When a Christian is caught between a political economy hostile to human flourishing and a Church all too often comfortable with the status quo, it is demoralizing to have recourse to an ugly, embattled public square. Who wants to have life-or-death debates in a cold professional setting? In what universe is pitting hostile voices against one another conducive to Christian fellowship?
But by the time Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda met at Valladolid, Spain in 1550 to debate the morality of the conquest of America, the question had already been settled along with the continent. The debate was convened by Carlos V, king of Spain, Holy Roman Emperor, who had not yet been born when Columbus arrived on Hispaniola nearly sixty years ago. The existence of America, and Spanish dominion over it, were facts of life for him. The Spanish were not seriously considering withdrawal from the Americas. There was no going back.
The debate was not about conquest, then, but colonization; it was not about the nature of indigenous people, but their treatment. Carlos V was not asking if he could conquer indigenous people, but if he could give them to his soldiers as slaves, along with their land, as a reward for their service to the crown. Sepúlveda argued that the conquest was a just war, so Carlos could keep the profits (land and people) and distribute them as he pleased. Las Casas argued that the conquest was unjust, so Carlos had to make restitution for it.
Neither man won the debate, and the issue was never resolved. The debate has mainly become famous in retrospect, metonymically standing in for the entire colonial project. At the time, though, it was politics. As such, the men’s writings have a curious dual nature as both catty interpersonal sniping from opposite sides of the political spectrum and incredibly high-stakes ethical discussions. …
Bartolomé de las Casas became a planter and owner of indigenous slaves at the age of 18, when he immigrated with his father to the island of Hispaniola in 1502. After becoming a priest, he experienced a profound conversion while meditating upon the book of Sirach: “If one sacrifices ill-gotten goods, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.”
Abandoning his ill-gotten wealth, Las Casas returned to Spain as an anti-slavery activist. In the following years, he was granted a position as court adviser, given the title of Protector of the Indians, and testified before the legislature on the conquistadores’ abuses. (This testimony resulted in the abolition of indigenous enslavement, which was ignored by rioting colonists and repealed.) When Las Casas became Bishop of Chiapas, México, he attempted to enforce abolition by refusing the sacraments to slave owners. This proved so unpopular that he was forced to return permanently to Spain, where he continued his activism.
Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was Carlos V’s royal chronicler and chaplain. His writings in this capacity were nominally historical, but functionally defensive, providing an official version of the Spanish empire’s expansion in the Americas and a justification for its policies there. Before he took on that office, his career was a long string of academic treatises (anti: Desiderius Erasmus, Henry VIII; pro: Aristotle, Machiavelli). His first major work was a panegyric in honor of the emperor. Theologians saw him as compromised—to say the least—but he had the vigorous support of the emperor’s advisers, who had invested a great deal in the colonies.
Las Casas’ activism was the political question of the day, and everyone had an opinion. Sepúlveda just happened to be the one who got the guy’s attention.
In 1550, Sepúlveda released Democrates alter, a fictitious dialogue arguing that the Spanish conquest of America was a just war. It invoked Aristotle’s concept of “natural slavery” at length: “…the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as … between apes and men.”
Before Las Casas even read the book, he had already written a response to it—or at least to the Spanish summary of it that came across his desk. “What blood will they not shed?” Las Casas began his Apologia, describing the soldiers allegedly emboldened by Sepúlveda’s words. “What cruelty will they not commit, these brutal men who are hardened to seeing fields bathed in human blood, who make no distinction of sex or age, who do not spare infants at their mothers’ breasts, pregnant women, the great, the lowly, or even men of feeble and gray old age for whom the weight of years usually awakens reverence or mercy?”
Las Casas blatantly broke the rules of procedure here. … Rejecting the time-honored temptation to make an idol of decorum, he put things plainly.
This exchange makes evident the clash of personality (let alone ideas) between the two men. Sepúlveda wrote a Socratic dialogue of Aristotelian ideas, branding himself the rational debater. He philosophizes. Las Casas wrote with strong language and evocative imagery, coming off as an impassioned firebrand. He preaches. Even though they both cited the Greek philosophers and the books of the Bible throughout their works, and even cited each other, they were fundamentally not having the same discussion. It’s a familiar disconnect today.
I know, functionally, nothing of the history of Spanish colonialism and debates surrounding it, so I enjoyed this piece for introducing me to it.