Valladolid debate

gigatos | January 30, 2022


Junta de Valladolid is the usual name of the famous debate that took place from August 15, 1550 to May 4, 1551 in the Colegio de San Gregorio de Valladolid, within the so-called controversy of the natives (American Indians or Indians), and that confronted two antagonistic ways of conceiving the conquest of America, romantically interpreted as that of the defenders and that of the enemies of the Indians: the first, represented by Bartolomé de las Casas, today considered a pioneer in the struggle for human rights; and the second, by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who defended the right and convenience of Spanish domination over the Indians, whom he also conceived as inferior (due to their condition). There was no final resolution, although it was the beginning of a change that resulted in more rights for the Indians.

This Junta should not be confused with the Valladolid Conference of 1527 on Erasmism.

The Junta of Valladolid was also part of the most extensive controversy over the just titles of the dominion of the Crown of Castile over America, which dates back to the end of the 15th century, with the Bulas Alejandrinas and the Treaty of Tordesillas agreed with the Kingdom of Portugal, and the misgivings with which both documents were received in other European courts. It is said that King Francis I of France rhetorically asked to be shown the clause of Adam”s will on which such documents were based and which gave the right to divide the world between Castilians and Portuguese.

The necessary consideration of the studies and public reflection carried out by this Board was exceptional compared to any other historical process of empire building and was in tune with the concern and the great importance that, from the very beginning of the discovery of America, the Catholic Monarchy always felt to keep the natives under a paternalistic control and that produced and continued to produce the great legislative corpus of the Laws of the Indies.

The precedent in the generation prior to the Junta de Valladolid was the Junta de Burgos of 1512, which had legally established the right to make war on the Indians who resisted evangelization (to guarantee this the reading of a famous Requerimiento was established), seeking a balance between the social predominance of the Spanish colonizers and the protection of the Indians, which was to be achieved with the encomienda. The result of all this was the Laws of Burgos of 1512. In the 16th century, around 1550, an intense polemic (1) arose in Valladolid, Spain, on the following topics: the natural rights of the inhabitants of the New World, the just causes for making war on the Indians and the legitimacy of the conquest. This polemic was part of a long controversy between those who, on the one hand, were in favor of the absolute freedom of the Indians and a peaceful entry into the new lands and those who, on the other hand, supported the maintenance of slavery and despotic rule and favored the use of force against the Indians of the New World. If analyzed from an anthropological-philosophical perspective, it is clear that what was in question was the human dignity of the inhabitants of the New World. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (2) and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (3) are the representatives of the two positions that disputed the humanity of the Indian.

In the Junta de Valladolid the discussion was based on theological foundations, considered superior in that context to those of any other knowledge (philosophia est ancilla teologiae).

He did not discuss whether the natives of America were human beings with souls or savages susceptible to be domesticated like animals. Such a thing would have been considered heretical and was already resolved by the bull Sublimis Deus, of Paul III (1537). This bull was a forceful response of the papacy to opinions that questioned the humanity of the natives. The bull, incited by two Spanish Dominicans, did not pretend to define the rationality of the natives but, assuming such rationality insofar as the Indians are men, it declared their right to freedom and property and the right to embrace Christianity, which should be preached to them peacefully.

The stated purpose of the discussion at the Junta de Valladolid was to provide a theological and legal basis for deciding how the discoveries, conquests and population of the Indies should proceed.

In the Junta of Valladolid in 1550, the main dialectical contenders were Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. The papal representative, Cardinal Salvatore Roncieri, presided over the discussion.

Participants included Domingo de Soto, Bartolomé de Carranza and Melchor Cano (who had to be replaced by Pedro de la Gasca for the second part of the debate, as he left for the Council of Trent).

It is no coincidence that all of them were Dominicans: the Order of Preachers controlled the Spanish universities through the chairs and colleges.

Several in that Board (Soto and Cano) were disciples of Francisco de Vitoria, who died four years earlier, in 1546. Vitoria headed the school of Salamanca (because it was developed at the University of Salamanca).

Carranza taught in Valladolid itself and Sepúlveda, who had studied in Alcalá de Henares and Bologna and had stood out for his anti-erasmism, was not a university professor, but a tutor to Prince Philip himself. It was his opposition to the New Laws of the Indies of 1542 (whose revocation had been obtained by the encomenderos in the various viceroyalties) that had provoked the return to Spain of Bartolomé de las Casas, who was Bishop of Chiapas. An intellectual polemic began between the two: Sepulveda published his De justis belli causis apud indios and Las Casas replied with his Thirty Very Juridical Propositions. The Junta had to resolve the conflict.

Sepulveda contributed a work entitled Democrates alter, in which he argued that the Indians, considered as inferior beings, should be subjected to the Spaniards and completed it with more written arguments in the same sense. The Apologetics of Las Casas was the key text in the discussions. The work took place between August and September 1550. The Junta was inconclusive and therefore reconvened the following year. There was no final resolution to the dispute. The two exponents considered themselves the winners.

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was in favor of just war against the Indians, whom he believed to be human beings, and that it was caused by their sins and idolatry. If he had not believed them to be human beings, they would not be able to sin and the Spaniards could hardly have the duty of evangelization. He also defended their inferiority, which obliged the Spaniards to protect them.

Bartolomé de las Casas was responsible for the effort to demonstrate that the Americans were human beings equal to the Europeans. Domingo de Soto”s contribution to this position was fundamental.

In the same sense as the latter, the intellectual spirit that animated the debate, although not present, was that of Francisco de Vitoria, who had questioned whether, from the beginning, the American conquest was licit. Those attending the Junta were able to keep him in mind in their reflections on the nature of the Indians.

Thesis of Ginés de Sepúlveda

Sepúlveda in Democrates secundus or of the just causes of the war against the Indians followed Aristotelian and humanist arguments that he obtained from Palacios Rubios and Poliziano. He proposed four “just titles” to justify the conquest:

The set of arguments he used is complex. He developed them in several other works and they can be grouped into arguments of reason and natural law and theological arguments.

The approaches that Sepulveda used to argue that the Spanish conquest was justified, he wrote in his publications Democrates Alter or Dialogue of the just causes of war; the pro-book apology of Justis Belli Causis or Defense of the just causes of war; his defense before the board of Valladolid and two letters to Melchor Cano, where he affirmed his misrepresented doctrine. From these writings emerged their respective arguments, which Sepúlveda explained, on the one hand those that attacked reason and natural law, such as the supposed barbarism of the Indians and the right to civilize them, through submission, mentioned as “natural servitude”, their continuous sins against natural law that gave the right to correct them and avoid their barbarities, and finally the defense of the victims created by the Indians as a product of their barbarities; and on the other hand, the theological arguments, which was the pontifical authorization to combat the sins against the supposed natural law and to eliminate the barriers that the Indians put up to the preaching of the gospel.

…I say that the barbarians are understood as those who do not live according to natural reason and have bad habits publicly among them approved…. Now it comes to them by lack of religion, where men are raised brutal, or by bad habits and lack of good doctrine and punishment…..

With this he asserted that the purpose of the conquest was the civilization and good of the barbarians, since with just laws and in accordance with natural law, he made the life of the Indians an insertion to a better and gentler life, adding that if he refused the empire he could be forced by arms, and that war would be just by virtue of natural law.

Within the same theme regarding natural servitude, Sepúlveda based his argument on the sacred scriptures and said

…For it is written in the book of proverbs “He that is foolish shall serve the wise” such are the barbarous and inhuman people, alien to civil life and peaceful customs, and it will always be just and in accordance with natural law that such people submit to the rule of princes and more cultured and humane nations, so that thanks to their virtues and the prudence of their laws, they may put down barbarism and be reduced to a more humane life and the cult of virtue.

Sepulveda described aspects of the Indians, which he described as barbaric actions, such as the fact that they did not possess science and were illiterate, that they did not have written laws, that they were cannibals, cowards and lacked private property, among others. Without leaving aside that these were only moral connotations, the Indian could be civilized since the condition of barbarian was, in Sepulveda”s thinking, an accidental state that could be overcome and not a distinct human nature and therefore the position of servitude of the Indian was not in itself a state of slavery but a political subjugation from which they could evolve intellectually and morally if they were governed by a civilized nation. Likewise, barbarism, understood as a state of cultural and moral backwardness that resulted in customs condemned “by nature” and in a supposed ineptitude to govern themselves humanely, authorized any civilized people in a position to follow the barbarians in conformity with the “natural law”, to take them out of their inhuman state to subject them to their political domination. This conclusion that man depended on his own reason, which allowed him to be self-directed and self-determining, but if man lacked the use of reason he was not his own master and should serve whoever was capable of ruling him and therefore if the purpose of war was the civilization of the barbarians, it was then a supposed good for them.Sepulveda justified political domination but rejected civil domination, that is, slavery and the deprivation of their property. He maintained

I do not say that these barbarians should be stripped of their possessions and goods, nor that they should be reduced to servitude, but that they should be subjected to the rule of the Christians…..

It is important to emphasize that Sepúlveda defended political subjection, but not slavery, since common belief confuses the two, and makes him a supporter of slavery.

Regarding the “sins against the natural law,” Sepulveda, based on the fact that the Indians offered human sacrifices in great numbers to their false gods, and other similar acts, said:

…and it must be understood that these nations of the Indians break the natural law, not because these sins are committed in them, simply, but because in them such sins are officially approved …. and did not punish them in their laws or in their customs, or did not impose very light penalties for the most serious sins and especially for those that nature detests most, it would be said with all justice and propriety that this nation does not observe the natural law, and Christians could with full right, if they refused to submit to their empire, destroy them for their nefarious crimes and barbarism and inhumanity…..

Sepulveda tried to protect the victims of human barbarism by pointing out:

All men are commanded by divine and natural law to defend the innocent from being cruelly killed with an unworthy death if they can do so without great discomfort to themselves.

and placed the Christians as upright men and safeguarders of the victims.

While it is properly applied to those things which pertain to the salvation of the soul, and to spiritual goods, nevertheless, it is not excluded from temporal things insofar as they are ordered to spiritual ones

Therefore, the pope could compel nations to uphold the natural law.

Sepúlveda also indicated that no one could be forced to embrace the Catholic faith.

The reason for which is because that violence would be useless, because no one, repulsing his will, which is not possible to coerce, can be made a believer. So that the teaching and persecutions must be used

But in spite of this, Christians could induce the barbarians to become civilized by rational means, since it was their obligation. If the first attempt did not succeed, Sepúlveda mentioned that

If the matter of religion cannot be otherwise provided for, it is lawful for the Spaniards to occupy their lands and provinces, and to establish new lords and remove the old ones.

Response from the Casas

Las Casas, who does not lag behind him in Aristotelianism, demonstrated the rationality of the Indians through their civilization: the architecture of the Aztecs refuted the comparison with bees that Sepulveda had made. He found no greater cruelty in the customs of the American Indians than could be found in the civilizations of the Old World or in the past of Spain:

“There is less reason for us to marvel at the defects and uneducated and unmoderated customs that we find in these Indians and, because of them, to despise them, since not only many and even all the republics were much more perverse, irrational, and in prabidad more ravaged, and in many virtues and moral goods much less morigrated and ordered. But we ourselves, in our predecessors, were much worse, as well in irrationality and confused police as in vices and brutal customs throughout the whole roundness of our Spain”.

Against the “just titles” defended by Sepúlveda, Las Casas used the arguments of the late Francisco de Vitoria, who had set out a list of “unjust titles” and other “just titles”:

In his unjust titles, Vitoria was the first who dared to deny that the bulls of Alexander VI, known collectively as the Bulls of Alexandria or Bulls of Papal Donation, were a valid title of dominion over the discovered lands. Nor were the universal primacy of the emperor, the authority of the pope (who lacked temporal power) or a compulsory subjugation or conversion of the Indians acceptable. They could not be considered sinners or unintelligent, but were free by nature and legitimate owners of their properties. When the Spaniards arrived in America, they had no legitimate title to occupy lands that were already owned.

The Valladolid debate served to update the Laws of the Indies and create the figure of the “protector of Indians”.

The conquests were slowed down and regulated in such a way that, in theory, only the religious were allowed to advance into virgin territories. Once they had agreed with the indigenous population on the basis of the settlement, the military forces would enter later, followed by the civilians. The ordinances of Philip II (1573) went so far as to prohibit new “conquests”. It has been pointed out how historically unusual such scruples are in the conception of an Empire.

Don Phelipe, etc. To the presiding viceroys, auditors and governors of our Indies of the ocean sea and to all other persons to whom the undersigned touches and concerns and may touch and concern them in any way, you may say that so that the discoveries, new settlements and pacifications of the lands and provinces that in the Indies are to be discovered, populated and pacified may be made with more ease and as it is in the best pacificaçiones of the lands and provinces that in the Indies are to be discovered, populated and pacified with more ease and as it is in the best interest of God and our own and the good of the natives among other things we have ordered the following ordinances (. …) The discoverers by sea or land should not engage in war or conquest in any way or help one Indian against another, nor fight in quarrels or disputes with those of the land for any cause or reason whatsoever, nor do them any harm or evil, nor take anything of theirs against their will, except for ransom or by giving it to them of their own free will….

From this dispute arose the modern law of nations (ius gentium).

If we turn to Spanish America, in the field of the history of ideas we find relevant differences with what we have said so far. In fact, missionary activity with millenarian accents is intense at the end of the early times. In addition, throughout the sixteenth century and the first decades of the seventeenth century, there was an intense political debate about the new land, about the Indians, and about the reasons that could justify the Spanish conquest. It is a debate in which participated the best Spanish intelligences of the time, theologians, jurists, politicians. Nothing similar can be found elsewhere. Also for circumstantial reasons: neither the French nor the English nor the Portuguese found themselves with developed political organisms organized in States, like the Aztec and Inca kingdoms that the Spaniards found. In Spain, thanks also to the decision taken from papal positions, the problem of the nature of the Indian is quickly overcome. Paul III with the famous bull Sublimis Deus of 1537, declares the natives men with all the effects and capacities of Christians. It is true that this does not seem sufficient because it remained in force the requirement and the bull Inter caetera promulgated by Alexander VI in 1493, on which Juan Lopez de Palacios Rubios and Matias de Paz of 1512 founded juridically the occupation of America. What is to be noted here is that always in the thirty years of 1500 two Dominican theologians of the famous University of Salamanca, Francisco de Vitoria and Domingo de Soto, faced the problem of the American indigenous principalities. Placed on the road that leads to the most modern theory of the state, they built a road parallel to that of Machiavelli and Jean Bodin, both of them, but especially the first one with the force of novelty and great polemic vigor, which was of the ecclesiastics (by this own force) slowly ran the discussion from the religious to the political and declared the political legitimacy of the regions and of the American indigenous sovereigns. They were neither pagans nor sinners to take from them the Indian sovereignty and the legitimacy of their rulers, since society and power are founded on nature and not on grace, as Saint Thomas Aquinas said (both are Dominicans and Victoria introduces as textbook the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas in Salamanca). The legitimacy of power does not depend therefore on the fact that the ruler is or is not a Christian, as some heretics had first maintained, for whom it was then a legitimate pagan power and the affirmation of our two Spaniards, if they have never known it, could only be in the papist demoniac aberrations. But there is more. To demonstrate the rationality of the American Indians, Francisco Vitoria resorts to the political. He demonstrates that they were reasonable and that they could have a political life, basing himself on abundant news that arrived from America to his convent of San Esteban, he affirms that there was social and political life and therefore they are rational. In this way he goes beyond what Paul III affirmed in his bull of 1537, when rationality was the recognition of the human nature of the Indians. For Victoria the existence of an associated life, with laws, trade, institutions, government, is what counts. On the one hand, therefore, Vitoria and Soto recognize the legitimacy of the American princes; on the other hand, they deny the existence of universal powers: neither the Pope nor the Emperor are the lords of the world. There is then no political value whatsoever in the bull Inter coetera with which in 1493 Pope Alexander VI had divided the world into southern for the Spanish and Portuguese. Vitoria and Soto must then ask themselves what is or can be the legitimate reason that allows Spain to be in America. Vitoria will give a long list of reasons, many illegitimate and premeditated, others legitimate, so that the Spanish presence in America is safe, but what is of interest here is the recognition of the American policy and the American states. The reasons he adduces to justify the legitimacy of the Spanish presence in America are reasons that also exist in Europe, for example between the French and the Spanish. It is not by chance, in fact, that Charles V remains puzzled by the two relectiones de Indis that Vitoria writes to the priest of the convent of San Esteban, where Vitoria lived, to prohibit further debates on his argument. Without buts (it is significant) he draws his favor to Vitoria that years later he wanted to send to Trent as imperial theologian. This was for years and decades the prevailing line. In the Hispanic world there was no lack of radical deniers of the humanity of the Indian or of his possibility of civilization; much less lacking were those who exploited the Indians in their own interest. But the debate plan of those ideas that declared the Hispanic right to the submission of the Indians because of their infe

In practice, the two positions that confronted each other at the Junta justified Castilian dominance, albeit with very different actions.

Both motivations, as well as the intellectual atmosphere generated by the Junta de Valladolid and the controversy, inspired new Laws of the Indies to be added to the previous ones. The sincere concern of Bartolomé de las Casas for the fate of the Indians that he so crudely described in his work Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias led him to a remarkable proposal that allowed us to understand his conception of the Indian: It seemed to him admissible a good idea that saved many places in America from depopulation, especially the West Indies islands, the importation of black slaves, naturally more inclined to work than the weak Indians. A good Aristotelian argument, no doubt, but a weak defense of modern human rights, of which more a few years later, in 1559 or 1560, he was disavowed:

In the past, before there were sugar mills, it was our opinion on this island that if a black man was not hanged, he never died, because we had never seen a black man die of his illness… but after they were put into the sugar mills, because of the great work they suffered and the concoctions they made and drank from the honey of the canes, they died and became pestilent, and so many of them die every day.

Hispanist John Elliott states that despite the possible limitations of the measures, they contrast with those of other empires for the effort made to guarantee the rights of the indigenous population:

The ordinances came late and the new-fangled “pacification” often turned out to be not much more than a euphemism for the old “conquest”. All in all, both the convening of the Valladolid discussion and the legislation that followed are a testament to the crown”s commitment to ensuring “justice” for its populations of indigenous subjects, an endeavor for which it is not easy to find parallels for constancy and vigor in the history of other colonial empires.

There is a French telefilm that recreates this episode with the title La Controverse de Valladolid from 1992, directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with a script by Jean-Claude Carrière, and starring Jean-Louis Trintignant (Sepulveda), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Las Casas) and Jean Carmet (Legado del papa).


  1. Junta de Valladolid
  2. Valladolid debate
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