed, and terrorized those they were meant to treat as vassals. Driven by their lust for the riches of the New World, many Spanish conquerors and settlers were often strained by the very religion, culture, and justice that they prided themselves on and sought to bless the rest of the world with. Those who sought power, did very little to remedy the actions of their fellow men and, in fact, they were often rewarded, and the crimes went unpunished. As this continued mistreatment, compounded with the ravages of European diseases, decimated the Indigenous population, Spanish settlers sought labor from a source they had previously avoided, enslaved Africans. In Panama, many of these enslaved Africans would prove to be difficult to control and dangerous. It also became evident that there was a disparity in advocacy for the vassalage and Christianization of enslaved Africans compared to that of the Indians.