Christopher Columbus’ geographical discoveries destroyed old beliefs that had been dominant in European minds in the previous centuries, and revolutionized the way Europe thought about itself and the rest of the world forever. With the discovery of the Americas and their abitants the eurocentric conception of the world was put in serious doubts, as its main pillar (the Christian literal interpretation of the Bible’s geographical view, which didn’t include nor mention the New Continent) fell to pieces, ready to be definitely wiped away by the Copernican Revolution.
On the anthropological level, it was the first time Europeans faced indigenous people that still lived in a tribal society (all the other already known non whites, like the Moors, were organized in civilized societies not so different from European ones). The conquistadores didn’t ponder any ethical question regarding what their behaviour should have been in regards of their relation with the Americans: their only purpose was to get rich and bring as much gold as they could back to Spain, and if to achieve this goal they had to enslave the indios and perpetrate atrocities, they were ready to do so. Even though many Spaniards admired American civilizations, and were amazed by their feats (all of the soldiers who were able to see Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, described it as greater and more beautiful than any European city), they considered the Americans not as fellow humans, but as something between the human and the beast, an inferior being, which it was right to dominate and exploit.
The ethical debate on what should be the correct behaviour towards the Indios started years after Columbus’ discovery, when several colonies were already organized and european diseases were already spreading between the indigenous people, causing millions of deaths (it is acknowledged that most of native Americans died victims of epidemics because of their lack of immunitary defenses to European diseases).
The different approaches to the Indios were exemplified in the famous Valladolid Debate (1550), in which Juan Ginès de Sepulveda and Bartolomè de Las Casas debated their opposite opinions about it in public.
Juan Ginès de Sepulveda
Juan Ginès de Sepulveda (1490-1573) was a spanish humanist and philosopher. His conception of the Indios was based on the many reports coming from the New Continent in which the conquistadores described their customs and traditions in detail. Sepulveda was particularly impressed by the rituals and symbols of the Indios’ religions. He suggested that such pagan rituals as human sacrifice and cannibalism not only proved that the indios were barbaric and inferior to the Spaniards, but also that they were Satan worshippers and so the Spanish had the right and the duty to occupy their land and rule over them on a evangelical mission. He so justified the actions of the conquistadores:
“The Spaniards are perfectly right to govern these barbarians of the New World and adjacent islands; they are in prudence, ingenuity, virtue, and humanity as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults and women are to men, there being as much difference between them as that between wild and cruel and very merciful persons, the prodigiously intemperate and the continent and tempered, and I daresay from apes to men“.
(Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest)
Bartolomè de Las Casas
In opposition to Sepulveda stood Bartolomè de Las Casas (1484-1566), a spanish catholic Bishop. He heavily criticized the behaviour of the conquistadores basing his thesis on two main arguments: the indios weren’t inferior to Europeans, but were equal to them and in some ways better, and Spain was guilty of being greedy and cruel in its appropriation of American lands.
He appealed to the Christian teachings of fraternal love and Thomas Aquinas’ thesis of universal equality by natural law to state that:
“It clearly appears that there are no races in the world, however rude, uncultivated, barbarous, gross, or almost brutal they may be, who cannot be persuaded and brought to a good order and way of life, and made domestic, mild and tractable, provided . . . the method that is proper and natural to men is used; that is, love and gentleness and kindness.”
(Bartolomè de Las Casas, Apologetic History of the Indies)
While on the moral behaviour of the Americans he sustained that:
“These people are the most devoid of rancors, hatreds, or desire for vengeance of any people in the world.”
(Bartolomè de Las Casas, History of the Indies)
On the other hand he accused the conquistadores of not following Christian precepts:
“Christ seeks souls, not property. … He who wants a large part of mankind to be such that … he may act like a ferocious executioner toward them, press them into slavery, and through them grow rich, is a despotic master, not a Christian; a son of Satan, not of God; a plunderer, not a shepherd.”
(Bartolomè de Las Casas, In Defence of the Indians)
“The pattern established at the outset has remained to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly.”
(Bartolomè de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies)
After the Valladolid Debate both Las Casas and Sepulveda claimed their own victory. In concrete terms the behaviour of the conquistadores didn’t change in the later years, and almost the totality of the indigenous American population was wiped away by epidemics and substituted with Blacks imported from Africa. Although it hadn’t had a concrete result, the Valladolid Dispute was the first moral debate on the relations between Europeans and the others, a topic that would have later deeply influenced important philosophers such as for example Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
Montaigne, who was a skepticist and a relativist, observed that:
“Each person calls barbarism whatever is not his or her own practice… We may call Cannibals barbarians, in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity.”
(Michel de Montaigne, Of Cannibals)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau shows in his works a deep interest in savages and tribal societies as a source of inspiration for his search of the “natural state utopia”:
“People in their natural state are basically good. But this natural innocence,however, is corrupted by the evils of society.”
“In fact, the real source of all those differences, is that the savage lives within himself, whereas the citizen, constantly beside himself, knows only how to live in the opinion of others; insomuch that it is, if I may say so, merely from their judgment that he derives the consciousness of his own existence.”
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men).
Even if the relations between Europeans and indigenous Americans ended briefly with a tragedy for the latter, the moral question remained open and kept on being discussed everytime Europe encountered new cultures in its colonial expansion. In the present day this theme is being debated again as Europe is forced to deal with different cultures and ethnicities because of immigration. We suggest studying the development of the dispute and its results can be very useful to find proper answers to ethical questions being asked everyday in contemporary times.