Sexual Violence as a Tool in the Conquest of California

Spanish missionaries working in California
Spanish missionaries working in California

Beginning in the Eighteenth Century, Spain set their sights on the conquest of Western territory in the Americas. They created missions in places that would later become the areas of California and Texas. The principle objective of these missions, according to Antonia I. Castaneda’s essay in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, was “converting Amerindians into loyal Catholic subjects who would repel invading European forces from these shores” (MP 49). Conversions were somewhat successful on the missions, however the majority of the new converts were children rather than adults. One reason that adults were less likely to convert to Christianity was the rampant nature of sexual assault against Amerindian women by Spanish soldiers. The phenomenon was not isolated to one specific mission or set of soldiers, it happened everywhere. Castaneda points out in MP that “the founding of each new mission and presidio brought new reports of sexual violence” (MP 47).

The sexual assaults were particularly troubling for the priests and missionaries because it went against all of the Catholic values that they were attempting to ‘teach’ the Amerindians. A document written by Father Luis Jayme in 1772 speaks at length on the troubling effects of the sexual abuse in California. He believes that more progress would be made if the soldiers “set a good example” (MP 36) and stopped violence against women specifically and the villages in general. He offers two cases, of which he says were two of many, of the effects of sexual assault in the missions. In the first case, he speaks of a Christian convert Amerindian who became pregnant after an assault from a Spanish soldier. She gave birth to the baby and killed in out of shame (MP 37). In the other, soldiers entered a village and demanded pears and pots from women. When they refused to give the pots, the soldiers repeatedly assaulted them (MP 38). Father Luis Jayme ends asking his Reverence to “do everything possible.. so that this conquest will not be lost or retarded because of the bad example by these soldiers” (MP 38). Father Luis Jayme recognized how detrimental the sexual assaults were to the mission of converting the Amerindians. The soldiers lost all credibility with the natives and these normal peaceful and typically non-violent Amerindians (MP 48) often would counterattack the soldiers- for which the soldiers would issue attacks as well. The Spanish conquest that had the guise of converting the Amerindians into Christians essentially turned their communities upside down.

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While the sexual violence was denounced by missionary members, it can be argued that the sexual violence was more than just bad behavior by the soldiers. Rather, the sexual violence was used as a control mechanism that aided the conquest in controlling the native populations. Castaneda points out that sexual assault is an act of domination and power in Western civilization (MP 53) and as such the soldiers used it as an act of war against a population it was seeking to conquer. The Amerindians were viewed as the lesser population by the Europeans and the assault was a product of this racist ideology. Castaneda sums up the practice by asserting that, “under conditions of war and conquest, rape is a form of national terrorism, subjugation, and humiliation, wherein the sexual violation of women represents both physical domination of women and the symbolic castration of the men of the conquered group” (MP 53). This point of view contrasts that of the missionaries and points to the slightly hypocritical nature of colonial missions. While the priests like Father Luis Jayme see the assaults as expressions of bad behavior, the soldier view it as an act of dominance. In the second story by Father Luis Jayme, the soldiers assaulted the women because they refused to give them pots. The disrespect of the native women provided for Spanish dominance in California and in other areas of colonial enterprise in Eighteenth century North America and onward.


“Father Luis Jayme Attacks Sexual Abuse of Indigenous Women, 1772.” Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

Castaneda, Antonia I. “Sexual Violence in the Spanish Conquest of California.” Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.

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Kelsey Shober

Senior History and Political Science major at Virginia Tech. I have written blogs for multiple classes including: Twentieth Century Russia, America in the 1960s, and the History of Sexuality in America.

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