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American Indian Humanity Essay, Research Paper


Arguments of American Indian Humanity

By what right did the Europeans conquer the American Indians, take their land, and subjugate them? There were three arguments: 1) The view propounded by Bartolome de Las Casas, God’s angry man of the sixteenth century. He argued that all men are endowed with natural rights, that the Europeans had no right to enslave the Indians, that according to natural law the Indians were entitled to live as free men, under their own rulers and their own laws. 2) Juan Gines de Sepulveda, the greatest Aristotelian philosopher of the day, relied on the doctrine propounded by Aristotle in his Politics, that some races are inferior to others, that some men are born to slavery. By this reasoning, the Europeans, a superior race, were justified in enslaving the Indians, an inferior race. Finally, 3) Francisco de Vitoria’s concept of the law of nations, which asserted that all people had certain inherent rights, including possession of a spirit or soul and the capacity for salvation. According to Vitoria, Indians could not be deprived of their possessions unless the Spaniards could advance a just cause for doing so.

The importance of these arguments stretch the imagination as each searched for justice in the Indies. As a whole, the arguments forced Spaniards to recognize and act upon the atrocities developing in the Americas. New laws, codes, and rules to treat the Indians as equals were set forth as their notions inspired rulers of Spain to get involved. Also each can be used as precedents in today’s society. Las Casas’s humility outraged conquistadors across the Indies, yet his basic idea of equality paved the way for future generations. Sepulveda’s intelligence battled for a topic that is still hotly debated today, for his notions serve as a guide for believers in a natural hierarchy. While Vitoria was light-years ahead of his time; his political notions involving minorities are still in use.

In 1515, Bartolome de Las Casas pleaded on behalf of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He was accompanied on his voyage by two other Dominican priests, including Antonio de Montesinos, who had been the first to preach the abolitionist message. Las Casas fervent rhetoric inflamed the religious and royal establishment and he quickly earned many enemies among those who profited from the slave trade. Through sheer force of will alone, he gained audiences with the highest officials of church and state. In 1516, Cardinal Jimenez, the Spanish humanist, sent a commission to the west Indies to investigate abuses against the Indians and correct them. Las Casas was appointed special advisor to the commission, with the title “protector of the Indians.”1

Las Casas soon realized that the commission had little or no interest in attempting to stop the abuse and enslavement of the Indians. His struggle with the commission and the encomenderos only brought greater threats against his life. In 1517, he returned to Spain with a grand plan to liberate the Indians without overthrowing the colonial system. In his discussions with the encomenderos, some had suggested that they would be willing to give up their Indian slaves if they would be allowed to trade them for African slaves. Las Casas proposed to the court, along with the abolition of Indian slavery, the right of each Spanish colonist to import twelve African slaves. The monarchy liked Las Casas plan and moved full speed to implement Las Casas proposal to extend the African slave trade to the Americas. Though Las Casas later greatly regretted this grave error, the wheels of an ominous machine had been set in motion. One hundred million lives would lie in its wake.

Seemingly contradictory, Las Casas argued that no nation or race of men were slaves by nature; mentally deficient individuals were found in every nation, but these mistakes of nature only confirmed the generic equality of men. In the Apologetica Historia, which is the second or Spanish part of the documentation used by Las Casas before the the debate in Valladolid, Las Casas offered an eloquent statement of the unity of mankind.

Las Casas ultimately advanced a program calling for the suppression of the encomienda, liberation of the Indians from all forms of servitude except a small voluntary tribute to the Crown, and the restoration of the ancient Indian states and rulers, the rightful owners of those lands. Over these states the Spanish monarch would preside as “Emperor over many Kings” in order to fulfill his sacred mission of bringing the Indians to the Catholic Faith and the Christian way of life. This was the only Spanish title to the Indies that Las Casas regarded as legitimate. The Kings’ agents in the performance of this mission would be a small number of model religious men who would cooperate with the native rulers, with the Indians separated from the corrupting and oppressive presence of lay Spaniards.

Experience progressively radicalized Las Casas in his tactics as well as his program. Beginning about 1540 he gradually shifted from moralistic tactics of preaching, persuasion, and threatening encomenderos with divine wrath to promoting practical political measures like the New Laws of 1542.

Las Casas had collected his notes regarding the Spanish treatment of the Indians, and formed a brief history of the conquest. He read his vivid accounts of the Spanish barbarity to the assembled court of Charles V. This first version of The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account horrified the royal court. In response to this stunning account, Charles V issued his Leyes Nuevas (New Laws) which forbade Indian slavery and sought to end the encomienda system within a generation by outlawing the transference of encomiendas through family inheritance.2 To help enforce the new laws, Las Casas was named Bishop of Chiapas.

The response from the encomenderos was swift and decisive. The conquistadores vented their rage against the dominicans in general and Las Casas in particular. The conquistadores of Peru launched a military revolt against the crown. Las Casas responded to the furry by decreeing that no absolution could be granted to those who still held Indians in encomiendas. Las Casas set up a council of bishops to deal with those priests who refused to follow his verdict. The encomenderos sent envoys to the king, demanding that the new laws be struck down. The king did not hold his ground and the new laws were retrenched. By the end of 1545, the king ruled that an encomienda could be passed on to an heir. Las Casas had lost a major struggle. He returned to Spain in 1547, this time for good.

In Spain, Las Casas faced an even more formidable challenge to his campaign for human rights for the indians. Juan Gines de Sepulveda, one of Spain’s leading humanists and philosophers, sought to publish a treatise on the just cause of war against the Indians based upon their inferior human nature. Sepulveda, even though he had an impressive intellect and powerful friends on the court, was denied the right to publish his treatise. He chose to challenge his denial through a direct appeal before a jury of wise men, jurists, and theologians; Las Casas was elected to defend the contrary point of view in this oratorical duel. The Council of the Indies recommended that all New World conquests be halted until a decision was reached regarding the status of the Native Americans. The debate took place in the northern Spanish city of Valladolid in 1550.3

Sepulveda, one of the foremost specialists in Aristotelian thought of his time, argued that some people are by nature slaves and some are by nature masters. He based his theory upon Aristotle who in his Politics declared: “Those, therefore, who are as much inferior to others as are the body to the soul and beasts to men, are by nature slaves…He is by nature slave…who shares in reason to the extent of apprehending it without possessing it.”4 Sepulveda believed that hierarchy, not equality, is the natural state of human society. Inspired by Aristotle’s Politics, he declares that all hierarchies are based on the same principle: “the domination of perfection over imperfection, of force over weakness, of eminent virtue over vice.”5 Sepulveda gives examples of this natural superiority: the body is subject to the soul, matter to form, children to parents, women to men, and slaves to masters. He uses this thought to justify the enslavement of the Indians: “In wisdom, skill, virtue, and humanity, these people are as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults and women to men; there is as great a difference between them as there is between savagery and forbearance, between violence and moderation, almost, I am inclined to say, as between monkeys and men.”6

Sepulveda, who had never been to the Americas, built his three hour defense of the conquest, and the necessity of such, on four basic points. First, the Indians had committed grave sins by the idolatry and their sins against nature.7 Second, the Indians’ “natural rudeness and inferiority” cohered with the Aristotlean notion of natural hierarchy. Third, military conquest was the most effective method of converting the Indians to Christianity. Finally, conquering the Indians made it possible to establish order in their society and protect the weak from domination.8 Sepulveda further stated in his Democratus Alter the following argument: “As St. Augustine says in epistle 75, the loss of a single soul dead without baptism exceeds in gravity the death of countless victims, even if they were innocent.”9 Sepulveda believes that there is a supreme and universal good in Christian salvation; acquisition of this value transcends that which the individual, itself, regards as the supreme good, i.e., life itself. The salvation of one justifies the enslavement, even the destruction, of thousands.10

Las Casas responded to Sepulveda’s argument by reading for five hours from his treatise Apologetica Historia. He began by distinctly rebutting Aristotle by placing him in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus: “Aristotle, farewell! From Christ, the eternal truth, we have the commandment ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself’…Although he was a profound philosopher, Aristotle was not worthy to be captured in the chase so that he could come to God through knowledge of true faith.”11 Las Casas advocated the basic human rights of all people: The natural rules and laws and rights of men are common to all nations, Christians and gentiles, and whatever their sect, law, state, color, and condition, without any difference.” 12 He appreciates the Indians as civilized humans with a uniquely religious nature: “Rather, long before they had heard the word Spaniard, they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, and custom.”

With Francisco de Vitoria the common law took a decisive leap from the medieval to the modern world. Vitoria’s exposition brings these developing principles to a new level, circumscribing the rights and duties of nations as nations; his Political Writings finally breaks out of the restrictive framework of a putative Roman Empire to view the nations as potentially a great community under law.

Vitoria’s lectures on the Indies attempt to demonstrate that the relationship between Spaniards and Indians is essentially a relationship of equals. The Spaniards cannot presume that they can legitimately conquer the Indians by virtue of a supposed superior level of civilization. Even if that were the case, it would give no just cause. But it cannot even be proved that the Indians are entirely lacking in the arts of civilization: “…they have some order in their affairs: they have properly organized cities, proper marriages, magistrates and overlords, laws, industries, and commerce, all of which require the use of reason. They likewise have a form of religion, and they correctly apprehend things which are evident to other men, which indicates the use of reason.”

“Thus if they seem to us insensate and slow-witted, I put it down mainly to their evil and barbarous education. Even amongst ourselves we see many peasants who are little different from brute animals.”13

Though he later significantly qualifies this judgement, even going as far as to cast into doubt the Indians’ actual ability to govern themselves,14 it forms the basis for a series of far-reaching conclusions. He poses the question ‘do the barbarians hold dominion?’ His argument against the dominion of the Indians is clearly stated as they were once sinners, unbelievers, madmen, or insensate, thus were insufficiently rational to govern themselves. But he clearly states that sinners, unbelievers, and madmen are all true masters. “The barbarians are not impeded from being true masters, publicly and privately, either by mortal sin in general or by the particular sin of unbelief. Nor can Christians use either of these arguments to support their title to dispossess the barbarians of their goods and lands.”15 Vitoria uses this analogy, “…these are the same rights we concede to Saracens and Jews, who have been continual enemies of the Christian religion. Yet we do not deny the right of ownership, unless it be in the case of Christian lands which they have conquered.”16

Because the Indians form self-governing societies, they must be treated as full-fledged nations, enjoying the benefits and immunities accruing to nations as set forth in his Political Writings. The logical corollary is that they also must adhere to the criteria set forth in the in the jus gentium. Vitoria lists them: freedom of trade; freedom of movement – open borders, freedom of the seas, freedom of domicile; freedom to spread the Gospel; all subsumed under the category, communication. If the Indians were to infringe these so-called “rights of communication,” the Spaniards would have the right to wage war on them. Vitoria leaves open the question of whether Spain’s conquests were justified on these terms or not; for him, conquest is not a very good way of establishing a relationship anyway. His main point is to highlight the basic rules which bind nations to each other and which they cannot get out from under, which establish peaceful communication, the indispensable condition for civil society lived for the sake of citizens and not rulers or state or government. For this purpose conquest is unnecessary, as the example of the Portuguese shows, “who carry on a great and profitable trade with similar sorts of peoples without conquering them.”17

Vitoria’s work has had an immense influence on 16th century political and legal thought. His pupil Domingo de Soto, who succeeded Vitoria to the first chair in theology at Salamanca, produced a ten-volume treatise Of Justice and Law, advancing the Vitorian agenda in what Pagden and Lawrance see as “probably the most influential treatise on jurisprudence written during the sixteenth century.”18

In conclusion, the three arguments of Las Casas, Sepulveda, and Vitoria all explain the conquest of the Indies in their own terms, none of which is entirely correct in my mind, but each with far-reaching effects in the society of its time, as well as today’s. The importance of each argument varies, from the political vision of Vitoria to the humility of Las Casas, but the importance of all three together is enormous. They constituted a growing awareness of the atrocities of Spaniards in the Indies, and acted as a precedent for the condemnation of future abominations.

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