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Sepulveda vs. Las Casas:
A Battle Over Race in the Spanish Empire

Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City

1,253 words

The Spanish Empire stands as one of the great landmarks of white civilization. Thousands of men set forth from Iberia to find and conquer a new world, facing all manner of hardships and misery. Unfortunately, the lands the conquistadors settled are, for the most part, racial hellholes. The natives may have lost the battles, but most Latin Americans look more like them than the Spanish.

Miscegenation was encouraged by the empire, unlike in Anglo-America. But our understanding of race was present in the sixteenth century and, much like today, it was despised by men of the cloth. Though many of the conquistadors made bastards with the Indians, they still saw them as a different people — and the criollos didn’t want them as full members of their society. The clergy strongly opposed that view. The priests saw the Indians as no different from Europeans and urged their full incorporation into colonial society. This impasse inspired the most famous dispute in Imperial Spain’s long history: the Valladolid debate. It pitted the Dominican theologian Bartolome de Las Casas against the philosopher Juan Gines de Sepulveda. Las Casas argued for the clergy, Sepulveda for the colonial hidalgos. The Valladolid controversy was another battle in the eternal battle between the warrior caste and the priestly caste. There’s a good reason Right-wing writers such as Julius Evola and others don’t admire the latter.

Indians served as the impetus of the debate. For many years, the clergy and New World settlers argued over the status of Indians. The settlers saw them as inherently different from themselves and unworthy of the Christian faith. The historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, speaking for the hidalgos, found the Indians lacked the intellect and manners of Europeans. Oviedo, who lived in the colonies, noted the natives were implacably hostile to the Spanish and teaching them European ways would only encourage rebellion. The many Indian ambushes and revolts in the colonies testified to the settlers’ hesitation. The criollos complained incessantly to the Crown about the teachings of Mayan-friendly priests and how it would lead to blood. Devout Catholicism was a common trait among the conquistadors and they were just as committed to the conversion of the Indians. Yet, life among the natives convinced the settlers the locals could never be Europeans.

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The clergy did not see them as a different people. Through their eyes, the natives were no different from the Europeans. Many clerics, including Las Casas, would argue the Indians were in some ways superior to the Spaniards. Like modern liberals, they would gawk at the exoticism of hostile outsiders and see a nobler people. Many priests took the Indians’ side against the settlers, even in times of violence, and were a constant thorn in criollo social order. The clergy, against the wishes of Spaniards, ordained native priests. The Spaniards were repulsed by the idea of taking communion from Mexica and Mayans; the clergy were enthralled by it. The priests also changed Christian practices and rituals to accommodate native traditions and culture. The only time the clergy could be moved to fury against the Indians was if they suspected they backslid into paganism. The British historian Hugh Thomas records in World Without End how the Franciscans initiated a brutal wave of torture and executions against Yucatan Mayans over the suspicion they still worshipped idols. The settlers protested against this for needlessly disrupting life in the colony. The natives only deserved respect if they fully committed to the new faith.

The central question of the Valladolid debate was whether it was just to wage war against the Indians. Sepulveda answered in the affirmative, for four reasons. One, the Indians’ many grave sins with their past worship warranted conquest; two, their nature made them inferior to the Spanish; three, conquest was needed to spread the faith; four, conquest protected the weak natives from cannibalism and sacrifice.

Sepulveda’s argument assumed the Indians were a different race from the Spaniards. He praised his countrymen for their “prudence, genius, magnanimity, temperance, humanity, and religions.” Natives, according to Sepulveda, lacked all these traits. They possessed no science, no letters, written laws, or even private property. All they had were barbaric institutions and practices.

“In prudence, virtue, and humanity, the Indians are as inferior to the Spaniards as children are to adults, women to men, as the wild and cruel to the most meek, as the prodigiously intemperate to the continent and temperate, and, as I nearly said, as monkeys to men,” he argued.

Sepulveda also refuted claims that the Indians lived in peace and harmony before the evil Europeans came, an argument even more popular in our age. “They were making war continuously and ferociously against each other with such rage that they considered their victory worthless if they did not satisfy their monstrous hunger with the flesh of their enemies,” he added. He also dismissed native achievements, saying that both birds and spiders “make things which no human industry can imitate completely.”

The philosopher recognized the fundamental differences between people and argued for a particularist conception of the world. He represented the Right in the debate.

Las Casas represented the Left. The Dominican friar argued that the natives, like all humans on Earth, were the same as Europeans. “All the peoples of the world are men. . . all have understanding and will, all have five exterior senses, and four interior ones. All take satisfaction in goodness and feel pleasure with happy and delicious things, all regret and abhor evil,” he said. This view predominates in our day and age. We’re constantly harangued that all people are the same and there are no inherent differences within us. Neocons made much use of this to argue for the Iraq war, claiming all Arabs are capable of being good Americans. Las Casas argued the natives could easily be good, Christian Spaniards.

Las Cases exalted the Indians’ intelligence and goodness. He argued the violent savages were actually “meek and moderate.” He even claimed they were “governed by laws which at very many points surpass ours.” It’s easy to discern the similarities to how modern liberals defend black criminals as “gentle giants” and gush over the alleged superiority of non-whites.

The most befuddling argument for a devout Christian was Las Casas apologizing for the Aztecs’ human sacrifice on a mass scale. To the priest, this just showed how serious they were in their religious devotion.

There was no solid ruling in the debate, but the settlers were allowed to carry on as they were before. Officials recognized that the airy worldview of Las Casas would lead to more chaos and disorder. Native revolts continue as a problem today, and racial cleavages define Latin American society. The society Las Casas envisaged never emerged — the natives were too different from the settlers.

The Valladolid debate anticipates our contemporary racial discourse. Unfortunately, they no longer allow Sepulvedas in the presence of those in power; only those like Las Casas get a platform.

*  *  *

This essay primarily relies on Hugh Thomas’ The Golden Empire as a source.

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  1. Autobot
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    both birds and spiders “make things which no human industry can imitate completely.”

    Well put well put.

  2. ronehjr
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I am a Christian. I will likely remain a Christian until I die. But Christians for the most part and Christianity as an ethos deserve no part in ruling a nation. It seems whenever Christians rule, social order breaks down quickly.

    • Arthur Konrad
      Posted December 30, 2020 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      It is useful that the writer brings up Evola. Evola was fiercely against mere rhetoric in his criticism of Christianity, and hence, his criticism was most prudent and informed. “Christians ruling” can mean many things, but that quite unique sense of solidarity and commonness which distinguishes Europe from every other cultural context ever in existence was for the most part thanks to the work on the grand scale (the grandest imaginable) of Christian *institutions* (i.e. the Church).

      Studying European legal history from say, 12th to 19th will be eye-opening to every intellectual (unless you are a typical Academic, in which case you will fail to take note of everything which is truly interesting and instructive). Our firm sense of common legal custom, our whole unique and universal world-perspective cannot be anything but the result of centuries of enduring in that odd melancholy in between the temporal law (firm class lines, strict penal systems, rigidity of ownership, customs, etc.) and the spiritual law (Every man is made in the image of God, divine justice, salvation, Respublica Christiana). That is NOT because of Plato and Homer.

      I simplified it, but the more I study the Church as an institution, the more I am convinced that Europe as a polity characterized by a sense of solidarity would be impossible without her achievements in organization of law, fate, morals, etc… If you are the kind of person who values honesty, and who can tell the first grade from the third grade, then you too cannot fail to see that. Put bluntly, the difference between the Respublica Christiana and the alternative is the difference between the Curia and whatever is her Anglican equivalent, or between the Curia and the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, or between the Roman and the Orthodox Canon Law, for instance. I am telling this as a non-Catholic, to be clear.

      Of course, the life of every simple-minded, bigoted, provincial Catholic priest should not cloud our judgment in this regard.

      • R.ang
        Posted December 31, 2020 at 4:51 am | Permalink

        How much of this is due to Christianity and how much of this is due to the European mind?
        Hint: Christianity in Europe is vastly different from Christianity in the Middle East or elsewhere. To the point where Christian refugees from Iran do not understand European Christianity in the least, and feel just as lost as if they would’ve been put in a Buddhist temple in Tibet.
        All that’s praised about Europe came from our own mindset and all the rules can be found in every pagan religion of Europe (especially of the Indo-European stock).
        The only role Christianity served was the unity of nations that were already brothers from our roots.
        It’s by no means a small feat, I’m not trying to downplay its importance and I’m well aware of how much the lack of Christian faith is harming Europe (and all of the West, for that matter) these days. But it isn’t Christianity that paved the ground for the law, social rules or architecture. The cornerstones of those already existed in our European society, precisely because we are European.

        • Arthur Konrad
          Posted January 1, 2021 at 6:53 am | Permalink

          In all this that you have said, I still recognize that incredulous secular innocence as regards the facts of history. A European man in the middle ages knew nothing of the concept of “Europeaness”. The whole thing was clearly articulated only somewhere around the 19th century, when the process of colonization reached its zenith. Man of the middle ages certainly knew nothing about the grandeur of the Roman Republic, much less of Greece. He did not know who Plato and Homer were, and if he were not an educated man, he knew nothing of the ancient religion of Greece.
          You still refer to the abstract Christianity, whereas I clearly indicated that it is the workings of the Church as an institution that was so crucial in the formation of what we understand to be a European community of legal and political thought. For all of Nietzsche’s lamentations over the fate of Frederick II or Evola’s over Ghibellinism, what would have become of Europe if the Machiavellian paradigm prevailed, and all the work of the Church in transcending and opposing the aspirations of the province in organizing the society were abolished prematurely, say, in 14th century? Well, we had a glimpse of that during the Ottoman Siege of Vienna. Certainly, Nietzsche had no qualms about that. He praised Moors for instance. I do not necessarily disagree with him from the point of view of values and aesthetics taken abstractly. But I do not care about being a carpet seller in a Moorish society full of fragrant scents and oriental vanity, just because it is oh-so aristocratic.

          The lesson for us in this new year, the year where argument-for-arguments-sake is to be left behind is this: organization matters, and to succeed, organization must transcend the limitations of casuistry. Let us learn from Rome.

  3. 3g4me
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I first learned of the Valladolid debates when reading “The Cave and the Light” by Arthur Herman with my teenaged son (Herman is not really a race realist, but he is honest and the book is an excellent overview of philosophical thought). I was struck, then, by how similar were Las Casas’ arguments to modern leftists’. Very pleased to see detailed retelling here, another illustration (as if one were needed) that there is nothing new under the sun.

  4. Antidote
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting to know if any such debate took place regarding the Africans. The Church was very anti European slavery but seems to have tolerated it in Spain and Portugal and their colonies.
    The Maya and the Aztecs did go in for human sacrifice, cannibalism, and ethnic cleansing but they also had an accurate calendar, observed the stars, had a pictographic system of writing, and agriculture——so they danced all over the Africans , who had nothing but contagious diseases.

  5. Ray Caruso
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The only time the clergy could be moved to fury against the Indians was if they suspected they backslid into paganism.

    Now the clergy fails to uphold even that low of a standard, as illustrated by antipope Jorge “Francis” Bergoglio blessing a Pachamama idol inside the Basilica of Saint Peter.

  6. Alexandra O.
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Living immersed with Hispanics in Southern California, I have plenty to say, but here’s the two major observations. My mother remarried when I was 12 to a man of German heritage who had three half-Mexican kids by his first marriage. Their mother had died a couple years before from alcoholism, so they — a girl aged 14, and two boys, 16 and 17 — had been ‘running wild for 2+ years when their dad remarried. My mother, in all earnestness, believed she was creating a nice family for me, as well as them. Upshot — they never spoke a word to me other than our commentary occasionally on TV shows or school happenings. I was shunned from Day One.

    Observation #2 — in the 11th grade, I took the Iowa Tests with everyone else at our high school. I scored 93 (would have been 98 (out of 99) without the math score!) — and that afternoon, when I got home, my sister and her friends were there to intercept me, and she begged me not to tell ‘our parents’ about her score — 51 — so I agreed. I never told my mom and neither parent was even aware we had taken this vastly important and revealing test. But it certainly opened my eyes. We had been raised in the same home for the past 5 years, and in the same middle-class white neighborhoods, so the ‘unequal opportunity’ argument couldn’t be made for her. Same school, same teachers, same ‘environment’.

    I could make this same claim for half the Hispanics in Southern California. I’m fairly sure they blame the unequal scores in today’s tests on ‘poor environment and lack of equal opportunity, as well as poor funding for the schools, and racism, as well.’

    I’m waiting with bated breath for January 20 when Biden will ‘fling open the border gates’. Stay tuned. And please do not ever marry out of your race if you already have kids. Big mistake!

    • Joe Gould
      Posted December 29, 2020 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      I’ll remember your wise words.

    • Lord Shang
      Posted January 2, 2021 at 2:17 am | Permalink

      Should never marry out of the race – period!

  7. Dr ExCathedra
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Las Casas is a major hero to the current Catholic Social Justice crowd and the Dominican friars, once a staunch, even violent, pillar of Roman orthodoxy now wallow in praise for him and the whole bogus “human rights” paradigm that has vitiated the western churches and turned them into lapdog NGOs to the UN and all its evil works.

    He is a bit of an embarrassment to them, though, because his devotion to the Indians led him, from 1516 on, to promote the importation of Africans as slaves, since the Indian population was declining so fast. So it can be said that the lefty promoter of human equality is also the father of the Caribbean black slave trade.

    History can sometimes be very amusing.

  8. Joe Gould
    Posted December 29, 2020 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    The White race that I have been told about, the White race that is doomed to die and that deserves to die because it is innately wedded to pathological altruism, does not appear in this story.

    Instead, I see an inherently healthy, reasonable, and venturesome race, but one that has been badly let down by specific institutions, ideas, and practices that have overcome White voices of empirical reason and instinctive racial self-preservation.

    With better institutions, ideas, and practices, and without unfriendly non-Whites posing as Whites and putting their hands on the scale in favor of fatal errors, we could survive.

  9. Don
    Posted December 30, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Great post. I read Hugh Thomas’ book about the Conquest of Mexico and couldn’t put it down. His book are worth the effort to read them.

  10. c matt
    Posted December 30, 2020 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    All the peoples of the world are men. . . all have understanding and will, all have five exterior senses, and four interior ones. All take satisfaction in goodness and feel pleasure with happy and delicious things, all regret and abhor evil,

    This is not untrue. However, his error is in presuming all these things are shared equally among all men. Just as one may have better eyesight than another, one may have more intelligence, and the societies they create will differ accordingly. Moreover, what they consider happy, delicious, good, or evil will likewise vary and likewise the societies which incorporate those things.

  11. Philippe Régniez
    Posted January 6, 2021 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Las Casas was a disaster, an enemy of the church within the church, precursor of the current pope François and his Marxist ideology.

    The church did not consider the Indians as equal to Europeans, it declared that they too had a soul that deserved to be saved, nothing more.

    The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay provided an interesting experiment in the managing of non European races.

    Even today, the Indians of Latin America keep to themselves, generally do not mix with non indians, and are only concerned with the interests of their group. They have learned from leftist do-gooders and lawyers how to play the game. Bolivia as a country (embedded in a democratic system) can’t get out of its precarious situation for the various Indian groups outnumber the criollos.

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