The Spanish Empire in the Americas-Colonization or Exploitation?

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The Spanish Empire in the Americas-Colonization or Exploitation?

Critical Thinking: In this section you will analyze opposing viewpoints on the legitimacy of the Spanish colonial empire in the New World.

Many of the cultural achievements of Native American peoples such as the Maya, Aztecs, and Incas were impressive. However, the level of technology in the Americas was far more primitive than that of Europe. In the estimate ofone historian today, "By A.D. 1500, the New World had reached the stage of civilization that Egypt and Mesopotamia had attained about 2500 B.C." Given the superiority of European technology, did 16th-century Spain have the right to create a colonial empire in the Americas? The Spaniards of that period debated the issue themselves. Two men who were deeply involved in this debate were Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas (1474-1566) was a priest who participated in the Spanish colonizing of the West Indies. He later became known as the "Apostle of the Indies" and "Protector of the Indians" because he criticized Spanish colonial policies in the New World. He sent his account of Spanish brutality to the ruler of Spain, Charles V, who in 1550 gathered a tribunal of lawyers and theologians to discuss the claims of Las Casas. Sepulveda (14907-1573) gave evidence at the tribunal against Las Casas' charges. The first of the following readings is an excerpt from Sepulveda's book, The Second Democrates, or Concerning the Just Cause of the War Against the Indians.
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“The Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men; for there exists between the two as great a difference as between savage and cruel races and the most merciful, between the most intemperate [lacking in self-control] and the moderate and temperate, and, I might even say, between apes and men.

Compare, then, these gifts of prudence, talent, magnanimity [generosity], temperance, humanity, and religion with those possessed by these half-men in whom you will barely find the vestiges [traces] of humanity, who not only do not possess any learning at all, but are not even literate or in possession of any monument to their history except for some obscure and vague reminiscences of several things put down in various paintings; nor do they have written laws, but barbarian institutions and customs. Well, then, if we are dealing with virtue, what temperance or mercy can you expect from men who are committed to all types of intemperance and base [morally low] frivolity [foolishness], and eat human flesh? And do not believe that before the arrival of the Christians they lived in the pacific [peaceful] kingdom of Saturn [ruler of the Golden Age in Classical mythology] which the poets have invented; for, on the contrary, they waged continual and ferocious war upon one another with such fierceness that they did not consider victory at all worthwhile unless they satisfied their monstrous hunger with the flesh of their perfect enemies.

Furthermore these Indians were otherwise so cowardly and timid that they could barely endure the presence of our soldiers, and many times thousands upon thousands of them scattered in flight like women before

Spaniards so few that they did not even number one hundred. . . . Although some of them show a certain ingenuity [skill] for various works of artisanship [craftsmanship], this is no proof of human cleverness, for we can observe animals, birds, and spiders making certain structures which no human accomplishment can competently [adequately] imitate. . . .They have established their nation in such a way that no one possesses anything individually, neither a house nor a field, which he can leave to his heirs in his will, for everything belongs to their masters whom . . . they call kings (chiefs), and by whose whims they live, more than by their own, ready to do the bidding and desire of these rulers and possessing no liberty. And the fulfillment of all this, not under pressure of arms but in a voluntary and spontaneous way, is a definite sign of the servile [slavish] and base soul of these barbarians. . . .

They live as employees of the king, paying, thanks to him, exceedingly high taxes. . . . And if this type of servile and barbarous nation had not been to their liking and nature, it would have been easy for them, as it was not a hereditary [by right of birth] monarchy, to take advantage of the death of a king in order to obtain a freer state and one more favorable to their interests; by not doing so, they have stated quite clearly that

they have been born to slavery and not to civic and liberal [free] life. Therefore, if you wish to [subdue]

them . . . to a servitude a little less harsh, it will not be difficult for them to change their masters, and instead of the ones they had, who were barbarous and impious [wicked] and inhuman, to accept the Christians, cultivators of human virtues and the true faith.”

The second reading is an excerpt from Las Casas' Destruction of the Indies, a book that became famous because it spread an account of Spain's brutal treatment of the Native Americans.

“Now if we shall have shown that among our Indians of the western and southern shores there are important kingdoms, large numbers of people who live settled lives in a society, great cities, kings, judges, and laws, persons who engage in commerce, buying, selling, lending, and other contracts of the laws of nations, will it not stand proved that the Reverend Doctor Sepulveda has spoken wrongly and viciously against peoples like these? From the fact that the Indians are barbarians it does not necessarily follow that they are incapable of government and have to be ruled by others, except to be taught about the Catholic faith and to be admitted to the Holy Sacraments. They are not ignorant, inhuman, or bestial [savage]. Rather, long before they had heard the word Spaniard they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, and custom. They cultivated friendship and, bound together in common fellowship, lived in populous cities in which they wisely administered the affairs of both yoke of Christ on peace and war justly and equitably [fairly]. . . .

Next, I call the Spaniards who plunder that unhappy people torturers . . . searching for gold and silver lodes [ore deposits]. . . . For God's sake and man's faith in him, is this the way to impose the yoke [rule] of Christ on Christian men? Is this the way to remove wild barbarism from the minds of barbarians? Is it not, rather, to act like thieves, cutthroats, and cruel plunderers and to drive the gentlest of peoples headlong into despair? The Indian race is not that barbaric, nor are they dull-witted or stupid, but they are easy to teach and very talented in learning all the liberal [scholarly] arts, and very ready to accept, honor, and observe the Christian religion and correct their sins once priests have introduced them to the sacred mysteries [rites] and taught them the word of God.

The Indians are our brothers, and Christ has given his life for them. Why, then, do we persecute them with such inhuman savagery when they do not deserve such treatment? The past, because it cannot be undone, must be attributed to our weakness, provided that what has been taken unjustly is


Finally, let all savagery and apparatus of war, which are better suited to Muslims than Christians, be done away with. Let upright heralds [messengers] be sent to proclaim Jesus Christ in their way of life and to convey the attitudes of Peter and Paul [early Christian missionaries]. The Indians will embrace the teaching of the gospel. Once they have embraced it, it is marvelous with what piety, eagerness, faith, and charity they obey Christ's precepts [laws] and venerate [treat with deep respect] the sacraments. For they are docile [obedient] and clever, and in their diligence [industriousness] and gifts of nature, they excel most peoples of the known world.”

The Spanish Empire in the Americas-Colonization or Exploitation?

Critical Thinking About Controversial Topics

A. Analyzing the Readings: Directions: Answer the following questions.
1. Identifying central issues. What are two arguments that Juan Gines de Sepulveda used to justify enslaving the Native Americans?

2. Identifying central issues. What are two arguments that Bartotome de Las Casas gave in attacking Spanish colonial policies in the New World?

3. Distinguishing false from accurate images. What three comparisons did Sepulveda employ to express the inferiority of the Indians. What comparison did he use to dismiss the significance of the Indians' "ingenuity for various works of artisanship"? Discuss the appropriateness of each of these comparisons.

4. Expressing problems. How might Las Casas have weakened his case by requiring that the Spanish must restore what had been taken unjustly from the Indians? Discuss the validity of this requirement.

5. Recognizing bias. Las Casas argued against prejudice toward the Indians, but what bias did he display in the final paragraph of the excerpt from his book?

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