When Christopher Columbus and his famished crew first smelled the earthy terrarium air of San Salvador in 1492, the plateau of Castile-Leon in Spain was falling into the chill of autumn. Its vendimia had passed, and the leaves in the vineyards had begun to coat the hills with rows of canary yellow and burnt orange. In Valladolid, the streets were alive with the buzz of the Renaissance, and the slow construction of the theological study hall Colegio de San Gregorio was nearing completion.
Today, in this former capital of the Crown of Castile, many of the neo-gothic façades, aristocratic structures and churches of the era of Old Spain still stand. The stone edifices pepper the center of town, chipped and worn down by wars and the elements since the Moors’ last stand in Granada and reign of Queen Isabel I: the pale white church of Santa Maria de La Antigua, where Valladolid locals held Christopher Columbus’s solemn and understated funeral, the Baroque San Juan de Letrán church, the Convent Church of San Pablo, Napoleon’s rest stop during his not so covert invasion of Spain.
Local pedestrians hardly notice these buildings as they scurry to work; a few tourists, hopping to the next tapas bar, aim their cameras at the bell towers and stork’s nests that hang precariously from the spires above.
One stone wall is almost melancholic in its fragility and detail, its carvers apparently not reluctant to pack as much into a space as possible. Cascading over the ornate Isabelline façade of the 490-year-old Colegio de San Gregorio are carvings of saints, warriors, angels, satyr-like wild men covered with hair, lions, a giant Eagle of San Juan, a fountain of Life, and naked babies climbing a Tree of Knowledge which intertwines the coat of arms of the Catholic Monarchy. Each of these ornaments could fill pages of history and story-telling. Inside, a well-preserved gilded and polychrome wooden ceiling hangs over a space where robed Dominican friars once paced the halls in silence and studied and contemplated the heavens and God. Gargoyles hung over the spiraled columns of the tranquil inner courtyard, as they do today, now weathered from the years. But in the mid-16th century, the Colegio de San Gregorio was chosen as a temporary moral headquarters, a place of fervent argument that would affect the lives of millions of indigenous people an ocean away.
In the late 1540’s, well into the Age of Discovery, King Charles V and religious authorities had been receiving disturbing reports from outposts in the New World. Hundreds of ships had moored in the Caribbean and South America since the maritime path was paved by Columbus, ships full of adventurers with hopes of making their fortunes, some soldiers, some honest men (almost always men), some ruthless opportunists, but all born of a system of ideas at odds with the indigenous population. Eventually, questions arose in intellectual circles back in Valladolid and Seville about the violent subjugation of the natives, the methods of conversion to Christianity, and the treatment of a population that some in Europe even struggled to call human. Under pressure, the young Charles V halted the military expansion of the empire until matters were at least addressed. So, there would be a debate amongst religious intellectuals, as it was done in those days.
The de facto human quality of the natives seems to have been in question during the non-binding, intellectual debate, to be held in Valladolid. Arguing in favor of the dignity of indigenous populations, against slavery, and for the motion that they were indeed free men and women who could choose to be redeemed by God, was a Dominican friar named Bartolomé de Las Casas. Arguing for the interests of the settlers and for the conquest, for the status quo, was a Renaissance humanist called Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.
Sepúlveda conceded that the natives were indeed human, but he argued that they were what Aristotle called “natural slaves,” people predisposed to servitude, born to be ruled by others. In Sepulveda’s mind, the natives’ daily customs were appalling and seemed to describe the essential qualities of the governable savage, violators of “natural law”: the human sacrifice, cannibalism and idol worship, even their often soft and innocent nature toward the Spaniards. In his Democratus II, Sepúlveda writes, in elegant Latin, through his alter ego Democratus:
“This light of right reason is what is meant by natural law; This is what declares, in the conscience of good men, what is good and just, what is evil and unjust, and not only in Christians, but in all those who have not corrupted correct nature with evil customs, and all the more so as each one is better and smarter.”
His rejection of a 16th century cultural relativism and his blatant ethnocentrism stood in stark contrast to Las Casas, a well-traveled, protean citizen who some in the Church labeled as the “Protector of the Indians”, and who described the indigenous people discovered on the island of Hispaniola as a harmless and friendly population. In his A Brief account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), he portrays the natives as “a most tender and effeminate people, and so imbecile and unequal-balanced temper, that they are altogether incapable of hard labour.” An outragous statement by modern liberal standards, but to most of his peers, this attitude was silly and obscenely liberal. To Las Casas, the Amerindians were strange and naïve, yet autonomous and free to choose, albeit between eternal damnation or paradise, but to Sepúlveda, who never visited the New World, they were barbarous violators of the norms of upright and smart men, and through his Aristotelian reasoning he formed the rules for moral behavior. He considered the Spaniards saviors who were meant to free the hopelessly vile savages, by force if necessary, stating:
“…it is just, convenient, and in conformity with the natural law that men who are decent, intelligent, virtuous, and human will dominate over all who do not have these qualities.”
Many of those disturbing reports from the field on abuse of the natives undoubtedly came from Las Casas himself, who collected a series of first-hand accounts, a shocking laundry list of atrocities he claimed to have witnessed during his time in the new settlements, a list he undoubtedly brought to the debate at San Gregorio. There were stories of appalling sadistic behavior, including beatings, crucifixions, infanticide, forced mining for gold with little food, the burning alive of natives, and the use of attack dogs to punish absconders. Again in his A Brief Account, Las Casas observes soldiers on the island of Hispaniola, the place first settled by Columbus:
“They erected certain gibbets, large, but low made, so that their feet almost reached the ground, every one of which was so order’d as to bear the Thirteen Persons in honor and reverence (as they said blasphemously) of our Redeemer and his Twelve Apostles, under which they made a fire to burn them to ashes whilst hanging on them: But those they intended to preserve alive, they dismiss’d, their hands half cut, and still hanging by the skin, to carry their letters missive to those that [flee] from us … on the mountains, as an [example] of their flight.”
To Las Casas, the increasing incidents of violence of his countrymen towards the natives since the relatively innocuous first arrivals represented an ethical and moral emergency and, perhaps in a crisis of conscience, he abandoned his own land and slaves in favor of advocating for the rights of the so-called Indios and began preaching against increasing wrongs of the conquest. His accounts portray a population of the helpless overrun by the rabid colonizers.
On the island of Cuba he writes:
“By the ferocity of one Spanish tyrant (whom I knew) above two-hundred Indians hang’d themselves of their own accord; and a multitude of people perished by this kind of Death.”
Such anecdotes continue, page after page. Las Casas was known to be an argumentative person, prone to melodrama and brazen exaggeration, and matters of genocide and slavery tend to be high on the emotions, but even the most modest interpretation of his reports undoubtedly caused alarm in religious and civil circles back in Spain. And he had the ear of royalty since he could boast unparalleled clout due to his list of personal contacts in the Church and his years of experience in the field.
As the friars, religious laity and laymen jury gathered around the tables in the Colegio San Gregorio, Juan Gines Sepúlveda began arguments for his defense of the conquest with a three-hour treatise of his Democratus II, his eloquent justification for a proactive war against the pagan Indians. He cited heavily from Biblical sources and Aristotle’s Politics I. De Las Casas followed later with his case.
After a long period of excitement, Las Casas had become disillusioned, to say the least, on the project of the conquest of the New World, as his accounts increasingly verged on the hyperbolic:
“Those that arriv’d at these Islands from the remotest parts of Spain, and who pride themselves in the name of Christians, steer’d two courses principally, in order to the extirpation and exterminating of this people from the face of the Earth. The first whereof was raising an unjust, sanguinolent, cruel war. The second, putting them to death….”
Sepúlveda considered the war against the Amerindians anything but unjust, implying the natives were to “learn humanity from the Christians, so that they may be accustomed to virtue, so that, with sound doctrine and pious teachings, they may prepare their minds to welcome the Christian religion. And this cannot be done except after being subjected to our empire, the barbarians must obey the Spaniards, and when they refuse it they may be compelled to justice and probity. And this is confirmed by the words of St. Augustine…
There are other causes of just war less clear and less frequent, but no less just and less grounded in natural and divine law; And one of them is to submit with arms, if by another way is not possible, those who by natural condition must obey others and refuse their empire. The greatest philosophers declare that this war is just by law of nature.”
Perhaps a verbose quote, but Sepúlveda was not alone in his ethics, and it represents the lengths to which many were prepared to use the Christian religion and the writings of established philosophy to justify the domination of one race over another.
It is tempting to frame the debate at the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid as a heated courtroom drama, two charismatic intellectuals pummeling each other with wit and legalese. In cinema, Jean-Danielle Veren’s very good “Le Controversie en Valladolid” portrays Las Casas and Sepúlveda as spitting and shouting moral powerhouses, with real-life Indians pulled into the room, like circus animals, prodded and tested for sentient capabilities. But this is likely an unrealistic portrayal, and the differences between the two men were probably more nuanced than typical cinema is willing to delineate. Both men, for example, were wholly supportive of the conquest in general, a chapter in history often dismissed in modern times as an ethical and moral disaster. Glasses of retrospect tend to distort and simplify, operating under a willful and fundamental misunderstanding of context. If it were inevitable that Western civilization would eventually treat human rights with the seriousness it does today, it would have to start with someone like Las Casas. And it would have to start in the bloody and savage times of the Age of Discovery.
Although the debate at the Colegio de San Gregorio may not have been much more than the typical lengthy and dry proceedings of a Renaissance court, full of slow, profuse recitation of scholars, clerics and religious texts (the debate itself was even without a clear decision, both sides claiming victory), the ramifications of this conversation can hardly be understated. King Charles V found himself as high diplomat in arguably the first international relations crisis involving human rights. His 1542 “New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians” were written to reform the harsh encomiendo system of land ownership, with the aim of changing the way the colonizing empire treated the races of the world, and it was later bolstered slightly after the debate at the Colegio de San Gregorio. Initially, the “New Laws” were laughed off and met with a range of reactions, from simple noncompliance in New Spain (Mexico) to outright revolt in Peru. In fact, Las Casas never really saw in his lifetime a satisfying sea change in the treatment of indigenous people.
In 1506, a 56-year-old Columbus rode a mule all the way from Segovia and arrived in Valladolid, some 115 kilometers away, ridden with gout (or Rieter’s Syndrome) and bitterness. He had embarked on 3 more voyages to the New World since 1492. His supportive Queen Isabel had died, he’d been imprisoned for a lacklustre performance as administrator in Hispaniola (or as traitor to the Crown in the New World, depending on who you ask), then released. And now his groveling to King Ferdinand in Valladolid for recognition and inheritance for his family largely fell on deaf ears. He would never know that a year later Las Casas himself would bring his older brother Bartholomew Columbus to Pope Julius II in Rome. There, Las Casas would secure an inheritance for the Columbus family, and would inform the Roman pontiff of the new, rich field of unconverted souls in the New World, a pitch undoubtedly framed by accounts of the atrocities he had witnessed. After reciting a few Latin words, Columbus died at a residence in Valladolid, having brought from the far side of the world the knowledge of new civilizations and once mythical lands. But he also unwittingly brought the unprecedented conditions in which to test a new question of human rights and to test what it means to be a civilized society, two questions we still have yet to address adequately.