Spanish Intellectual Thought

For the most part people have viewed the Spanish conquest as having been a blatant attempt to exploit both the inhabitants and the materials of the New World. However, most people are unaware the Spanish had a great deal of concern over the legitimacy of the conquest of the Americas and about the rights of the Indians living there. This concern about the legitimacy of the conquest became a dominant theme for Spanish intellectual life in the sixteenth century. In fact, the Spanish, and only the Spanish, reflected at length on the morality or legality of what they were doing as they encountered the New World and its inhabitants. From the very beginning of contact with the New World, Spanish officials, guided by a long intellectual tradition, acted to prevent the exploitation of the peoples of the New World. For example, Columbus's attempt to create a trade in slaves drawn from the ranks of the Indians in the Caribbean caused Queen Isabella to forbid such trade as early as 1500. In addition, these issues were often debated as in the famous rights of Indians debate in 1550 between Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda before representatives of the Emperor Charles V.This concern about the legitimacy of the conquest continued for centuries.

The Spanish Crown governed its wide and diverse kingdoms through a hierarchy of councils. Most of these bodies were composed predominantly of lawyers, of men trained in the academic study of the Roman law. The law schools of the universities were the training ground of the Crown's advisors. These universities had an absorbing interest in jurisprudence; a field in which Spain led the rest of Europe. Spanish legal bodies shared a common horror of absolutism in the monarch. Books insisting on the legal rights of free peoples, and even in extreme cases advocating tyrannicide, continued to circulate freely, were read without scandal, and exercised a profound influence not only upon thought but upon administration.

In such an atmosphere the discovery and conquest of a new world naturally gave rise to juridical problems. Lawyers, theologians, and policy-makers alike sought clearer definition of the rights and wrongs, the purposes and the limits of imperial responsibility. Officially, the Spanish Crown based its right to rule the Indies upon prior discovery and just conquest, reinforced by the bulls of 1493, in particular by Inter caetera, which granted to Spain "islands and mainlands...towards the West and the South...with all their rights, jurisdictions and appurtenances," excepting lands already held by Christian princes. None of the lands subsequently colonized by Spaniards had Christian rulers. Though the inhabitants obeyed recognized chiefs, the Crown lawyers argued that the titles of the natives were probably usurped; that their rule was tyrannical and therefore indefensible; and that in any event the papal grant had an overriding force. This highly contentious argument of universal papal dominion was well known, but was certainly not universally accepted.

Canonist Henry of Susa, known as Ostiensis, argued that infidels might retain their lands and possessions only by the favor of the Church. If they refused to recognize papal authority the Pope might direct the steps necessary for bringing them into obedience, even to the extent of appointing Christian rulers over them. The great discoveries, however, demonstrated more powerfully than any theory the error of regarding 'the world' and 'Christendom' as more or less conterminous. It was clearly absurd to call on Americans to acknowledge the authority of a pontiff of whom they had never heard.

The Crown viewed the bulls of 1493 as a clear instruction to undertake the conversion of the American Indians to Christianity. The discussion of these matters was long confined to Catholics and no Catholic could deny the right of the Pope to give such an instruction, or the duty of the Spanish monarch to carry it out. To what extent, however, were they authorized to use secular means to this spiritual end? Could the duty of conversion be held to justify armed conquest, the deposition of native rulers--if indeed the Indians had legitimate rulers--the assertion of Spanish sovereignty over the Indians in general? If this central question could be answered affirmatively it gave rise in turn to subsidiary questions. If the Indians should be reduced, by a just conquest, to the position of subjects of the Spanish crown, what legal and political rights remained to them? Should they be converted by compulsion? Were they to be subject to Spanish court and Spanish law, civil or ecclesiastical? Might they be commended to individual Spanish feudatories, deprived of their land, put to forced labor, enslaved? These questions exercised some of the best intellectual minds of the time.

The result of this Spanish interest in the legitimacy of the conquest of the Americas lead to an extraordinary out pouring of books on political and legal thought that dealt with various aspects of the conquest. These books represent long neglected sixteenth-century thought that contemporary authors have begun to study.


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