The Debate, 1550
As Spanish jurists, Las Casas and Vitoria mulled over the Indians' capacity to become Christian,, they encountered a still greater philosophical problem the nature of man himself.
Well into the Spanish conquest, leading Spanish theologians clung to a tenet of Aristotelian philosophy that justified the Indians' enslavement. Aristotle held that one part of mankind is set aside
by nature to be slaves in the service of masters born for a life
of virtue free of manual labor. Learned authorities such as the
Spanish scholar Sepúlveda not only sustained this view with great
tenacity and erudition but also concluded, without having visited
America, that the Indians were in fact such rude and brutal beings
that war against them to make possible their forcible Christianization
was not only expedient, but lawful.
Many ecclesiastics, especially
Las Casas, opposed this idea scornfully, with appeals to divine
and natural laws as well as to their own experience in America.
The controversy became so heated that Charles V actually ordered
the suspension of all expeditions to America while a junta of
foremost theologians, jurists and officials was convoked in the
royal capital of Valladolid to listen to the arguments of Las
Casas and Sepúlveda.
Las Casas believed firmly in the capacity of all people for civilization;
he emphatically rejected a static and hopeless barbarism. "All
the peoples of the world are men," he insisted, and declared that
God would not allow any nation to exist, "no matter how barbarous,
fierce, or depraved its customs" which might not be "persuaded
and brought to a good order and way of life" provided this persuasion
Las Casas' argument was compelling but idealistic in the extreme: Spain ought to abandon its claim on the New World and withdraw its conquistadors with all the Indians un-Christianized, rather than bring them into the fold by profoundly un-Christian methods.
To practical administrators at the empire, Las Casas' position was dangerous. Aristocrats sought gold in the New World; clerics sought careers there. Most importantly, Charles V needed to protect Spain's perogatives in the Americas from his European rivals.
Faced with this complex problem, Charles V sided with Las Casas in principle, but did not withdraw from the New World or refrain from conquest there. In the end, the Indians would not be considered "natural slaves," but they would be at Spain's mercy all the same.
Text excerpt: "People and Issues in Latin American History: The Colonial Experience" by Lewis Hanke © 1993, Markus Weiner Publishing, Inc.