Ports of Call


Las Casas

Father de Las Casas,
the Renaissance
and the Nature of Man


Readings for this part of your journey

  • Benjamin Keen, "The Legacy of Bartolome de las Casas" on the web. The link is at the end of the Background section of this unit.
  • Las Casas, a selection from "A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies" (The first selection in your course packet.)
  • Las Casas, Chapters 1-4 of A Defence of the Indians -- Las Casas side of the great debate with Juan Gines de Sepulveda. (The second selection in your packet.)
  • Battailon, "The Clergio Casas: Colonist and Reformer" (The third selection in your packet.)
  • Comas, "Historical Reality and the Detractors of Father de las Casas" (The fourth selection in your packet.)

First port of call -- Spain in 1492

Often when this course is taught it begins around 1641 with Descartes. We will get to Descartes soon enough. But why start earlier? One reason is that it is useful to get a look at two intellectual movements which had a big impact on Descartes -- Renaissance skepticism and the rise of natural philosophy, what we now call science -- and some events which influenced the character of the entire era. In order to understand Renaissance skepticism we really need to go back to Luther and the Reformation, which takes us back to about 1517. 1517 is a good date because it is not only the beginning of the Reformation, but it is the date on which Magellan's fleet began its epic journey circumnavigating the globe. This connects the Reformation and the discovery of the New World - America - as it came to be called.
Columbus encounters
Native Americans
The discovery of America and other European voyages of discovery and conquest has many ramifications for the development of modern thought. It is one of those events which influenced the character of the entire era. To get some of these connections clear, however, it is useful to go back to 1492. What happened in 1492? 1492 is a date we all remember -- it is the year in which Columbus sailed the ocean blue. That is important, but there are other things of interest as well.

In this unit of the course we are going to consider the coming together of two disunited portions of humankind which resulted from the voyages of Columbus. The Spanish conquest led to debates over the nature of the peoples of the Americas, and how they should be treated. The 'Indians' had a great defender in Father Bartolome de las Casas. He was a great early human rights activist. He tried to let the Spanish government to understand that its emmisaries in the Americas were committing terrible crimes, including genocide. He tried to stop the practice of slave labor gangs. He forced a debate over Spanish treatment of the Indians. We will consider how the nature of European Reniassance thinking effected that debate over the nature of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and their treatment.


The Renaissance

The Renaissance was in full bloom in 1492. Indeed the Italian Renaissance was coming to its close. Lorenzo de Medici, one of the great leaders of Florence died in 1492. Lorenzo was responsible for the development of the Florentine Academy with such philosophers as Pico della Mirandola who wrote of the dignity of man and Marsillio Ficino -- who translated all of Plato's works into a modern European language for the first time.
Marsilio Ficino
Lorenzo had also commissioned paintings by such artists as Boticelli. Alexander VI (1431-1503), "the Spanish Pope" became Pope in 1492. He was a corrupt, wordly and ambitious Pope, who played an important role in both in the Spanish and Portugese conquest of the new world, and whose corruption contributed to the development of the Protestant Reformation.

The Renaissance is a complicated and mulit-faceted period. However, one characteristic feature of the Renaissance -- indeed a feature which is mainly responsible for the term 'renaissance' itself -- was an interest in the classical cultures of Greece and Rome. This interest was so strong that one might say that if one were ignorant of Greek and Latin (the languages of these classical cultures) one would hardly count as educated. The Greeks and Romans provided models or ideals of what could be achieved in art, architecture, politics, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy and so on. While this feature of European thought diminishes as time goes on, it is still noticeable in the last half of the eighteenth century where this course ends. One of the striking features about this period is that Europe is going beyond classical models and making new discoveries of its own. This is the reason why today the vast bulk of educated people feel no need to learn those classical languages, while back then they did.

We can illustrate the importance of this interest in classical culture in several ways.
The School of Athens,
Raphael 1515
Ficino's translations of Plato, for example, would have repercussions in European intellectual life. Reading and discussin the Republic with other humanists such as his friend Erasmus, was an important influence on Thomas More. More, a British humanist (later to die as a result of his conflict with Henry VIII over a royal divorce) wrote his remarkable Utopia in 1515, influenced both by Plato and by accounts of the discoveries in the Americas.

Europeans in 1492 thought they understood the universe pretty well. The discoveries of Columbus and other explorers were deeply shocking. The Americas and the native peoples of the Americas were things which did not fit easily into the European scheme of things. Who were these people? Were they people at all? Europeans asked these questions and they came up with some odd answers. These people were "Indians" -- this name implied that they were inhabitants of the East Indies, what today would be Indonesia, Bali and so forth! These people were "the lost tribes of the Israelites!" This was the earthly paradise, and these its uncorrupted inhabitants! Or, at the other extreme, these people were not really people at all! Perhaps they looked like people, but did they have souls? Or they were "uncivilized" -- going naked, committing abominable crimes like sodomy and cannibalism and engaging in human sacrifice!

Spanish Atrocities in the Americas

1492 is not only the year in which Columbus sailed. It is also the year in which the Reconquista -- the effort to drive the Moors out of Spain, came to its successful conclusion with the surrender of the Alhambra, the last Moorish fortress on Spanish soil. The Moors came to Spain from North Africa. They were not Christians -- they represented the rapidly rising tide of Islam.
Filigree work in the Alhambra
Islam founded in around 620 expanded with incredible rapidity east across Asia and west across North Africa, and north into Spain. The northward advance of Islam was stopped at the battle of Tours in Southern France in 720 C.E. -- exactly a hundred years after the expansion of Islam began! Islam developed a culture in many way superior to that of Christian Europe, and some of the highest points in that remarkable culture occurred in Islamic Spain. One need only look at the ravishing beauty of the filigree work on the Alhambra to get a taste of the Islamic culture of Spain. Christians began trying to reconquer Spain almost immediately, and it was this seven century long effort which finally came to an end in January of 1492 with the surrender of the Alhambra. This is important because it conditioned Spanish society. It was a culture constantly engaged in war which suddenly found itself at peace.

Ferdinand and Isabella
The Jews being
expelled from Spain
1492 is also the year in which Ferdinand and Isabella issued an edict expelling the Jews from Spain. Most other European cultures had done this earlier. These events may in part explain the way in which the Spaniards acted when they reached the new world. In a sense, the Reconquista just continued. Soldiers who had fought in the wars in Spain could now be conveniently sent far off to a place where they would not cause trouble in Spain. The attitudes toward the Jews and the Moors could be projected onto the Indians. We will return to this point later in the quarter when we read Richard Popkin article "The Philosophical Basis of Modern Racism." Popkin claims that modern racism began here in Spain in 1492 in the way I have just described.

The Spanish felt that the papal bulls issues by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 drawing a line from pole to pole 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and giving Spain exclusive rights to the lands West of the line, along with treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494) with Portugal (which moved the line a futher 70 leagues West, the change being sanctioned by Pope Julius II in 1505) provided the legal basis for the conquest. It also provided the basis for the Portugese colonization of Brazil which was discovered by Cabral in 1500. Obviously, this meant nothing to the indigeneous peoples being conqurered!

Unfortunately, the conditions under which the Spanish and Portuguese and later other Europeans encountered the native peoples of the Americas, created temptations for them which they were quite unable to resist. Because of differences in cultures, Europeans brought with them (unknown to them) germs which decimated the population of the Americas. The native peoples had no equal load of deadly pathogens to put a stop to European encroachment (as for example, Africa did have). As a result of this, and others factors, Europeans found themselves able to dominate native peoples in an unprecedented way. They had the opportunity to take the lands, goods and kill or enslave the persons of an entire continent. This was temptation indeed! Europeans, beginning with Columbus, were interested in the acquisition of wealth -- of gold and silver in particular. Given this motivation, and their position of dominance as a result of disease and superior technology, the Spanish and later other Europeans and their descendants proceeded to commit genocide on the native peoples of the Americas and elsewhere.

In another effort to justify the conquest, in 1513 Spanish forces were required to read a document to the Indians they encountered. The document, known as the Requiremiento (The Requirement) described the basis for Spanish claims to the new world and called upon the natives to submit peacefully to the Spanish. Should they fail to do so, the document explained, the would be subject to conquest by force, enslavement and the seizure of their property. This document was read to the Indians in Spanish (a language they did not know) or from the deck of a ship (where they could not hear it at all). It thus was simply a dodge to assuage Spanish legal sensibilities and continue the conquest.

First Reading

The first reading in your class packet "Spanish Atrocities in the West Indies, c 1513-20" by Father de las Casas gives you a sense of how gruesome this conquest could be.
Statue of Las Casas
Mexico City
Being a witness to such events was in part what caused the conversion of Father de las Casas to the cause of defending the indigeneous peoples of the Americas. There were, no doubt, traditions in European culture which rejected such activities as cruel and illegitimate. The sermon by the Dominican priest, Father Antonio de Montesinos on the text "I am a voice crying in the wilderness," in 1511 was the first protest we know of denouncing Spain's treatment of the Indians. Father de las Casas appeals to these traditions and his display of incredible persistence and courage represent the best efforts of Europeans to use these traditions to stop the genocidal attacks, slave labor, and other abuses of indigenous peoples. Nonetheless, it is clear these traditions were relatively ineffective in curbing European crimes in the Americas.


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