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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
Bringing into court his long experience in the Indies, he stressed heavily that “God had deprived Sepúlveda of any personal knowledge of the New World.” Painting a glowing picture of Indian ability and achievement, he drew heavily upon his earlier Apologetic History , a tremendous accumulation of 870 folio pages on Indian culture that he had begun in 1527 and completed some twenty years later, to refute the charge that the Indians were semi-animals whose property and services could be commandeered by Spaniards and against whom war could justly be waged. Here he advanced the astonishing idea that the American Indians compared favorably with the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans—were indeed superior to them in some ways—and in fact fulfilled every one of Aristotle’s requirements for the good life. In several aspects, he insisted, they even surpassed the Spaniards themselves! His closing argument pulled no punches:
Doctor Sepúlveda founds these rights upon our superiority … and upon our having more bodily strength than the Indians … This is simply to place our kings in the position of tyrants. The right of those kings rests upon their extension of the gospel in the New World, and their good government of the Indian nations. These duties they would be bound to fulfill even at their own expense; much more so considering the treasures they have received from the Indies. To deny this doctrine is to flatter and deceive our monarchs, and to put their salvation in peril. The doctor perverts the natural order of things, making the means the end, and what is accessory, the principal. … He who is ignorant of this, small is his knowledge, and he who denies it is no more of a Christian than Mahomet was.
The judges at Valladolid, probably exhausted and confused by this mighty conflict, fell into argument with one another and reached no collective decision. Both disputants claimed victory, but the facts now available do not conclusively support either one. The judges went home after the final meeting, and for years afterward the Council of the Indies struggled to get them to write out their opinions. In vain. We can sympathize with the judges, for they had been besieged by two formidable men committed to two conflicting visions of Indian reality, and each had insisted that the whole structure of Spain’s action in America must conform to his single vision.
After the last meeting, Las Casas and his companion, Rodrigo de Andrada, made final arrangements with the San Gregorio monastery in Valladolid to spend the rest of their lives there. According to the contract drawn up on July 21, 1551, they were to be accorded three new cells—one of them presumably for the large collection of books and manuscripts Las Casas had amassed—a servant, first place in the choir, freedom to come and go as they pleased, and burial in the San Gregorio sacristy.
Las Casas did not, however, settle down to a life of quiet contemplation. The failure of the Valladolid disputation to produce a resounding public triumph for his ideas may have convinced him that his efforts on behalf of the Indians needed a more permanent record. He was now seventy-eight years old, weary from half a century of involvement in Indian affairs, and he probably hoped to use the printing press to place his propositions and projects before Spaniards whom he could not otherwise reach. At any rate, he left San Gregorio and sallied forth the next year, 1552, to Seville, where he spent many months recruiting friars for America and preparing a series of nine remarkable treatises, printed there in 1552 and early 1553, which served as textbooks and guides to friars scattered over the vast stretches of America.
But his opponents made use of them too. His summaries of the debates with Sepúlveda—printed in Seville and later translated in England—of course included Sepúlveda’s arguments. These, ironically, so impressed the town council of Mexico, the richest and most important city in all the Indies, that it voted in February of 1554 to buy Sepúlveda “jewels and clothing from this land to the value of two hundred pesos” in recognition of his soundness and “to encourage him in the future.” Sepúlveda himself fired a new salvo by issuing a reply to Las Casas under the somewhat pejorative title, “Rash, Scandalous and Heretical Propositions which Dr. Sepúlveda Noted in the Book on the Conquest of the Indies which Friar Bartolomé de Las Casas Printed Without a License.”
Las Casas never wavered in his convictions, and in his will, dated March 17, 1564, prophesied darkly: “Surely God will wreak his fury and anger against Spain some day for the unjust wars waged against the Indians.” In the last few months of his life he made a final appeal to Rome for support, but his long and passionate crusade ended when death overtook him in July, 1566.
The struggle itself did not end. In fact, the Crown pursued a steady course during the years after Valladolid in the direction of the doctrine set forth by Las Casas: friendly persuasion and not general warfare to attract the Indians to the faith. And though Sep#8217;fclveda’s views had been widely circulated in manuscript form and presented in detail at the Valladolid meeting, his treatise “Démocrates,” which had set off the controversy, was never approved for publication. The generous terms of the standard law on new discoveries—promulgated in July of 1573 by Charles’ successor, Philip II, and designed to regulate all future discoveries and conquests—were probably attributable to the battle Las Casas fought at Valladolid.