Spain and the Indies: A Moral Issue


Gustavo Pazo

“The Empire on which the sun never sets” is a phrase often associated with Britain, given the overseas possessions it once held, and the dominance it projected over the rest of the world. What many ignore, is that the term originated in praise of another empire, one whose might, and intercontinental presence surpassed that of Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the Spanish Empire. Great care is needed when analysing history. A frequent mistake we tend to make when learning about it, is trying to judge the actions committed by men and women of other times according to our own rationale. We find it hard to distance ourselves from our current world, with its cultural, social and political perceptions, and hard to put ourselves in the shoes of a Christian man from 1095 in the case of the crusade, or more to the case, the skin of a man from the sixteenth century. Not doing this, leads us to mistake the real moral concerns of the Spanish crown, with mere hypocrisy. Furthermore, it gives room for the simplistic view that what happened during the conquest of the New World was the result of a predatory empire, which found new land, forced its way in and proceeded to plunder its wealth without any regard for the wellbeing of the existing inhabitants in said territories.

Such view is at the core of Spain’s black and white legends. The first one, which was itself a result of the hatred Europe felt towards the nation due to its dominion wars and unadapting religious beliefs, paints Spain as a barbaric nation which did nothing but commit atrocities. The latter, created as a counterargument, sought to justify and absolve Spain of everything and anything during its three centuries of control in the American Indies, as they were called. Undoubtedly, both legends were false, as what occurred is much more complex and impossible to reduce to an era where everything was either criminal barbarity, or utopian perfection and goodness. Thus, the intention of this article is not to condemn or absolve Spain for what happened, but to highlight how this whole period troubled its conscience, and the lengths to which it went to justify the colonization both legally and morally.

Unlike today, conquest, invasions, and wars of dominion were not uncommon in the old days. In fact, they were a conventional element of the international relations between states, and traditionally, there was no need for those carrying it out to justify their actions. Historically, conquering was a symbol of a nation’s power. Thereby, to gain the right to conquer, a nation had to simply be more powerful than the adversaries it sought to place under its rule. However, during the Spanish conquest of what is now called Latin America, the moral and lawful justification of it became a major and fundamental concern for the Crown. As Dr Uslar Pietri puts it: “Never in the history of humanity, had a conquering nation gone through more profound and grave problems of conscience in relation to the fact of conquest.” That is a fact which honours the Spanish nation.

The forgotten, but fundamental reason that these conflicts of conscience were not hypocritical, but instead a real torment and source of concern for Spain, was that those governing at the time were not called the Catholic Monarchs without foundation. They, and their council of advisers, were profoundly religious; to them it was not an issue of infringing a written law, but rather something which they considered much more important: whether their actions would prevent their salvation and result in eternal condemnation. It is here that context plays a crucial role. For an atheist, and even some Christians of today, this may not seem like a valid reason, and might be discarded as hypocrisy. But, for Catholics Ferdinand and Isabella, their canonists and theologians, this would have been an issue of primordial concern. To them, the most precious thing was their salvation, and if they could not justify the conquest before God, they risked losing what they considered most important: the salvation of their souls.

Proof of this concern comes in the early and quick action taken by the monarchs to find justification, and so, in 1493 (less than a year after the finding of the New World) the famous Inter Caetera papal bulls were issued by Pope Alexander VI. The donation of these bulls gave Spain the sovereignty and authority, to carry the mission of converting these new lands to Christianity. Of course, it can be argued that the bulls were petitioned to serve as a political ground to stand on before Portugal, another expanding empire. Nevertheless, the legal and moral relief they provided was important. In fact, this brought an issue of its own that revived a great debate in Europe, and that was whether the Pope had the authority to grant such power of dominion. History suggests that a power struggle between the Pope and the civil power, represented by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was already existent. While critics believed popes did not hold such power, their supporters thought that as “representative of Christ on Earth”, a Pope held temporal power over it, and could then delegate that power to secular rulers. Keeping in mind the religious beliefs of the Spanish monarchs, it is easy to guess which interpretation they chose to follow and like that, the issue was brought to a momentarily resolution.

A few years later, a scandal reached the attention of Ferdinand II and Isabella. Priests and friars began to report back on the horrific conditions they had witnessed, of oppression and slavery, to which the Indigenous population had been relegated to. This presented a major problem for the Crown. The land was of no use without people working on it, but how could the subjugation of a foreign population be justified in the eyes of God? Well, after a long period of debate and consideration between canonists and theologians, a solution arose. The Laws of Burgos of 1512 were established. Essentially, these laws abolished slavery (on paper), recognised the Indigenous people as free, and installed a system of work called “encomienda”, through which they would be remunerated for their work and, which would also be non-exploitative (on paper), and receive Christian teaching. Law number two however, stated that “the Indians would leave their land voluntarily to come to the encomiendas so that they shall not suffer being removed by force.” Here came yet another problem. How would the Indigenous population become aware of the choice they had? Experts in law arrived at El Requiremento (The Requirement).

The Requirement was a legal document written in the Council of Castile, that explained among other things: the world from a Christian perspective, what Christianity was, who the Pope was and the powers he held, as well as who Ferdinand II and Isabella were. Furthermore, it asked the Indigenous people to allow these things to be preached to them, and specified that refusing to do so, would put the Spanish in a position to do it by whatever means necessary, including force, so that they could carry out the mission given to them. To us this may sound funny and grotesque, but to the Spanish it was a serious thing. Before a battle, not a single shot could be fired before that paper had been scrolled and read in Spanish, a language completely foreign and impossible to understand for those Indigenous peoples.

Throughout the following years, many individuals would rise and would reject and criticise Spain’s alleged rights over these lands. Among them were Friars Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas. The former developed a new interpretation of natural law and the powers of the pope. Although Vitoria believed in the pope’s authority to delegate the task of evangelizing onto a secular state; he rejected the notion on which the Inter Caetera bulls were given. To him, neither a pope nor an emperor/king held temporal power over all the Earth, and as such, dominion over foreign lands could not be conceded nor taken from those who already hold it, regardless of their spiritual faith. Instead, he recognised another valid argument that justified colonization. He believed every nation had a right to enter into peaceful relations with each other, thus, if the Spanish were to seek peaceful contact with the Indigenous, but the Indigenous resisted with violence, then Spain would be within its rights to wage war and conquer them. The latter Friar, said of the Requirement that he did not know “whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of the council”, arguing individuals could not be forced to receive faith in God. Las Casas raised the issue once again at the Royal Court, and as a result, Emperor Charles V issued the New Laws of 1542. The status of the Indigenous as free people was ratified; slavery, as well as forced labour, were outlawed, and encomiendas were even suppressed, but later this measure was reversed.

Shortly after, Emperor Charles V was advised to suspend further expeditions to the New World, until a new group of canonists and theologians met to discuss how to guarantee the process of conquest was carried with justice, to give the monarch peace of conscience. Moreover, he even ordered that no one speak of the conquest. While other European powers could not care less, and colonization lasted until very recently, Emperor Charles V was even willing to remove the word conquest from official documents back in the sixteenth century. Consequently, the famous Valladolid debate takes place in 1550 between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Las Casas. This was the first time that the rights of the colonized and conquered of the New World were being discussed in Europe. Sepúlveda based his argument around Aristotle’s’ ideas of human nature. He argued that there is a natural division between races, by which some races were born to serve, thereby justifying the Spanish conquest of the New World. Las Casas on the other hand denied such a principle existed and argued that from a Christian point of view it was impossible to believe that anyone could have been divinely destined to be a slave. While there was no clear winner of the discussion in terms of the debate itself, it was Las Casas’ view which was reflected in the Laws of the Indies because said legislation forbade slavery and forced labour, and also included Las Casas’ thought that all men are born free.

The debate marked what can be considered the epitome of the conscience problem that tormented Spain. It was a prolonged legal process which reached an end in 1680 when Charles II ordered the famous Compilation of the Laws of the Kingdoms of the Indies, later published the following year. It is a compilation of every order and piece of legislation relating to the Indies. From the Law of Burgos until the moment of compilation.

Undeniably, most of these laws that were enacted were not enforced in practice. They rather served as only guidance for character and ethics in an empire that placed great importance on its Christian faith. That said, it was the first time that a European nation had questioned the state of its conscience as a result of conquest. It brought light to the question of whether some races were naturally/biologically inferior to others, and whether men had a right to enslave other men. To the honour of Spain, throughout the entire period it held control over the colonies, it determined that both questions had a negative answer. Since the Laws of Burgos, which were the first laws of the Indies, it denied the right to enslave, and recognised the Indigenous people of those lands as free. While there is a lot that should be considered and analysed about Spanish rule in Latin America, one thing that cannot be denied is that the Crown worried about the treatment and well being of those that were under its rule.



One thought on “Spain and the Indies: A Moral Issue

  1. Querido sobrino, muy bueno su artículo acerca de la libertad y trato de los indígenas , sin embargo, ni la España ni la Bretaña hicieron caso real de tales leyes.. Por ello, considero muy acertada tu acotación cuando reflejas entre paréntesis, la expresión “en el papel”


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