The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation
Part four: The controversy at Valladolid, 1550-1551 (1)

What the dispute was about

The dispute that took place in Valladolid in 1550 was about what was right and lawful conduct for the Spanish in America. The question was whether the sovereignty of the king of Spain should be established throughout America by armed conquest (as it had been up to then), and whether the local inhabitants should be compelled to change their way of life and forced to work for the Spaniards; or alternatively, whether exclusively peaceful means should be used, with the primary means being the peaceful preaching of Christianity.   

The question was not whether the Spanish king had any sovereign rights at all in America, i.e. whether Spain should simply give the Indies back to the Indians. In a pamphlet published a year after the Valladolid debate, Bartolomé de las Casas said: 

“The kings of Castile and Leon have most just title to sovereign and universal empire in the entire sphere of what we call the Oceanic Indies, and are justly sovereign and supreme princes and universal lords and emperors over the kings and natural lords of those lands, by virtue of the authority, concession and donation – not pure and simple, but modal, i.e. for a purpose – which the Holy Apostolic See made to them formally. And this, and no other, is the substantial juridical foundation on which all of their title rests.”  (1)

Admittedly, he had also said the following, in a handbook written a few years previously for the use of confessors in America:

“The entry of the Spaniards into each of the provinces of the Indies, and the subjection and servitude which they have imposed on those peoples, … has been contrary to all natural law and the law of nations, as well as to all divine law… And since all they have done has been null and juridically invalid, they have not been justly entitled to a single penny in tribute and consequently they are obliged to make full restitution.” (2)    

But Las Casas saw no contradiction in these two statements. As he explained again and again, the problem was that Spanish authority had been established by armed adventurers who were motivated by the hope of riches. What those people did undermined the king’s title, which in itself was valid. Las Casas was in agreement with his opponent at Valladolid, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, on this much: the kings of Spain had a real and meaningful imperial title to America. The question was what this title practically amounted to and implied.   

There were some Spaniards who did say that the Indies should be given back to the Indians, either immediately or in the very near future. Those people were all or nearly all members of the Dominican Order, to which Las Casas himself belonged. The Dominicans had a long tradition, going back three centuries to Thomas Aquinas, of thinking about political rights. They took seriously the implications of the natural law, which was the unwritten law that held good for all human beings. Under natural law, pagans living in countries that had never been Christian had the right to their own forms of political authority. The Dominicans therefore found it hard to see what right the Spaniards could have had to overthrow local princes in America and impose their own power. “In the Gospel we are given the right to preach throughout the whole world, and consequently to defend ourselves against those who try to stop us doing so,” Domingo de Soto said. “So if we do not have security for that, we can defend ourselves at their expense. But I do not see where we get the right to take their possessions as well, or to subject those peoples to our empire.”   

As I explained in the previous article in this series, the outstanding legal brain in contemporary Spain did come up with a kind of solution. Francisco de Vitoria, a Dominican and senior professor at the University of Salamanca, produced what he called “possible” justifications of the conquest, although only by using blatant sophistry. Vitoria’s justifications included the main argument championed by Sepúlveda (barbarians must be civilised) and others which not only became classic justifications of imperialism but are used to this day to justify armed intervention by states in distant territories (inhumane practices must be stopped).    

But Vitoria was unable to swallow the idea that the Pope could donate America to Spain. By destroying this argument he threw away what Charles V thought was the best trump in his hand. Alarmed, the king demanded that all Dominicans wanting to lecture about the Indies should submit their materials for royal censorship. However, it was not easy for any outsider, even a king, to discipline the Dominicans. They continued to discuss the Indies when they chose, and most of them kept in harmony with Vitoria, while a few went so far as to raise the prospect of Spanish withdrawal from the Indies in the future. (4) But this was theological speculation, at a distance from affairs of state.     

Bartolomé de las Casas, on the other hand, had a great deal of influence on state policy. His influence would not be easy to explain without taking into account his earnest sense of the king’s rights, the king’s duties, the king’s interests and the king’s opportunities. Las Casas was not above saying: by taking this course of action the king will increase his income! The change in Spanish conduct which he demanded required a consistently active policy by the Spanish king and its enforcement by highly motivated officials in America, watched over by visionary monks. (To that extent Daniel Castro, whose book on Las Casas is entitled Another Face of Empire, can make a case.) Las Casas went to Valladolid as someone whose belief in the Spanish king’s sovereign right and Christian mission had been expressed countless times and was not doubted by Charles V.   

There are writers who say that at an earlier time Charles V himself had seriously considered giving the Indies back to the Indians. This was because Vitoria’s dismissal of the Papal donation disturbed his conscience. The matter is disputed and I’m not in a position to take sides, but some contemporaries believed this to be true. Writing from Cuzco in 1572, introducing his History of the Incas dedicated to King Philip II, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa said:

[The Pope donated the Indies to the kings of Spain], but [the preachers] began to make a difficulty about the right and title which the kings of Castile had over these lands. As your invincible father was very jealous in matters touching his conscience, he ordered this point to be examined, as closely as possible, by very learned doctors… They gave it as their opinion that the Incas, who ruled in these kingdoms of Peru, were and are the natural lords of that land… Owing to this, the Emperor Don Carlos of glorious memory was on the point of abandoning them.” (5)

Whether or not there is any truth in what Sarmiento said, certainly Charles V’s conscience was bothering him in 1550. Las Casas, back in Spain for the past three years, had given him disturbing information about what was going on abroad. But the options now being considered did not include abandoning the Indies. The purpose of the event at Valladolid was officially formulated as follows:

“to enquire into and establish the manner and the laws in which our Holy Catholic Faith can be preached and promulgated in the New World, (and to examine) in what form these peoples may remain subject to His Majesty the Emperor without injury to his royal conscience, according to the bull of Pope Alexander”. (6)   

In the meantime, an order was given that all conquests were to cease.    

What happened in Valladolid was not a debate in our present-day sense. Las Casas and Sepúlveda did not meet face to face: they separately addressed a so-called junta or council of experts. However, each was afterwards given a summary of his opponent’s address and was allowed to make a further statement replying to it. The junta was a fifteen-man body. There were seven members of the Council of the Indies, two members of the Royal Council, one ex-inquisitor who was also a former special envoy to Mexico, three Dominican theologians, one Franciscan theologian, and one bishop. (7) After all statements by the opposing parties had been heard, the junta itself was supposed to issue a statement for the guidance of the king. (8)   

The event took place where it did because Valladolid was the grandest city in Spain and the administrative capital. (Seville had a somewhat larger population, with 45,000 inhabitants as against 38,000, but it was far less central. Madrid, with about 4,000 people, was not much more than a big village.)