IV. Debate on the Treatment of Indians

"The Mass of Saint Gregory." Created by a workshop of Miguel Ximenez c. 1500, this represents a typically portrayal of religious piety in early 16th Century Spain. source

The conquest of the New World combined with the rise of humanism in Spain led to the discussion of what type of beings the Indians should be classified as and what their capacity was to govern themselves. The earliest mention of this issues was by Columbus when he wrote of their status as “noble savages.” In his mind, the indigenous population was relatively friendly and ready to learn and practice Christianity. 1 Still, the general perception of the Indians coming from the colonists was that these people could not govern themselves “as adequately as the worst Spaniard.” 2 By 1517, there was no consensus coming from the variety of different opinions. 3 Debate still raged through 1533, when Jacobo de Testera argued that those who viewed the Indians as less than human we simply too lazy to learn about the language and culture that existed pre-conquest. 4

"A Cardinal Receiving a Papal Bull from Pope Nicholas V." This image depicts the scene of the issuance of a Papal Bull. Before laws regarding treatment were established, the bulls served as a moral code. source

By the 1540s, the debate spread to the issue of access to higher education for the Indians. 5 The argument against access to education for Indians involved their religious inferiority– that they were inconsistent in the Christian faith, lived unholy lives and would misuse or misinterpret the Bible should they have access. Juan Gines de Sepulveda championed this argument in his Democrates Alter, basing his argument in Aristotelian theory. 6 According to Sepulveda, it was natural that superior races take over inferior races. 7 Bartolome de las Casas disagreed, believing that as subjects of the crown like any Spaniard, the Indians should receive the same guarantees of justice. 8

This is an image of an urban center in the province of Valladolid-- the location of the debate between Sepulveda and Las Casas source

The 1550 debates at Valladolid proved officially inconclusive, but ultimately the debate that spread through Spain after the initial contact with the New World ended with the Spanish conquistadors generally void of concern for the education and spiritual edification of the Indians. 9 The Catholic Church continued their evangelical mission through priests and friars in Latin America, but with the Council of Trent and reform to the humanism that placed individual responsibility on the growth of spirituality and religion, the conquest for economic gain and empire overshadowed the argument to extend equal, human rights to all Indians.



  1. Hanke, 4.
  2. Ibid., 9.
  3. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, Historia general y natural de las Indias, ed. Natalicio Gonzalez (Asuncion, 1945), 95.
  4. Cartas de Indias (Mexico, 1877), 62-66. Pope Paul III declared in the papal Bull Sublimis Deus the need to christianize the New World and protect them from the maltreatment of the conquistadores. [5. Hanke, 20.
  5. Ibid., 23
  6. Roger Schlesinger, In the Wake of Columbus: The Impact of the New World on Europe: 1492-1650 (Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2007), 58-59.
  7. Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Democrates Alter, http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/sepulved.htm (accessed November 20, 2010).
  8. Schlesinger, 59.
  9. Pagden, 119-145.

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