In 1516 Charles V, the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand, became the King of Spain and the ruler of much of Europe. In the first decades of his reign, Spain plundered more than 32 tons of gold from the palaces and temples of indigenous American civilizations and shipped it back to Europe with the justification that it was their natural right as a superior culture. But running the vast Spanish empire required enormous amounts of money, so when that initial mountain of treasure had been spent, the Spanish began forcing the native peoples and African slaves to mine many more tons of silver and gold. This transfer of hundreds of billions in today's dollars from the New World to the Old could be called the birth of globalization.
Dealing with Debt
Flush with New World treasure, King Charles began spending more than he was taking in to fight an epic series of religious wars, pitting Catholics against Muslims and Protestants. Falling deeply into debt and desperate for a new way to leverage future gold and silver from the Americas, Charles' solution was the "juro," the world's first interest-paying government bond and the ancestor of the U.S. Treasury bill.
The juro and similar bonds completely transformed banking, lending, and investing, but European bankers were only willing to risk buying the bonds because they were secured by New World gold and silver. In this way, the sweat, blood, and industry of the peoples of the New World financed the rise of capitalism in Europe, as well as Spain's role as the world's only superpower.
Like the United States today, Spain was in charge of world politics; it was in charge of all confrontations and disagreements. All of European politics was dominated by Spain. In addition, it had to finance a war policy to defend itself from rivals. And that war policy, just like today, costs a great deal of money. It costs an incalculable fortune. In large part, that great Spanish international policy was paid for with precious metal from America. - Carlos Sanchez, historian, University of Seville
To Charles, the one essential function of the New World was to provide gold and silver so he could continue to defend the Catholic faith and his territorial inheritance. But soon he was challenged by a man with an entirely different vision of the New World.
Bartolomé de Las Casas grew up in the great trading center of Seville, swept up in the spirit of the age, one that inspired young Spaniards to believe they could save souls and get rich at the same time. In 1502, he sailed to the Caribbean where he grew rich off the labor of the native peoples.
[Las Casas] earned money from the Indians' work and he had a very relaxed life. But slowly he must have realized that this was unacceptable. Las Casas saw that the Indians were treated horribly, they were not fed, they were not paid, and dogs were set upon them when they rebelled, or when they tried to escape from the plantations. - Consuelo Varela, historian, University of Seville
By 1514, Las Casas had become a priest and was working tirelessly to fulfill Isabella's order to patiently and lovingly bring the peoples of the New World to Christ. As he traveled throughout South America and Mexico, Las Casas grew convinced that the dream of a New World shaped by Christian principles had turned into a nightmare.
Returning to Spain in 1541, he told Charles V about the Spanish brutality against the native people and warned that the King risked eternal damnation if the Christian mission in the New World failed. Charles grudgingly agreed to issue "The New Laws," which stated:
"We do order and command that from this time forward, no cause of war or other reason, even rebellion, shall justify making a slave of any Indian whatsoever, and it is our will that they should be treated as subjects of the Crown, for so they are."
But passing laws was one thing and enforcing them another. In places like the Yucatan peninsula, remote even from authority in Mexico City, much less Spain, Spaniards who had grown rich from the labor of the native peoples openly defied the laws. Even some of Las Casas's fellow friars ignored the order not to abuse the Indians.
When Diego de Landa, a friar working in the Yucatan, discovered the Mayas were still mixing native and Christian rituals twenty years after being introduced to Catholicism, he launched an "inquisition" as vicious as any ever held in Spain. According to Landa's own records, he tortured over four thousand Indians—58 of them to death.
The Great Debate
To confront the Spanish elite with its hypocrisy, in 1550, in front of a group of influential men from across Spain, Las Casas took part in a five-day debate about the treatment of the New World peoples. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, one of the most important scholars of the era, defended the worldview that most of the Natives in the New World were a lower order of human being, fit for nothing but slavery. Another vision was expressed by Las Casas, who believed that Queen Isabella had been sincere when she instructed Spaniards to treat the Indians well and lovingly and abstain from doing them any injury.
The judges at the debate ultimately found no definitive winner, leaving the final decision over Spanish policy to the king. Charles V, now 56 years old, ailing, and exhausted, elected to abdicate in favor of his son, who would face the ultimate choice between God and gold.