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The Controversy of Valladolid of 1550 was one of the great dramatic set pieces of the Spanish Conquest. For six days straight, two men debated the morality of Spain’s treatment of the Indians in the New World. On one side was Bartolomé de las Casas, age sixty-five, then at the climax of a lifetime of humanitarian advocacy on behalf of the Indians. On the other was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, former history tutor to the heir to the throne and a staunch defender of the conquistadors. Judging their arguments was a panel of Spain’s most distinguished minds, and behind them loomed the figure of Charles V, ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The emperor had put a moratorium on all new expeditions in America while the morality of the conquest was being settled. Whether that moratorium would be lifted, and under what terms, was to be decided by this titanic battle.

Amazingly, the outcome of the debate is unknown. If the judges of the junta wrote opinions, those documents have been lost to history, and we possess no record of any verdict from the Council of the Indies. Obviously Spain did not relinquish her possessions in the New World. On the other hand, she did not abandon her efforts at legislative protection of the natives, either. It was too late to save the Tainos and the Caribbean’s other peaceful tribes, but Las Casas can claim credit for the fact that Mexico never became a slave society, thanks to policy decisions made by the imperial court during his period of greatest influence.

Five centuries later, the moral victory has clearly gone to Las Casas. His Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies remains a standard work on the Conquest, notwithstanding the transparent implausibility of its long-debunked death counts. The so-called “Black Legend”—the idea that Spanish imperialism was categorically more brutal than any other country’s—derives in large part from the Brief Relation, which was immediately translated into every European language and enthusiastically embraced by Spain’s Protestant rivals, especially after Flemish engraver and virulent anti-Catholic Theodor de Bry introduced his gory illustrations in 1590.

Readers whose knowledge of Spanish history does not come from picture books have been more skeptical of the fiery Dominican. Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the most eminent Hispanist of his generation, concluded in 1963 that “the only way to understand [Las Casas] is to assume that he is mentally ill.” Las Casas has been called a paranoiac, a fanatic, a chronic exaggerator, and an impossible man to work with. His defenders, of course, say that intractability is only to be expected from prophets.

Like the Valladolid debate, this historiographical dispute has produced no conclusive verdict. That may be a blessing. In the absence of a final judgment, we are free to form our own conclusions. 

It is tempting to think of Las Casas as a voice crying in the wilderness, but in fact his campaign of denunciation brought him worldly success and the favor of the establishment. In 1516, when he was only 31 and they were two of the most powerful men at court, he succeeded in having Bishop Rodríguez de Fonseca and Lope Conchillos fired from their positions as ministers in charge of the Indies. When Charles V sent three monks from the Order of St. Jerome to investigate conditions in the Caribbean, he let Las Casas choose and accompany them under the title “Protector of the Indians.” The Hieronymites were the first of many colleagues to turn on Las Casas. Their report to the crown concluded that, if Las Casas were heeded and the Indians left at liberty, they would never advance beyond pre-agricultural barbarism, much less adopt Christianity.

By that time, Las Casas had already moved on to his next project, nothing short of the peaceful colonization of the entire northern coast of South America. Ultimately his royal grant fell short of the entire coast, but it still included almost all of present-day Venezuela and most of Colombia. Las Casas obtained such a lavish charter by promising to give the king ten thousand new taxpaying subjects within two years. These would include peasant settlers brought out from Spain as well as Indians newly organized into towns. Bishop Fonseca (back in the king’s good graces) warned Las Casas that others had tried peasant settlement schemes and “couldn’t find twenty workers to go.” Las Casas swore he would find thousands. In the end he found fewer than a hundred, not one of whom ever made it to South America.

The expedition was a disaster. The settlers abandoned Las Casas in Puerto Rico at the first sign of delay. The two missionary outposts that were supposed to serve as beachheads were destroyed by Indian attacks, one in the weeks before Las Casas arrived, the other a few months after he and his remaining men established themselves. Las Casas had sensed impending trouble there in the coastal village of Cumaná, but rather than stay and put his pacific principles into practice, he ran off to Hispaniola to file bureaucratic complaints against the local traders and soldiers whom he blamed for the rising tensions. The men he left behind at Cumaná were killed.

(Some idea of what a more decisive man might have accomplished can be gathered from an apt coincidence: In the very months when Las Casas was making a hash of his Venezuelan expedition—the summer of 1520 through the fall of 1521—Hernán Cortés went from the lowest point in his conquest of Mexico, the abject rout of the Noche Triste when his forces were slaughtered by the thousands as they fled Tenochtitlan, to the capture of Cuauhtémoc and undisputed mastery of the Aztec empire.)

In his account of the incident written decades later, Las Casas absolved himself of responsibility for the deaths of his men at Cumaná. It was the fault of those traders and soldiers who had refused to recognize his authority. That was the way his guilt worked. From the moment of his moral crisis in 1514, when he gave up his encomienda in Cuba and turned to a life of activism, Las Casas had felt the moral stain of each Spanish atrocity as if he were personally implicated. He was the original humanitarian personality, the first sign of the shift from pre-modern to modern ideas of moral heroism, from Christian saints to human rights activists. It is ironic that he should have so easily shrugged off the deaths for which he really was individually responsible—ironic, and yet entirely in keeping with his twentieth-century successors on the revolutionary left. 

If there was an underdog at Valladolid, it was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. No one ever put him in charge of thousands of square miles of tropical real estate. He was a scholar whose highest previous post had been official Greek translator at the papal court of Clement VII. To the university professors on the judges’ panel at Valladolid, Sepúlveda was a man out of his depth. They were scholastics of the old school, trained in the methods of Aquinas, to whom Sepúlveda was an upstart rhetorician who had the nerve to opine on moral questions without the proper theological grounding. Sepúlveda’s book in defense of the conquistadors was never published in Spain during his lifetime, thanks to lobbying by Las Casas to have it censored by the royal licensing office.

It seems strange to think of the pro-conquest side as being at a disadvantage, but modern readers should remember that the debate at Valladolid was not just about conquest, for or against. Charles V’s priority was limiting the power of American landowners in order to prevent the emergence of an aristocracy that would threaten his power. That, and not humanitarianism, was the reason for his hostility to the feudal encomienda system of compulsory labor. The clergy wanted to see the natives protected from abuse—as did the king and for that matter Sepúlveda—but it was not clear how this should be accomplished. Passing humane laws had not worked; local officials simply ignored them. Colonists protested that if forced labor were abolished, there would be no one to work the fields and the conquistadors would starve. Spain itself was full of noble estates in which peasants provided food for their lords in exchange for military protection and capital. It was the bargain that had made possible the Reconquista.

Sepúlveda’s goal was to come up with a long-term solution that would balance humanitarian concerns with the colony’s need for a labor supply. Bringing out peasant settlers from Spain would not fill the gap, as Las Casas learned the hard way. Sepúlveda thought the answer was to create a fully functioning New World aristocracy, replacing the criminals and lowlifes who had followed Columbus with men of better morals. The most enlightened laws in the world would founder if implemented by ruffians. Also, distance posed an unavoidable problem. The king needed men in America whom he could trust to make decisions on the spot when circumstances required immediate action, as they often did in a frontier situation. Attracting a better class of hidalgo might require some sweeteners the king was reluctant to grant, like making encomiendas heritable, but it was the best way to guarantee the human rights of the natives.

Spaniards also have human rights, as Sepúlveda reminded his audience at Valladolid. Christian missionaries have a right to preach the gospel peacefully without getting massacred. International law had recognized this as a basic corollary of universal principles of hospitality since the time of the Romans. With an advanced civilization like the Aztecs, one might negotiate a treaty concerning the rights of missionaries, but with pre-literate tribes in a place like Guatemala, how could such rights be guaranteed? In order to create the conditions of peace and order that would make peaceful propagation of the gospel possible, such peoples would simply have to be ruled, as the Roman empire had ruled Hispania, until the Indians “have become more civilized and, through our governance, probity in their mores and the Christian religion have taken firm roots,” at which point they could “be given treatment of greater liberty.”

As for the labor problem, Sepúlveda, like most imperial theorists, recommended preserving existing institutions as far as possible. The Aztecs had developed an advanced tribute system in order to support the urban metropolis of Tenochtitlan, which relied for its food on surrounding farmland worked by peasant vassals. Successful Aztec military commanders were awarded lands in conquered territories, much as in Spain. Some Mexican peasants were slaves, others were free commoners who were nonetheless subject to forced labor on public works—building roads and bridges, etc.—in addition to their annual tribute. After the conquest, the Spanish not only preserved many of the old Aztec territorial divisions but often kept the same officers in place, turning former tlatoque and calpixque into district chiefs and tax collectors.

Las Casas did not know a calpixqui from a coatimundi. He knew little about pre-conquest cultures. There is no evidence he spoke any Indian language. At Valladolid, he spoke generically of “the Indians,” making no distinctions between the Aztecs, whose capital was larger than any European city at the time save Constantinople, and the Tainos, whose idea of advanced technology was a spear with a fish tooth on the end. Avoiding specifics, Las Casas merely offered the judges his repeated assertion that the Indians before the conquest “equaled many nations of this world that are renowned and considered civilized … and to none were they inferior.” Among the nations they supposedly equaled were the Greeks and Romans of the ancient world and the English and French of Las Casas’s day—that is, Tudor England and Renaissance France. 

Las Casas frequently referred to his firsthand experience of the New World as the basis for his authority, but this experience was far less extensive than he led people to believe. The only part of the Indies he knew well was the Caribbean, and he simply assumed that what he had seen there must be true of conquest elsewhere. His disastrous Cumaná venture lasted only a few months, his posting as Bishop of Chiapa, a little over a year. “He says that he has been in these parts thirty-odd years, but thirty of them he spent in Hispaniola and Cuba, where the Indians were soon finished, and where he did his share in finishing them,” wrote a group of Guatemalan colonists in an angry letter to the crown in 1543. “He is not competent to give testimony about the Indies, which are New Spain … which he saw only from the roads over which he passed.” This was in contrast to the hundreds of devoted Franciscan and Dominican missionaries who lived among their Indian flocks for decades at a time.

For someone who knew so little, Las Casas was astonishingly resistant to correction. A central point of conflict between him and the Hieronymite monks of the Hispaniola commission was that they insisted on actually talking to the colonists about their experiences. They discovered that enlightened officials had experimented with bringing the Indians to civilization by noncoercive means, giving them farm tools and instruction and asking nothing in return except payment of basic taxes, but that these efforts had been total failures, with the Indians neglecting their farms and reverting to their former tribal lifestyle. The Hieronymites’ open-mindedness galled Las Casas to no end. For the crime of not taking his word for everything, he accused them of being in the pay of the encomenderos.

There was hardly an intellectual low to which Las Casas would not stoop, even actively defending human sacrifice, which he (falsely) claimed was a rare and incidental part of Indian culture. Did not the story of Isaac prove that human sacrifice was a noble impulse pleasing to God? How then could Christians condemn it as proof of barbarism? He insisted that all Indians were peaceful, and when conquistadors whose experience vastly exceeded his own pointed out that there was a difference between pacific Arawaks and warlike Caribs, he simply reiterated his categorical belief that pacifism would meet all eventualities: “No nation exists, no matter how rude, uncultivated, barbarous, gross, or almost brutal its people may be, which may not be persuaded and brought to a good order and way of life and made domestic, mild, and tractable, provided the method that is proper and natural to men is used; that is, love and gentleness and kindness.”

Rather than answer Sepúlveda’s arguments, Las Casas preferred ad hominem attacks, accusing his opponent of spouting “venomous poison” and “scandalous and deadly teachings.” He claimed Sepúlveda was ignorant and did not know his Aristotle, which was patently absurd. No man in Europe knew Aristotle better. Sepúlveda’s Latin translation of the Politics was the standard throughout the continent. Reading Las Casas’s statement of his case at Valladolid, one would assume that his opponent believed the Indians should be despoiled and enslaved, but Sepúlveda repeatedly denied believing any such thing. “To present my doctrine in those terms is offensive and shows the ill will of those from whom your argument is taken,” he wrote in an apologia aimed at Las Casas sympathizers.

They lie when they state that I undertake to protect injustices and impious robberies. … To make my position clear, I must repeat that I do not argue in favor of despoiling the barbarians or reducing them to slavery (servitus). I advocate instead that they be subjected to our rule to prevent them from impeding the propagation of the faith, persecuting preachers, and insulting God with their idols and other things; and this is for the benefit of the barbarians themselves.

Sepúlveda grew furious at Las Casas’s constant misrepresentations. “Everything which he attributes to me is false, as is well known by those who have read my book, and he knows better than anybody.” He would be dismayed to learn that Las Casas’s version of the story has become the accepted one—indeed, it has grown in the telling.

Today one often hears that Las Casas was the man who argued for the humanity of the Indians, which is ridiculous. No one doubted the Indians were human. The twentieth-century Spanish scholar Lino Gómez Canedo searched the historical record for anyone “who sustained the idea that the Indians were not human beings, but animals or something intermediate between men and beasts,” and found no one. The fact that Spain colonized the Aztecs was no proof that they thought the Mexicans inferior. Spain’s other colonies at the time included much of the Italian peninsula, and everyone, including the Spaniards themselves, agreed that the Italians were the more culturally advanced party in that relationship.

Sepúlveda’s arguments have sometimes been dismissed as the biased testimony of an ideologically suspect character. He was, after all, the Renaissance equivalent of a conservative activist. He first came to royal attention with an angry treatise he wrote after visiting his old university in Bologna and seeing a student anti-war protest (really). The young pacifists claimed that all war, even defensive war, was a violation of Christian principles, which shocked Sepúlveda coming as it did only months after the Turks raised their siege of Vienna. But among Las Casas’s many enemies were other men who had better claim to moral authority than the author of On the Conformity of Military Discipline to the Christian Religion.

Domingo de Betanzos was not just any Dominican friar. He was the man who had persuaded Las Casas to join that order when the dejected secular priest had washed up at his monastery in the wake of the Cumaná disaster. As a young missionary, Betanzos walked a thousand miles from Mexico to Guatemala on foot, and back again, in order to preach the gospel to the Indians. He nonetheless opposed Las Casas, writing open letters condemning his intemperate activism. He was also against ordaining Indians as priests, at least for the foreseeable future, because “their language is not sufficient and copious enough to be able to express our faith without great improprieties, which can easily result in great errors.” Nahuatl and Quechua, for example, had no word corresponding to God in general (as opposed to terms for particular gods), no equivalent to Deus or Allah. Betanzos, like most Spaniards of his day, had a better-safe-than-sorry policy when it came to heresy.

Naturally Las Casas condemned Betanzos’s caution as a denial of the Indians’ humanity, but that is not all he did. According to documents that surfaced in a Bolivian monastery only last century, it appears that Las Casas revenged himself on his former mentor by forging a deathbed retraction on his behalf. The facts are these: In 1549 a dying Betanzos retired to the San Pablo monastery in Valladolid, which happened to be adjacent to where Las Casas was holed up preparing for his great debate. Hours before Betanzos died, he put a shaky signature at the bottom of a confession renouncing his previous statements on Indian incapacity. The priests listed as witnesses were all Las Casas protégés. This sudden reversal was suspicious enough that the Council of the Indies sent a notary to investigate the circumstances—who transcribed the confession, who made the extensive edits and emendations—but the notary reported back that the document had to be accepted as genuine, since the witnesses were all prepared to swear that Betanzos knew what he was signing. Modern historians have not been so credulous, and several have explicitly fingered Las Casas as the mastermind behind the retraction.

The most saintly of Las Casas’s opponents was the Franciscan friar Toribio de Benavente, known by his Indian name Motolinía, “the poor one.” Unlike Las Casas, Motolinía learned his parishioners’ language and even wrote a catechism in it. “Whatever was given him he gave to the Indians,” wrote Bernal Diaz, “and sometimes he was left without food. He wore very torn clothing and went barefoot, and the Indians loved him much, because he was a holy person.”

This holy friar hated Las Casas with a passion. “I have known Las Casas since fifteen years before he came to this country,” Motolinía wrote to Charles V in 1555. “He thinks that everyone is wrong and he alone is right . . . He is ill-mannered, insulting, harmful, and restless.” At a time when the use of Indians as carriers was widely condemned (the practice was periodically banned, though enforcement was difficult), Las Casas traveled with twenty or thirty, “and the greatest part of what they were carrying was accusations against the Spaniards and other rubbish.” Motolinía also noticed that Las Casas spent most of his time on his drive-by visits to the missionary field collecting atrocity stories and very little time administering sacraments or preaching the Word.

In Motolinía’s memoir, which is livelier and less repetitive than Las Casas’s, he describes a magnificent pageant put on by the city of Tlaxcala to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi in 1539. The play was The Conquest of Jerusalem, with fireworks simulating artillery and mud cannonballs “filled with moistened red earth, so that the one who was struck seemed badly wounded and covered with blood.” The battle ended with the Sultan converting to Christianity along with his soldiers, played by Indian catechumens who were actually baptized during the performance. The most remarkable thing about the pageant was that the Sultan was played by an Indian dressed up as Hernán Cortés. The subtleties are mesmerizing: A Christian army, played by Indian warriors, is shown conquering a heathen horde led by a Spanish conquistador, whose defeat is actually good for him insofar as it brings him to Christ? Scholars are still puzzling over what precise political implications the Tlaxcalans intended by their strange choice, but the fact that Motolinía let them get away with it suggests that his attitude to the Conquest was not arrogant triumphalism but a loving ambivalence.

For all our Anglophone sneering about the Black Legend, there are 1.7 million Nahuatl speakers on this continent today and only 150,000 speakers of Navajo. Our empire exterminated its indigenous peoples far more thoroughly than the Spanish ever did. In two and a half centuries of U.S. Indian policy, we never did crack the mystery of how to preserve native cultures in proximity to white civilization. Since we have failed to come up with a better solution, even after forty years of postmodern sensitivity to indigenous rights along the philosophical lines suggested by Las Casas, maybe we should take a lead from Motolinía instead. It could be that in a saga as complex and wrenching as the meeting of the Old World and the New, loving ambivalence is the best we could hope for. 

Helen Andrews is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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