Conquest And The Cross

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Despite this failure, Las Casas, remaining true to his idea, returned to Spain in 1547 to urge his point of view before King and Council. Now seventy-three, after nearly halt a century of experience in Indian affairs, he arrived just in time to direct the campaign for his second great conviction: that the aborigines were human beings with the same essential rights as Spaniards. It was a dangerous moment for the Indians, for the ancient theory of Aristotle—that some men are by nature slaves—had been invoked, had been gratefully received by colonists and officials, and had been found conveniently applicable to Indians from the coasts of Florida to the mountains of far-distant Chile. The proposal that someone else should do the physical work of the world appealed strongly to sixteenth-century Spaniards, whose taste for martial glory and religious conquest and distaste for labor came from their forefathers, who had struggled for centuries to eject the Moslems from Spain. And when to this doctrine was linked the concept that the inferior beings were actually benefited by the labor they performed, the proposition became invincibly attractive.

The Aristotelian doctrine had first been applied to the American Indians in 1519, when Las Casas at the age of forty-five clashed with Juan Quevedo, Bishop of Darién, at Barcelona before the young Emperor Charles V. Las Casas had denounced the bishop for invoking such a non-Christian idea and had dismissed Aristotle as a “gentile burning in Hell, whose doctrine we need not follow except in so far as it conforms to Christian truth.” At the same time Las Casas enunciated the basic concept which would guide his action on behalf of the Indians all the rest of his agitated life: “Our Christian religion is suitable for and may be adapted to all the nations of the world, and all alike may receive it; and no one may be deprived of his liberty, nor may he be enslaved on the excuse that he is a natural slave, as it would appear that the reverend bishop of Darién advocates.” But no decision had emerged from the debate; the episode was merely a prelude to the important drama that unfolded thirty years later when Las Casas confronted the scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in Valladolid, the somber Spanish capital on the desolate plain of Castile.

This great dispute originated when the Council of the Indies declared to the King on July 3, 1549, that the dangers both to the Indians and to the King’s conscience which the conquests incurred were so great that no future military expedition should be licensed without his express permission and that of the Council. The Council declared:

The greed of those who undertake conquests and the timidity and humility of the Indians is such that we are not certain whether any instruction will be obeyed. It would be fitting for Your Majesty to order a meeting of learned men, theologians, and jurists … to … consider the manner in which these conquests should be carried on … justly and with security of conscience.

Accordingly, in April of 1550 the King, Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, ordered that all New World conquests be suspended until a special group of theologians and counselors—to be convened that very year—should decide upon a just method of conducting them.

In 1550 Charles’ influence was felt in every country of Europe. His possessions stretched to the Netherlands in the north and Milan in the south; in the New World his bold captains had raced over a vast territory from northern Mexico some seven thousand miles south to Buenos Aires, and his ships had even reached Manila far across the Pacific. In the fifty-eight years since Columbus’ landfall Spaniards had discovered one thousand times more new land than had been explored in the previous one thousand years of medieval Europe. In the New World great Indian empires—the Inca and the Aztec being the most notable—had toppled before Spanish soldiers, while in the Old, Charles sturdily fought back both Protestants and Turks. Probably never before had such a mighty sovereign ordered his conquests to cease until it should be decided if they were just.

We do not know where in Valladolid the sessions of the “Council of Fourteen”—which began in mid-August—were held. Perhaps the Council sat in the halls of the ancient university or in the Dominican monastery of San Gregorio, whose imposing buildings still stand. Among the judges were outstanding theologians and veteran members of the councils of Castile and of the Indies; this was the last significant dispute on the nature of the Indians and the justice of Spain’s dominion over America.

Las Casas was bold indeed to engage Sepúlveda in learned combat, for this humanist scholar, who had given comfort to Spanish officials and conquistadors by composing a treatise defending the Spanish conquest, had one of the best trained minds of his time. During years of study in Italy he had become one of the principal scholars in the recovery of the “true” Aristotle, and he enjoyed great prestige at court. In 1548, not long before joining battle with Las Casas, he had published in Paris his Latin translation of Aristotle’s Politics , which he considered his principal contribution to knowledge.

The disputants had been summoned to Valladolid to answer the question, Is it lawful for the King of Spain to wage war on the Indians before preaching the faith to them in order to subject them to his rule, so that afterward they may be more easily instructed in the faith? Sepúlveda had come to prove that this was “both lawful and expedient.” Las Casas was there to declare it “iniquitous, and contrary to our Christian religion.”