Indigenous Petitioning in the Early Modern British & Spanish New World

by Adrian Masters and Bradley Dixon


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Adrian Masters & Bradley Dixon, "Indigenous Petitioning in the Early Modern British & Spanish New World," 105-136, in Petitioning in the Atlantic World, c. 1500–1840: Empires, Revolutions and Social Movements, ed. Miguel Dantas da Cruz. Cham: Palgrave, 2022.


¶ "Old World societies devastated and displaced countless peoples throughout the lands they called the “New World.” Amidst epidemics and violence from European-descended communities, indigenous peoples did more than perish, flee, or resist through violence. Many hundreds of thousands of non-European communities also turned strategically to petitioning Western officials, councils, and monarchs for redress, with outcomes varying from sweeping victories to total rejection. This chapter provides an overview of indigenous petitioning in what by the 1700s were the New World’s two most populous European dominions: the Spanish and British monarchies. It only briefly considers pre-conquest indigenous practices of subject–ruler communication, and does not explore petitioning among populous and geopolitically important sovereign peoples who were contemporaries of the British and Spanish, such as the Comanche or Mapuche. It also does not consider the important French and Portuguese dominions, to say nothing of other smaller European counterparts.

¶ Recognizing that “Indians” variously mastered, contributed to, and consciously rejected European legal and social impositions through petitioning opens up fundamental questions about the nature and outcomes of these encounters. Petitioning was often a result of indigenous hardship, mediated through often-predatorial Old World practices of linguistic and legal translation. It also engendered substantial imperial reforms, as well as many great intellectual works, many now esteemed among the world’s finest. The process of petitioning transformed those who engaged with British and Spanish systems of justice, even as these supplications helped structure the very categories of the “Native” and the “indio.” In fact, these supplications even enabled indigenous communities and individuals to co-create many imperial legal categories. Peoples facing both Spanish and British domination thus shaped these two European empires, and in the process, were themselves transformed.




Nueva coronica y buen gobierno (1615), 770/784, Dibujo 292. Un honrado principal andino redacta un pleito a nombre de un indio tribu- tario( Sowrce The Royal Danish Library, Copenhagen, GKS 2232 4,° Guaman Poma)