The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation
Part four: The controversy at Valladolid, 1550-1551 (3)

Opening statements by the protagonists

Sepúlveda gave four reasons why the Indians could be subjected by armed force. 

“1. The gravity of the crimes committed by that people, especially their idolatry and other sins which they commit against nature. 

2. Because of the crudeness of their minds they are naturally servile and barbarous people, and accordingly they are obliged to serve those whose intelligence is more cultivated, such as the Spaniards. 

3. The cause of the Faith, because the easiest and most expedient way of ensuring that it can be preached persuasively is to subject them by force. 

4. The injury that some of them do to others, killing people as sacrifices and in certain cases eating them.”   

Sepúlveda supported his arguments with various examples from the Bible, especially Deuteronomy, where the Jews are told to destroy the heathens’ idols. Using a gloss, from a particular statement in Deuteronomy “he inferred that simply because some people have a religion different to ours, we may make war on them”. In connection with crimes against nature, he mentioned the punishment God inflicted on Sodom and Gomorrah “as an example of what it is legitimate to do in the Indies”. (Soto, who is summarising, cannot resist putting in touches of irony.)   

Las Casas knew Sepúlveda’s four basic arguments and he had counter-arguments ready on all these points. He maintained that the biblical examples were not relevant. The principal reason why the Jews had waged crushing wars against certain gentile peoples was to gain the land promised to Abraham, not to punish idolatry. If God had wanted to punish the gentiles purely for idolatry, then it would not have been enough to crush the few peoples mentioned in the Bible: almost the whole world would have had to be punished, because it was full of idolatry everywhere!    

At any rate, Christianity was not about punishing pagans. Apostates or heretics could be punished, but pagans who were doing no harm to Christians should be left alone. It was standard practice that conversion should be done peacefully. Take the case of the island of Britain. Even in the time of Pope Gregory there were powerful Roman emperors whose military force the Pope might have called upon. So then, when he wanted to convert Britain, why he did not send an armed expedition, rather than Augustine and his forty monks?   

Regarding idols, the other Saint Augustine had said: “A great many pagans have these abominable things on their premises; are we to go in and smash them? No, let us try to smash the idols in their hearts. Once they become Christian, they will themselves encourage us to do this good work, or they will anticipate us.” Las Casas denied that the Christians had any jurisdiction to interfere with idol-worship prior to the Indians’ conversion. “Men cannot live without some God. We cannot prohibit them from honouring their false gods without teaching them the falsehood of those gods and the truth of our true God.”    

But Las Casas was not an absolute pacifist. To clarify the issue he presented six cases where Christians could legitimately make war upon pagans. 1. If they have violently occupied lands that previously belonged to Christians. 2. “If they contaminate our Faith, sacraments, temples or images with the grave sins of idolatry.” (He instanced the emperor Constantine’s decree that pagans could not have idols where Christians might be scandalised.) 3. If they blaspheme the name of Christ, the Church, or Christian saints or scholars. 4. If they knowingly impede preaching “but not because they kill preachers when they think those preachers are coming to do them evil and deceive them, as they presume when they see them coming in the company of armed men”. 5. If they make war upon Christians, like the Turks. 6. If there are innocent victims to be rescued. Probably because of the power of Vitoria’s influence, Las Casas accepted this as valid grounds for war, but only in principle. In practice, he said, it must be governed by the principle of the lesser evil. If the evils caused by war would be greater than the evils prevented, then war should not be waged.   

Turning to the question of whether war created the best conditions for preaching, Las Casas said that for the acceptance of Christianity, which involved the understanding, it was necessary to have an open, trusting spirit. But the spirit which war engendered was quite the opposite. It was more proper to Mahommedans to think of promoting their religion by force.    

Even non-Christians living in the Christian lands were not subjected to compulsion to conform. Still more so, the people in non-Christian lands to whom Christianity was offered had the right to refuse. This might even override the right of preaching. “If the entire republic by common consent of all individuals did not wish to hear us, but preferred its own rites in lands where there had never been Christians, in such a case we could not make war on them.” (And at this point Soto, who had promised to remain neutral, broke in on Las Casas to accuse him on muddying issues. “It’s one thing whether we can force them to let us preach, which is the opinion of many doctors; it’s another thing whether we can compel them to come to our sermons, which does not have the same plausibility.”)      

Saving the innocent victims of human sacrifice and cannibalism was just in principle. However, in practice it could not be done by war without causing much greater evils. To see it in true perspective, one had to remember that this custom was extremely widespread in antiquity, and according to Plutarch, when the Romans came across it they did not punish those involved but merely forbade them to do this in future.   

But there is a deeper reason why Christians must proceed gently in this matter.

“Whatever somebody may regard as God, by the light of nature he knows it is something most excellent which all must worship, and to which they must sacrifice the best things men possess, to give thanks for the benefits they receive and to atone for the wrongs they have done. And since the most excellent thing is human life itself, in their ignorance they have a certain excuse for offering the lives of men… The pagans think that innocent children are the most pleasing to God and the most useful in the life beyond. There is even a confirmation of this in Sacred Scripture, where God ordered Abraham to sacrifice the son whom he loved so much, to put his faith and his love to the test. In this he did not do Abraham any wrong, because he is Lord of the universe and even of man’s life and death, even though he did not allow the sacrifice because of his goodness… [In pagan lands] the most beloved wives used to be buried with their husbands. And it seems that some members of our own religion would do the same if the Faith did not correct the blindness of love…”       

The wish to do these things must be removed from pagan hearts by persuasion, not by war.    

Finally, Las Casas replied to Sepúlveda’s claim that the Indians were barbarians, by nature slaves or serfs, and thus obliged to be subjects of the Spaniards. What did the term “barbarians” actually mean? Las Casas distinguished three different senses of the word.  1. People who are in some way strange in their opinions or customs, though they do not lack civilisation or self-governing abilities. 2. People who are without literate culture, like the British before their conversion. But Aristotle did not consider such people servile by nature: he specifically said that some barbarians had true kingdoms, kings, lords and government. 3. Barbarians of the third kind are people who live wild, without any kind of law or ritual. It was these Aristotle thought were naturally servile. But the Indians were “social and civil, with great towns and houses and laws and arts and lords and government”. They were too refined for this notion of barbarism to apply to them.   

Las Casas therefore denied that war could legitimately be made on the Indians for any of the reasons his opponent had given. War was tyrannical and prejudicial to the preaching of the faith. The spirit of Pope Alexander’s bull was not to establish local dominion or to make slaves of Indians or confiscate their properties. What it implied was “supreme jurisdiction with some reasonable tribute for the protection of the Faith and the teaching of good customs and good government.”