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Las Casas

As you know from reading part of Luis N. Rivera’s book A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas, the first major theological and philosophical dispute about the New World centered on the humanity or bestiality of its inhabitants. In fact, in Vitoria’s words, those who defended the legitimacy of Spanish domination of “the barbarians of the New World” insisted on the anthropological inferiority of the natives, “who really do not seem to be far from brute beasts.” By 1550, two theological positions had crystalized, each with its own legal and theological views on the status of the peoples of the New World. Las Casas defended the humanity of the Indians, while Sepulveda took the opposing view and theologically justified enslavement and colonial domination. Based on your understanding of these debates, discuss the intimate link between disregard for the humanity of the Indians and their use as beasts of burden. In this connection, how did Las Casas come to realize the vast economic interest behind Sepulveda’s description of the Indians as bruta animalia (“Those that are esteemed and appreciated less than beasts…are taken as means and instruments to acquire riches.”)? Given the undeniable fact that the Spanish conquest of the Americas perpetrated a genocide of the Indians – one that was continued by the founding and development of the Anglo-American colonial settler-state called the United States of America – to what extent do Americans bear collective responsibility for the destruction of Indian societies? Finally, how does the genocide of indigenous peoples around the world continue to haunt the present, and what do you think should be done locally and globally to address the oppression of indigenous peoples today?

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