Analysis of The Laughter of Dr. Palacios Rubios
“The Laughter of Dr. Palacios Rubios” is a narrative from the chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, who uses an anecdote of his expedition with Pedrarias Davila to illustrate the first use of the Requerimiento, or Requirement. Oviedo was a witness of the first use of the Requirement and afterwards was able to recount his experience with the writer of the document, Dr. Palacios Rubios[i]. Through the examination of the context of the narrative, Oviedo’s language describing the first use of the Requirement, and his subsequent account of his encounter with Rubios, it becomes clear that the Requirement was not a document intended to provide the natives a chance to understand the purpose of the Spanish in America, as it claimed to be, but rather was a symbolic performance to justify the Spanish right to conquer the New World.
During the conquest of the New World, there was a question as to why the Spanish had the right to conquer the natives. As a result, the Requirement established that the conquistadors were simply executing orders from God, and therefore resistance to the Spanish would in a sense be resisting God[ii]. It was also imperative that a war only be waged if it was considered “just” and legal, as was also evident in Portugal as many Jesuit missionaries protested the illegal capturing of slaves by Portuguese bandeirantes[iii]. Thomas Aquinas developed Three Reasons for War to be Just, one of those reasons being that the aggressors should have the right intention to advance the intent of good, which, according to the Requirement, holds true and another being that those who are attacked deserve it, meaning resistance from the natives would mean they deserve being attacked [iv]. The Requirement was therefore meant for the conquistadors to ask the natives to submissively accept the Spanish authority and the authority of the Church before forcing them to. If they were to resist, the Spanish were just in waging war on them[v]. Thus, the context of the source also illuminates the presence of a language barrier between the Spanish and the natives. In fact, this barrier is essential in understanding how the Spanish were able to justify their attacks when presenting the Requirement, which was written and recited in Spanish with no evidence of the Requirement being translated into the native languages, which already sets the perspective of Oviedo’s narrative as witnessing an inherently unjust recitation [vi]. Since the natives did not understand the Spanish, and the Spanish dutifully neglected this barrier, it became easier for the conquistadors to justify their actions by convincing themselves that the barrier was absent. This would also shift the responsibility of comprehending and acknowledging the Requirement from the Spanish to the natives since the only responsibility for the Spanish is to only present the Requirement. Thus, it becomes clear that in the context of Oviedo’s narrative, the Requirement was implemented not out of genuine concern of unnecessarily subjugating natives, but out of concern with “subjecting and acquiring the land” of the natives quickly, which Oviedo’s account exemplifies[vii].
Oviedo makes it clear that he did not approve of how the Requirement was first used, or even how it would later continue to be implemented, since the conquistadors failed to explain the document to the natives properly[viii]. During the expedition, Oviedo proposed capturing a native and gradually explaining the Requirement in great detail until he understood what the document meant. This proposition, however, was met with “hearty laughter” from the general and others who were also on the expedition[ix]. Oviedo juxtaposes himself from the others by stating that there was laughter “of all who were there”, generalizing the group as a whole and distinguishing himself as the sole individual wanting to properly implement the document. Oviedo’s language is also most descriptive when describing the general’s response of arranging his men into battle formation at the first encounter with the Indians. Oviedo suddenly becomes very specific, from mentioning the precise weight of the bronze canon, to recounting how “highly praised” greyhounds flanked the men, to describing the men being lined up from one another “by a distance of two hundred paces”, all to emphasize the distinction in the general and Oviedo’s beliefs in how to approach the natives[x]. Consequently, Oviedo’s description of the general “quickly [leaving] the village” when alerted about the presence of the Indians and his subsequent arrangement of the men into battle formation prior to reading the Requirement affirms the idea that implementing the Requirement properly was not a priority for the conquistadors and, like the general described by Oviedo, many were eager to attack the natives should they resist the document[xi]. It is not explicitly mentioned whether the natives resist or not, though Oviedo does allude to the fact that the general would end up attacking, again confirming that the presentation of the Requirement provided the general the justification for the attack.[xii]
Based on the context of the source and Oviedo’s depiction of the general, it becomes clear what the Requirement really was: a symbolic performance for religious and legal justification for the Spanish Empire and “the consciences of the Christians”[xiii]. It did not matter whether the natives understood the Requirement or that they were forced to face an ultimatum, but rather that the Spanish had at least provided the natives the right to “choose”. Oviedo clearly disapproved of how the Requirement was used and expressed his dissatisfaction to Rubios himself after the expedition, but ironically received laughter as a response from the doctor[xiv]. The irony in this encounter is apparent as Rubios was the one who drafted the Requirement to begin with and if he was indifferent to how it was being implemented, then it would be no surprise that conquistadors would treat it differently.
[i] Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, Historia general y natural de las Indias, 14 vols (Asuncion, Paraguay, 1944-1945), 7:131-132. “The Laughter of Dr. Palacios Rubios”. Excerpt translated by Benjamin Keen.
[ii] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 87.
[iii] Robert Buffington, Keen’s Latin American Civilization. “The Slave Hunters”, 86.
[iv] Lecture, September 20, 2016.
[v] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 87.
[vii] Ibid, 90
[viii] Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, 132.