Though a lot of people, myself included, have painted the Spanish as Bad Guys in the New World, it's important to remember that they did not consider themselves evil. In fact, they believed that they were exercising their territorial rights, and bringing enlightenment to people who otherwise would surely be going to hell.
Christopher Columbus discovered the Caribbean Islands in 1492, the same year that the kingdom of Castille finally drove off the invading Moors, people from North Africa who had been trying to invade Europe by coming through Spain for nearly 300 years. In only a few years, Castille united with Aragon only a few years later, creating the modern nation of Spain.
Upon learning of a new land, where the only metal seemed to be gold, and emeralds came the size of eggs, the Castilian Queen – Isabella - immediately thought that it should be conquered. This was pretty standard practice for the time. European nations fought each other and took over new territory all the time. It was the Medieval way of life. and because of the ongoing war, Spain was still solidly Medieval in their way of thinking and governing.
Spain wanted to set up a governmental system just like the one they had at home. It's very likely that at first the rulers had no idea how much territory they were dealing with. No one had ever tried to govern a territory more than 83 times the size of the homeland – and more than 3000 miles away.
Queen Isabella's original grant to Columbus made him "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," and ruler of all the lands he discovered. When Isabella realized that Columbus how much Columbus had discovered, she revised her decree and the Crown began governing the New World.
The initial clashes between conquistadors made for a wild and woolly environment. With no real rules to live by, and any kind of advice or directions taking two years to travel to Spain and back, these warriors acted like warriors. They fought – the natives and each other.
But by the middle of the 1500’s, the Spanish government began to get a firm grip on the New World. The conquistadores had been supposed to carve out medieval-style baronies for themselves. The “serfs” in these territories would farm and serve as unskilled foot soldiers when called upon.
This didn’t work out. The natives had no understanding of their expected roles in this society, and besides, they died in droves from European diseases. The remaining ones found it relatively easy to flee into the jungles when pressed. Spain needed to send colonists, and so they did. Many of these people died from New World diseases, but by only 1500, nearly 1000 Spanish lived in the Americas.
Spain's American empire was divided into viceroyalties. These appointed men were literally vice-roy’s, or under-kings. Deriving authority from a belief system that claimed that the king was appointed directly by God, and ruled by divine will.
Within a viceroyalty was the captaincies-general. The captain-general operated much like a junior viceroy, usually governing a region distant from the viceregal capital, such as Chile and Guatemala.
The oidores (judges) were the most important officials. They were important people in Spain with legal training. And people of great consequence and who received high salaries in the colonies. In some instances, the power of the judges overlapped those of the viceroy. It is believed that this was intentional, since it required the power of the actual king to mediate.
The audiencia was legal a court, which was its chief function. As time went by and population grew, it divided into special courts and added a number of oidores. It could question the actions of other officials and discipline them. It could execute laws. When it was in a viceregal city, the viceroy was automatically its president but there was always tension between the audiencia and the viceroy no matter where the audiencia sat.
The viceroys and governed through a Council of the Indies in Spain. The Council of the Indies was formally created on August 1, 1524. The king was informed weekly, and sometimes daily, of decisions reached by the Council. which came to exercise supreme authority over the Indies at the local level. Civil suits of sufficient importance could be appealed from an audiencia in the New World to the Council, functioning as a court of last resort.
So, a plan existed. When the system did not work, the Crown made efforts to make it work. At various times additional viceroys were assigned. The governing council was overhauled in 1524, and new laws were written. The intention was to create a civil, effective government.
But civil government is hard to maintain when huge amounts of gold, silver, and jewels are floating about. The remnants of the medieval system meant that no middle class was envisioned. The folk who mined the riches were not the ones who profited by them – except when the riches went missing, or “shrank” to use the modern euphemism for theft.