The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation
Part four: The controversy at Valladolid, 1550-1551 (4)

Sepúlveda’s Objections: barbarism of the Indians    

Six months later there was a second session, and this time we have the participants’ actual words. Once again Sepúlveda was the first speaker. He had been given Soto’s summary of the five-day address by Las Casas. Now he read twelve objections, striking hard at the weaknesses he saw in his opponent’s position.   

The first seven of Sepúlveda’s objections are concerned with interpretation of the Bible and the writings of Church Fathers. In his eighth objection he takes up the argument “that these Indians are not barbarians such as may be forced to obey those who are prudent and humane”, on the grounds that they have cities and public order. He replies, citing Aquinas, that “by barbarians are meant those who do not live in conformity with natural reason and have evil customs publicly approved among them”. Almost everyone who has been in America says that the natives there are men of small capacity and depraved customs; he cites particularly the Historia General of the “grave and diligent” imperial chronicler Oviedo.   


“as for war being an impediment rather than an aid to the conversion of the Indians, because the injury they receive will make them hate the Christians… I say that the patient with frenzy also hates the doctor who cures him and the badly brought-up boy hates the master who chastises him, but that does not stop the treatment being beneficial for both… And the war and the soldiers are not there to convert or to preach, but to subjugate the barbarians and make smooth and safe the path for preaching. And that must be done by friars and clerics of good life, doctrine and example. The preaching must be done with all gentleness, as the apostles did it.”   


“as regards his statement that the infidels cannot be forced to hear preaching: it is new and false doctrine… Because the Pope has the power and indeed the mandate to preach the Gospel personally and through others in the whole world, and this cannot be done if the preachers are not heard: therefore by Christ’s commission he has the power to force them to hear.”   


“he said that in order to rescue from death the innocents they sacrificed there could be a just war, but it should not be waged because of two evils the lesser must be chosen, and the evils resulting from this war are greater than the deaths of the innocents. His lordship has done his calculation very badly, because all who have come from Mexico and took the trouble to learn the facts say that every year more than 20,000 persons were sacrificed there. Multiplying that number by the thirty years during which this sacrifice has been prohibited, makes 600,000; and in the conquest of the land I do not believe that more people died than they used to sacrifice in a year… 

Trying to find reasons to excuse the sacrifice of human victims is so far contrary to Christianity that even some of the pagans themselves who were not barbarous and inhumane regarded it as abominable (citing Pliny)… Ignorance of the natural law is no excuse, as theologians and canonists agree. When he says that holding human sacrifice to be a good thing is a probable opinion for the Indians, because the wisest men among them hold it, and for this he cites Aristotle, I reply that when speaking of “wise and prudent” the philosopher does not have in mind the less barbarous barbarians: rather, he means persons living among civilised and humane peoples, as he says in the first chapter of the Politics when speaking of barbarians…”      


“I say that the intention of Pope Alexander, as is clearly seen from his bull, was that the barbarians should first be subjected to the kings of Castile, and afterwards the Gospel should be preached to them. Because that is how it was done from the beginning, by instruction of the Catholic monarchs, in conformity with the intention of the Pope, who lived nine or ten years after granting the bull. And he knew very well the mode of proceeding in the conquest, as did all his successor Popes who have approved it, not merely not condemning it but granting bulls and faculties and indulgences… 

The bull of Pope Paul III (1537, condemning the degrading treatment of Indians. J.M.) was granted only against soldiers who without the king’s authority made slaves of these barbarians and committed many abuses, treating them like beasts; and therefore he said that they had to be treated as men and neighbours, since they are rational animals. But to say that they do not have to be subjected to the king except after they become Christians goes beyond all reason…

And I say further that when he concedes that after becoming Christians they and their first princes must be subject to the kings of Castile, he contradicts all he has previously said to avoid the acceptance of war. Because if the kings of Castile have the right, as he said, to subject them in that manner after they become Christians, then certainly if they do not wish to give obedience the kings can justly force them, and war is necessary for that. Therefore they can justly wage war for a lesser reason than I have proposed. And with this concession he undoes everything he has previously said. 

Accordingly, if one considers this and everything else that the lord bishop has written, it is designed to prove that all of the conquests carried out up to now, even if they have kept to the instructions, have been unjust and tyrannical… And to persuade the Emperor not to make any further conquest henceforward, which would mean that his Majesty would not do his duty and would not fulfil the mandate of Christ, committed to him by the Church, for the propagation of the Faith, and these miserable peoples who remain unconquered would not be converted. Because if they are not to be subjected, no men of war would go there, giving security to the preachers, at their own expense, as they have done up to now; nor would they go at the expense of the king, because he has to finance other things more necessary for his realm and his income is not sufficient even for that. And even if he wanted to incur this expense and send soldiers, he would find nobody to go so far distant, even if he gave thirty ducats a month, whereas now there are men who expose themselves to all the dangers at their own expense, in hopes of profiting from the mines of gold and silver and the help of the Indians, once they have been subjected.

And if someone were to say that the Indians ought to bear the entire cost, since the work is being done for their benefit, it is clear that they will not do that except under compulsion and after defeat in war, which brings us back to the starting point. And preachers would not go either, and if they did go the Indians would not accept them: they would treat them in the same way as, last year in Florida, they treated preachers sent without military escort, in accordance with this opinion held by the bishop and at his instigation. And even if they refrained from killing them, the preaching would not have as much effect in a hundred years as it has in fifteen days once the Indians are subjected, when the preachers have freedom to preach publicly and anyone who wishes can convert, without fear of priest or cacique. The situation is quite the opposite among those who are not subjected. 

The truth is, the lord bishop has devoted so much energy and diligence to closing all the doors of justification and undoing all the titles on which the Emperor’s justice is based, that he has given reason for citizens to think and to say (especially if they have read his Handbook for Confessors) that his whole purpose is to make all the world believe that the kings of Castile hold the empire of the Indies against all justice and tyrannically. But he gives them that title frivolously, so as to fulfil after a fashion his duty to His Majesty, who more than anyone else has the power to do him good or harm.

I conclude, then, by saying that it is legitimate to subjugate these barbarians from the beginning, to rid them of their idolatry and evil rites, and so that they cannot impede preaching and may convert more easily and freely, and so that afterwards they do not relapse and fall into heresies, and so that through the company of Christian Spaniards they may be confirmed in the faith and lose their barbaric rites and customs.”   

Sepúlveda ended by recommending his published summary, “praised by many very learned men at the court of Rome”, and his principal book (Democrates the Second) “of which many translations are in circulation all over Spain”.