Valladolid debate

Eyridiki Sellou | Nov 27, 2022

Table of Content


Junta de Valladolid (or also Controversia de Valladolid) is the usual name of the famous debate that took place from August 15, 1550 to May 4, 1551 in the Colegio de San Gregorio de Valladolid, within the so-called controversy of the natives (American Indians or Indians), and that confronted two antagonistic ways of conceiving the conquest of America, romantically interpreted as that of the defenders and that of the enemies of the Indians: the first, represented by Bartolomé de las Casas, today considered a pioneer in the struggle for human rights; and the second, by Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who defended the right and convenience of Spanish domination over the Indians, whom he also conceived as inferior (due to their condition). There was no final resolution, although it was the beginning of a change that resulted in more rights for the Indians.

This Junta should not be confused with the Valladolid Conference of 1527 on Erasmism.

The Junta de Valladolid was also part of the most extensive controversy over the just titles of the dominion of the Crown of Castile over America, which dates back to the end of the 15th century, with the Bulas Alejandrinas and the Treaty of Tordesillas agreed with the Kingdom of Portugal, and the misgivings with which both documents were received in other European courts. It is said that King Francis I of France rhetorically asked to be shown the clause of Adam's will on which such documents were based and which gave the right to divide the world between Castilians and Portuguese.

The necessary consideration of the studies and public reflection carried out by this Board was exceptional compared to any other historical process of empire building and was in tune with the concern and the great importance that, from the very beginning of the discovery of America, the Catholic Monarchy always felt to keep the natives under a paternalistic control and that produced and continued to produce the great legislative corpus of the Laws of the Indies.

The precedent in the generation prior to the Junta de Valladolid was the Junta de Burgos of 1512, which had legally established the right to make war on the Indians who resisted evangelization (to guarantee this, the reading of a famous Requerimiento was established), seeking a balance between the social predominance of the Spanish colonizers and the protection of the Indians, which was to be achieved with the encomienda. The result of all this was the Laws of Burgos of 1512. In the 16th century, around 1550, an intense controversy (1) arose in Valladolid, Spain, on the following topics: the natural rights of the inhabitants of the New World, the just causes for waging war against the Indians and the legitimacy of the conquest. This polemic was part of a long controversy between those who, on the one hand, were in favor of the absolute freedom of the Indians and a peaceful entry into the new lands and those who, on the other hand, supported the maintenance of slavery and despotic rule and favored the use of force against the Indians of the New World. If analyzed from an anthropological-philosophical perspective, it is clear that what was in question was the human dignity of the inhabitants of the New World. Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (2) and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (3) are the representatives of the two positions that disputed the humanity of the Indian.

In the Junta de Valladolid the discussion was based on theological foundations, considered superior in that context to those of any other knowledge (philosophia est ancilla teologiae).

He did not discuss whether the American Indians were human beings with souls or savages susceptible to be domesticated like animals. Such a thing would have been considered heretical and was already resolved by the bull Sublimis Deus, of Paul III (1537). This bull was a forceful response of the papacy to opinions that questioned the humanity of the natives. The bull, incited by two Spanish Dominicans, did not pretend to define the rationality of the natives but, assuming such rationality insofar as the Indians are men, it declared their right to freedom and property and the right to embrace Christianity, which should be preached to them peacefully.

The stated purpose of the discussion at the Junta de Valladolid was to provide a theological and legal basis for deciding how the discoveries, conquests and population of the Indies should proceed.

In the Junta of Valladolid in 1550, the main dialectical contenders were Fray Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. The papal representative, Cardinal Salvatore Roncieri, presided over the discussion.

Participants included Domingo de Soto, Bartolomé de Carranza and Melchor Cano (who had to be replaced by Pedro de la Gasca for the second part of the debate, as he left for the Council of Trent).

It is no coincidence that all of them were Dominicans: the Order of Preachers controlled the Spanish universities through the chairs and colleges.

Several in that Board (such as Soto and Cano) were disciples of Francisco de Vitoria, who died four years earlier, in 1546. Vitoria headed the school of Salamanca (because it developed at the University of Salamanca).

Carranza taught in Valladolid itself, and Sepúlveda, who had studied in Alcalá de Henares and Bologna and had stood out for his anti-erasmism, was not a university professor, but a tutor to Prince Philip himself. It was his opposition to the New Laws of the Indies of 1542 (whose revocation had been obtained by the encomenderos in the various viceroyalties) that had provoked the return to Spain of Bartolomé de las Casas, who was Bishop of Chiapas. An intellectual polemic began between the two: Sepulveda published his De justis belli causis apud indios and Las Casas replied with his Thirty Very Juridical Propositions. The Junta had to resolve the conflict.

Sepulveda contributed a work entitled Democrates alter, in which he argued that the Indians, considered as inferior beings, should be subjected to the Spaniards and completed it with more written arguments in the same sense. The Apologetics of Las Casas was the key text in the discussions. The work took place between August and September 1550. The Junta was inconclusive and therefore reconvened the following year. There was no final resolution to the dispute. The two exponents considered themselves the winners.

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was in favor of just war against the Indians, whom he believed to be human beings, and that it was caused by their sins and idolatry. If he had not believed them to be human beings, they would not be able to sin and the Spaniards could hardly have the duty of evangelization. He also defended their inferiority, which obliged the Spaniards to protect them.

Bartolomé de las Casas was responsible for the effort to demonstrate that the Americans were human beings equal to the Europeans. Domingo de Soto's contribution to this position was fundamental.

In the same sense as the latter, the intellectual spirit that animated the debate, although not present, was that of Francisco de Vitoria, who had questioned whether, from the beginning, the American conquest was licit. Those attending the Junta were able to keep him in mind in their reflections on the nature of the Indians.

Theses of Ginés de Sepúlveda

Sepúlveda in Democrates secundus or of the just causes of the war against the Indians followed Aristotelian and humanist arguments that he obtained from Palacios Rubios and Poliziano. He proposed four "just titles" to justify the conquest:

The set of arguments he used is complex. He developed them in several other works and they can be grouped into arguments of reason and natural law and theological arguments.

The approaches that Sepulveda used to argue that the Spanish conquest was justified, he wrote in his publications Democrates Alter or Dialogue of the just causes of war; the pro-book apology of Justis Belli Causis or Defense of the just causes of war; his defense before the board of Valladolid and two letters to Melchor Cano, where he affirmed his misrepresented doctrine. From these writings emerged their respective arguments, which Sepúlveda explained, on the one hand those that attacked reason and natural law, such as the supposed barbarism of the Indians and the right to civilize them, through submission, mentioned as "natural servitude", their continuous sins against natural law that gave the right to correct them and avoid their barbarities, and finally the defense of the victims created by the Indians as a product of their barbarities; and on the other hand, the theological arguments, which was the pontifical authorization to combat the sins against the supposed natural law and to eliminate the barriers that the Indians put up to the preaching of the gospel.

With this he asserted that the purpose of the conquest was the civilization and good of the barbarians, since with just laws and in accordance with natural law, he made the life of the Indians an insertion to a better and gentler life, adding that if he refused the empire he could be forced by arms, and that war would be just by virtue of natural law.

Within the same theme regarding natural servitude, Sepúlveda based his argument on the sacred scriptures and said

Sepulveda described aspects of the Indians, which he described as barbaric actions, such as the fact that they had no science and were illiterate, that they had no written laws, that they were cannibals, cowards and lacked private property, among others. Without leaving aside that these were only moral connotations, the Indian could be civilized since the condition of barbarian was, in Sepulveda's thinking, an accidental state that could be overcome and not a distinct human nature and therefore the position of servitude of the Indian was not in itself a state of slavery but a political subjugation from which they could evolve intellectually and morally if they were governed by a civilized nation. Likewise, barbarism, understood as a state of cultural and moral backwardness that resulted in customs condemned "by nature" and in a supposed ineptitude to govern themselves humanely, authorized any civilized people in a position to follow the barbarians in conformity with the "natural law", to take them out of their inhuman state to subject them to their political domination. Even by arms, if there was no other remedy. This conclusion in that man depended on his own reason, which allowed him to be self-directed and self-determining, but if man lacked the use of reason he was not his own master and should serve whoever was capable of ruling him and therefore if the purpose of war was the civilization of the barbarians, it was then a supposed good for them. Sepulveda justified political domination but rejected civil domination, that is, slavery and the deprivation of their goods. He maintained

It is important to emphasize that Sepúlveda defended political subjection, but not slavery, since common belief confuses the two, and makes him a supporter of slavery.

Regarding the "sins against the natural law," Sepulveda, based on the fact that the Indians offered human sacrifices in great numbers to their false gods, and other similar acts, said:

Sepulveda tried to protect the victims of human barbarism by pointing out:

and placed the Christians as upright men and safeguarders of the victims.

Therefore, the pope could compel nations to uphold the natural law.

Sepúlveda also indicated that no one could be forced to embrace the Catholic faith.

But in spite of this, Christians could induce the barbarians to become civilized by rational means, since it was their obligation. If the first attempt did not succeed, Sepúlveda mentioned that

Response from the Casas

Las Casas, who does not lag behind him in Aristotelianism, demonstrated the rationality of the Indians through their civilization: the architecture of the Aztecs refuted the comparison with bees that Sepulveda had made. He found no greater cruelty in the customs of the American Indians than could be found in the civilizations of the Old World or in the past of Spain:

Against the "just titles" defended by Sepúlveda, Las Casas used the arguments of the late Francisco de Vitoria, who had set out a list of "unjust titles" and other "just titles":

In his unjust titles, Vitoria was the first who dared to deny that the bulls of Alexander VI, known collectively as the Bulls of Alexandria or Bulls of Papal Donation, were a valid title of dominion over the discovered lands. Nor were the universal primacy of the emperor, the authority of the pope (who lacked temporal power) or a compulsory subjugation or conversion of the Indians acceptable. They could not be considered sinners or unintelligent, but were free by nature and legitimate owners of their properties. When the Spaniards arrived in America, they had no legitimate title to occupy lands that were already owned.

The Valladolid debate served to update the Laws of the Indies and create the figure of the "protector of Indians".

The conquests were slowed down and regulated in such a way that, in theory, only the religious were allowed to advance into virgin territories. Once they had agreed with the indigenous population on the basis of the settlement, the military forces would enter later, followed by the civilians. The ordinances of Philip II (1573) went so far as to prohibit new "conquests". It has been pointed out how historically unusual such scruples are in the conception of an Empire.

From this dispute arose the modern law of nations (ius gentium).

In practice, the two positions that confronted each other at the Junta justified Castilian dominance, albeit with very different actions.

Both motivations, as well as the intellectual atmosphere generated by the Junta de Valladolid and the controversy, inspired new Laws of the Indies to be added to the previous ones. The sincere concern of Bartolomé de las Casas for the fate of the Indians that he so crudely described in his work Brevísima Relación de la Destrucción de las Indias led him to a remarkable proposal that allowed us to understand his conception of the Indian: It seemed to him a good idea that saved many places in America from depopulation, especially the West Indies islands, the importation of black slaves, naturally more inclined to work than the weak Indians. A good Aristotelian argument, no doubt, but a weak defense of modern human rights, of which more a few years later, in 1559 or 1560, he was disavowed:

Hispanist John Elliott states that despite the possible limitations of the measures, they contrast with those of other empires in the effort made to guarantee the rights of the indigenous population:

There is a French telefilm that recreates this episode with the title La Controverse de Valladolid from 1992, directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with a script by Jean-Claude Carrière, and with Jean-Louis Trintignant (Sepulveda), Jean-Pierre Marielle (Las Casas) and Jean Carmet (Legado del papa) as actors. However, it makes unproven and striking assertions that could be labeled as propaganda, and approaches the Junta as a council to decide whether the Indians were men with souls or not, which had already been previously established by the bull Sublimis Deus, of Paul III (1537).


  1. Valladolid debate
  2. Junta de Valladolid
  3. José Joaquín Ugarte (1994) El doctor Ginés de Sepúlveda y los justos títulos de España para conquistar América.
  4. Jesús Cuéllar Menezo, en El País, 29/08/2007; citando la Apologética Historia Sumaria.
  5. "Extracto del profesor Claudio Finzi de la Universidad de Perugia, Italia).
  6. Historia de las Indias (3 tomos). México, D. F.: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1951, citado en Bartolomé de las Casas y la esclavitud africana, de Luis N. Rivera Pagán[1]. En este mismo artículo dijo: Sobre la libertad o esclavitud de negros africanos e indígenas americanos es significativa una marcada diferencia en las declaraciones papales. En el siglo quince diversas bulas y decretos papales - Dudum cum ad nos (1436) y Rex Regum (1443), de Eugenio IV, Divino amore communiti (1452) y Romanus Pontifex, (1455), de Nicolás V, Inter caetera (1456) de Calixto III y Aeterni Regis (1481) de Sixto IV -, letras apostólicas de cruzada, algunas, de conquista evangelizadora otras, avalaron y legitimaron la servidumbre forzada de los africanos negros llevada a cabo por la corona portuguesa. Por el contrario, la bula Inter caetera (1493) de Alejandro VI insiste en la conversión de los nativos americanos, suponiendo su libertad, y la Sublimis Deus (1537) de Pablo III proclama esa condición y amenaza con la excomunión a quien los esclavice. Como español y hombre de iglesia, por consiguiente, Las Casas se sentía firmemente compelido a protestar a viva voce contra la esclavitud indígena. La africana llegó a cuestionarla en su Historia de las Indias, pero sólo soto voce y con cierta discreción. La razón de la diferencia fue, entre otras cosas, la asimilación de los africanos a la condición de "moros" o "musulmanes" (con razón o sin ella), y como tales sujetos a un mismo trato con éstos, que se consideraban "infieles". Las Casas... nunca negó la licitud de ciertos tipos de esclavitud. Aceptaba el concepto tradicional de ius gentium que preconizaba la licitud de esclavizar los cautivos en una guerra justa. Esta idea tiene orígenes bíblicos (Deuteronomio 20:14) y clásicos (Aristóteles, La política, libro 1, capítulos 3-8), modificada por la excepción de no someter a cristianos a la servidumbre forzada. También, al menos inicialmente, no cuestionaba Las Casas el argumento, esgrimido por la corona portuguesa y el papado, que los africanos eran moros y sarracenos y, por ende, susceptibles de lícitamente someterse a servidumbre forzosa. En su opinión, por el contrario, los indígenas del Nuevo Mundo eran esclavizados inicuamente porque: a) las guerras de los españoles contra ellos no eran justas; o b) eran adquiridos por otros medios ilícitos robos, "rescates", tributos inhumanos y, por tanto, su sometimiento a servidumbre faltaba a la ética y al derecho. Esta es la tesis que defiende en Tratado sobre la materia de los indios que se han hecho esclavos
  7. «Biografia de Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas». Consultado em 29 de março de 2021
  8. a et b
  9. Moses Nagy, « La naissance du mythe de Christophe Colomb aux États-Unis », dans Christophe Colomb et la découverte de l’Amérique, Presses universitaires de Franche-Comté, 1994 (ISBN 978-2-251-60532-6, lire en ligne), p. 123–137
  10. a b et c « XVIe siècle - L'exploitation du Nouveau Monde par les Espagnols », sur, 27 novembre 2018 (consulté le 24 mai 2019).
  11. Voir p. 62-63 in Christianity, the other, and the Holocaust, Michael R. Steele, Greenwood Press, 2003
  12. ^ a b c Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America, 4th ed. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1992.

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