The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation
Part four: The controversy at Valladolid, 1550-1551 (2)

Las Casas on the background to the controversy 

The only surviving record of the controversy is contained in a pamphlet which Las Casas published in 1552. (9) This begins with an introduction written by Las Casas himself. He explains how Sepúlveda, persuaded by “some of the most criminal” conquistadors, had written a dialogue in elegant Latin with two principal conclusions. Firstly, the wars which the Spanish had waged against the Indians were just; secondly, the Indians were obliged to subject themselves to the Spaniards, as people of lesser understanding to those who were more prudent, and war might be waged on them if they did not. Sepúlveda submitted this book to be cleared for publication by the Council of the Indies, but the Council understood how much damage it would do and refused. Next Sepúlveda appealed to the Royal Council; Las Casas happened to be there, and he campaigned against publication. The Royal Council submitted the work to the universities of Salamanca and Alcalá, both of which decided that “its doctrine was not sound” and it should not be printed.    

Sepúlveda then cunningly managed to have a variant version published in Rome, under the guise of a letter he had sent to a certain Spanish bishop justifying his arguments. The emperor, however, issued a decree that this publication was to be confiscated in Spain. But Sepúlveda went on to produce a summary of his book in Spanish, designed to circulate all through the kingdom in manuscript and to be read by people who did not know Latin, the sort of people who were interested in becoming rich by the sweat of others. And so Las Casas had decided to write a book of his own in Spanish, demolishing Sepúlveda’s arguments and pointing out the danger of his ideas.   

Responding to this dispute, the Emperor decided to call a junta of theologians, jurists, and members of the Council of the Indies, to hear the two protagonists. The first session opened in August 1550.    

The opening statements by the two parties are given in summaries by the theologian Domingo de Soto, which he produced for the use of his fellow members of the junta. Sepúlveda first made a three-hour statement. Las Casas then spoke for five days, reading an entire book to the junta. It is impossible for me to keep strict balance between them, Soto says: anyone who needs more detail may read Sepúlveda’s book!   

Las Casas and Sepúlveda presented their arguments in the language of Christianity, giving justifications from theology and the Bible. But much of what they were saying reappeared in later, more secular forms of political language. And arguably the key issue between them is still a key issue in the 21st century and may be no nearer to being resolved.