- Historic Sites
Conquest And The Cross
Bartolomé de Las Casas was a voice crying in the wilderness against the ruthlessness of the conquistadors. Was the “Black Legend” true?
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
On the first day of the dispute Sepúlveda spoke for three hours, giving a résumé of his work “Démocrates.” On the second day Las Casas appeared, armed with a monumental treatise, still unpublished, which he proceeded to read word for word. This scholastic onslaught continued for five days, until the reading was completed or—as Sepúlveda suggested—until the members of the Council could bear no more. The two principals did not appear together, but the judges discussed the issues with them separately and also carried on discussions among themselves.
Sepúlveda’s fundamental idea was simple. It was lawful and necessary to wage war against the natives for four reasons: (1) For the gravity of the sins which the Indians had committed, especially their idolatries and their “sins against nature”—cruelty to their fellows, cannibalism, and use of human sacrifice in religious ceremonies; (2) On account of the rudeness of their natures, which obliged them to serve persons, like the Spaniards, having a more refined nature; (3) In order to spread the faith, which would be more easily accomplished by the prior subjugation of the natives; (4) To protect the weak among the natives themselves.
The arguments of Las Casas require little detailed analysis: he simply called for justice for the Indians. But the judges at Valladolid, like the later Scottish philosopher who declared, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, but it is easier to hunger and thirst after it than to define it,” inquired of Las Casas exactly how the conquest ought to proceed. He replied that, when no danger threatened, preachers alone should be sent. In particularly dangerous parts of the Indies, fortresses should be built on the borders, and little by little the people would be won over to Christianity by peace, love, and good example. It is clear that Las Casas, despite the failure at Tuzutlän, never abandoned his hopes for peaceful colonization and persuasion.
The focal point of the argument was Sepúlveda’s second justification for the Spaniards’ rule: the “natural rudeness and inferiority” of the Indians, which, he declared, accorded with the doctrine of philosophers that some men are born to be natural slaves. Indians in America were without exception rude persons born with a limited understanding, he claimed, and therefore they were to be classed as servi a natura , bound to serve their superiors and natural lords, the Spaniards. These inferior people “require, by their own nature and in their own interests, to be placed under the authority of civilized and virtuous princes or nations, so that they may learn, from the might, wisdom, and law of their conquerors, to practice better morals, worthier customs and a more civilized way of life.” The Indians are as inferior “as children are to adults, as women are to men, as different from Spaniards as cruel people are from mild people.”
Compare then those blessings enjoyed by Spaniards of prudence, genius, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religion with those of the homunculi [little men] in whom you will scarcely find even vestiges of humanity, who not only possess no science but who also lack letters and preserve no monument of their history except certain vague and obscure reminiscences of some things in certain paintings. Neither do they have written laws, but barbaric institutions and customs. They do not even have private property.
The fatuity of Sepúlveda’s utterances is the more striking when one considers how much information on Indian culture and intellectual capacity was then available. It had been thirty years since the German artist Albrecht Dürer had seen the artistic booty that Cortés had dispatched from Montezuma’s Mexico to Charles V and had written in his diary: ”… I saw among them amazing artistic objects, and I marvelled over the subtle ingenuity of the men in these distant lands, indeed I cannot say enough about the things that were brought before me.” Few were equipped to judge as expertly as Dürer the artistic accomplishments of the New World, but by 1550 much of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca culture had come to the notice of Spaniards, and a mass of material rested in the archives of the Council of the Indies. The mathematical achievements of the Mayas and the art and engineering feats of the Incas were not fully appreciated then, but much information was available. Even Cortés, whom Sepúlveda so admired, had been much impressed by some of the Indian laws and achievements, which surprised him since he considered them “barbarians lacking in reason, and in knowledge of God, and in communication with other nations.”
But Spaniards who had not been to America had no basis for understanding Indians or assessing their cultural power and potentiality, and many were ready to agree with Sepúlveda when he asked: “How can we doubt that these people, so uncivilized, so barbaric, so contaminated with many sins and obscenities … have been justly conquered by such an excellent, pious, and most just king as was Ferdinand the Catholic and as is now Emperor Charles, and by such a humane nation which is excellent in every kind of virtue?”
In reply to Sepúlveda’s wholesale denigration of the Indian, Las Casas presented to the judges his 550-page Latin manuscript “Apologia,” sixty-three chapters of close reasoning and copious citations dedicated to demolishing the arguments of his opponent. He also seems to have presented a summary, perhaps for those judges who might falter in plowing through his detailed treatise.