The Valladolid Debate on the Rights of Indigenous People

Was the subjugation of indigenous peoples a just means to expedite Christianity? On 15 August 1550, a humanist scholar and a Dominican friar debated. 

Bartolomé de las Casas in a 19th century etching. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Public Domain.
Bartolomé de las Casas in a 19th century etching. Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Public Domain.

In April 1550, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, halted Spanish conquests in the Americas. He had scruples; could they be overcome?

A panel of over a dozen theologians, officials and administrators gathered in the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid to hear the opposing arguments. The two disputants were humanist scholar Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas. Both agreed evangelism, the spread of Christian truth, was the goal; the question was, were war and subjugation a just means to expedite it?

The debate opened on 15 August 1550 with a three-hour oration from Sepúlveda. He drew on Aristotle to argue that the indigenous peoples of America were ‘natural slaves’, incapable of self-government, and it was Spain’s moral duty to wage war on them, as a prelude to subjugation and Christianisation. ‘They are as inferior to the Spaniards as children to adults, women to men’, he wrote: almost ‘as monkeys to men’.

Las Casas had recently returned from nearly 50 years in the Americas where, as bishop of Chiapas, he had refused last rites to Spanish colonials whose cruelties appalled him. His response to Sepúlveda lasted five full days.

Las Casas went so far as to defend human sacrifice, widely seen by the Spanish as proof of barbarism, if not outright evil. ‘Nor is human sacrifice – even of the innocent, when it is done for the welfare of the entire state – so contrary to natural reason that it must be immediately detested’, he wrote. Sacrifice – offering up ‘the greatest and most valuable good, that is, human life’ – was a mark of religious feeling, not irrationality.

A second session followed in 1551; at least one judge didn’t deliver his opinion until 1557. Conquest and cruelty continued. But still, the debate was a watershed, a point at which we can see the shape of modern questions about human rights. In 1573, Philip II issued a new ordinance regulating all future discoveries by land or sea. It banned the word conquest, recommending pacification instead. In its own way, that was a modern response to the question, too.