European Debates on the Conquest of the Americas Essay - Critical Essays

European Debates on the Conquest of the Americas


European Debates on the Conquest of the Americas

The age of exploration set in motion by the discovery of the Americas in 1492 by Christopher Columbus precipitated not only questions about which European countries had the right to claim the land and resources of the New World, but also controversies about how Native Americans should be viewed and treated. For example, were American Indians, as Columbus initially reported to the King and Queen of Castile, a friendly and docile people, ripe for conversion to the Catholic faith? Or were they, as many other subsequent European explorers and settlers reported, “savages” and “barbarians,” irrational creatures hardly more evolved than animals? Could and should the Native Americans be compelled to give up their religions and cultures and submit to European customs and religion? Could belligerent, hostile Indians be forced to work in European industries and farms as virtual slaves, or were they “true men” who had natural rights which Europeans must respect? How these questions were framed, debated, and answered in the three centuries after Columbus's discovery lay the foundation, despite individual protests, for a legacy of European racial and cultural hegemony over the Americas.

The debate over the nature and rights of Native Americans in the first century after Columbus's discovery of the Americas was initially confined to Spanish circles, principally because of Spain's early dominance in conquering and settling the New World. Conquistadors like Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro wrote proudly of their respective conquests of the Aztec and Incan civilizations in the 1520s and 1530s, claiming justification for their warfare in the Native Americans' resistance to accepting the “true faith” of Christianity and in the perceived savagery of native customs, which purportedly included human sacrifice and cannibalism. The conquistadors' justifications for the forced conversion as well as enslavement of hostile Indians were buttressed by the claims of many other Spanish settlers, including the royal historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdéz, whose 1535 work, Historia general y natural de las Indias, held Native Americans to be no more than brutes, deserving of little sympathy or consideration. Even as the sixteenth century came to a close and as other nations began to establish their own colonies in the Americas, depictions of Native Americans as “beasts” and “monsters” continued. The English explorers John Hawkins, Francis Drake, and John Smith all described Indians as barbarians who made sacrifices to the devil, who lacked sexual modesty or mores, and who were best viewed as “wildmen.”

Although the majority of European reports on the nature of Native Americans concentrated on their supposed mental and moral defects, there were some Europeans who were horrified at the treatment of Indians. The most famous defender of the rights of Native Americans was Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest who wrote a number of books in the 1500s declaring that Indians were fully rational beings who were eager to receive the Christian faith but who were being exterminated by Spain's greed for land and gold. In his Apologética historia summa (c. 1527-51), Las Casas claimed that Native Americans were as advanced as the ancient Greeks and Romans, and that Spain could not justify its enslavement or forced conversion of this gentle and hospitable people. Las Casas' 1542 Brevísima relación de la destrucción de Indias (Very Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies) provoked considerable controversy both in the New World and Europe because of its claim that in just fifty years since Columbus first landed in the New World tens of millions of Native Americans had died as the result of Spanish cruelty and oppression. In 1551-52 Las Casas engaged in a famous debate before the Council of the Indies against the Spanish theologian, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who argued along Aristotelian lines that Native Americans lacked humanity and were destined to be slaves. Both sides of the debate gained supporters and detractors, such as Francisco de Vitoria, who argued that Indians had developed true societies before Columbus and should not be compelled to convert, and, on the other side, Francisco de Toledo, Viceroy of Peru in the 1570s, who propagated writings which sought to reaffirm the brutality of pre-Columbian native societies and the need for European protection and correction of that supposed savage legacy.

Beginning in the late sixteenth century, English explorers and settlers continued and expanded the debate begun by Spanish conquistadors and theologians as they began to develop their own settlements in the New World. Some English writers questioned the origins of American Indians, sometimes concluding that they were remnants of the lost tribes of Israel. More often, however, English literature and first-hand reports—for example those in Samuel Purchas' 1625 collection of narratives, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes—stressed the “ignorance” and “inferiority” of American Indians, usually to justify European encroachment on native lands and resources. Like the Spanish before them, English settlers usually argued that it was their duty to civilize the “wild” native societies, to provide an example for “proper” morality, religion, and customs, and if needed, to compel the native populations by force to submit to European political and social dominance.

Representative Works

“Defense of the Legitimacy of the Rule of the Kings of Spain in the Indies, in Opposition to Friar Bartolomé de las Casas” (treatise) 1571

José de Acosta
Historia natural y moral de las Indias (history and social commentary) 1590

George Alsop
A Character of the Province of Maryland (travel narrative) 1666

Robert Beverly
History and Present State of Virginia (chronicle) 1705

Juan de Cárdenas
Problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias (travel narrative) 1591

Diego de Covarrubias
“De iustitia belli adversus indios” [“Of the justice of the war against the Indians”] (treatise) 1547

Diego Fernández
Historia del Perú (history) 1571

Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés
De la natural historia de las Indias (history) 1526

Robert Gray
A Good Speed to Virginia (social commentary) 1609

Thomas Hariot
A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (travel narrative) 1588

Richard Hakluyt
Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (travel narratives) 1582
Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (travel narratives) 1589 [expanded into three volumes as The Principal Navigations, Voyages,...

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Lewis Hanke (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: Hanke, Lewis. “The Theoretical Problems Created by the Conquest of America.” In The First Social Experiments in America: A Study in the Development of Spanish Indian Policy in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 3-18. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935.

[In the following essay, Hanke discusses how Spain's discovery of new civilizations in the sixteenth century sparked a number of religious and secular debates about how American Indians should be treated, most centering finally on whether American aboriginals should be regarded as rational beings or savages.]

The discovery of America precipitated a flood of theories which has not yet fully abated and, as...

(The entire section is 5643 words.)

Lewis Hanke (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: Hanke, Lewis. “The ‘Requerimiento’ and its Interpreters.” Revista de Historia de America, no. 1 (March 1938): 25-34.

[In the following essay, Hanke argues that the Spanish Requerimiento, drafted early in the sixteenth century to justify Spain's war of conquest against American Indians, explains a great deal about attitudes towards the indigenous peoples that prevailed in the period after discovery of the New World.]

“The study of human societies is not only of an almost inconceivable diversity and multiplication of aspects but is of such a nature that no man, however balanced he may be, however determined to maintain himself...

(The entire section is 3984 words.)

Howard Mumford Jones (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: Jones, Howard Mumford. “The Anti-Image.” In O Strange New World: American Culture: The Formative Years, pp. 35-61. New York: The Viking Press, 1952.

[In the following excerpt, Jones argues that in the first three centuries after discovery of the New World the Spanish and English generally regarded American Indians as monsters and devils, and he examines the ways they used descriptions of how natives engaged in cannibalism, torture, and deceit to justify European warfare.]

If the discoverers, in Peter Martyr's words, “ruined and exhausted themselves by their own folly and civil strife, failing absolutely to rise to the greatness expected of men who...

(The entire section is 5077 words.)

J. H. Elliott (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Elliott, J. H. “The Discovery of America and the Discovery of Man.” In Spain and Its World, 1500-1700: Selected Essays, pp. 42-64. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Elliott argues that the measuring stick sixteenth-century Spaniards used to portray the customs and nature of American Indians reveals as much about the attitudes of Europeans themselves as it does about the Native Americans they attempted to describe.]

‘Two things,’ wrote Michelet in a famous passage, ‘belong to this age [the sixteenth century] more than to all its predecessors: the discovery of the world, the discovery of man.’1 By ‘the...

(The entire section is 9935 words.)

Luis N. Rivera (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Rivera, Luis N. “Rational Creatures or Bruta Animalia?” In A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas, pp. 132-53. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in Spanish in 1990, Rivera discusses the debate in Spanish America concerning whether American Indians were best categorized as brutes or humans, either position having important implications for how natives would be governed, whether they would be compelled to work or worship, and what educational opportunities they would have.]

[They] are like asses … are beastly in their vices … are not...

(The entire section is 13322 words.)

Franklin Pease G. Y. (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Pease G. Y., Franklin. “Spanish and Andean Perceptions of the Other in the Conquest of the Andes.” In Violence, Resistance, and Survival in the Americas: Native Americans and the Legacy of Conquest, edited by William B. Taylor and Franklin Pease G. Y., pp. 15-39. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Pease argues that the manner in which Spaniards justified their sixteenth-century conquest of the Andes—by enforcing stereotypes that Incan rulers were illegitimate and treacherous, and that Andean people believed that Spaniards were gods—was a pattern of domination common to all Spanish conquests in the Americas.]


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Criticism: Major Spanish Figures

J. H. Parry (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: Parry, J. H. “The Right of Conquest.” In Spanish Theory of Empire in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 12-26. London: Cambridge University Press, 1940.

[In the following essay, Parry discusses the enormous influence Dominican theologians in the 1500s had on the debate about whether Spain had the right to force Indians to convert to Christianity. In particular, Parry concentrates on churchmen John Major and Francisco de Vitoria, who gave religious justifications for the Spanish conquest even as they demanded that Native Americans receive at least some degree of civil protection.]

The Dominicans in the early sixteenth century were the principal champions throughout...

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Lewis Hanke (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Hanke, Lewis. “Viceroy Francisco de Toledo and the Just Titles of Spain to the Inca Empire.” The Americas 3, no. 1 (July 1946): 3-19.

[In the following essay, Hanke discusses how Francisco de Toledo, the Viceroy of Peru from 1569-1582, sought to refute Bartolomé de las Casas' condemnation of the Spanish conquest with historical treatises designed to depict Incan history as savage and tyrannical, and Spain's subsequent domination as legitimate and just.]

The best example of the effect produced by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas' theoretical writings concerning the just title Spain held to America occurred in Peru during the rule of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo,...

(The entire section is 7547 words.)

Silvio Zavala (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Zavala, Silvio. “The American Utopia of the Sixteenth Century.” The Huntington Library Quarterly 10, no. 4 (August 1947): 337-47.

[In the following essay, Zavala argues that Thomas More's Utopia served as an early model for the relatively humanistic treatment of Indians in Mexico in the sixteenth century by the Spanish jurist and bishop Vasco de Quiroga.]

The subject to be discussed here draws attention to the Europe of the Renaissance. Instead of dwelling upon the enthusiasm felt by the Renaissance man for the literary and artistic values of the ancient world, we shall stress the attitudes which he adopted when he incorporated them into his own...

(The entire section is 4146 words.)

Robert E. Quirk (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Quirk, Robert E. “Some Notes on a Controversial Controversy: Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Natural Servitude.” The Hispanic American Historical Review 34, no. 3 (August 1954): 357-64.

[In the following essay, Quirk argues that Sepúlveda has been wrongly condemned for having argued for the enslavement of American Indians, maintaining that Sepúlveda was really recommending that natives be treated like the free serfs of Europe.]

The heat engendered by the debate between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 at Valladolid has long since subsided. What the two formidable antagonists said there is recorded history.1 How to...

(The entire section is 3700 words.)

Andrée Collard (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Collard, Andrée. Introduction to History of the Indies, by Bartolomé de las Casas, translated and edited by Andrée Collard, pp. ix-xxiv. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971.

[In the following essay, Collard argues that Las Casas' History of the Indies, which recounts Spain's discovery and conquest of the Americas between 1492 and 1520, was the greatest and most influential attack on Spanish treatment of Native Americans.]

Roughly 500 years after the discovery of America man again accomplishes spectacular achievements in space while nations again threaten to be destroyed by their imperialistic expansion and disregard for human rights. Just as...

(The entire section is 6250 words.)

James Muldoon (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Muldoon, James. “The Mechanics of Political Evolution.” In The Americas in the Spanish World Order: The Justification for Conquest in the Seventeenth Century, pp. 66-77. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Muldoon traces how the seventeenth-century Spaniard Juan de Solórzano y Pereya argued that his country's conquest of the Americas could be justified only as a temporary measure to assist Native Americans evolve into the kind of advanced Christian society for which Spain provided the model.]

Once Solórzano had demonstrated that the Spanish could not legitimately deprive the inhabitants of the New World of their...

(The entire section is 5735 words.)

David M. Traboulay (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Traboulay, David M. “Bartolome de las Casas and the Issues of the Great Debate of 1550-1551.” In Columbus and Las Casas: The Conquest and Christianization of America, 1492-1566, pp. 167-90. Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1994.

[In the following essay, Traboulay analyzes the famous 1550-51 debate between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda over the nature and rights of Native Americans; unfortunately, Traboulay concludes, subsequent laws to protect Indians did little to slow Spanish greed and cruelty or the near extinction of aboriginal Americans.]

In late 1550, an assembly of jurists and four theologians met with the council of...

(The entire section is 9761 words.)

Criticism: English Perceptions Of Native Americans

Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. “French and English Terms and Images.” In The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, pp. 12-22. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Berkhofer discusses terminology the French and English used to categorize Native Americans—most notably the English tendency to label natives as “savages”—and how such categorization reflected European conceptions of Christianity and civilization.]

To what extent … conceptions bequeathed by the Spanish to other Europeans became the preconceptions of the French and English in their subsequent contact with Native Americans is...

(The entire section is 5435 words.)

Alden T. Vaughan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Vaughan, Alden T. “Early English Paradigms for New World Natives.” In Roots of American Racism: Essays on the Colonial Experience, pp. 34-54. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Vaughan analyzes five of the most common paradigms the English used to describe Native Americans, ranging from viewing them as wildmen or even monsters to considering them one of the lost tribes of Israel.]

Even before Christopher Columbus returned from his revolutionary voyage of 1492-93, he began to describe for European readers the people he had encountered on the other side of the world. At times he portrayed the Indians in some detail,...

(The entire section is 10945 words.)

Gesa MacKenthun (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: MacKenthun, Gesa. “Books for Empire: The Colonial Program of Richard Hakluyt.” In Metaphors of Dispossession: American Beginnings and the Translation of Empire, 1492-1637, pp. 22-70. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, MacKenthun argues that English adventurers and colonists, like the Spanish before them, became fixated on images of American Indians as cannibals to justify conquest, and perhaps, to even mask their own cruelty and savagery.]

My analysis of the Madoc story has shown the function of narrative in the historical legitimation of a national-colonial project, while my reading of the golden-age trope has traced its...

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Further Reading


Baudet, Henri. “Chapter II.” In Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man. translated by Elizabeth Wentholt, pp. 23-53. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965.

Analysis of how images of American Indians as well as newly discovered peoples in Africa and Asia influenced eighteenth-century European myths of noble savages, the Golden Age, and utopia.

DiSalvo, Angelo J. “Spanish Dominicans, the Laws of the Indies, and the Establishment of Human Rights.” Romance Quarterly 40, no. 2 (Spring 1993): 89-96.

Concentrates on Spanish theologians such Las Casas, Vitoria, de Soto, and...

(The entire section is 359 words.)