Key developments of 1550, & notes on Christianity and slavery

The year 1550 CE saw several world-historical things happening around the world. Before we dive deeper into one of these, here are the main bullet-points:

  • Conquistadores doing their aggressive, expansionist thing in various parts of the Americas. Notably at Penco (halfway down today’s Chile) one conquistador force vanquished an army of several thousand indigenous Mapuche fighters. “The battlefield was littered with discarded weapons, 300 dead Indians killed in the clash with Ainavillo alone, according to Vivar, 4,000 was the total Mapuche loss after the pursuit, according to Lobera, and 200 were captured including many leaders of the army. Valdivia had the nose and one hand of each of the prisoners cut off and sent them back with a message that the Mapuche should now submit to Spanish rule. Soon afterward the Mapuche leaders came to submit to the Spanish.” Also, the founding of new settler-cities in Colombia and Mexico…
  • In March, England and France signed the Treaty of Boulogne, by which England withdrew from Boulogne in France and returned territorial gains in Scotland.
  • In April, a significant (and possibly public?) debate got underway in Valladolid, the capital of the Castilian lords. it pitted Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, whom we met in 1542 when he’d persuaded King/Emperor Charles to try to reduce the violence of the conquista in the Americas, and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a supporter of the forced conversion of the indigenes who was also described by English-WP as “a humanist scholar” (?). The Valladolid Debate had been ordered by King/Emperor Charles, who nominated its “jury” of eminent doctors and theologians, “to hear both sides and to issue a ruling on the controversy.” The Debate lasted around a year and had very mixed, or negligible, impact on Spanish colonial practices (see below.) I have this image of King/Emperor Charles, rushing to and fro in pursuit of the many duties he’d taken on related to the governance of the various parts of Europe over which he ruled, and possibly being quite impatient with the courtiers, priests, or others who said “Hey, you really need to pay some attention to what the conquistadores are doing over there in the ‘Indies’,” as they called them then. So he fobbed those petitioners by saying, “Oh I’ll set up a commission to look into it”… Though the Valladolid Debate may not have made much immediate impact, the topics debated lay at the core of the imperial project various Western leaders pursued then and continued to pursue– often with great violence– over the following 400 years.
  • In July, chocolate was introduced into Europe, from Mesoamerica where it had had a very long history, including for ritual purposes. The description of chocolate’s history in English-WP is pretty interesting. In the first instance, in Europe as in Mesoamerica, chocolate was taken as a drink. (I sit here eating some chocolate snack, drinking tea sweetened with sugar, and realize how the addition of these materials as such addictive staples to the  European-origined diet was all due to various conquistas, encomiendas, and forms of chattel slavery. Sigh.) The image above is part of Pietro Longhi’s painting The Morning Chocolate, 1775-80.
  • Also in July, the Jesuit order got approved by the new pope, Julius III. Jesuits came to act as Catholic “shock troops” in the imperial projects of many European Catholic leaders. They also fostered learning– especially of the ethnographic  kind that could help their earthly sponsors control the subject populations more effectively.
  • 1550 was the year in which the the Tümed Mongol leader Altan Khan, whom we first met in 1544, besieged Beijing and burned some of its suburbs. The Ming administration still also continued to be bothered by pirates along the Zhejiang coast…

Notes on Christianity and slavery, part 1 of many

A view of Valladolid in 1574 by Georg Braun

I have long been interested in the numerous mental gymnastics (as I see them) that people go through who are– or were, historically– both (a) apparently sincere and devout followers of Christianity, and (b) supporters of the whole ghastly edifice of European chattel slavery and its antecedent form, the encomienda. (I am also interested in how Christian believers square those beliefs with a support for war. That is a related subject, but for now let’s treat it as distinct…) I’ve done quite a bit of research into the thinking on this subject over time of, in particular, the Quakers, both because I am Quaker, and because they have such a broad reputation as having helped to end slavery that very frequently fails also to mention that for nearly 200 years before Britain abolished the slave trade (at some urging from the Quakers), many Quakers had participated very actively in the projects of transporting, selling, and ruthlessly exploiting the labor of enslaved persons.

But the Quakers would not even appear on the scene of history until 1651! Thus, here we were a hundred years before that and it was in the Catholic church– to which the monarchs of both Spain and Portugal belonged– that the major debates over the morality or even theology of the slavery system were taking place. (Or, in most cases, not taking place.)

So here’s what we can learn from English-WP about the 1550-51 Valladolid Debate conducted between encomienda critic Bartolomé de las Casas and encomienda justifier Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda:

Though Las Casas tried to bolster his position by recounting his experiences with the encomienda system’s mistreatment of the Indians, the debate remained on largely theoretical grounds. Sepúlveda [who by the way had never set foot in the Americas, whereas Las Casas had spent many years there and was Bishop of Chiapa] took a more secular approach than Las Casas, basing his arguments largely on Aristotle and the Humanist tradition to assert that some Indians were subject to enslavement due to their inability to govern themselves, and could be subdued by war if necessary.[1] Las Casas objected, arguing that Aristotle’s definition of barbarian and natural slave did not apply to the Indians, all of whom were fully capable of reason and should be brought to Christianity without force or coercion.[4]

Sepúlveda put forward many of the arguments from his Latin dialogue Democrates alter sive de justi belli causis,[6] to assert that the barbaric traditions of certain Indians justified waging war against them. Civilized peoples, according to Sepúlveda, were obliged to punish such vicious practices as idolatry, sodomy, and cannibalism. Wars had to be waged “in order to uproot crimes that offend nature”.[7]

Sepúlveda issued four main justifications for just war against certain Indians:

  • First, their natural condition deemed them unable to rule themselves, and it was the responsibility of the Spaniards to act as masters.
  • Second, Spaniards were entitled to prevent cannibalism as a crime against nature.
  • Third, the same went for human sacrifice.
  • Fourth, it was important to convert Indians to Christianity.[8]

Las Casas was prepared for part of his opponent’s discourse, since he, upon hearing about the existence of Sepúlveda’s Democrates Alter, had written in the late 1540s his own Latin work, the Apologia, which aimed at debunking his opponent’s theological arguments by arguing that Aristotle’s definition of the “barbarian” and the natural slave did not apply to the Indians, who were fully capable of reason and should be brought to Christianity without force.[9][10]

Las Casas pointed out that every individual was obliged by international law to prevent the innocent from being treated unjustly. He also cited Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrysostom, both of whom had opposed the use of force to bring others to Christian faith. Human sacrifice was wrong, but it would be better to avoid war by any means possible.[11]

The arguments presented by Las Casas and Sepúlveda to the junta [jury] of Valladolid remained abstract, with both sides clinging to their opposite theories that relied on similar, if not the same, theoretical authorities, which were interpreted to suit their respective arguments.[12]

… In the end, both parties declared that they had won the debate, but neither received the desired outcome. Las Casas saw no end to Spanish wars of conquest in the New World, and Sepúlveda did not see the New Laws‘ restricting of the power of the encomienda system overturned. The debate cemented Las Casas’s position as the lead defender of the Indians in the Spanish Empire,[3] and further weakened the encomienda system. However, it did not substantially alter Spanish treatment of the Indians.[4]

Both Sepúlveda and las Casas maintained their positions long after the end of the debate, but their revendications became less consequent when the Spanish presence in the New World became permanent.

One of the first things that strike me about this apparently well-sourced account is how contemporary some of Sepúlveda’s arguments seem. “Unable to rule themselves” became a longheld argument used to justify numerous European colonialisms. And okay, perhaps we’re not currently bombarded with claims that the indigenes engage in cannibalism or human sacrifice, but the broad concept of a “war and occupation for ‘humanitarian’ reasons” remains a very current project. (“Assad gassing his own people”, etc.) And perhaps now, the ideological imperative of imperialists is not to “convert the natives to Christianity”, but to convert them to market capitalism, “democracy”, and neoliberalism– yes, certainly we hear a lot of those kinds of argument.

I also went down one of the key footnote/rabbit-holes I found on that WP page and came up with this PDF of an assessment of the Valladolid Debate by Iowa State University history prof Bonar Ludwig Hernandez. He wrote:

The junta did not reach any clear-cut decision regarding the rationality and Christianization of the Indians. On the one hand, the jurists and theologians of Valladolid could not have conceivably recommended to Charles V to permanently stop all wars of conquest in the New World and to merely seek the peaceful Christianization of the Indians, as Las Casas had proposed. On the other hand, if Sepúlveda’s harsh attack on Indian culture was intended to influence the Spanish crown to revoke the 1542 New Laws, he failed, for Las Casas effectively frustrated any immediate attempts by the encomenderos to have the laws revoked.

The outcome of the debate was to slow down, as opposed to instantly eradicate or to forever perpetuate, the encomienda system. While Sepúlveda’s abstract arguments failed to immediately affect royal policy, Las Casas, with his idealistic viewpoints, eventually came to grips with the Spanish Empire’s interests and survival in the New World. Once the crown managed to curb the encomenderos’ power, it proceeded to terminate its temporal alliance with the Church.

That last observation was interesting.