Council of the Indies royal emblem

The Laws of the Indies (Spanish: Leyes de las Indias) are the entire body of laws issued by the Spanish Crown for the American and the Asian possessions of its empire. They regulated social, political, religious, and economic life in these areas. The laws are composed of myriad decrees issued over the centuries and the important laws of the 16th century, which attempted to regulate the interactions between the settlers and natives, such as the Laws of Burgos (1512) and the New Laws (1542). Throughout the 400 years of Spanish presence in these parts of the world, the laws were compiled several times, most notably in 1680 under Charles II in the Recopilación de las Leyes de los Reynos de las Indias (Compilation of the Laws of the Kingdoms of the Indies). This became considered the classic collection of the laws, although later laws superseded parts of it, and other compilations were issued.


The Spanish Viceroyalties in the Americas generated conflict between indigenous peoples ('Natives' or 'Indians') and the Spanish colonists. The Spanish attempted to control the Natives to force their labor. At the same time, conflicts on policy and implementation occurred between the encomenderos and the Crown.

Colegio de San Gregorio, Valladolid
Colegio de San Gregorio, where the Laws of the Indies were born

Two of the main sets of laws issued in the 16th century regulated Spanish interaction with the Native peoples, an issue about which the Crown quickly became concerned soon after the voyages of Christopher Columbus and his governorship. The Laws of Burgos (1512), signed by King Ferdinand II of Aragon, focused upon the welfare of the conquered native peoples. The issue was revisited after Bartolomé de las Casas brought attention to abuses being carried out by encomenderos. The Laws of Burgos were revised by the New Laws of 1542 issued by Carlos I and quickly revised again in 1552, after the laws met resistance from colonists. These were followed by the Ordinances Concerning Discoveries in 1573, which forbade any unauthorized operations against independent Native Americans.[1]

The Valladolid debate (1550–1551) was the first moral debate in European history to discuss the rights and treatment of a colonized people by colonizers. Held in the Colegio de San Gregorio, in the Spanish city of Valladolid, it was a moral and theological debate about the colonization of the Americas, its justification for the conversion to Catholicism and more specifically about the relations between the European settlers and the natives of the New World. It consisted of a number of opposing views about the way natives were to be integrated into colonial life, their conversion to Christianity and their rights and obligations. According to the French historian Jean Dumont, the Valladolid debate was a major turning point in world history, saying “In that moment in Spain appeared the dawn of the human rights”.[2]

To guide and regularize the establishment of presidios (military towns), missions, and pueblos (civilian towns), King Phillip II developed the first version of the Laws of the Indies. This comprehensive guide was composed of 148 ordinances to aid colonists in locating, building, and populating settlements. These ordinances would be used throughout what is now called South America, Central America, Mexico, the US American West, and the Spanish East Indies.[3][4] They codified the city planning process and represented some of the first attempts at a general plan. Signed in 1573, the Laws of the Indies are considered the first wide-ranging guidelines towards design and development of communities. These laws were heavily influenced by Vitruvius' Ten Books of Architecture and Leon Battista Alberti's treatises on the subject.

Effects on town planning

In Book IV of the 1680 compilation of the Laws of the Indies, plans were set forth in detail on every facet of creating a community, including town planning.[5] Examples of the range of rules include:

The plaza, or city square, of Manila, Philippines
Plan of the walled city of Manila with elements of colonial planning present

These rules are part of a body of 148 regulations configuring any settlement according to the rule of Spain and its colonies. This continued as a precedent in all towns under Spanish control until the relinquishing of the land to others, as in the case of the American colonies and their growth. The Laws of the Indies are still used as an example to design guidelines for communities today.[7]

The Laws specify many details of towns. A plan is made centered on a Plaza Mayor (main square) of size within specified limits, from which twelve straight streets are built in a rectilinear grid. The directions of the streets are chosen according to the prevailing winds, to protect the Plaza Mayor. The guidelines recommend a hospital for non-contagious cases near the church, and one for contagious diseases further away.[8]

Most townships founded in any part of the Spanish Empire in America before the various parts became independent countries were planned according to the Laws. These include many townships with Spanish names located in what is now the United States. The creation of a central square and rectilinear grid of streets was different from the haphazard and organic growth that led to meandering streets in many old townships in Iberia.

Laws in the Viceroyalty of New Spain

In the Viceroyalty of New Spain, specific laws were applied in order to regulate life and work.

In terms of work, provisions were issued that tried to benefit the indigenous, called natural at that time. The economic interests of the upper classes were harmed if these provisions were applied in their entirety.

The following points would be applied:

Laws in the Viceroyalty of Peru

In terms of guarantees for social conditions of dignified life, the Peruvian viceroys, after receiving reports of mistreatment and exploitation of the workers of the Indian Political Society, made multiple efforts to abide by compliance with Indian laws and respect for the natural law of the Indian. and mestizo as a human person:[9][10][11][12]

I have been informed that the Indians who serve in the mills are owed a large sum of pesos for their wages and are paid with papers and other things in such a way that many die without receiving what is owed to them and to see that they come

— Marquis of Guadalcazar, 1622

See also



  1. ^ "Indies, Laws of the" Archived 2016-01-28 at the Wayback Machine. (2006). In Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 22, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  2. ^ Dumont, Jean (1997). El amanecer de los derechos del hombre : la controversia de Valladolid. Madrid: Encuentro. ISBN 8474904153.
  3. ^ Barretto-Tesoro, Grace (2015). "The Application of the Laws of the Indies in the Pacific: the Excavation of Two Old Stone-Based Houses in San Juan, Batangas, Philippines". International Journal of Historical Archaeology. 19 (3): 433–463. doi:10.1007/s10761-015-0295-4. S2CID 159139863.
  4. ^ Caves, R. W. (2004). Encyclopedia of the City. Routledge. p. 425. ISBN 9780415252256.
  5. ^ Recopilacion de leyes de los reynos de las Indias. Tomo Segundo. Madrid: Julián de Paredes. 1681.
  6. ^ Crouch, Dora P.; Mundigo, Axel I. (1977). "The City Planning Ordinances of the Laws of the Indies Revisited. Part II: Three American Cities". The Town Planning Review. Liverpool University Press. 48 (4): 397–418. ISSN 0041-0020. JSTOR 40103295. Retrieved November 24, 2023.
  7. ^ Showley, Roger (5 August 2019). "For its 250th anniversary, San Diego gets an update". The Architect's Newspaper.
  8. ^ "Foundation of the Spanish-American towns", (in Spanish)
  9. ^ [Economic and financial history of Peru] Historia económica y financiera del Perú, Emilio Romero (1937).
  10. ^ Crisis and Decline: The Viceroyalty of Peru in the Seventeenth Century, Kenneth J. Andrien (1985).
  11. ^ [The Corregidor of Indians in Peru under the Habsburgs] El Corregidor de indios en el Perú bajo los Austrias, Guillermo Lohmann Villena (2001).
  12. ^ [The Obrajes in the Viceroyalty of Peru] Los obrajes en el virreinato del Perú, Fernando Silva Santisteban (1964).


  • Spain/Council of the Indies and Juan Manzano Manzano. Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias. 4 vols. Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1973 [1681] ISBN 978-84-7232-204-2
  • Spain/Council of the Indies. Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias, 1681. 5 vols. Mexico: M. A. Porrúa, 1987. ISBN 978-968-842-091-1
  • Spain/Council of the Indies. Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias. 3 vols. Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitutionales: Boletín Oficial del Estado, 1998 [1681]. ISBN 978-84-340-1040-6
  • Tyler, S. Lyman. The Indian Cause in the Spanish Laws of the Indies: With an Introduction and the First English Translation of Book VI, Concerning the Indians, from the Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias, Madrid, 1681. Salt Lake City: American West Center, University of Utah, 1980.
  • Tyler, S. Lyman. Spanish Laws Concerning Discoveries, Pacifications, and Settlements among the Indians: With an Introduction and the First English Translation of the New Ordinances of Philip II, July 1573, and of Book IV of the Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias, Relating to these Subjects. Salt Lake City: American West Center, University of Utah, 1980.