Bartolome de las Casas and the Doctrine of Discovery


To this day I keep assigning Fray Bartolome de las Casas’ A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies. The description of the Spaniards’ violence towards the indigenous population of the Caribbean is so brutal that it is hard to move the students away from that and into the significance of his account. It is also difficult for some graduate students to move beyond some of the hyperbole in the manuscript (which mimics the Conquistadors’ own hyperbolic rhetoric), and get them to understand the significance of the Brevísima relación de la devastación de las Indias, originally published in 1542.
It is well known that de las Casas wrote this narrative as a way to expose the abuses committed by the Spaniards and other Europeans settling in the Caribbean and the Western Hemisphere’s mainland- the so-called New World. So why do we keep reading and teaching it?

de Bry Spanish Brutality

(Spanish Brutality, Theodor de Bry. In: Girolamo Benzoni, Historia Americae Sive Novi Orbis, pars sesta, 1596.)
It is not because it triggered Black slavery in the Americas- because, quite frankly,  it didn’t. Black slaves were already being sent to the Americas- the Portuguese controlled the trade and  it was so lucrative, and the conquest, colonization and exploitation of the western hemisphere required so much labor, that with or without de las Casas- Black Africans were going to be brought as slaves to the Americas.
Instead, de las Casas’ account is important because he argues (and demonstrates) that the “Indians” gave no “just cause” to the “Christians” (Spaniards) to wage war on them. Not having a “just cause” invalidates their claim to those lands and to subjugate the natives, and it opened the door for other European powers to challenge the legality of the conquest and thus of Spanish (the King’s) sovereignty over those lands.
So even before the schism in the Catholic Church- there were “legal” ways for Spain’s (and Portugal’s) competitors to dismiss the fact that through the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494-  Pope Alexander VI  had divided the world in two halves. According to the treaty and the Church’s doctrine, all lands west of an imaginary  line 370 leagues (1,185 miles) to the west of the Cape Verde Islands not ruled by a Christian “prince” could be claimed by Castille and Aragon (Spain)- and all to the East could be claimed by Portugal all lands. The original demarcation (from 1493) was a  100 leagues (about 320 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands but the Portuguese (nor the rest of Europe) were happy about it.
(https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Tordesillas)

Treaty of Tordesillas

This is known as the Doctrine of Discovery which established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and taking of lands not inhabited or ruled by Christians. It has been used since Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull Inter Caetera in 1493. But its origin goes back to the 1450s when due to Constantinople falling into Ottoman hands (1453)- the Western Christian Europeans redoubled their exploration efforts seeking the fastest sea route to India and China.
For example, Inter Caetera was preceded by Dum Diversas, a papal bull issued on 18 June 1452 by Pope Nicholas V authorizing Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens (Moors and Muslims) and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude”. This is happening at a moment in which the crusades had failed, the Ottomans seemed ascendant, and Portugal was bent on rounding Africa and into the Indian Ocean. This was followed by Romanus Pontifex, another papal bull written in 1454 confirming Portugal’s dominion over all lands south of Cape Bojador in Africa. The tree bulls together- and the Treaty of Tordesillas were used as a justification for conquering the “New World” and beyond. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dum_Diversas

Doctrine of Discovery

It is no wonder that other European powers resented Pope Alexander VI’s 1491 (1494) decision for he had given half the world to each of these powers- in effect making them super powers. As the head of the institution that glued Europe together, the basis for its political, legal, and diplomatic systems- and as the representative of the will of God on Earth, the Pope’s word was infallible and to challenge his decisions could very well mean to be excommunicated- which a king would fear because with excommunication the monarch would lose his divine right (his legitimacy) to rule.
However, if the Spaniards had indeed committed acts that violated the “just war” clause (and they had)- then other Christian Europeans could “legally” challenge their claims and even wage war against them. That is why de las Casas was popular among Spain’s competitors. Spain’s competitors created and used the Black Legend to challenge Spanish sovereignty over the new lands. If  it  sounds like Spain’s enemies are trying to portrayed themselves as caring for the well-being of the “Indians” and that they wanted to save them  from tyrannical rule- it is because competing empires have always accused each other of oppressing the people and claimed to wage war just to liberate the oppressed.
Make no mistake- Spain was brutal- this is no apology, but so would be the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danish, the Portuguese, and eventually the Anglo-Americans as they continued the conquest of the Western Hemisphere, Asia, and Africa. None of these powers renounced the Doctrine of Discovery. In fact, the Doctrine Of Discovery would be invoked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823 to justify that taking of native lands.
“In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was quietly adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh (8 Wheat., 543). Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that – upon “discovery” – the Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands. In other words, Indians nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands. [Johnson:574; Wheaton:270-1″   (Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice, by Steve Newcomb) http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html

American Progress Painting by John Gast

American progress by John Gast, 1872

This is why I love history. There is nothing new under the sun as the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us.

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