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How seriously should we take the view that Spanish rule preserved and assimilated important elements of native economic and cultural life before 1650?
The immediate effects of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas were undeniably catastrophic for the indigenous population. Disease above all but also some colonial aggression is estimated to have reduced the number of Indians in areas of Spanish settlement by up to three-quarters, in a trend of decline that continued well into the first century of settlement. We can imagine that one effect of this depletion, crippling as it must have been to Indian society and economy, would have been to make the imposition of foreign structures of government and society in the former territory of Mesoamerican polities a smoother process. Debate has long taken place, not without clouding by nationalist or apologetic agendas, over the extent of this imposition, and the role within the new settler society afforded the surviving native population. On the one hand, Lockhart and others have argued for a wholesale transplantation of 'essentially intact, complete Spanish society' to America, in which Indians were relatively marginalised. It might be tempting to associate with this model a view of the European settlers as violent and contemptuous towards native culture as portrayed by the 'Black Legend'; however, given the scale of depopulation, a malicious intent is perhaps not necessary to explain why a largely foreign and top-down system might have developed. On the other hand, the case has been put forward for a greater degree of accommodation with natives, and for some continuity of administrative practice, social organisation and economic activity with the pre-Conquest period. This again need not be a stretch of the imagination: the Aztec and Inca states represented sophisticated polities with developed systems of production and tribute collection that the new Spanish rulers would have had good reason to make use of or emulate. Furthermore, the inherent freedom of the Indian race was repeatedly asserted by the Spanish monarch and Church, their high culture was the focus of Spanish admiration and settlers and natives lived in close contact, even intermarrying. A degree of assimilation of native life into the workings of the Spanish empire would, in short, be very plausible. It is through an examination of the structure of the colonial government, of the evangelizing role of the church, of the hierarchy of Spanish-American society and of the nature of economic activity taking place in the colonies that we can hope to shed light on the extent to which it actually took place. The overall impression of the government of the Americas is that the system was largely a foreign imposition, although with a place for some native elements at the lower levels. The upper echelons of the colonial administration were firmly rooted in the Iberian tradition: the viceroys that were the chief royal officials in the Americas after the initial phase of conquest and settlement were high-ranking Spanish nobles and derived their authority explicitly through association with the monarch. Below them, the audiencias that were to assume executive powers across smaller territorial units alongside their original judicial function were also royal in character: Bakewell has argued that the marriage of these two branches of government, as well as the element of rule of committee implicit in the structure of the tribunals, mirrored by the structure royal councils of state, marked the audiencias out as such. Ultimate authority for the running of the American colonies was derived from within Spain itself, with the monarch in theory and the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies in practice. Indeed, it is striking to note that even the white settler population were largely excluded from these higher reaches of the administration, with viceroys appointed from within the ranks of the Spanish nobility and the oidores of the audiencias being Spanish-trained lawyers. If
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