The Articulation of Las Casas’s Juridical Voice: Debates about Level of Humanity and Religious Capacity

In the years before the Spaniards arrived, according to the Florentine Codex, a Mexica daughter was counseled that she was “a noblewoman,” and encouraged “to esteem thyself as a precious person ... even though thou art a woman”; in 1498, hermit-friar Ramón Pané recorded that the Indigenous people and Spaniards were “not all of the same nature.”1

In 1542, Cabeza de Vaca championed “good treatment [as] the path most certain and no other” to evangelize the Indigenous people; in 1555, Augustinian friar Alonso de la Vera Cruz, OSA, admonished the emperor “to govern [the Indigenous people] to the best of his ability either personally or through his agents so that they attain their supernatural end.”2

These narrative snippets allude to two of the four kinds of major debates that ensued with Spain’s “discovery,” “conquest,” and colonization of the Indies. Study of these four major debates will demonstrate that Las Casas’s approach to the issues of the time was consistently juridical, and that the Brevísima relación reflected his legal thought. In this chapter, the first section presents the anthropo-status debate about the level of humanity of the Indigenous people.3 Various initial and ongoing European assessments of the Indigenous peoples’ level of humanity will be explicated, as well as juxtaposed with Las Casas’s appraisal of and contribution to these evaluations as a young cleric, and then as a friar and bishop.4 The second section discusses the religious challenges associated with the presence of the Spaniards in the Indies and, in particular, with its principal goal of evangelization and the consequent hoped-for salvation of the Indigenous peoples.

Anthropo-status Debate

Assessment of Initial Appraisals

Initial European observations and writings about the level of humanity of Indigenous people reflected the Renaissance exaltation of nature in addition to an idealization of them as “natural people” as compared with “civilized people.”5 Both Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci described encountering idyllic scenes of flora and fauna akin to an “earthly

Articulation of Las Casas's Juridical Voice 101 paradise”—a depiction that Las Casas also used when writing about the Yucatán in his Brevísima relación? The two explorers also framed their perceptions of this pristine state of nature with theological interpretations; for example, Columbus surmised that this yet-to-be-located earthly paradise also generated the Orinoco River—one of four great rivers that according to scripture flows from the Garden of Eden.7

Initial observers and writers not only identified the Indigenous people as living with nature but also as part of the pristine state of nature—before humans were corrupted by the distractions, ambitions, envy, and other accoutrements of the “civilized” world—as what the eighteenth-century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau would later call “the noble savage.” For Rousseau, “the natural man,” as compared with “the civilized man,” was the image of happiness and goodness. The first detailed portrayal and exaltation of Indigenous people living in such idyllic freedom is found in Martyr’s 1504 De Orbe Novo, and it is regarded by some scholars as the origin of the utopian elaboration of “the noble savage.”8

Contemporary studies, such as Hilaire Kallendorf’s interdisciplinary research on the Tainos, challenge “the noble savage” concept for its Eurocentric approach.9 While José Rabasa draws on Old World understandings to point out that “the noble savage” is a contradiction in terms, he argues that, insofar as limpieza de sangre (and religious orthodoxy) were conditions of “nobility.” The “noble” were Old Christians; the “nonnoble” were New Christians.10 Accordingly, in the Indies, the Indigenous people (or “savages”)—as the recently converted or to-be-converted— are thus “non-noble.”

While scholarship debates whether Las Casas contributed to a romanticized elaboration of “the noble savage,” part of his descriptions in the Brevísima relación about the Indigenous people (most probably those in the Antilles) do suggest that he believed they were indeed living in a pristine state of nature.11 For example, he wrote that these “most unoccupied” people “possess and desire to possess the fewest temporal goods”; they sleep “upon a piece of matt or in a hamaca”-, their diet is “frugal,” and “their dress is generally nakedness itself.”12 However, he prefaced this description with “God created” them “to be” so. After his description, he asserted their aptitude to receive the Christian message. By doing this, he interpreted these “noble savages” within the Christian ideational framework, as he would demonstrate in the Apologia that he wrote, like the Brevísima relación, more than fifty years after the “discovery.”

Martyr had also connected his depiction of the people of the Caribbean and the Antilles islands with another framework: the classical account of the Golden Age of Saturnalia where people live in complete happiness. Three decades later, Juan Vasco de Quiroga (c. 1477-1565), who was an oidor of New Spain’s second Audiencia and subsequently the bishop of Michoacan, also associated the Indigenous people of his diocese with the Age of Saturnalia.13 Indeed, in spite of differences in the social organization of the natives in the Caribbean as compared with those in the central highlands, the notion of the “natural” state of Indigenous life continued, as well as was extended to another framework: the primitive Church. Those who regarded “the natural state of the Indigenous people” as representative of the first age of Christianity included Quiroga, the first Franciscans in New Spain, and Las Casas. In addition to this theological interpretation, all of them also hailed the Indigenous peoples as a welcomed “new lineage” or as “the greatest part of the entire human lineage.”14

Initial descriptions of the Indigenous peoples also ranged from physical appearances—such as “handsome,” “lean,” and “good stature,” to social behaviors—such as their hospitality and ritual of food-giving before gift-giving, to personal attributes—such as their “contentment,” “generosity,” and “innocence.”15 The trait of innocence was most consistently mentioned and also constituted an important dimension of Las Casas’s portrayal of Indigenous people in his Brevísima relación.'6 Las Casas’s perennial contention that the inhabitants of the Indies were innocent seems to be part of a literary trope and scriptural metaphor that he utilized in the Brevísima relación to contrast the goodness of Indigenous people and the evilness of certain Spanish people—and in which he, as others before him, depicted the former as “innocent lambs and sheep,” and the latter as “ravenous wolves.”17 For example, in 1519, the Hispaniola Dominicans and Franciscans employed this metaphor to describe how some “Christians ... were like ravenous wolves among docile sheep”; centuries before, Alfonso X el Sabio also used this trope and scriptural metaphor to describe the marauding Muslim army who were “more cruel and harmful [in pursuing innocent Christian lambs] than is the wolf in the flock of sheep at night.”18

In the Brevísima relación, Las Casas did not, however, cite ignoble aspects of Indigenous peoples’ lives, which was unlike some early observers and writers. For example, while initially Columbus regarded the Tainos favorably, he later referred to them as “cowards” after the Spaniards that he had left at Navidad on the island of Hispaniola were massacred.19 Subsequently, on Columbus’s fourth voyage when he was ill and seemingly near death, he used the stereotype of salvaje to describe how he was surrounded by “salvajes Uenos de crueldad y enemigos nuestros” (savages full of cruelty and our enemies).20 In their chronicles, Oviedo and Gomara portrayed the native peoples as “vicious and lazy”; Oviedo also associated their generally negative traits with a physical feature: their “thick” skulls.21 "

Other chroniclers also noted achievements of Indigenous people that connoted the opposite of living “naturally” in the lush natural environment in some regions where the Indigenous inhabitants had state-level societies. That is, the type of culture encountered influenced the way Spaniards interpreted and described Indigenous people.22 For example,

Francisco López de Jerez and Pedro Cieza de León lauded the Inca cities and urban achievements as “something so great,” just as did Cortés and Diaz del Castillo with respect to New Spain.23 Although also recognizing this, Cortés nevertheless described the people he encountered as both brutal and generous. Vespucci also reported less savory aspects of Indigenous life, such as cannibalism. Similarly, Diaz del Castillo recalled the Indigenous practice of offering human sacrifices to their gods. Later, Sepúlveda would also demonize these behaviors by associating them with the devil, which added a Judeo-Christian theological consideration to these religion-based appraisals of Indigenous life.24

These charges of ignobility, as well as the assessments that romanticized, mythologized, idealized, and/or denigrated the Indigenous peoples are akin to paintings on a canvas that depict the artists’ perception of the Indigenous people’s physical appearances, personal behaviors, and cultural expressions; on this canvas, the brush strokes are dictated by epistemological sources with which the Spaniards were familiar. As the Spaniards recognized and learned that the Indigenous inhabitants and their lands were not part of their scriptural and ancient textual epistemological sources, the canvas became too small for expressing the new Other—the new reality encountered. Their options were threefold: to expand the canvas by augmenting their European epistemological sources; to create a new canvas by acquiring linguistic skills and utilizing Indigenous sources; or to force the new reality onto the canvas, for example, by developing sophisticated biblical genealogical trees, as the first New Spain Franciscans did in order to fill the scriptural and epistemological gap in their pursuit of some tribal biblical roots for this “new lineage” of people.25

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