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The Spanish Debate On the Americas


Juan Ginés de Sepulveda, Bartolomé de las Casas, and
Francisco de Vitoria arguments pertaining to the settlement
and colonization of the native people of America, while
presented in different manors, are all the same. All three
Spaniards believed that the barbarians had to accept the
rule of the Spanish because the Spanish were mentally
superior, and divine and natural laws gave the Spanish the
right to conquer and enslave the native people of America.
The foundation for Spanish conquests was their
interpretation of the bible. Ironically, it was the
teachings of the bible they were all trying to bring to the
newly found infidels. Sepulveda stated that the Spanish
conquests were sanctioned in divine law itself, for it was
written in the Book of Proverbs that "'He who is stupid
will serve the wise man.'" In propositions one and two,
Bartolomé de las Casas stated that he believed that Jesus
Christ had the authority and the power of God himself over
all men in the world, especially those who had never heard
the tidings of Christ nor of His faith. Las Casas also
stated in his second proposition that St. Peter and his
successors(that being missionaries located in the New
World) had the duty by the injunctions of God to teach the
gospel and faith of Jesus Christ to all men throughout the
world. What is interesting is that Las Casas thought that
it was "unlikely that anyone [would] resist the preaching
of the gospel and the Christian doctrine..." While being a
bishop and a Dominican missionary in the New World, he had
the task of spreading the holy faith, expanding the area
covered by the teachings of the universal Church(that being
the Christian religion), and the improvement of the
natives' souls as his ultimate goal. As stated in
proposition ten however, the Indians sovereignty and
dignity and royal pre-eminence should not, in his belief
disappear either in fact or in right. "The only exceptions
are those infidels who maliciously obstruct the preaching
of the gospel... ." In proposition eleven though, he
continues by contradicting himself by saying that "He who
persistently defends it[that being the preaching of the
missionaries] will fall into formal heresy." Sepulveda also
thought that if infidels rejected the rule of Christianity,
it could be imposed upon them by force of arms. Sepulveda's
justification for the use of force was, after all,
justified according to natural law, and that just and
natural noble people should rule over men who are not
"superior". War against the barbarians, according to
Sepulveda, was justified because of their paganism and also
because of their abominable licentiousness. Sepulveda and
Las Casas both thought that under no circumstances should
the Indians be governed under their own rules. The
Spaniards took the initiative by establishing several
municipalities, which where governed by local nobles. The
single fact alone that "no one individual owns
anything,..." was enough for the Spaniards to establish a
formal overseas administration for the infidels. Las Casas
states "[we] are obliged by divine law to establish a
government and administration over the native peoples of
the Indies..." Sepulveda thought that those who were
'dim-witted' and mentally lazy, although they may be
physically strong are by nature slaves, therefore they
should serve and be lead by humane (superior)and cultured
men. The fact that the Spaniards assumed that the natives
were slaves(inferior) by nature is absolutely amazing.
Francisco de Vitoria also thought that they were incapable
of self-government and their weak minds left no choice but
for them to be governed by those who had more knowledge,
namely, the Spanish nobles. "The aborigines in question
seem to be slaves by nature because of their incapability
of self government... ...[therefore] it is permissible to
seize their patrimony and enslave them..."
According to Juan Ginés de Sepulveda the "perfect should
command and rule over the imperfect, the excellent over its
opposite..." The Spaniards justified their conquests by
arguing that they conquered and enslaved only those people
who were unwilling to admit to Christian missionaries and
therefore were rejecting divine law. As Sepulveda
contemplated, the more perfect directs and dominates, and
the less perfect obeys their commands. He stated that all
of this derived from divine and natural law, both of which
demanded that the perfect and most powerful rule over the
imperfect and the weaker. He thought, along with several
other people of the times, that it was just and only right
to conform with the dictates of natural law, barbarians had
no other course but to submit to the rule of the more
cultured and humane princes and nations. The princes and
nations of Spain held the beliefs that virtues and
practical wisdom could destroy the barbarism of their
nature and in turn educate the 'inferior' people to a more
humane and virtuous life. "The Spanish Right of Conquest"
gave them the 'right' to acquire slaves.
Sepulveda saw the infidels as people 'for the taking', and
that they should be made to submit to the Spanish rule, and
by force if necessary. The Dominicans, however, on the
'outside', preached that the infidels should "be preached
peacefully, with love,... ...and affection,..." However,
Las Casas does say that the infidels could "be punished by
any judge... ...[if they] obstruct the preaching of the
gospel and who refuse to desist after they have been
sufficiently warned" It is clear then that Las Casas and
Vitoria were not true 'friends of the Indians.' Both the
Dominicans and Sepulveda were intent on achieving any gain
possible for their country and themselves, and they didn't
truly care what happened to the natives of America. Their
achievements of converting the infidels further proved and
backed that their justifications for imposing Christianity
upon the natives was good, and just. 


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