The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation
Part four: The controversy at Valladolid, 1550-1551 (5)

Las Casas on the humanity of the Indians

Las Casas replied harshly. Much is made of his harsh tone by Jean Dumont and others. But first of all, Sepúlveda had made very damaging allegations, especially in his final objection, and secondly, Las Casas saw him as an apologist for what is now called genocide (“destruction of peoples” and other terms that he used can be taken as perfect synonyms). Sepúlveda, with his humanist training in literary expression, was skilled with the stiletto. Las Casas reached for the hammer.   

It has not been my practice hitherto, he said in the prologue to his reply, to name “[those people who have argued] that the wars… which have caused such damage and destruction, with the loss of great kingdoms, immense populations, and infinite numbers of souls, are just… Now it appears to me that the very reverend and distinguished Doctor Sepúlveda has shown and declared himself as their principal defender and partisan… He has chosen to reveal himself and does not fear to be regarded as the fautor of such detestable impieties, which result in such great infamy for the Faith…” The word fautor was the technical term for someone who favoured or promoted heresy. Used by a Spanish Dominican, it had an ominous ring.   

Las Casas had received a copy of Sepúlveda’s objections. He replied to them systematically, dealing with biblical and theological points in the scholastic way, with a parade of authorities. On the eighth objection, he said that Sepúlveda travestied the doctrine of Aristotle. There were many nations, currently very civilised and mentally accomplished, which had once been considered barbarous and wild – Spain, for example. Roman influence was credited with civilising the barbarous Spaniards, but supposing the Romans “had given each tyrant his part, as has been done in the Indies, and our ancestors had perished body and soul in extracting the gold and silver that Spain then possessed”, what would the results have been for Spain? 

“The Indians have good understanding and acute minds, they show capacity and willingness to learn in all moral sciences and speculative doctrines, and for the most part they are well-ordered and reasonable in their public arrangements, having many extremely just laws, and wherever they have been taught by monks and persons of good conduct they have daily benefited from the Christian faith and religion, promoting good customs and correcting vices, as much any other nation in the world… I leave out of account their admirable progress in the mechanical arts and in liberal arts such as reading and writing, singing, playing musical instruments, grammar and logic and all the rest…”   

Sepúlveda had omitted to inform himself about all this. And the worst thing was that he presented Oviedo, author of a false and detestable so-called General History, as an unimpeachable authority. Oviedo was “one of the tyrants who have robbed and destroyed the Indies, as he himself confesses in the Prologue to the first part, column 6, chapter 8, and consequently a capital enemy of the Indians”.    

The ninth objection, according to Las Casas, was “a plain imposture”. How could there be any comparison between medical treatment or educational discipline and the wars waged on the Indians? “After they are dead, plundered, afflicted, terrorised, and scandalised, reduced to slaves, their wives and daughters violated and dishonoured, and driven to hate the faith and the Christian religion, all of this the work of the soldiers, what can this “smoothing the way” be that the doctor has discovered, if not smoothing the way for robbery and enslavement and violent usurpation and confirming it when it is done?” And surely the doctor must have qualms about dragging in the Apostles? “Did the Apostles send before them, as the doctor wishes to do, robbers, brigands, killers…?”      

Regarding the tenth objection,

“that the Pope has power and the mandate to preach the Gospel personally and through others all over the world: I acknowledge that, but the consequence which the reverend doctor infers, that the infidels can be forced to hear preaching, is not very clear, and to make it evident one would have to examine the truth much more discriminately than the doctor has done. Because we see that when Christ sent his Apostles to preach he did not order them to exert force on those who did not wish to hear them, rather they were to depart peaceably from that place or town and shake the dust of it off their feet (Matthew 10)… So it seems that what I am saying is not a new and false doctrine, as the doctor says calumniously, but the Catholic and Christian doctrine. Because it is one thing that the Church possesses the power to suppress obstacles that have been maliciously put in the way of preaching, and another very different thing to force the infidels to hear preaching against their will. The first may be done legitimately, the second may not.”

On the eleventh objection,

“it is not true to say that in Mexico 20,000 persons were sacrificed every year, nor 100, nor 50. Had there been so many sacrifices, we would not have found there such countless numbers of people. This is only the voice of tyrants, to excuse and justify their tyrannical violence and to oppress and despoil the Indians… And that is the objective of those who want to support them, such as the doctor and his followers… It would be truer to say that every year since they have been in the Indies and after their invasion of every province, the Spaniards have made more sacrifices to their dearly loved and adored goddess, Greed, than the Indians in all the Indies have made to their gods in a hundred years. The skies, the land, the elements and the stones bear witness to this and cry it out, and the tyrants themselves who have perpetrated it do not deny it. See how all of these kingdoms had abundant populations when we entered them; and see the state we have them in now – they are ruined and ravaged! Even if we do not fear God, we should feel great shame and our guilt should confound us, trying to mask or excuse such odious and abominable doings, when we have before our eyes a land longer and more extensive than all of Europe with part of Asia included, which we have depopulated, laid waste and devastated in the space of forty five or forty eight years so as to acquire goods and riches, robbing and usurping with extreme cruelty, injustice and tyranny, though we found it heavily populated by people of great humanity. 

If the very reverend doctor Sepúlveda takes this into account with love and charity, he will know that I am counting better than him. And it will be well if he can explain how, if he mourns those who died without baptism through being sacrificed by those Indians, whether they were ten or a hundred, or whether they were a thousand or ten thousand (which is false), how it is that his soul is not in pain and his entrails wrenching and his heart breaking for the twenty million souls who have perished during this time, without faith and without the sacraments, who would otherwise have been saved, since God had created them so well disposed to receive the Faith, and who have been condemned because the Spaniards deprived them of time and space for their conversion, dismembering them against all reason and justice?

The doctor says I want to find reasons to excuse human sacrifices… What I say is not to excuse them before God, because I do not know how God will judge them, since his judgment is impenetrable; but I want to prove with evident reasons that the Indians are victims of a plausible ignorance and error which prevents them from believing, when this is first declared by Christians or even many times afterwards, that human sacrifice is contrary to natural law or a sin, and consequently they cannot justly be punished for this by men or by human judgment. And I say further that they will never be obliged to believe any preacher of our Holy Faith who goes accompanied by tyrant men of war, robbers and killers, as the doctor desires they should be… And I say that it is not easy to prove to them that to sacrifice human victims to the true God (or the false god if he is esteemed as true) is against the natural law.”   

A long discussion of this point follows, culminating in the tricky case of Jephta, judge of Israel. Jephta promised to sacrifice to God the first living being he met on his path. The first living being he met was his daughter, and he kept his word. Unlike in the case of Abraham, God did not stop him. There is no hint in the Bible that God was displeased by the sacrifice. So then, Las Casas says, the pagan notion that God is pleased by human sacrifice is not so outlandish.   

In the twelfth and final objection,

“Doctor Sepúlveda accumulates enormous errors and scandalous propositions against all Gospel truth and against all Christianity, wrapped up in and painted with false zeal for the king’s service, so much so that no Christian should be surprised if we choose not just to confront him with lengthy writings but to attack him as a capital enemy of the Christian Republic, a fautor of cruel tyrants, an extirpator of the human lineage, and a sower of most deadly blindness in these kingdoms of Spain.”   

Las Casas began by citing sections from Pope Alexander’s bull, where the Pope mentions that many peoples have been discovered living peacefully (pacifice) on certain islands and mainlands; that the king of Spain is asked to induct (inducere) these peoples into Christianity; and that God-fearing, learned men should be sent to instruct the inhabitants in the Catholic faith and imbue them with good customs. Where does the Pope say, Las Casas asked, that the king should make war on them? And to claim that later Popes, by granting bulls and indulgences to establish cathedrals, bishoprics, monasteries, and other spiritual things, had justified war and conquest – that was outrageous. That was to confound Christ with Belial!   

Not content with falsifying the intention of the Pope, Sepúlveda went on to falsify the practice of the Spanish monarchs. Did not Ferdinand and Isabella literally say, in their first instructions to Columbus, that “the said Indians are to be treated very well and lovingly, without doing them any wrong,” and that anyone who wronged them was to be punished? And did Isabella not repeat in her Testament that the Indians were to receive no injury in their persons or goods, but should be well and justly treated? Many other decrees and instructions, royal letters, provisions and laws had been issued by the currently-reigning king and his predecessors to prevent and avoid wars, and ordering that the Indians should not be mistreated: they should rather be drawn to the Christian religion by peaceful and loving means.

“Doctor Sepúlveda is deceived and blind, because he ought to know that all the injuries and robberies, slaughters and depopulations in more than three hundred leagues of land that was full of people and delightful, have at all times been perpetrated by the tyrants in those Indies, without the authority of the kings of Castile. Rather, everything has been done against their express mandates and prohibitions, as I have demonstrated in my thirty propositions which I formulated in defence of my Handbook for Confessors, and in other tractates of mine.”      

Las Casas then dealt with the difficult matter of Papal temporal power and the implications of the Papal grant.    

“The Holy See was entitled… to concede and grant the supreme and universal principality and lordship of this geographical sphere, without depriving the natural lords or the peoples of what is theirs, to a Catholic king who would defend and maintain them.” But until such time as the pagans accept the Faith, the only right the Christians have in their territory is the right to preach. When they do accept Christianity, however, the right of the Christian Church and Christian secular power becomes more extensive. “Principally the difference… is that the Church cannot force them to receive the Faith, but it can force them to keep it.”   

Prior to their baptism, the pagans are not subjects of the Church. Hence the Church “can neither provide them with a lord nor remove their lord”, except in special and individual circumstances, such as when a lord, acting without his community’s consent, impedes preaching. But even after they have become Christian, in the unlikely event that they refuse to accept the king of Spain as their supreme lord, it does not follow that war can legitimately be made on them, provided they still maintain the Faith and observe justice. The objective is the spiritual and temporal good of those peoples, which will not be achieved by war. They must therefore be won over by peaceful persuasion and constructive work, and that will be easy: “they will come with open arms, and singing and dancing, to give their allegiance”.   

Las Casas repeated that “all of the conquests and wars that have been waged against the Indians, from the time when the Indies were discovered to the present day, have been most unjust, tyrannical, infernal”. The cruel thieves and tyrants who had profited from them were bound as far as possible to make restitution. “And I add that the doctor and any other person who tries to excuse or justify them are in mortal sin and bound to restitution likewise.” Taking up Sepúlveda’s point that the conquistadors had gone at their own expense, he said that this was precisely the problem. “One of the principal and most effective reasons why so many great kingdoms in the Indies have been destroyed, and which has given rise to disobedience and rebellion against the king of Spain, is that the tyrants who offered to raise armies and make conquests have been allowed to go there at their own expense. Although they met their expenses not with money from the properties they had here in Spain, but with what they plundered over there.”   

Other points referred to include Sepúlveda’s book published in Rome (if the Pope had known how much falsehood and “scandalous, death-dealing doctrine” it contained, it would never have been published) and the preacher killed by Indians in Florida. (It was his misfortune that, disembarking at a place not intended, he was seen in the company of sailors who had committed cruelties against the Indians of the land. These Indians had “a most just cause for war against the Spaniards, and even against all Christians”, and they were unable to distinguish the friars from the others. It was God’s providence that some of his servants should die for the Gospel; Sepúlveda, who was trying to exploit this martyrdom, should not pretend to be wiser than God.)

“The aim of all this business, and what God regards as most important, is the preaching of the Faith and the expansion of his Church, not in the desert places and campos of those lands but amongst their inhabitants, converting them and saving their souls. The accessory, the less important thing, is the material benefits and profits that the Spaniards who go there derive, even though the reverend doctor in his writings has often referred to this as the principal goal. Whoever is ignorant of that does not know very much, and whoever denies it is no more a Christian than Mahomet, even if he is Christian nominally. 

He says that the hope of gold and silver mines and having Indian helpers brings people over there. And truly I believe it is so, because they have always shown by their deeds that they are not motivated by the honour of God, or by zeal for the Faith, or by helping their fellow men to salvation, or by service to their king, though always they falsely boast of that. What drives them is only their cupidity and their ambition to tyrannise over the Indians whom they want to have shared out among them, as if they were beasts, by a perpetual repartimiento. And what that will lead to, putting it in plain language, is that the kings of Castle will be stripped of all those territories and expelled from them, and they themselves, usurping and tyrannising, will become sole masters.

And that is what the very reverend doctor Sepúlveda promotes with all his powers, although truly  I do not believe he is aware of the evil he is doing. It is to oppose this blindness and this plague, to prevent these and innumerable other evils, so that the kings of Castile will not lose the Indies, so that the total loss of so many people, the depopulation of such extensive territories, which is looming now, will not happen, and so that God will not visit his cruellest scourges upon all of Spain for this, and because I have fifty years’ experience: that is why I have been so diligent at this court for the past thirty five years. That has been the aim in all my works; not, as the doctor alleges, to close the doors of justification or undo the titles which the kings of Castile have, and that supreme royal primacy of theirs. I close the doors to false titles which are based on nothing and vain, and I open the doors to those which are juridical, solid, powerful, true, Catholic, and worthy of true Christians. And to seek them, establish them, corroborate and proclaim them, I believe I have worked somewhat more and for rather a longer time than the doctor.”   

That was the end of the controversy proper, though Las Casas afterwards wrote more elaborate versions of the book that he read to the junta, and he also developed particular ideas at greater length.