Columbus’ Forgotten Legacy: Missionaries in the New World

Spanish civilization crushed the Indian; English civilization scorned and neglected him; French civilization embraced and cherished him.

—Francis Parkman, The Jesuits in North America

We have arrived at anno Domini 1992, the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the New World, but the date has assumed more than chronological significance. By the fall, everyone who wishes to be regarded as intellectually serious will be expected to have also arrived at an opinion about whether Columbus was a benefactor of the human race or the deadest white European male of them all. The controversy he has catalyzed carries wide ideological implications, and everything for good and for bad that has occurred since Columbus is being attributed, by a massive post hoc ergo propter hoc, to the Genoese navigator personally. Given current academic sympathies, it is no surprise that in many quarters the quincentenary has given rise to what can only be called an anti-Columbus myth.

One of the most persistent and least examined strands in that myth is the charge that, in the decades following 1492, missionaries and other religious groups did little but sprinkle holy water on a brutally destructive imperialistic conquest of native cultures. For the most part, this mistaken impression stems from simple, long-standing ignorance. Religious figures as diverse as Friar Bernardino de Sahagim in Mexico, Roger Williams in Rhode Island, and the Jesuit Jean de Brebeuf in New France were among the very first Europeans to learn native languages and, in the process, to begin inventing the modern disciplines of anthropology and ethnology. They also preserved a good deal of what we know about several pre-contact native cultures. Naturally, Christian evangelization of Indians raises many large ethical questions, and not only on the European side. While Christians had obligations to respect native cultures and individual rights—obligations they frequently did not live up to—most of us would agree that human sacrifice, ritual cannibalism, slavery, and torture were native practices that cried to heaven for change. On balance, religious institutions, far from being mere tools of colonialism, were often the strongest defenders of native life and culture in the New World.

To say this, however, we must recognize both the tragic and epic dimensions of this story. Once contact was established, native cultures would be changed forever in good as well as bad ways. Just as the isolation of the Americas from the rest of the world made millions of Indian deaths from unfamiliar diseases inevitable—whether the first non-native American arrived from Asia, Africa, or Europe—so native religion and culture would have changed whether they confronted Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or Christianity. Though some revisionists have tried to equate Western religion itself with epidemic disease, the parallel is far from exact. Despite the complicity of religious individuals in some atrocities, Christianity in general was not a moral or spiritual pathogen. The proof of this is that few native American religious systems could be revived in their entirety today without generating great controversy even among native Americans themselves. The heroic attempts by some missionaries to bring more humane practices to very different and hostile peoples cannot any longer be seen solely in the pious images of the past. Yet there was an element of epic grandeur, mixed with the tragic elements, in that story.

Contemporary critics frequently assume a general religious imperialism occurred analogous to the military imperialism—an assumption that neither the historical record nor many morally relevant facts warrant. Francis Parkman’s view, quoted above, oversimplifies and even misrepresents the early history to a great degree. But it does suggest that there were at least three very different, large-scale approaches to native Americans, as well as diverse currents within each of the three. If seriously looked at in fairness, the record of European religious groups contains some glories worth recalling.

The lack Legend

Space allows that we only look at the Spanish missionaries here, but we should be wary of some prejudices from the very outset. Anglo-Saxon and Protestant bias against Spanish and French Catholics has long colored criticism of missionary activity in the New World. For centuries, various Protestant enemies of Spain used information about Spanish atrocities in the New World—much of it provided by the Dominican friar and defender of the Indians Bartolome de Las Casas and debated in remarkably open fashion by Spanish secular and religious leaders—to create the leyenda negra (“black legend”), a kind of catch-all for anti-Spanish propaganda. Lurid illustrations by artists like Theodor DeBry, mixed with anti-Catholic slurs, created an image that, to this day, inspires prejudices about Spanish America. Pro-Spanish advocates created a corresponding “white legend,” now little regarded, listing all the benefits European culture and Christianity brought to the New World and excusing errors and atrocities on that basis.

France received slightly better treatment, but grudgingly. Parkman, that energetic but decidedly New England historian, feels free to tell his readers in an otherwise straightforward and fair report on the Jesuit missions to the Huron and other Northeastern tribes, “As for the religion which the Jesuits taught them, however Protestants may carp at it, it was the only form of Christianity likely to take root in their crude and barbarous nature.”

A double bias—against both allegedly benighted Catholics and allegedly benighted natives—appears clearly here. G. K. Chesterton once observed that much English history of the first Spanish explorations in the New World reflects “the desire of the white man to despise the Red Indian and the flatly contradictory desire of the Englishman to despise the Spaniard for despising the Red Indian.” While French Jesuits might fare somewhat better than their Spanish Catholic counterparts in Anglo-American histories, both are found inferior by even the fairest writers. Despite such biases, however, this older criticism did at least pay some attention to fact, to the actual deeds and misdeeds of the first Europeans in the Americas.

A new, contemporary form of the black legend manifests no such virtue. Its proponents know few facts, and though profoundly influenced by the earlier biases, now condemn all European religious figures in the New World, Catholic and Protestant, Spanish and not. Most prominent native spokesmen and their supporters give the impression that Christianity and genocide may be virtually identified with one another and that all true native Americans reject both. Oddly, though hundreds of thousands of native Americans in the United States and tens of millions in Latin America seem happy to be Christians and to support their churches, prominent church leaders have accepted this self-abasing view.

Probably the most violently moralistic comment on the early role that Christianity played in the New World has come from the U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC). After an introductory page studded with several charges of genocide, rape, and “ecocide,” the NCC’s official resolution—”A Faithful Response to the Five-hundredth Anniversary of the Arrival of Christopher Columbus”—called for repentance, not celebration, and described the role of religion in the New World as follows:

The Church, with few exceptions, accompanied and legitimized this conquest and exploitation. Theological justifications for destroying native religious beliefs while forcing conversion to European forms of Christianity demanded a submission from the newly converted that facilitated their total conquest and exploitation.

The almost ritualistic repetition of “conquest and exploitation” in this brief passage and the equivocation about European forms of Christianity (what other forms were there at the time?) are indicative of several problems with this argument and many similar critiques of the missionaries who came soon after Columbus.

Vast overreaching and a predictability born of lack of any real knowledge mar all such accounts. Stafford Poole, a lucid commentator on the early European religious activities in Latin America, has raised the question, for example, of whether genocide actually occurred:

As elaborated in this century, the term applies to a calculated, deliberate extermination of an entire identifiable people for racial or other reasons. Despite the dreadful consequences of the European invasion of Latin America, there never was any planned or calculated desire to destroy the people as such…. There are other terms to describe what happened in the Western hemisphere, but genocide is not one of them. It is a good propaganda term in an age where slogans and shouting have replaced reflection and learning, but to use it in this context is to cheapen both the word itself and the appalling experiences of Jews and Armenians, to mention but two of the major victims of this century.

Among the various early European settlements, only the English at Jamestown—and only some of them—ever seem to have contemplated extermination of Indians. Certainly, no church group is recorded to have accepted such a course.

Furthermore, while missionaries may have accompanied conquerors, very few simply legitimized their actions. Unscrupulous and greedy churchmen may have sought their own advantage, but the nature of the religious vocation is such that those kinds of Christians are a small minority at any time. Quite a few religious leaders, especially in Spanish territories, clearly thought political dominance was a prerequisite to efficient evangelization, but that position did not entail blanket acceptance of everything Spaniards wanted to do. From the very beginning, religious scruple vied with worldly interests. The instances of religious imperialism in the sense of forced conversion and gross mistreatment for heresy are not nearly as common—or unopposed—as is usually assumed.

Serious religious debates began immediately over ethical conduct in the New World. Slavery, for example, was denounced early and often. J.H. Elliott, one of the premier historians of imperial Spain, points out that as early as 1500, theologians and others protested when native Americans arrived on Spanish docks to be sold as slaves. This led Queen Isabella, who had already freed several Indians Columbus had sent back, formally to outlaw the practice. Not even a decade had elapsed since first contact with the New World. Unfortunately, the legislation permitted exceptions—when Spaniards were attacked or when tribes practiced cannibalism, human sacrifice, or other crimes against natural law—that provided unscrupulous people with numerous loopholes to do whatever they wished.

The NCC document, however, makes no mention of these reactions nor of the passionate and sophisticated defense of the natives and of native culture developed very early on by Spaniards, particularly in the Church—an omission that has not gone unnoticed by Hispanic critics. As the American historian James Muldoon has commented:

Hispanic critics of the NCC resolution have a point. The resolution was directed only at Columbus’s voyages and, by implication, at the establishment of Spanish domination over much of the Americas. The English, French, Dutch, and even the Portuguese seem to have escaped this sweeping condemnation.

This lack of curiosity about Christian history by a professedly Christian organization is telling and a grave moral failing. Had the authors of the statement gone outside their meager counter-cultural sources, they might have come upon unknown cultural and religious riches. They would have found a wealth of reflection on the nature of the native peoples and their cultures that would have helped them understand how Western cultures, precisely because of their encounters with native Americans, gradually came to a more inclusive recognition of universal humanity. But the NCC appears to have been more interested in issuing a universal indictment of the West on the basis of prejudice against Hispanic culture.

Myopic Progressives

Defenders of the NCC statement and critiques like it contend that they are opening up Eurocentric history to alternative views. In fact, they present the most historically myopic visions imaginable. Not only are they ignorant of native American cultures, their ignorance of Europe makes it impossible for them even to know what would, or would not, constitute a sinister Eurocentric view. A crucial issue in any history of the Americas is the origin of the concepts of universal human rights and respect for alien cultures that underlie contemporary critiques.

We now take these principles for granted. But such concepts existed nowhere in the world prior to certain developments in Europe, least of all among non-Western cultures and the native tribes of the New World, who had their own versions of cultural superiority. Only because of some serious thinking in Western nations were the seemingly odd new peoples held to be rational—and therefore fully human—and international law developed to reflect that humanity. This was a new achievement, even if practice followed theory very imperfectly.

To its credit, Spain began grappling with these moral and philosophical questions almost immediately, though some confusion and disorder naturally attended the initial Spanish contact with the New World. In 1511, less than two decades after Columbus’s first voyage, Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican priest speaking on behalf of himself and two colleagues, denounced mistreatment of Indians in a homily given to outraged settlers on the island of Hispaniola. Montesinos pulled no punches. Invoking the biblical verse, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” he continued:

This voice says that you are in mortal sin and live and die in it because of the cruelty and tyranny that you use against these innocent peoples. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what authority do you wage such detestable wars on these peoples, who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, in which you have destroyed countless numbers of them with unheard of murder and ruin…. Are these Indians not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?… In your present state you can no more be saved than the Moors or Turks, who do not have and do not want the faith of Christ.

Montesinos’s listeners in the pews, like many other settlers who would be chastised in the future by church and civil authorities, were outraged. He needed a protective escort to leave the church.

But in his fiery denunciation, the priest was following and proclaiming the decree issued years earlier in 1503 by Ferdinand and Isabella granting liberty to the Indians. The Mexican historian Rafael Altamira has said of that decree:

What a memorable day for the entire world, because it signals the first recognition of the respect due to the dignity and liberty of all men no matter how primitive and uncivilized they may be—a principle that had never been proclaimed before in any legislation, let alone practiced in any country.

The proclamation was mostly disregarded, but Altamira rightly pointed out that the appropriate response should be gratitude and surprise rather than condemnation for the limited effect those principles had in practice. Because we now assume that human rights are obvious and universal, we easily forget how much current standards owe to these first Spanish impulses.

Not only did the king and queen approve of Indian liberty, two years earlier in 1501 they had instructed Governor Nicolis de Ovando about the Indians’ religious life as well:

Because we desire that the Indians be converted to our holy Catholic faith and that their souls be saved, for this is the greatest good that we can wish for, and because for this they must be informed of the matters of our faith, you are to take great care in ensuring that the clergy so inform them and admonish them with much love, and without using force, so that they may be converted as rapidly as possible.

Reading these statements now, we cannot help but recognize that, however admirable, they were not enough to stop some horrible atrocities. Some critics dismiss the religious aims as a mere smokescreen to justify imperial interests. Yet the record is clear that Seville took what practical steps it could to enforce its views of proper treatment of natives. Most contemporary critics of Christian evangelization, however, are simply unaware that sentiments such as these existed at all.

In fact, a fair study of the first half of the sixteenth century reveals a steady and growing ethical concern among the Spanish about how to understand and deal with the peoples of the New World, who were so different from the Jews, Moslems, and Asians with whom Europeans were already familiar. Surprisingly humane legislation was regularly passed, if just as regularly ignored. Debates arose over factual and moral questions. Some colonists believed that the Indians were only beasts, incapable of governing themselves; others thought them fully rational and capable of self-governance.

Naturally some self-interest and personal rivalry played a role in these disputes. The first viceroy of New Spain, the shrewd and competent Antonio de Mendoza, sought to circumvent all special interests with a simple practical rule:

Treat the Indians like any other people and do not make special rules and regulations for them. There are few persons in these parts who are not motivated in their opinions of the Indians by some interest, whether temporal or spiritual, or by some passion or ambition, good or bad.

That early wisdom bore the seeds of impartial treatment for all, regardless of origin—a uniquely American tenet necessitated by the rich mixture of various peoples on these shores.

In the decades after Columbus, little by little, Spanish authorities did promote such principles, often with religious prodding and at great risk. The first viceroy of Peru, Blasco Nunez Vela, was killed by his own people when he attempted to implement the New Laws of 1542, which mandated protections for the indigenous population. In the early decades of the sixteenth century, laws had been passed prohibiting the Spanish from even using abusive names for the natives. While all this legislation demonstrates a basic good will, resistance by colonists and the problems of the vast distances involved (including lags in communication lasting months) made governing the New World a difficult task.

But the laws and those charged with enforcing them were not always ineffective. When word of abuses reached the Spanish court, both secular and religious leaders could be punished or recalled. The Emperor Charles V himself ordered one Francisco de Chaves to pay for the construction of an Indian school in recompense for mistreating Indians.

A far more notorious case, however, involved the Bishop of Yucatan, the Franciscan Friar Diego de Landa. Tragically, Landa was perhaps the most gifted linguist to study the Maya in the early decades of European rule. Not only did he master the language, he recorded Mayan customs and history becoming one of the most important anthropological sources for native culture at the time of first contact. Furthermore, his phonetic transcriptions of the words represented by Mayan glyphs—the only true writing in the New World—have been crucial to the recent successes in deciphering them. His missionary work, however, was overzealous. Landa tortured Indians he suspected of heresy and burned hundreds of Mayan books, which were lost forever. In 1564, following the outcry his actions provoked, he was recalled to Spain to stand trial.

Sadly, Landa and other religious leaders too failed at times to heed their own church leaders. Decades earlier, in 1537, Pope Paul III had stated authoritatively in the encyclical Sublimis Deus what was to be argued again and again for the rest of the century:

Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by the Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect…. By virtue of our apostolic authority we declare… that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.

Contrary to usual assumptions that the Church simply forced conversions, the words gentleness and affability are frequently invoked in various parts of the New World to encourage missionaries to adopt the most effective and Christ-like approaches to the natives.

Defender of the Indians

The most significant New World religious figure in the first century after Columbus was Bartolome de Las Casas. Las Casas was only nine years old in 1493 when he saw Columbus make his triumphant return to Seville from his first voyage to the New World. The noble bearing of the admiral impressed Las Casas, and the memory of that event remained with him for the rest of his life. That life was intimately bound up with the history of the Americas, particularly with protecting indigenous peoples, a concern that earned Las Casas the title defensor de los indios (“defender of the Indians”).

Though he had been acquainted with indigenous peoples since his father brought him home a slave (freed by the decree of Isabella in 1500) and had seen their mistreatment both on his early trip and in his capacity as chaplain on the expedition to Cuba, the first time he seems to have thought seriously about the situation was after a Dominican priest re¬fused him absolution because he was holding Indians as an encomendero. Under this system, a parcel of land and group of Indians were “commended” to a Spaniard who in theory was responsible for the material and spiritual welfare of those under his authority. In practice, the system was often little more than slavery. In later years, Las Casas would infuriate Spanish colonists with his Confesionario, a guide for confessors directing them to deny absolution to those who owned and abused native peoples.

The Dominican Order played a crucial role in the development of the new thought required by the new situation in the New World. While many Franciscans and regular priests accepted the necessity for Spanish military and political domination as a prerequisite to missionary activity, the Dominicans generally thought that Catholic theology and philosophy more naturally should support Indian independence where possible. (Generalization about these issues, of course, leaves out notable exceptions and nuances.) Las Casas himself became a Dominican in the 1520s, largely through the influence of Domingo de Betanzos. But mirroring the divisions in Spain over large policy decisions, Las Casas would later violently disagree with his old friend Betanzos—even questioning his motives—over whether Indians were sufficiently rational for self-government.

Las Casas pondered his confessor’s objections, but not until 1514, while he was preparing a sermon, did he come upon a text that brought him up short: “The sacrifice of an offering unjustly acquired is a mockery; the gifts of impious men are unacceptable” (Ecclesiasticus 34:18). He announced from the pulpit the following Sunday that he was giving up his encomienda. From that moment on, he became a tireless advocate of Indian rights.

Las Casas joined Montesinos in lobbying for Indians at the Spanish court. Their work began producing some success. Las Casas not only asked for and got some opportunities to try different approaches in the New World; he also influenced legal and theological debates in the Old. In 1530 he wrote a long lost treatise, De unico vocationis modo (“The Only Way of Summoning”), that argued persuasion was the only biblically correct method of preaching the Gospel. Along with the Bishops Zumdrraga and Julian Garces, he was able to send papers to Rome in 1536 that helped shape Sublimis Deus. His work was also instrumental, along with theological developments at the University of Salamanca, in framing the Spanish New Laws of 1542. But his most important battle by far took place in 1550: a theological dispute at the monastery of San Gregorio in the Spanish city Valladolid.

A Moral Inquiry

Throughout the first half of the sixteenth century, religious figures had argued over the proper conduct of church and state in the New World. To us, human beings are human beings and have rights, and only wicked arrogance accounts for any questioning of their humanness. But until relatively recently, no culture in the world—particularly, none outside the European sphere of influence—widely accepted that understanding and put it into practice. Ironically, the much maligned Spanish began the elaboration of these universal principles through theological reflection on indigenous peoples.

Charles V established a theological commission to hear the arguments at Valladolid and reach a conclusion. He also suspended any further military activity until the ethical questions were settled—a measure without parallel in any expanding empire before or since. During the previous decades, some disputes had grown up within the religious orders themselves about whether natives were rational and could govern themselves. At Valladolid, Juan Gines de Sepulveda, a learned humanist and the most eminent living commentator on Aristotle’s Politics, made the case that Indians were what Aristotle called “slaves by nature.” They could be subjugated by Spaniards—but only for their own good and in the interest of rational government.

Our immediate reaction to this is—quite understandably—revulsion. In the sixteenth century, Sepulveda did not find much intellectual assent either. His The Second Democrates in which he first made these arguments, circulated in manuscript through the universities, where it was condemned almost universally. Then as now, even among those who took Aristotle as a serious moral thinker, there was great uncertainty about what he meant by “slaves by nature”; who, if anybody, belonged in that category; and what were the grounds for deciding.

Yet for all his intellectual arrogance and ignorance of the New World (Sepulveda had never made the crossing), he had hold of a serious point that he argued crudely. When we think of Indians today we think of a weak, essentially benign group of peoples, badly treated for centuries, and this view colors our historical judgment. But the peoples and cultures of the New World before the spread of European influence differed widely from one another and did not always display characteristics that anyone would wish to defend today. Despite the special pleading by defenders of native Americans, cannibalism existed without a doubt among the Aztecs, Guarani, Iroquois, some of the Caribs, and other tribes.

Human sacrifice was practiced by the high cultures and several groups not so developed. Slavery and torture were not unknown from the Southern Cone to the Pacific Northwest. The cultural differences between Europe and the Americas, which would have been difficult enough to surmount without the bloodshed and cruelty on both sides, made mutual understanding difficult. If the Aztec Empire had been left alone and were still intact today, for example, many of us might object that humanity and reason cry out for interventions in that culture. But the same was true of other groups—now weakened by centuries of abuses—toward whom today almost everyone feels basic human sympathy.

Given circumstances like these, we should not be too quick to dismiss every argument in favor of Spaniards taking up the responsibility to govern natives as a sign of mere cynical opportunism. However wrong the anti-self-government position of a Domingo de Betanzos, for example, he had experience of the New World and made a serious attempt to discern truth and responsibility. Betanzos had not only led Las Casas into the Dominican Order, he had supported Las Casas’s early lobbying efforts on behalf of the Indians at the Spanish court. But with time and greater experience of the New World, Betanzos became less convinced of the wisdom of allowing Indians to govern themselves as they had before the Spaniards arrived.

Las Casas is the one figure whom even the most radical critics credit with a truly humane approach to indigenous peoples, but by no means did he stand alone. As noted earlier, several religious and secular authorities also believed Indians warranted the same treatment as other men. But it was Las Casas who lobbied tirelessly for decades and made a massive theological defense of the Indians at Valladolid. Although the judges did not submit a final verdict on the Las Casas-Sepulveda debate, the evidence of Indian rationality and the corresponding duties of the Spanish had been thoroughly and publicly laid out for all fair-minded people to examine. Las Casas cited examples of native government, art, architecture, sailing skill, and various other accomplishments, pointing out that these could not be regarded as the products of mere brutes.

In fact, it is a delicate ethical question whether in his zeal to protect native Americans Las Casas did not go too far. In 1963, around the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, at least one serious historian argued on the basis of modern psychological theory that Las Casas was a clinical paranoiac. Certainly, there was no compromise in him; he decried his opponents as evil, never merely mistaken in their judgments.

His passion was transparent in the way he argued. While Sepulveda briefly summarized his arguments for the theological experts at Valladolid, Las Casas went on obsessively—for days—with a torrent of testimony far beyond the capacity of his listeners to absorb. One of Las Casas’s most extreme positions was that human sacrifice among certain native civilizations should not be taken as evidence of willful evil requiring harsh measures. For him, this ritual practice reflected an ill-informed piety among natives who had no way of knowing better. Unlike Jews, Muslims, and Asians, he argued, natives in the Americas had been isolated from the rest of the world and had never had a chance to be guided by the revelation of the Old or New Testaments. Even Las Casas’s ally, the theologian and legal theorist Francisco de Vitoria (another pivotal figure in the developing ethical reflections on issues raised by the Americas), disagreed with him on this point. Vitoria would conclude that natural law demanded the protection of innocents.

Some critics have accused Las Casas of a certain coldness of feeling (frialdad sensitiva) in pursuing the defense of native Americans so unswervingly. But others have seen in his approach a truly remarkable early attempt to understand native religion from the inside. The Mexican historian Teresa Silva Tena has suggested that Las Casas produced perhaps the most interesting sentence written by a Spaniard in the sixteenth century when he claimed that the human sacrifices “even if cruel, were meticulous, delicate, and exquisite,” and that they testified to fervent religious observances among the peoples who practiced them.

The debate at Valladolid did not give the Spanish government the clear theological and moral conclusions it desired. In a sense, however, this did not really much matter. Las Casas’s testimony bore fruit. His central views, shared by many Dominicans in the New World and in Spain, slowly reshaped Spanish activity. The worst abuses of native peoples became less severe and more infrequent in the closing decades of the century.

New World Achievements

Meanwhile, in the Americas, the missionaries had been neither idle nor simply “legitimizing” conquest. Schools existed where Indians learned Latin and writing, while Spaniards learned native languages and wrote down Indian history and cultural lore. Had the best missionary schools been allowed to go their own way, an even better cultural mix, benefiting both the Old World and the New, would have had a fair chance of emerging. Some early fruits of such integration were the Nahuatl-Latin herbal of Juan Badiano and Martin de la Cruz and the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagdn’s rich compilations of native culture. In fact, in later debates, native achievements in these schools and the accumulated cultural record were used as evidence of the Indians’ rationality and, therefore, humanity. One product of missionary schooling, the learned native Antonio Valeriano, later became gobernador of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City).

In some complex ways, a religious melding of cultures occurred also. The cult of the Virgen de Guadelupe spread quickly after 1531 when, according to tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian named Juan Diego on a hill north of the current Mexico City. That apparition became a religious and ethnic rallying point for the mestizo people of the New World that persists until today. For the Indians, the Virgin came to be a replacement of one of their goddesses. Mary’s image on Juan Diego’s cloak shows a woman with delicate Indian features standing above symbols associated with the pagan past. In Mexico and much of the rest of Latin America, this appearance radically changed secular and religious history. Christianity was no longer simply arriving from without; it had become a creative energy arising from within native culture.

Unfortunately, the potential revolution in relations this religious development offered was partly lost because of the European monopoly on clerical leadership. The historian Robert Ricard has argued that “if the colegio at Tlatelolco [a seminary for native-born students in Mexico] had trained only one bishop for the country, the whole history of the Mexican church would have been far different.”

The Origins of International Law

Defenders of the Indians had to achieve two objectives in the years leading up to Valladolid. First, they had to prove that the Indians were rational and deserving of respect. Second, and no less important, they had to make sure that the law respected their dignity as rational beings. The Dominican friar and theologian Francisco de Vitoria performed the second task and is now generally recognized, along with Suarez and Grotius, as one of the founders of modern international law.

Revulsion at Pizarro’s conduct in the conquest of Peru first stimulated Vitoria’s thinking about Spanish conquests in the New World, but he was soon carried by the very force of his thought to examine a whole gamut of issues relating to the widely differing and previously unknown peoples. Though Vitoria’s contributions in this field are enormous, few know the extent and nature of the principles he elaborated. In The Conquest of Paradise, for example, Kirkpatrick Sale—perhaps the premier American revisionist of 1492—quotes Vitoria only once: “the imperfect creature falls to the use of the perfect.” Sale means to suggest that Vitoria sanctioned imperialism and ecological exploitation. As anyone familiar with scholastic philosophy will recognize immediately, this conventional formula drawn from Aristotle is hardly a justification for brutal imperialist politics. In fact, Vitoria’s work led in a far different direction.

Basing his arguments on the best legal and moral authorities in the scholastic tradition, particularly Aquinas, Vitoria proceeded to develop principles of international law that became crucial to the universal recognition of the rights of all human beings. In the very heat of conquest and colonization, Vitoria contended that the Europeans had no right at all to take land already under cultivation and inhabited by natives. Vitoria was a distinguished theologian and a Dominican priest, but even a man with his reputation could not have been entirely safe from potential reprisals. His stand took courage, and the Spanish crown, to its credit, often asked him to sit on deliberative councils about the Indies.

Vitoria’s formulations in various writings give a portrait of how uninformed and misleading views like Sale’s can be. Every Indian is a man and thus capable of attaining salvation or damnation, Vitoria argued. He maintained that the Indians may not be deprived of their goods or power on account of their social backwardness, nor on account of their cultural inferiority or political disorganization. Vitoria believed that every man has the right to truth, to education, and to all that forms part of his cultural and spiritual development and advancement. Also, Vitoria held that by natural law, every man has the right to his own life and to physical and mental integrity. And further, he believed that Indians have the right not to be baptized and not to be forced to convert to Christianity against their will.

Believing that native peoples had full human rights, Vitoria did allow, however, that Europeans could occupy land not already claimed by Indians, provided they did no harm to nearby natives. This restriction may seem of little significance in light of what happened to native territories, but it is worth keeping in mind that the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), proclaimed by no lesser a figure than the pope, had crudely divided the new lands between the Spanish and Portuguese without concern for who might already inhabit them. Vitoria sought, not only to restrain the crown and the colonists, but to alter a decision by the highest religious authority in the Christian world on the basis of Christian principles. In fact, he went further; Vitoria argued that the pope should not even have made such a treaty because, just as the emperor had no absolute right to rule everywhere, the pope had no universal temporal jurisdiction.

Some further principles of Vitoria’s are worth quoting:

—The Indian rulers, whether natural or elected, enjoy the same fundamental rights as a Christian or European prince.

—According to natural law, a non-Christian king does not lose his dominion or jurisdiction due to his infidelity or idolatrous practices, and even Christian subjects are obligated to obey him.

—The Indian peoples may defend themselves with arms and may rebel against foreigners who unjustly seize their territories or who govern the republic to their own advantage or to the advantage of their own people.

—The Spaniards may justly defend themselves against belligerent Indians so long as they stay within the limits of legitimate defense; but they may not use victory as an excuse for seizing the Indians’ towns or for enslaving their inhabitants; a properly defensive war does not justify conquest when the Indians believe, on account of ignorance, that they are justly defending their property.

—However, recourse to war and to said security measures may never serve as a pretext for slaughtering, or sacking or occupying the towns of the Indians, who are by nature fearful and humble, and who have more than sufficient reason for distrusting the Spanish conquistadors, whose ways are strange to them and who are armed and more powerful than themselves.

Anyone familiar with just war theory will recognize that Vitoria is here applying its principles of self-defense, just cause, discrimination, proportionality, and last resort to Spaniards and Indians equally. His awareness of the many difficult and delicate questions that had to be faced—to say nothing of the self-serving interpretations of principles to which the Spaniards were prone—makes this strong attempt at equality all the more striking. Writing in the 1530s with several decades of New World history available to him, Vitoria admitted few reasons, and those mostly in theory, for Spaniards taking over the governorship of natives. Prominent among those reasons were the protection of innocents from human sacrifice and cannibalism, and native blocking of peaceful evangelization.

Alarm bells go off for many modern scholars who read such exceptions, but they went off for Vitoria, too. He argues in many passages that these exceptions are probably only theoretically possible, not likely in actual fact. Furthermore, he warns that unscrupulous men are likely to use these good principles for evil ends and that the monarch should be very careful, therefore, before authorizing any military action.

In balancing universal human concerns with specific political questions, Vitoria puts himself in a long line of distinguished scholastic thinkers. He recommends the classic virtue of prudence: “For the common good and in order to achieve greater harmony and peace among people, the ruler may licitly tolerate laws and customs that go against natural law.” While Spain has an obligation to reform inhuman practices gradually, “Spain’s right to remain in the Indies with the intention of overseeing and governing the natives is acceptable only because of the need for change there and only on the condition that their reform and protection be carried out to the benefit and development of indigenous peoples.”

Perhaps the most important strain in Vitoria’s thinking was his insistence that difference of religion alone could not justify resort to war. (In rare cases, blocking peaceful evangelization might justify war, since it violated natural liberties.) Not only does Vitoria place the weight of his own reputation behind this principle, he cites Thomas Aquinas and other doctors of the Church and adds, “I know of no one of the opposite way of thinking.”

Vitoria is far closer to being a modern advocate of what is good in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights than he is to being Kirkpatrick Sale’s fictitious theorist of cultural and environmental domination. Even more important for the history of the Americas is that Vitoria and his school at the ancient and prestigious University of Salamanca sent disciples through the New World. As Doctor Johnson, a Tory critic of European arrogance and imperialism, was to say centuries later, “I love the University of Salamanca, for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their conquering America, the University of Salamanca gave it as their opinion that it was unjust.”

The Enduring Civilization

When all is said and done, Vitoria, Las Casas, the Dominicans, and other Christian groups did not have the full effect they might have had on behavior and evangelization in the New World. In part, this failure reflected the usual conundrum of human history—vices gaining the upper hand and ethical principles lagging far behind. In part, too, it reflected the sheer difficulty Spain, France, and England had in understanding and governing the New World over such vast and watery distances. Hasty and overzealous religious did not help the situation, moreover, with their superficial baptisms and insensitive impositions. And a moral lacuna existed in many of the best thinkers: black Africans were not included in the sophisticated inquiries into right conduct.

But the contact with native peoples planted a seed among religious thinkers, which was later to bear fruit in European culture as a whole. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has argued:

Father las Casas was the most active, although not the only one, of those nonconformists who rebelled against the abuses inflicted upon the Indians. They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of the moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. This self-determination could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultures. In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part, because he existed only as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality. The first culture to interrogate and question itself, the first to break up the masses into individual beings who with time gradually gained the right to think and act for themselves, was to become, thanks to that unknown exercise, freedom, the most powerful civilization in our world.

That civilization owes no little debt of gratitude to the first Christian missionaries in the Americas.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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