THE SCHOOL OF SALAMANCA AND THE EMERGENCE OF MODERN INTERNATIONAL LAW
Luis Francisco Martinez Montes
Vicente Lopez- Ibor Mayor
What is the law that prevails when separate worlds collide?
Is there a common law for all humankind?
Does the whole world constitute a single polity?
What are the just causes, if any, to initiate a war?
These are very modern questions that were, actually, posed by the best inquisitive minds in Spain in the XVI century. The “discovery”, “conquest”, “invention” or “encounter” of America—whichever terms the reader prefers—and the subsequent creation of a new, hybrid Hispano-American reality had important consequences for the emergence of a modern conception of man and the world. One usually overlooked is the emergence of the first intimations of a global theory of international law by the Spanish School of Salamanca and in particular, but not only, by Fathers Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suárez. Of equal importance was the Modern formulation of universal human rights by the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, to whom we owe the following resounding statement of faith both in reason and in the oneness of mankind:
“all the peoples of the world are humans and there is only one definition of all humans and of each one, that is that they are rational…. Thus all the races of humankind are one”.
It is a powerful assertion. And at that time it was strikingly bold, bearing in mind the context in which it was uttered, at the very beginning of the Age of European Imperialism. It is truly remarkable that the very nation that, together with Portugal, opened up the world for the West to assert its supremacy, was, at the same time, laying the foundations on which anti-imperialism was to grow and ultimately triumph. For it was in Imperial Spain where self-criticism in its best Western style, the very litmus test of Modernity, first became part of the public debate in a European state. But even more bewildering is the fact—surprisingly neglected in many accounts of those times—that no other colonial power, neither “liberal” England, nor “enlightened” France, nor the “tolerant” Dutch Republic produced, at the very outset of their respective expansionist ventures, men like those Spaniards who dared to question the validity of the conquest and to confront the most powerful rulers on earth on the grounds that, theological reasons or power politics apart, there is a law applicable to all people because we all share a common humanity which is based on our common rationality. That was, truly, a revolutionary, Copernican moment in the development of the human conscience. To fully understand its origins and implications we have to visit the University of Salamanca, around the mid-1520s and meet there a maturing professor, Francisco de Vitoria.
Francisco de Vitoria. The American legal scholar and practitioner James Brown Scott, an admirer of the Spanish School of Law, posed for this portrait of the great Spaniard. The portrait was commissioned to embellish the newly built US. Department of Justice in Washington DC. and painted by Boardman Robinson in 1937.
Today, the city of Salamanca, and in particular its famous Plaza Mayor, throbs with the voices and energy of thousands of young foreign students who come to study Spanish language and culture, and to have a good time, as befits their age. In the second decade of the sixteenth century it was a far quieter place, mainly devoted to study and meditation. Not that there was a lack of noisy and quarrelsome youngsters at that time. The picaresque novel has plenty of those characters that filled the inns and swaggered up and down the colonnaded streets of university cities like Alcalá de Henares, Valladolid or Salamanca. But for the Spanish intellectual elite, Salamanca was not a place for leisure or mischief. It was a privileged precinct for seriously pondering the portentous events that had taken place in their country and the world in the previous three decades, since the encounter of America and Spain’s rise to the zenith of power.
Cradle of Modernity: Lecture Hall at the University of Salamanca, where the old world pondered about the wonders of the new.
The University of Salamanca was originally founded in 1134 as a Cathedral and then General School. It was the first institution of learning in Europe to receive the official title of University, granted by King Alfonso X the Wise in 1254 and recognised by Pope Alexander IV in 1255. Its motto, to this day repeated in Spanish conversations as an axiom, is “quod natura non dat, Salmantica non praestat”, that is, what nature does not give, Salamanca will not provide. Though highly reputed during the Middle Ages, the prestige of the University was to peak during the Age of Exploration and its aftermath, when it became the home of the famous School of Salamanca. During the sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries, the School came to be identified with a variety of disciplines, including Neo-Scholasticism, natural law, morality, ius gentium and economics. Its main drive was to reconcile the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas with the new realities brought about by humanism, the New World and the religious divisions of Europe. On the whole,
the School of Salamanca was a bridge between mediaeval and modern thought, a veritable cradle of Modernity.
Unlike Protestant reformists, its members did not break with the received mould of the Church, but they tested it to its limits, a far more delicate and balanced intellectual exercise than the path of abrupt condemnations and total rupture with the established religious hierarchy followed by Luther or Calvin and their followers.
Façade of the University of Salamanca.
In was in this milieu that a Dominican father, educated in Paris, came to teach in 1524. Francisco de Vitoria had been born in the town of Vitoria, the current capital of the Basque country, in northern Spain, around 1483, and was received as a very young man into the Dominican Order, whose members were famous for their penchant for learning. Upon demonstrating his talents, Vitoria was sent to the college that the Order had in Paris, named after St James. Now, the most famous Dominican had been, of course, St Thomas, the man who in 1274, the year of his death, had left the unfinished but supreme edifice of Christian mediaeval knowledge, the Summa Theologica. Conceived of as a search for the ultimate truth regardless of the paths leading to it, the Summa became a compendium of several carefully filtered sources, patristic, Hebrew and Muslim, cemented upon a faithful exegesis of Aristotle’s realism. This was the scholarly state of affairs that Vitoria found upon his arrival at the Sorbonne. But with a substantial difference: by the 1500s, Thomism had declined into an endless disputation about words and sentences, Scholasticism at its worst. Erasmus, who was in Paris at the end of the fifteenth century, was so taken aback by the state of affairs he found there that he pronounced this memorable opinion: “are there any brains more imbecile than those of theologasters? I know nothing more barbarous than their speech, more coarse than their understanding, more thorny than their teaching, more violent than their discussions”. His friend, the Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives, who stayed in Paris in 1531 reached a similarly disheartened conclusion: “there is disputation before dinner; there is disputation after dinner; there is disputation in public and in private, in every place and at every time”. So it seems that Vitoria did not find in Paris a place conducive to quenching his thirst for knowledge. But he found some congenial souls with whom he could start a fruitful conversation rooted in a common sympathy for the new humanistic current of thought inaugurated by Erasmus and best represented in Spain by Vives. In fact, in a letter written to Erasmus, when his writings were assailed from several Christian quarters, Vives confided to his friend that in Spain there was a man, Vitoria, who admired him and was ready to go great lengths to defend his name. So it seems clear that when Vitoria returned to Spain in the early 1520s he was already won over to the cause of humanism and moderation. In this worthy state of mind, he was appointed first regent of the Dominican College of St Gregory, where the seminal Valladolid Debate would take place later in the century, and in 1526 he obtained the primary Chair of Theology at the University of Salamanca, where he was to remain until his death in 1546. His election to the chair was to be a turning point in the history of the institution. Equipped with a powerful intellect and the best qualities of administrative leadership he turned upside down the way of teaching and of organising knowledge when it was most needed, since Salamanca was slowly following the Paris model of endless and senseless disputations. Instead of relying on received formulas to be discussed in the abstract,
Vitoria was fond of applying his analytical mind to real, concrete problems. As one of his pupils said, Vitoria brought theology down from the heavens as Socrates had brought philosophy down to earth.
Charles V by Titian, 1548, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
This is the approach he used when his attention was brought, by none other than the Emperor Charles V, to the vexing question of the legitimacy of the conquest of America by the Spaniards. It was not the first time that the Emperor had consulted the wise man of Salamanca. On one notorious occasion, the Emperor had asked his opinion about the reasons given by Henry VIII of England to procure the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. On another he was consulted about a question submitted to the Emperor by Father Bartolomé de las Casas, whom we will encounter later, concerning the validity of baptisms without previous religious instruction, as practised with the Indians in America. In fact, the professor was well versed in matters pertaining to the New World because many of his pupils had been or were bound as missionaries in those lands. Thus it was not surprising that around 1539 he partly devoted two of his lectures, known as Relectiones theologicae, to the topic of the Indies. Both are devoted to the question of Spain’s entitlement to domination of the Indies and together they constitute one of the most fascinating texts ever produced on the interplay of theology, philosophy, law, politics and morality when applied to one of the few really decisive moments in the history of mankind: the discovery, conquest and transformation of America by the Old World and the subsequent creation of a brave New World encompassing both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific, thus putting into motion the wheels of globalisation as we know it.
The Tlaxcala Codex showing the encounter between Aztecs and Spaniards.
Besides, when Vitoria delivered his Relectiones, there had already been in Spain a thoughtful debate about the nature of the Amerindians, about whether or not it was permissible to wage just war against them and about whether or not it was permitted to enslave them. The debate dated back to the years immediately after the discovery of the first Caribbean islands by Columbus. In fact, the notion that mankind is one and that its individual members constitute a single political community or commonwealth irrespective of their national, dynastic or imperial allegiances was advocated in early modern Europe not in Anglican Oxford or Calvinist Geneva: it was advanced in Spain by a group of intellectuals, most of them men of the Church, and the University chair, when they were confronted with the almost simultaneous encounter of a New World and the fragmentation of the Old due to the religious schism provoked by the Protestant movement. Members of a Catholic, meaning universal, Church and subjects of an Empire that also claimed to have an universal reach, those Spaniards had to adapt their theological, political and philosophical frame of mind rapidly to the shocking news coming from all corners of the world, with the discoveries and conquests of their compatriots and their Portuguese neighbours, creating a fascinating and disturbing new reality whose echoes and reflections reached their cells and classrooms, intruding on the tranquillity of their Castilian churches and universities.
The Spanish overseas experience was characterised from its beginnings by a constant attitude of soul-searching that led to a crucial revaluation of humanity and the emerging world order. There were undeniable cruelties but there was also an unprecedented attempt to redress them as far as those times allowed and even further. This is best shown by the train of events that led from the indicting sermons of Father Montesinos in La Española, through the controversial figure of Father Las Casas, all the way up to the Valladolid Debate and the Leyes de Indias. Along the way, via Father Vitoria and the School of Salamanca and culminating in Father Francisco Suárez, came the creation of a legal conception of a “totus orbis qui aliquo modo est una republica”: the entire world conceived of as a republic, as a single moral and political community ultimately based on Christian tenets and eschatology, but primarily founded on reason and natural law.
The origins of the Duda Indiana, or Indian Question, as the problems of conscience related to the conquest of America came to be known, are conventionally attributed to a single figure, Father Bartolomé de Las Casas. This is a misconception. Through his fiery sermons and prophetic voice, though with relatively little concern for factual accuracy, he was no doubt the man who did the most to bring the dark side of the conquest to his compatriots’ attention. But Las Casas was not the first in Spain to raise his voice in defence of the Amerindians and was not to be the last. What he did was to elevate the tone of the debate, giving it a universal resonance. Actually, the first bells of alarm were sounded by none other than Queen Isabella, the Catholic Queen and the first recipient of her criticism was none other than Christopher Columbus. When the Admiral returned to Spain with the news of the discovery he did it in triumph, but with very few tangible results that showed a profit with which to cover the expedition expenses. Then it dawned on him that the Indians he had encountered, the Tainos, could be sold as slaves, following a well-established practice in the Mediterranean, where Christians, Arabs and Africans captured by their enemies were frequently sold at the markets. One of the first beneficiaries of Columbus’s mercantile zeal was a certain Pedro de las Casas, the father of the turbulent priest. He was a merchant who had travelled with Columbus on his second voyage to America in 1493 and returned to Spain from Santo Domingo in 1498 with a gift for his son, an Indian named Juanico who had been given to him by the Admiral himself. Actually, Juanico was part of a larger number of slaves sent by Columbus to Spain as part of his commercial endeavors. But the great navigator made a fatal mistake. The Queen had not been consulted on an initiative that ran counter to her religious scruples and on hearing the news she ordered the slaves to be freed and returned immediately to their land, threatening anyone disobeying her orders with capital punishment. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth I, after initially protesting John Hawkins’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, decided to make a profit from it as a partner in the business.
There is no doubt that Columbus was less lucky than Hawkins, the favourite slave trader of the Virgin Queen. He never really recovered from his blunder. On one occasion he was sent to Spain in shackles after having been accused of heavy-handedness by settlers and, though he was compensated by the Catholic monarchs and had the opportunity to make a final voyage back to America, he was deprived of many of his privileges. Nicolás de Ovando was appointed to substitute him in 1502 and entrusted with suppressing the simmering Indian rebellions and starting economic exploitation of the islands. Las Casas and his father embarked with him on the same trip, together with a large number of Spaniards representing most sections of society. As he was fond of recollecting at a later age, for the young and ambitious merchant’s son, his arrival in the New World was like the discovery of paradise. But paradise it was not. The seven years that coincided with Ovando’s rule, despite the temperance of the sovereigns’ instructions, were characterised by a brutal confrontation between the Indians and the new settlers. After the first friendly overtures on both sides, suspicions and skirmishes inevitably flared as the Spaniards made clear their will to stay and behave as overlords. La Navidad, a fortification built by Columbus during his first voyage was destroyed by the natives and most of its inhabitants disappeared. Retribution came swiftly and a cycle of violence came to dominate life in La Española, as the island was named. Meanwhile, more and more Iberian settlers arrived, trying to strike it rich by mining, herding, farming or, as in the case of the Las Casas family, by trade. It was an unstoppable flow that carried many human destinies with it. In its midst, the young Las Casas was to find his voice and his mission. He did so by following a twisted path of inner searching and outer exploration that led him gradually away from his early life as just another settler who had profited, like his father, from the conquest of La Española, to becoming the patron protector of the exploited. Along the way, he adopted the pose and the trappings of Biblical prophet, transplanted from the scorching sands of Sinai to the lush tropical forests. Like so many prophets and visionaries before him, his call was in the form of a conversion from a life devoted to the search for riches to a life consecrated to the spirit. In this new life he was not alone. In September 1510, three Dominicans had arrived on the island and their accusing sermons and admonitions against their compatriots moved Las Casas to take holy orders. The Dominicans, together with the Franciscans, were in the vanguard of the reformist movement within the Catholic Church, initiated long before Luther had even thought of nailing his theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral. The Dominicans and other mendicant orders also thought that the Catholic reformation had to reach the shores of the new found lands so that America would become a New Jerusalem. In achieving this goal, some hard truths had to be brought home to the settlers, before it was too late for the salvation of their souls, tainted by their treatment of the locals. And so, on Christmas Eve 1511, one of those friars, Antonio de Montesinos, referring to the Indians, pronounced those moving words that were to resonate throughout the ages:
“Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls?” .
Antonio de Montesinos in Santo Domingo. The first proclamation of universal human rights in America, long before Jefferson.
The effect of Montesinos’ words, though not immediate, was long lasting. At first, they provoked anger in those who were at Mass listening to the sermon. But no retribution was meted out to Montesinos or to the rest of the Dominicans. Actually, after that shocking sermon, Las Casas was to follow a kind of double life for a while, chastising his fellow settlers for their sins against the Indians, while he himself kept on profiting from the system of encomiendas and using locals to mine gold and plough the land. It was later, when participating in the campaign to subdue the larger island of Cuba, that he decided to abandon his ambiguity and threw himself entirely into defence of the Indians. He was to do so with the utmost determination and ruthlessness. He was now a man with a destiny and no obstacle was to be allowed to stand in his way or stop the justice he sought for his adopted, chosen people.
If Spanish settlers in the Caribbean would not listen to him, the king would. With this idea, he travelled back to Spain in September 1515, on one of the many trips he would make back and forth across the Atlantic. Upon his arrival in Seville he immediately got to work on his contacts and secured an audience with King Ferdinand, a widower since Queen Isabella had died in 1504. The king was also close to his last days—he would pass away the following year, in 1516—but he lent a sympathetic ear to the news brought by the priest who was convinced that God was speaking through him to defend the rights of the Indians. Had the king not convened a committee or Junta of jurists and theologians to debate the thorny issue of the Just Titles of the Conquest in 1512? That Junta had originated the Laws of Burgos, the first piece in the body of legislation passed by the Spanish crown to regulate the conduct of Spaniards in America with regard to the treatment of the Indians. Though criticised because of their ineffectiveness, the Laws of Burgos provided the mental and legal standards by which the crown considered itself bound to act and to be held accountable in matters pertaining to the New World and its inhabitants, native as well as Spaniards. As such, and judged by the nature of the times, the provisions contained in the laws and their successive amendments were impressive in their humanity. Never before, and never afterwards in the context of other early-modern European colonial experiences, had a victorious side proposed that, after two years of remunerated service, the vanquished should be freed from serving their conquerors, or that their children under fourteen should be exempt from the work of adults (Dickens would have been surprised, for sure) or that the victors had duties towards as well as rights over their temporary servants, not slaves. Did the Romans pass any such kind of norms when they conquered Iberia? Did the Muslims pass such laws when they stormed the Visigoth kingdom? Did the English pass such laws when they implanted their colonies in North America? Did the Dutch pass such laws when they occupied modern day Indonesia? We will let the reader find the answers.
So Las Casas, though eager to depict himself as a voice crying alone in the wilderness, found in Spain an atmosphere conducive to receiving his moral indictments without putting him on the gallows or incarcerating him for life in the equivalent of the Tower of London, where so many real or imagined adversaries of the English monarchy were confined, tortured and executed, like Sir Thomas More, just for opposing the views of their royal masters. To the contrary, the Regent Cardinal Cisneros named Las Casas, who was so vigorously denouncing the conduct of his own kingdom, as a member of the commission convened in June 1516 to discuss the implementation of the Laws of Burgos.
The results of the commission were summarised in an extraordinary document, largely inspired and drafted by Las Casas, entitled A Remedy for the Indies, where he started by declaring that the Indians were free human beings and that the propagation of the Gospel had to be done by peaceful means and not by forcing the natives into submission in order to convert them. To be honest, he also proposed that to ensure that abolition of the encomienda system, a kind of bonded labour, did not lead to total disruption of the economy in the Indies, the colonists could use slave labour from Africa instead of the local natives. That was the price that he considered necessary to pay to guarantee the survival of the Indians, though in his final days Las Casas condemned the African slave trade in equally forceful terms, trying belatedly to correct the wrong he had already done.
Cardinal Cisneros, far from rejecting the proposals of the single-minded priest, named him “Protector of all the Indians” and sent him back to America to unfold his reform programme, which in fact amounted to a complete overhaul of the incipient imperial enterprise. Not surprisingly, upon his return to America he encountered stiff opposition on the part of those who were benefiting most from the exploitation of the Indians. Mutual recriminations and some death threats were exchanged, including some on the part of a hot-headed and, in this instance, not very Christian Las Casas against the settlers. The priest, though backed by his religious colleagues, was in a dangerous position. The stakes on both sides were high and neither was ready to concede defeat. Determined as always, Las Casas returned to Spain to advance his claims to the new king of Spain and future Emperor Charles V. Using his formidable lobbying skills, and his known penchant for self-aggrandisement, he was able again to advance his agenda at the new Court to the point that, in December 1519, the recently crowned Emperor was convinced by his advisors to convene a new committee on the situation in the Indies. As on previous occasions, Las Casas won the argument and, this time, the sympathy of the young Charles.
So back he sailed to the Indies with a renewed zeal and the support of his powerful allies in the Emperor’s entourage. But the timing was not the best for his moralising ideals, as he soon realised. The main arc of the conquest was about to reach new heights with the seizing of the mighty Aztec and Inca empires by Cortés and Pizarro. Those victories meant that now the Empire was in possession of vast resources, human and natural, with which it could more effectively defend itself from the assaults of its enemies. The incentive for putting a more humane face to the imperial enterprise in the Americas seemed slim or, judging by the way other European powers were to behave in their own colonies as soon as they were able to establish them, practically nil. But Las Casas and his allies in the metropolis did not relent in their tireless campaign in the defence of the Indians. It is a testimony to the integrity of the Emperor’s character that, involved as he was in the early 1540s in a myriad of trouble spots through his enormous territories, he had the patience and moral stamina to pay heed to the invectives of those among his own subjects who kept on undermining the very foundations on which his realm was founded: the conquest and exploitation of his American possessions.
By then, as we have seen, the challenge to Spanish domination over the Indies came not only from some hot-headed missionaries, like Las Casas, but also from some of the most sober and sharpest minds in Spain, like Father Vitoria, who had just given his lectures on the just and unjust titles of the Empire and the Church to claim any secular or spiritual right over the New World. Basically, what Vitoria said in those seminal disquisitions was that the seven titles usually mentioned as just by the advocates of the Emperor and the Pope were illegitimate. This was a shocking conclusion, for until then those titles had been considered to be the basis of the legitimacy from both sources of power in the acquired lands. It was predicated upon a chain of interlocked statements that was no less outrageous for those times: that neither the Emperor nor the Pope could claim temporal or spiritual sovereignty over the whole world, least of all over the New World, since the latter was inhabited by rational human beings who were “true owners in both public and private law” of their land and personal properties. In other words, neither was the Emperor the lord of the whole earth nor could the Pope claim to have temporal powers by which to entrust to some secular prince or princes the right to conquer and administer foreign territories, even under the justification that it was necessary to evangelise their inhabitants. To understand the enormity of Vitoria’s assertions, we have to remember that it was precisely the various Papal Bulls given by Alexander VI in 1493 that gave the main title claimed by the Spanish monarchy and the Empire to establish their rule over the Indies. One can be sure that if at that time some English, Dutch or French legal scholars had dared to deny the legitimacy of their respective sovereigns, monarchical or republican, to do as they saw fit with their overseas colonies, the heads of the said scholars would have suffered a severe concussion on hitting the ground after having been drastically severed from their bodies.
But Vitoria did not stop at that. He also denied that the Spaniards, or any other power for that matter, had any just title over the Indies or any other inhabited lands based upon the right of discovery, or the refusal of barbarians to accept the Gospel, or the voluntary submission of their rulers to a foreign sovereign, in this case the Spanish monarch, unless with the consent of their people. This was a complete salvo of deadly juridical darts aimed at the very heart of the imperial enterprise.
Which then, if any, were the just titles that could be rightfully claimed by the Spaniards to justify their occupation of the New World? At this point it is important to clarify further. Vitoria, a legal mind of the first order, was the first person to see that if his arguments both against and in favour of Spain’s claim over the Indies were to have more than just a territorially restricted appeal, their premises as well as their conclusions had to have a universal reach. So every title discussed had to be examined not only from the point of view of Spain, or the Empire, but also from the perspective of the French, or the Muslims, or the Indians for all of them had the capacity to be members of a “natural society and fellowship”, in Vitoria’s terminology. So when he posited that, regarding the New World, “the Spaniards have a right to travel into the lands in question and to sojourn there, provided that they do not harm the natives, and the natives may not prevent them”, he immediately added that “it is reckoned among all nations inhumane to treat visitors badly without some special cause”. Again and again he used in his lectures the same technique of referring some particular point of law affecting the relations, let us say, between Indians and Spaniards or Spaniards and the French, outward to a more general framework encompassing “all nations” or “all peoples”. For him, the determination of rights and wrongs in the intercourse among nations was not a matter of temporary arrangements or transient relations of power among a limited number of sovereigns. It had to be grounded in a universal, stable legal order based on natural law or, at least, on the “consensus of the greater part of the whole world, especially on behalf of the common good of all”. In his lecture on De Potestate Civili, that is On the Civil Power of the State, he made his case even more explicitly, in what constitutes one of the most potent statements as to the oneness of the world and the effectiveness and universality of international law, when he said that:
“International law has not only the force of a pact and agreement among men, but also the force of a law; for the world as a whole, being in a way one single State, has the power to create laws that are just and fitting for all persons, as are the rules of international law. In the gravest matters it is not permissible for one country to refuse to be bound by international law, the latter having been established by the authority of the whole world.”
Notice that in this definition there is not a single reference to religion or empire as sources of international law, but to “the world as a whole, being in a way a single State”, meaning a single commonwealth.
For Vitoria, among the rights and obligations recognised in such a universal or quasi-universal legal order there were the rights to travel, to sojourn and to trade in foreign lands—three of the pillars of our modern conception of globalisation, by the way—and it was by upholding those rights, together with the right to preach the Gospel, the right to protect the converts, and the right to depose a tyrannical ruler, that the Spaniards could claim to have just titles to wage war, but only in the case where those rights were denied to them by the Indians. Of those just titles, the one related to the right to intervene to stop crimes committed by a ruler against his own population sounds particularly familiar to our ears and in fact, can be considered to be a prefiguration of the so-called humanitarian, or liberal, interventions in our days, controversial as they have again proved to be.
Vitoria’s lectures and Las Casas’ admonitions, the most visible expressions of a wider criticism of the way the enterprise of the Indies was proceeding, were enough to convince the Emperor to convene a new council in Valladolid in 1542, with instructions that its members should revisit the Laws of Burgos in the light of their actual implementation or lack thereof. The result of the deliberations, influenced by Las Casas’ dramatic accounts on the crimes committed against the native Americans, were the so-called Leyes Nuevas or New Laws, passed by Charles V in Barcelona on November 20, 1542. At the time they were passed, the New Laws were a giant step forward for humanity: the dignity of the Indians was recognised, their slavery was forbidden, the encomienda system was banned, and any further war of conquest was prohibited. For the first time an Empire, and the mightiest known at that time, not only voluntarily put its own expansion on hold but also limited, by its own volition, its capacity to exploit what had been conquered by the force of arms. Even more stunningly, it did so out of respect for the dignity and humanity of the vanquished and not because of any external pressure.
Not surprisingly, when news of the Laws was received in the Indies, it was a shock to many Spanish conquistadors and settlers, who threatened to ignore them and, in some instances, such as in Peru, resorted to open rebellion. Many of them asked by what right they were to be deprived of what they had obtained in a just war. Las Casas, held responsible for the new legislation, was declared persona non grata in most parts of the Indies. Far from thinking twice and stepping back at the possibility of facing a general uprising against his power, the Emperor pressed forward with enactment of the New Laws. Not only that, in March 1544 Las Casas was rewarded with the bishopric of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, so that he could supervise their implementation on the ground.
In the following years, a war of attrition was fought between the priest and his allies, on one hand, and those hostile to the new legal and administrative regime, on the other. As in the past, the enraged priest came to the conclusion that the stalemate could only be broken through by the intervention of the highest secular authority and so he sailed back to Spain in 1547 to renew his tireless campaign at the Imperial court. In 1550 he obtained his most resounding success thus far. In that year the Emperor instructed the Council of the Indies, the supreme governing body on matters pertaining to the New World, to summon the best theologians and jurists of the realm to Valladolid. It was to be a debate on human nature and rights unlike any other before or afterwards. To start with, on 16 April 1550 the Emperor decreed that any farther conquest should be suspended until a decision was reached on the nature of the Indians and the right of Spain to wage war against them, a suspension that lasted seven years.
Façade of the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, a spectacular example of late Gothic in its Spanish-Flemish version at the beginning of the Age of Exploration.
The stakes were so high that both sides of the argument, for and against the natural rights of the natives, recruited the best polemicists of the times. Backing the first colonisers was the redoubtable Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, one of the sharpest brains of his generation, counsellor of Popes and princes, translator of Aristotle and editor of a Greek version of the New Testament. Far from being the reactionary bigot depicted in some gross caricatures of the Valladolid Controversy, Sepúlveda was a typical humanist of the times, devoted to the study of the Bible and the classics, familiar with the ideas of Erasmus, indeed he maintained an intermittent epistolary exchange with the Dutch controversialist who praised the Spaniard’s scholarship. Sepúlveda’s defence of slavery, based on Aristotle’s distinction between the civilised and the barbarians, was widely shared in the Europe of those times, as was also his advocacy of the traditional titles invoked by settlers and conquistadors to legitimise the acquisition of new territories and the subjugation of its inhabitants. In fact, Sepúlveda’s position on the superiority of the West and its civilising mission with regard to “backward” populations was replicated in all imperial policies conducted by other European powers practically until the triumph of the decolonising movement in the twentieth century. For instance, the “Mandate” system instituted by the League of Nations after the First World War was predicated upon very similar premises: the most advanced nations, at least those which were on the side of the victors, had a right to administer their colonies, and those of the defeated powers, provided that they accepted the responsibility to educate, meaning to civilise, the local populations until they were able to manage their own affairs. Not a great leap forward since the sixteenth century or in fact since antiquity, as we can see.
By contrast, the opposite side in the Debate of Valladolid, vocally represented by Las Casas but conceptually sustained by the authors of the School of Salamanca, advocated the humanity and rationality of the Amerindians and their belonging to a global community based on international law, to which both natives and Europeans were subject. Granted, Las Casas departed from Victoria’s vision inasmuch as Las Casas only accepted the pacific incorporation of the Indians into the Hispanic realm as a necessary prerequisite for their evangelisation while, as we have just seen, Vitoria had elaborated a legal rationalisation to justify the Conquest that was far more modern, since it was in great part based on principles of natural and positive law, as well as on the realities on the ground, and not just on theological motives. In this sense, as in many others, Las Casas had not completely rid himself of a mediaeval cast of mind, while Vitoria and his followers were pioneering a way of thinking much closer to ours, not least perhaps in its opportunism.
To better grasp the difference between the two characters we can think of Vitoria as a precocious Descartes, with his doubting and his logical demolition of the accepted juridical titles for the Conquest followed by his attempt at founding an international legal edifice by applying logic and reason, while in Las Casas we can see a prefiguration of Rousseau, with whom he shared the same exalted, almost morbid sensibility, the idealisation of nature and the “natural” man and the belief that civilisation is a corrupting force. Ironically, one important difference between the two men of genius is that Las Casas, though at one point questioned by the Inquisition without any serious outcome, enjoyed the protection or at least the toleration of the Spanish crown and most of the religious establishment, whereas Rousseau, who lived in a supposedly more liberal era, was hounded from country to country in fear of persecution by both the religious and secular authorities of his times.
Sceptics usually say that the Debate or Controversy of Valladolid was inconclusive; that it was restricted to a narrow circle of jurists and theologians, without any echo beyond the walls of the Monastery of St Gregorio, where it was held; and that, in any case, as had allegedly happened with the previous attempts at correcting and humanising the effects of the Conquest, the ideals defended by the likes of Las Casas or Vitoria were totally ineffective when it came to ameliorating the lot of the Amerindians. Of those criticisms, only the first holds any water. The other two are, as we have seen, wide off the mark. Even so, though it is true that the Debate did not produce a winner or loser in the form of a clear-cut judicial verdict either in favour of or against Las Casas or Sepúlveda, we must not forget that we are not talking about an isolated event without either antecedents or continuation, but a high landmark on the long road leading to universal justice and the proclamation of universal human rights.
 Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (edited by Nigel Griffin), London: Penguin Books, 1992. p.14.
 Brown Scott, The Classics of International Law, accesible at www.constitution.org.
 Quoted in Lawrence A. Clayton, Bartolomé de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p.42.
 Quoted in James Brown Scott, The Catholic Conception of International Law, Clark, New Jersey: The LawBook Exchange, 2007, pp. 21-27.
 Quoted in James Brown Scott, ibid., p.59.