Father of Anti-Racism
The discovery of the Americas had significant repercussions on the intellectual
life of Europe. It showed, for example, that the ancient geographers were wrong
about world geography. The Spanish conquests in the New World also had repercussions
in European intellectual life. The Spanish engaged in genocidal wars which involved
theft of land and property on a grand scale, and the enslavement of large numbers
of people. Father de las Casas is one of those shining figures who did their
best to oppose and prevent the crimes which the Spanish were committing in the
New World. It is for this reason that modern scholars refer to him as the father
of anti-imperialism and the father of anti-racism.
Born in 1482, Las Casas sailed for the New World in 1502 with the new governor
of Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando. Las Casas met Columbus and became the editor
of the Admiral's journals. Las Casas began as a typical colonist who gained
a grant of native slaves, but then both witnessed Spanish genocidal attacks
on native peoples and heard Father Montesinos condemning the Spanish for the
treatment of the native peoples. Las Casas was converted, and became a defender
of the Indians. He pursued these efforts for the remainder of his life. Perhaps
the most important event in this effort was the Great Debate in Valladolid in
1550 with Juan Gines de Sepulveda.
Las Casas's works were aimed at informing people in Spain of the crimes that
were being committed in the new world against native peoples and, at various
times, before two different Spanish kings, arguing that what was being done
was criminal. The Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies, when it was
published outside of Spain, provided other European powers with a justification
for attacking Spanish colonies. Las Casas also wrote out a monumental defense
of the Indians in his debate with Juan Gines de Sepulveda in 1550.
If you look at the map of the world at about the time Las Casas was born you
see that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along with the continents of North
and South America, Australia and Antarctica are all missing. 1492 represented
an extraordinary year in the history of Spain and the world. In Spain the re-conquest
of the peninsula from the Islamic Moors was completed, the Jews were expelled
from Spain, and Columbus sailed on his first voyage of exploration. All of these
events were to effect the intellectual history of Europe in various ways.
The four voyages of discovery which Columbus made led to the discovery of the
islands of the Caribbean with their native peoples, and then the discovery of
the American mainland. The wars of conquest against the Aztecs in Mexico and
the Incas in Peru. In 1519 Cortez began his expedition to Mexico, resulting
in the conquest of Mexico. In 1531 Pizarro invades Peru and destroys the Inca
empire. These are simply the biggest events in an ongoing conquest of the Americas.
From the first voyage of Columbus, the Spanish came to the new world looking
for gold and converts. The search for gold required mining. Mining was a very
labor intensive business. The Spanish used work gangs of Indians slaves to do
their mining for them. The terrible conditions which the Spanish imposed on
native communities, caused large numbers of people to die. Finally in Peru,
the Spanish found Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) at Potosi, a mountain of silver. The
stresses which the Spanish imposed on Indian communities were so severe that
in the islands of the Caribbean the native peoples largely died out, to be replaced
by black slaves from Africa.
The treatment of the Indians was genocidal -- that is we are talking about
the destruction of peoples. In part this was a result of potent germs -- such
as smallpox which was unknown in the Americas -- which the Spanish unknowingly
brought with them. But, because of superior weapons, horses, metal armor, ships
and cannon, the Spanish found themselves in a world where they had power over
people, and those people had little recourse except to flee. Women were raped,
property and land stolen in vast quantities, whole populations destroyed. All
of this was done by the conquistadores with an attitude of considerable self-righteousness.
There were some protests, largely from Dominican priests like Father Montesinos
and Father de las Casas. From about 1515 until his death in 1566 Las Casas was
a persistent critic of Spanish treatment of the Indians. It is amazing that
Father Las Casas was as effective as he was in bringing the plight of the Indians
to the attention of the Spanish government. The most important episode in Las
Casas' long series of protests over the treatment of the Indians, is the great
debate in 1550 in the Spanish capital of Valladolid.
Juan Gines de Sepulveda had recently returned to Spain from Italy where he
had studied with one of the greatest Italian Aristotle scholars of the period.
He was the spokesman for the interests of the conquistadores and Spanish colonists
who wanted to continue taking the land and property of the native peoples as
well as using the Indians for slave labor. In arguing on their behalf he used
Aristotle's doctrine of natural slavery from the Politics and the Nichomachean
Aristotle argues that slavery for some people is a natural condition which
is good for them. Such people cannot effectively rule themselves, so they need
to be ruled by others who are wiser than they. Such rulers can, in effect, make
such people more civilized. Sepulveda applies this argument to the relation
between the Spanish and the Indians. The Indians, he holds, cannot rule themselves,
and so they should be ruled by the Spaniards. The Spanish, once they have conquered
the Indians, can convert them to Christianity.
What makes someone a natural slave? According to Aristotle, there is a certain
kind of barbarian who cannot rule himself who is a natural slave. Such barbarians
can be hunted down like wild beasts and captured. The Spanish had various reasons
for thinking the Indians were barbarians. These people were not Christians.
And the Spanish were convinced that they engaged in horrible practices. They
were sexually promiscuous, homosexuals, and worst of all the engaged in cannibalism
and human sacrifice.
Las Casas in arguing against Sepulveda uses two strategies. First, he accepts
the Aristotelian framework which Sepulveda proposes, and argues that the Indians
are not barbarians in the strict sense which would make them natural slaves.
Thus, the wars against them are unjust. Second, he argues that Christian morality
would not allow even barbarians in the strict sense to be hunted like wild animals
as Aristotle proposes. Thus he rejects the authority of the Philosopher.
Arguably Las Casas' triumphed in the debate. The Spanish government made some
efforts to alleviate the condition of the Indians. Ultimately, the Spanish government,
when it realized that the colonists in Peru would revolt if it continued to
defend the Indians, gave up the policies proposed by Las Casas. Perhaps Las
Casas' lasting legacy is to contribute to the formation of a tradition of protest
against the ill treatment of native peoples. The present Bishop of Chiapas,
Samuel Ruiz, sees himself as the lineal descendent of the first Bishop of Chiapas
-- Father Bartolome de las Casas.
Critics of Las Casas have pointed out that in his zeal to save the Indians,
he suggested allowing the colonists to replace them with black African slaves.
They charge him with a double standard, treating Indians better than Black Africans.
Early historians suggested that it was Las Casas's suggestion which caused the
Spanish crown to license the importation of black slaves to New Spain. This
is rather unlikely. What is notable and genuinely unique about him in the history
of European imperialism and colonialism, is that he saw that he was mistaken
about this and publicly recanted.
Your goal in this unit is to understand Las Casas' arguments against Sepulveda.
You also want to understand what Las Casas position is about black slavery.
In order to achieve these goals you must begin the practice of reading analytically.
You will have to ask yourself what the parts are and how the parts fit together
into a whole. You will be provided quite a bit of help in doing this in the