A famous debate from the early modern history of the Habsburgs and of the New World shows a surprising connection and similarity between the strategy and the expansion model of the two global empires.
One of my primary interests as a researcher, let it be economics, history or theology is about whether progress exists in history and about how we produce truly new pools of knowledge, and how we fight against the demons of the past and how we identify them in the present. How do we detect what was good and valuable in the past and how can we detect the ideas that needed to be upgraded or replaced? Conservation is enormously important to maintain sustainability of culture, stability and well-being, and progress is also very essential so that we can react to changes and adapt to new situations and keep giving faith and hope to humankind, that is, to ourselves.
Values that are perceived now in the developed countries as non-negotiable, like equality and equal opportunity, were seriously questioned and challenged in history. In Greek and Roman culture, in Jewish societies, in American civilizations, in the colonies
slavery was not only natural, but even recommended and justified sometimes by sacred texts, like the Bible or human philosophy.
Why were these differences watershed issues during centuries between vast groups of regular people and intellectuals? If you or me had lived in those ages, what stand would you have taken? And even most importantly, there are ideals, principles, convictions and causes of similar importance today, the correct answers and approaches of which are difficult to make and define.
What stand would we take?
Shall we promote artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, euthanasia? Or compete against them? In 1000 years, would people understand and catch the essence of such debates of the 21st century or of early modern Europe?
I have a very illustrative example here to show the complexity of these questions.
People had thought for thousands of years that they were not made equal with one another. Evidence showed that they were not: some were born kings, some others poor, some others priests, merchants or slaves.
Intellectuals like Aristotle and sacred books like the Bible showed that it’s just natural and fine. Until the New World came to the picture.
The well-known debate of Valladolid in the Spain of the Habsburgs in the years of 1550 and 1551 is one of the crowning moment of the famous and surprisingly modern academic controversy about the rationality and the Christianization of the native people of América, and was preceded and followed by a huge legislative work by the Spanish kings of the Habsburgs, in order to normalize the status of the aboriginals in a time of the formation of the international law. I went through the original sources of the debate and I become perplexed and amazed by all the sophisticated arguments of both protagonists, the “Apostle” of the Indies, Bartolomé de Las Casas and his counterpart, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda.
Sepúlveda sticked to Aristotle’s views and his concept of natural slavery. He claimed that any war against the natives that would help evangelizing them is just and that the sins of the native people (like idolatry and human sacrifice) also justify it. In his view the peaceful evangelisation was slow, roundabout and didn’t bring fast results .
Las Casas, who himself was a very controversial figure (being one of the first intellectuals who recommended the import of slaves from Africa to America), resisted the war against the natives and introduced arguments that
later would turn into notions similar to those of war crimes and religious toleration.
He did not consider the American Indians heretics since they did not God and stated that the native princes received their power from their people.
During the debate the interpretation of two major papal bulls, the Inter caetera of 1493 and the Sublimis Deus of 1537 and the legal decrees of the Spanish Catholic kings and the Emperor Charles V had primary importance in terms of the jurisdiction of Spain over the New World and the status of the American Indians as well as the legal reasoning of one of the most significant precursors of international law, Francisco de Vitoria. At the time of the encounter both legal and papal legislation forbade the enslavement of the natives and called them rational beings.
All these developments, however, did not change the practice of the coming centuries of enslavement of African natives and the reality of the colonies in the early modern world, no matter what religion the colonist nation held to. Vitoria, while having a list of reasons against the war, acknowledged several points which made them justified, like the need for establishing relations (a nation cannot oppose it) or for defending the converted Christians among the natives. On site, in America, at the same time, the borderline between native and immigrate farmers soon became blurry.
Las Casas focused a lot on the evangelisation which must be carried out based on rational reasons, aiming at convincing the mind of the colonised people. Sepúlveda, for his part, highlighted that after the quick submission of the aboriginal people he strongly recommended a very caring treatment of the aboriginals, like extremely valuable objects. He didn’t understand, obviously, that under such scenario, any new generation, if educated properly, can make a leap and reduce the civilizational gap almost instantly since now we know from social and natural sciences that people were really born equal.
Still, that’s why Sepúlveda’s mindset and approach has remained very popular and influential: supposedly,
if we change his primary axiom (some people are born natural slaves) to the modern replacement (all people are born equal), and then we apply his recommendations (very quick submission and caring treatment), we get the model of an extremely fast and effective modernisation of entire countries and societies.
If you think of the history of empires and of the 21st century and of the presence of the USA in the Middle East right now, I’m not sure if it was me who provoked that thought.