By Benjamin Depetro



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Through the writing’s and interpretations of Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda explain; how the Spanish colonial empire has been interpreted through-out history and how these interpretations led to current views on empire dynamics during the colonial period.

By Benjamin Depetro









The Spanish empire flourished from the end of the “fifteenth century until the Napoleonic wars in the nineteenth century where it was cut off from its trade routes1.” During this time, following its European counter parts, the Spanish crown was able to inflict its influence on what was called the ‘new world’ colonising much of the South American continent. The Spanish presence through-out the Pacific “largely grew as a political enterprise directly governed by its mother country2,” which became a vocal point for debate as dominance was secured in the area. The contrasting views of Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda fuelled much debate during the sixteenth century focusing and arguing on three major topics; the colonisation of the Indies, the treatment and its justification of the native population and the rise and movement towards nationalism and the building of a individual nation instead of colonial rule. Bartolome de Las Casas (1484-1566), “known as protector of the Indians3” for his “expose of the Spanish mistreatment of the Amerindians4;” offer the earliest firsthand accounts of European colonisation and their misuse of power and perfectly outline the foundations of a colonial empire and its destruction. Las Casas and his adversary, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1531), “a Spanish humanist and theologian5,” became embroiled in a war of words that gained the attention amongst the Spanish people and was a tension that was centuries before its time. This battle waged between two men, portrays contrasting views sixteenth century and modern viewpoints of major issues such as colonisation, slavery and freedom but also depicts the dynamics of the destruction of empires and the rise of nationalism.

“Such an enterprise could only be undertaken by monarchs6,” words uttered by Queen Isobel in 1491 illustrating the power of the Spanish Empire over the Americas. The Spaniards, like all contemporary European nations, “operated an economy which was dominated by gold, manpower and a system of status7,” and could only grow stronger by increasing their empire and trade routes through the oppression of other nations. The colonisation of the Indies was used for just that, although it was Las Casas’ thought that “it was not within Spanish interest to settle quietly and trade peacefully, after all there were great reserves of gold and indigenous manpower to be put to use8.” This idea of slavery documented in Las Casas’ writings, “the truth is ships are been loaded with Indians for their labour9,” question Spanish intentions for its use of the new world unravelling the real meaning of colonialism and proved to be “one of history’s greatest holocausts10.” Slavery, like in all colonial empires, was evident through-out the South American continent; although the Spanish monarch refused to agree as it pushed strength, trade while Sepulveda continued the Spanish defence with the idea of bringing Christianity to the heathen. Been the Theologian that he was, Sepulveda was a strong believer that “Christianity simplified matters11,” so to advocate slavery was to allow entrance into the faith of the superior and therefore construct a civilised society. This defence of the colonisation of South America and slavery was met heavily by Las Casas “I attest that neither then nor in subsequent years was there any effort to bring Christianity to these people than there was to teach faith to the beasts of the field12.” This common defence shown by Sepulveda and the Spanish Empire has similar reasons to that of the colonisation of south-east Asia, where native religions and culture were forced to be abandoned for European faiths. This trend of colonial empires through-out history and the expression of the writings from Las Casas has formed the modern interpretation for the history of colonisation which is “to emphasis the dominance and superiority of one culture over another13;” which according to both Las Casas and Sepulveda is accurate take on Spanish views of the Indians.



Like in all nations, past, present and future, the treatment of its citizens and all those under its control determine the success and prosperity of a nation. This began the demise of the Spanish Empire and its colonies in South America. The writings and accounts documented by Las Casas illustrated the new world as “wicked and brutal” and painted the conquistadors as “creators of carnage and butchery14.” The vividness in which Las Casas portrays the Spanish treatment of the Indians was eclectic by nature and unheard of for the sixteenth century. Arguably Las Casas’ defence of the Indians was the beginning of the demise of the Spanish empire, “as much of his work was not published15” due to the slander it caused the Spain. The great dispute between Las Casas and Sepulveda at Valladolid in 1550 was an immense battle of words that clearly and concisely outlined the two major viewpoints during the sixteenth century about the native population in South America; but also underlined the dynamics of an early modern empire that was fighting to remain in favour. Las Casas described during the controversy a type of “noble savage, one that was beautiful, friendly and misunderstood by an empire that would rather use medieval force than peaceful measures16.” He continued to argue that the Intellect of these people is “far beyond barbaric and emphasised the importance of learning Indian languages and culture17,” for the stability of the colony. Sepulveda laughed at Las Casas’ arguments going on to justify that the “Indians were barbaric as they oppress innocent persons and kill them as a sacrifice to their God or eat the bodies as only beasts would18.” The Spanish monarchy allowed this argument to go on to give the people what they wanted, a hollow look at freedom, and in turn allowing an opportunity to crush Las Casas without reflecting badly on Spain. The mere fact they the Spanish did not squash the writings of Bartolome de Las Casas explains that he must have had support through-out the mother land and the colonies as the people in a time when humanists were on the rise. Although the empire didn’t stop the push from Las Casas it did do everything in its power to emphasis the works of his opposition. The contrast between modern society and that of the sixteenth century is the documentation that had been published. Through-out the sixteenth and seventeenth century the works of Las Casas in Spain were non-existent well today the only works of Sepulveda found are those connected to Las Casas. These events give a real insight to the dynamics of the Spanish crown at that moment through-out history, although what it wanted was to continue its exploitation of the Americas; allowing the opportunity to win either way prevented losing the favour of the public by showing its open to all ideas its citizens put forth. Unfortunately for the empire, Las Casas’ humanist movement to protect the Indians gained strength and became a pivotal moment in history that was not only way before its time; but developed a “belief in man which is a reality on which a new age is built19,” one that moved away from colonial rule.

Through-out his life, Bartolome de Las Casas emphasised that “every government of a free people ought to have for its object the temporal and the spiritual good of the members and the body politic20.” Meaning that free people need to be governed by their own free hand, and although he never lived to see the Spanish colonies of the South American continent become their own nations; Las Casas, whether he know it or not, begin the fight against colonialism and push towards nationalism. The push to build freedom arguably began with Las Casas when he uttered the words “if justice is to be true, it must be for all of mankind21,” this statement is one that reflects the majority of colonisation all through history. The one thing that has always gone hand in hand with oppression is the fight for freedom and the ability to govern one’s self, this was shown it the colonisation of both North and South America and it the European settlements of Southeast Asia. Las Casas explained that “no nation exists today, nor could exist, no matter how barbarous, fierce, or deprived its customs may be, which may not be attracted and converted to all political virtues and to all the humanity of domestic, political and rational man.22” Time and time again this has been proven is history, nations today do not exist due to the oppression and suffering of another, and if they do, they don’t function very well; as the dynamics would reflect that of the Spanish Empire during the sixteenth century, “superior military advancements, strong cultural traditions and battling government with a weak economy23.” Spanish intentions, shown through the writings of Juan Gines de Sepulveda, to hold on to control and power over its colonies in South America as well as the writings of Bartolome de Las Casas eventually lead to the breaking of oppression and the leap towards freedom.



Through influential writings of both Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines Sepulveda, we are to gain an eclectic look into colonial life and dynamics that affect the rise and fall of an empire; as well as compare modern day interpretations to decipher turning points that impact on the course of history. The Spanish colonial empire underwent a rare process that saw strength and power disintegrate, as it learnt that often the greatest weakness to the strongest power is the power itself.

Bibliography:

  • Clayton, Lawrence A. Bartolome de Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas: Viewpoints. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. 2011.

  • Fernandez- Santamaria, J. A. The State, War and Peace: Spanish Political Thought in the Renaissance. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 1977.

  • Hanke, Lewis. All mankind is one: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians. Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb. 1974.

  • Helps, Arthur. Tears of the Indians & the Life of Las Casa. Massachusetts: The John Lilburne Company Publishers. 1970.

  • Las Casas, Bartolome de. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Translated and Edited by Nigel Griffin. Introduction by Anthony Pagden. London: Penguin Books. 1992.

  • Las Casas, Bartolome de. In Defence of the Indians. Translated and Edited by Stafford Poole. Foreword by Martin Marty. Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb. 1992.

  • Las Casas, Bartolome de. The Devastation of the Indies: A brief account. Translated by Herma Briffault. Introduction by Bill Donovan. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. 1992.

  • Olsen, James S. Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Empire: 1402-1975. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1992.

  • Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: Rise of the Spanish Empire. London: Penguin Books. 2003.

  • Williamson, Edwin. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin Books. 2009.

  • Zorita, Alonso de. “Why the Indians are Dying.” In the Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2002.

1 James S. Olsen, Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Empire, 1402-1975, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), X.

2 Oslen, Historical Dictionary of the Spanish Empire, 1402-1975, IX.

3 Bartolome de Las Casas, In Defence of the Indians, translated and edited by Stafford Poole/ foreword by Martin Marty, (Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, 1992), XVI.

4 Bartolome de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A brief account, translated by Herma Briffault/ introduction by Bill Donovan, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1992), 1.

5 J.A. Fernandez- Santamaria, The State, War and Peace: Spanish Political Thought in the Renaissance, (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 163.

6 Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: Rise of the Spanish Empire, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 53.

7 Edwin Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America, (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 12.

8 Williamson, The Penguin History of Latin America, 10.

9 Bartolome de Las Casas, The Devastation of the Indies: A brief account, 98.

10 Alonso de Zorita, “Why the Indians are Dying,” in the Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics, eds Gilbert m. Joseph and Timothy j. Henderson, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 122.

11 Fernandez- Santamaria, The State, War and Peace, 169.

12 Lawrence A. Clayton, Bartolome de Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas: Viewpoints, (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 35.

13Clayton, Bartolome de Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas, 20.

14 Bartolome de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, translated and edited by Nigel Griffin/ introduction by Anthony Pagden, (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 45.

15 Bartolome de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, xxxiv.

16 Lewis Hanke, All mankind is one: A Study of the Disputation between Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda in 1550 on the Intellectal and Religious Capacity of the American Indians, (Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, 1974), 5.

17 Hanke, All Mankind is One, 22.

18 Hanke, All Mankind is One, 89.

19 Hanke, All Mankind is One, 159.

20 Arthur Helps, Tears of the Indians & the Life of Las Casas, (Massachusetts: The John Lilburne Company Publishers, 1970), 285.

21 Clayton, Bartolome de Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas, 51.

22 Hanke, All Mankind is One, 157.

23 Clayton, Bartolome de Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas, 2.


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