Looking Back in History

Norman Chance

In the 16th century during the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, Bartolome de las Casas, the Bishop of Chiapas, posed a question that few government and religious leaders wanted to hear. It occurred in 1550, 58 years after Columbus and his crew first set sail for India; 28 years after Cortez had conquered Mexico; and 18 years after Pizarro's conquest of Peru. Addressing the Council of the Indies, a government agency designed to deal with problems concerning Indian Affairs in the New World, de Las Casas asked: By what right did Spain subdue these 'Indians,' take control of their land, and forceably use their labor?

Arguing before the Council, he stated that indigenous people are endowed with natural rights including the right of liberty, and therefore, they should not be enslaved. The Council, sufficiently challenged by de Las Casas' legal, religious and moral arguments, temporarily ceased expeditions to the New World without the express permission of King Ferdinand. The King concurred and on April 15, 1550, he called together a panel of 14 jurists and other learned individuals to meet in Valladolid and consider the issue. As the Latin American scholar, Lewis Hanke, notes in his description of the event: "Then, for the first and doubtless for the last time, a colonizing nation organized a formal inquiry into the justice of the methods used to extend its empire."

Juan Gines de Sepulveda, leading the opposition to de Las Casas, proposed to the newly formed Commission that since the Native people had no science, no written laws, no private property and other accouterments of civilized society, it was the responsibility of the Spanish expeditions to bring these and similar advantages to the Indian people. Furthermore, stated Gines de Sepulveda, by depriving them of such ideas and products, they would be "greatly retarded in their development."

The great debate at Valladolid ended in 1551. While de Las Casas was able to draw attention to the appalling injustices being perpetrated on the Native people of the Americas, neither he nor his associates could stop them. Refusing to make a formal recommendation to the King, the Commission disbanded shortly thereafter and the Conquest was renewed.

Was testimony ever elicited from the Native people? No Spanish record exists of such activity. Were any Native leaders involved in the debate? Highly unlikely, but we will never know for certain. Still, it would be well to keep in mind the basic questions addressed at Valladolid in 1551 - for as we will see in the case studies that follow, many of the issues raised then are still with us today.

Norman Chance, Convener


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