European Debates on the Conquest of the Americas Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.