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Why were the character and rational capacity of the Indians the subject of such intense debate in sixteenth-century Spain and the Indies?
Summary To establish what rights to American land, labour and rule the Spanish Crown had, debates took place between Las Casas, Sepulveda, Vitoria and others over the Amerindians' psyche. However, the debate soon left behind the distinctions between human and animal, sinner and prospective-Christian, citizen and slave. Papal Bulls, Spanish conquistador cruelty, Royal guilt and Natural Law were the factors that eventually enshrined the compromise over the Amerindians' position. Ultimately, their nature was impossible to define, so debates over their fate necessarily moved on.
The character and rationality of the Indians was subject to passionate argument in the sixteenth century, because establishing it would make the difference between treating the Indians as subhuman slaves or Castilian subjects. Theologians and lawyers argued over the Indians' innocence, their civilization and dominium, the tyranny of their rules, their capacity to accept Christianity, their status as men, beasts or natural slaves and their attitude towards allowing merchants and missionaries safe conduct. Upon these issues, Spanish rights to maintain a trading-missionary presence and conquer American lands stood or fell. However, the works of Las Casas, Vitoria and Sepulveda actually move beyond the actual debate as to the Indian character, Las Casas choosing to focus on the Spanish atrocities, Vitoria on Natural Law and Sepulveda on Pope Alexander VI's 1493 Bull granting Spain some degree of responsibility for the Americas. Bartolome de Las Casas certainly did use his views on the Indian character in his attempt to abolish the encomienda and requerimiento systems and promote native rights. This followed in the tradition initiated by Montesinos in 1511, who famously asked the settlers of Hispaniola "Are these Indians not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?"1. Las Casas similarly highlights Indian good character in his tract A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, describing them as "naturally so gentle, so peace-loving, so humble and so docile"2. Whilst it is easy to label anyone naive, in the case of Montesinos, Las Casas and the Indians, it would seem that genuine altruism is the motivating factor. The two clearly sympathised with the suffering they witnessed, and attempted to use expansive rhetoric to get across their point, namely, that the Indians were humans who deserved the rights of Spaniards. When Las Casas describes the Indians of Hispaniola as having "a lively intelligence, which makes them particularly receptive to learning and understanding the truths of our Catholic faith"3 he seeks to attack two important assumptions of the 'freebooting' colonists. Firstly, with their intellect comes rationality, meaning that the Indians are able to have dominium, and thus possess primarily themselves, and also their land, making conquistador seizure morally unjust. Furthermore, as Las Casas explicitly states, their capacity to learn makes them ideal for gentle Christianisation. By 1
Imperial Spain, 1469-1716, J.H.Elliot, p.61 A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Bartolome de Las Casas, p.6 3 A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Bartolome de Las Casas, p.10 2
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