The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation
Part four: The controversy at Valladolid, 1550-1551 (6)

Aftermath of the Controversy    

Who won?   

Just about every possible answer to this question has been argued. Las Casas (Juan Friede, Miguel Giménez-Fernández); inconclusive, a draw (Lewis Hanke, Angel Losada); Sepúlveda (Edmundo O’Gorman, Jean Dumont). But these writers do not all have the same idea of what winning or losing would mean.   

If we reduce it to the question of who had the greater impact on his hearers and the most influence on the statement subsequently made to the king by the junta, the answer would seem to be: Las Casas. The junta’s statement has not survived, but there is another document which indicates that the junta advised the king to put a stop to all conquests because of their destructiveness.   

“The best proof of Las Casas’ victory over Sepúlveda was the increased favour with which the crown regarded him. He secured cédula after cédula ordering the superiors of all the mendicant orders of Castile to provide him with missionaries for the Indies”, Giménez-Fernández says. (10)   

In the longer term too, there were features of policy that could be seen as in tune with Las Casas’ opinions. Sepúlveda had argued that the king’s American empire was entirely dependent on the private initiative of colonists. Las Casas, rejecting this, staked everything on dividing the colonists from the king. Near the end of his second address he played his strongest card, warning against the danger of independent colonial states breaking away from Spain. It seems that the Spanish state really was aware of this prospect and never forgot it. “A great hereditary feudal aristocracy did not develop in the New World. Its inhabitants were not allowed to develop Cortes or representative institutions which might one day challenge the royal power. Instead, the officials of the Spanish Crown slowly asserted their authority over every aspect of American life.” (11) This is a remarkable development, and Las Casas surely had something to do with giving it momentum.   

Remarkable too is that moratorium on conquests issued in 1550. “Probably never before, or since, has a mighty emperor ordered his conquests to cease until it was decided whether they were just,” Lewis Hanke said. (12) No doubt he is right. However, the order was not obeyed. Pedro de Valdivia went merrily on with the conquest of Chile during the first half of the 1550s. And soon the order itself was lifted, and for a reason that the emperor more or less publicly admitted he had to be ashamed of. In May 1556 permission was given for new conquests. It so happened there were numerous “idle and licentious men” in Peru, and one way to “rid and cleanse” the country of them was to give them leave to go and conquer somewhere else. “Although one cannot justify such permission as well as reason requires, we hope in the end it will be of much service to God.” (13) What Las Casas thought when he read that part of the decree is not difficult to imagine.   

Las Casas continued writing and campaigning for another fifteen years, to his death. However, Juan Friede saw the decree permitting new conquests as the moment of his conclusive defeat. In his last period “he evokes the noble figure of Don Quijote. Refusing to admit that the legislation now in force had irrevocably settled the Indian question, he continued the attack with ever greater virulence, as if his pen could alter the direction of history.” (14)   

Not only did the conquests continue but their scope widened. A year before Las Casas’ death came the first great conquest in Asia, of the Philipines. Spanish social engineering of the Indian communities continued also. Granted, the encomiendas, where Indian forced labour was assigned to colonists on a private basis, more or less disappeared, at least in Mexico and Peru. They were replaced by state-organised systems of Indian labour. While these were less destructive, they involved further large-scale interference with the population. “Between 1565 and 1575 around one million natives were forced to resettle in the so-called ‘reducciones’” in Peru. (15)    

By then some other European powers were getting ready to seek empires. The competitors soon began making opportunist use of Las Casas’ writings. Dutch and French translations of A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, his most ferocious attack on Spanish conduct, were published in 1578/9. Some years later an English version appeared, at about the time when the English were committing comparable atrocities in parts of Ireland (but there was never any English Las Casas). King Philip II responded by ordering that Las Casas’ writings be impounded and handed over to the Council of the Indies for safekeeping. (16) Interestingly, the same policy was applied to Sepúlveda’s writings, although some of his counsellors told Philip they would make excellent counter-propaganda and advised publication.   

But to return to the Valladolid controversy: the weight of history, or historical hindsight, hangs heavy upon comments made by the Mexican Edmundo O’Gorman in 1971.

“The debate between Las Casas and Sepúlveda reveals the shock between what was already the impossible realisation of the ideal of Christian universalism which sought to overcome the differences of races and individualised groups, and what was then the modern nationalist tendency which sought to justify, in the name of the superior interests of civilisation, the right of dominion over peoples regarded as barbarous, and at the extreme, over all the nations of the earth. Independently of the sympathy which the first of these stances has inspired and inspires today above all, it is undeniable that its spokesmen made themselves advocates of an ideal without an immediate historical future. And since it was Father Las Casas who took up this defence in the given instance, I considered myself justified in qualifying his stance as “archaic”, not to denigrate him but to justify that stance and to explain, without recourse to mysterious essences of absolute good and evil, the paradoxical contrast between the theoretical triumphs of Father Las Casas and the historical ruin of his most cherished aspirations.” (17)

These ideas must no doubt be given their due. It is not surprising that someone should see Sepúlveda, in contrast to Las Casas, as more modern. Sepúlveda had something of the cold, supercilious realism of the English culture of empire. (J. H. Parry, writing in the English Historical Review in 1952, commended him on his “sane and prudent imperialism”. (18)) By contrast, Las Casas kept calling the Spanish state to a huge adventure in Christian idealism, a contact of dramatically differing civilisations where there would be a large measure of mutual respect.    

But there’s something in Las Casas’ thinking which keeps it young and might make him seem less archaic than, say, Edmundo O’Gorman. In doggedly pursuing his vision (quixotically, as Friede says) he explored the possibility of a single standard of thinking which does not do injury to the weaker side: a problem, to the best of my knowledge, not yet solved. The results are astonishing in works like the Apologetic History, where he compares a vast mass of information taken from the history of the then known world with what he can discover about the Indies. For the New World he uses all available sources, including his own experience and that of the many other missionaries he had met, and available published books, such as that by Alvar Nuňez Cabeza de Vaca.   

Daniel Castro, Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University in the United States of America, delivers this grandly-phrased judgment on Las Casas:

“More than missionary, he was a theoretician and a tactician of a benevolent ecclesiastical imperialism, insofar as one of his overriding preoccupations was the conversion of American infidels to Christianity even at a distance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his unwillingness to learn native languages in order to more fully understand the natives’ individual and collective problems, aspirations and expectations.” (19)  

Nowhere in his own book, unless I’ve unaccountably missed it, does Professor Castro mention Cabeza de Vaca. That is to say, he shows no sign of having heard of a man who learned at least six native languages and gained considerable insight into the natives’ problems, aspirations and expectations – not because he wanted to improve their lives, but because he got lost and spent eight years wandering in the vast expanses of the present-day southern United States. One may conclude that Castro doesn’t have much intellectual curiosity. But what he doesn’t have, Las Casas did have. In the Apologetic History (Castro shows signs of having heard of it, but no real signs of having read it) one of the sources that he avidly draws upon is Cabeza de Vaca’s account, which appeared in print in Spain in 1542.