All the World is Human
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 was peaceful.

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.

Human Sacrifice Indian ceremony of human sacrifice
Theodore de Bry never visited the Americas, but his work is helpful in understanding the European view of events in the New World in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Credit: Theodor de Bry, British Library