Father de Las Casas,
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.)
port of call -- Spain
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.
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
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
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.
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.
The School of Athens,
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!
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.
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
Filigree work in the
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
The Jews being
expelled from Spain
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.
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.
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.
Statue of Las