Excerpt from In Defense of the Indians

Excerpt from In Defense of the Indians
(1550)
Bartolomé de las Casas’
Bartolomé de las Casas. 1974. “In Defense of the Indians.” In Defense of the Indians. Edited and Translated
by Stafford Poole. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
As Spain struggled in the mid 1500s to consolidate control over its New World possessions, a great debate erupted over
the status and treatment of the Indians. At the heart of the debate lay the issue of whether Indians were civilized. An
Aristotle treatise enshrined in Spanish law gave civilized peoples the right to wage war upon uncivilized peoples and take
them as slaves. Consequently, assessments of Indians as barbarian benefited many Spanish settlers who sought both to
impose their jurisdiction on the Indians and to take advantage of their labor. The Iberian scholar and theologian Juan Ines
de Sepúlveda became a spokesperson for such interests.
Sepúlveda faced stiff opposition. Bartolomé de las Casas, who had served several years as a bishop in Mexico, represented
the other side of the debate. Arguing that Indians were civilized, the theologian sought on behalf of both Indians and
priests outraged at the settlers’ excesses to persuade the Spanish Crown to impose stricter controls on its colonists. The
debate’s outcome would determine and shape Spain’s policy toward all of its New World inhabitants.
Now if we shall have shown that among our Indians of the western and southern shores (granting that we call them
barbarians and that they are barbarians) there are important kingdoms, large numbers of people who live settled lives in a
society, great cities, kings, judges and laws, persons who engage in commerce, buying, selling, lending, and the other
contracts of the law of nations, will it now stand proved that the Reverend Doctor Sepúlveda has spoken wrongly and
viciously against peoples like these, either out of malice or ignorance of Aristotle’s teaching, and, therefore, has falsely and
perhaps irreparably slandered them before the entire world? From the fact that the Indians are barbarians it does not
necessarily follow that they are incapable of government and have to be ruled by others, except to be taught about the
Catholic faith and to be admitted to the holy sacraments. They are not ignorant, inhuman, or bestial. Rather, long before
they had heard the word Spaniard they had properly organized states, wisely ordered by excellent laws, religion, and
custom. They cultivated friendship and, bound together in common fellowship, lived in populous cities in which they wisely
administered the affairs of both peace and war justly and equitably, truly governed by laws that at very many points
surpass ours, and could have won the admiration of the sages of Athens, as I will show in the second part of this Defense.
Now if they are to be subjugated by war because they are ignorant of polished literature, let Sepúlveda hear Trogus
Pompey:
Nor could the Spaniards submit to the yoke of a conquered province until Caesar Augustus, after he had
conquered the world, turned his victorious armies against them and organized that barbaric and wild people
as a province, once he had led them by law to a more civilized way of life.
Now see how he called the Spanish people barbaric and wild. I would like to hear Sepúlveda, in his cleverness, answer this
question: Does he think that the war of the Romans against the Spanish was justified in order to free them from
barbarism? And this question also: Did the Spanish wage an unjust war when they vigorously defended themselves against
them?
Next, I call the Spaniards who plunder that unhappy people torturers. Do you think that the Romans, once they had
subjugated the wild and barbaric peoples of Spain, could with secure right divide all of you among themselves, handing
over so many head of both males and females as allotments to individuals? And do you then conclude that the Romans
could have stripped your rulers of their authority and consigned all of you, after you had been deprived of your liberty, to
wretched labors, especially in searching for gold and silver lodes and mining and refining the metals? And if the Romans
finally did that, as is evident from Diodorus, [would you not judge] that you also have the right to defend your freedom,
indeed your very life, by war? Sepúlveda, would you have permitted Saint James to evangelize your own people of
Córdoba in that way? For God’s sake and man’s faith in him, is this the way to impose the yoke of Christ on Christian men?
Is this the way to remove wild barbarism from the minds of barbarians? Is it not, rather, to act like thieves, cut-throats,
and cruel plunderers and to drive the gentlest of people headlong into despair? The Indian race is not that barbaric, nor
are they dull witted or stupid, but they are easy to teach and very talented in learning all the liberal arts, and very ready
to accept, honor, and observe the Christian religion and correct their sins (as experience has taught) once priests have
introduced them to the sacred mysteries and taught them the word of God. They have been endowed with excellent
conduct, and before the coming of the Spaniards, as we have said, they had political states that were well founded on
beneficial laws.
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… From this it is clear that the basis for Sepúlveda’s teaching that these people are uncivilized and ignorant is worse than
false. Yet even if we were to grant that this race has no keenness of mind or artistic ability, certainly they are not, in
consequence, obliged to submit themselves to those who are more intelligent and to adopt their ways, so that, if they
refuse, they may be subdued by having war waged against them and be enslaved, as happens today. For men are obliged
by the natural law to do many things they cannot be forced to do against their will. We are bound by the natural law to
embrace virtue and imitate the uprightness of good men. No one, however, is punished for being bad unless he is guilty of
rebellion. Where the Catholic faith has been preached in a Christian manner and as it ought to be, all men are bound by
the natural law to accept it, yet no one is forced to accept the faith of Christ. No one is punished because he is sunk in
vice, unless he is rebellious or harms the property and persons of others. No one is forced to embrace virtue and show
himself as a good man. One who receives a favor is bound by the natural law to return the favor by what we call antidotal
obligation. Yet no one is forced to this, nor is he punished if he omits it, according to the common interpretation of the
jurists.
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