Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for Thirty Very Juridical Propositions

Las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria lived during the first decades of the conquest of the Americas and consolidation of the Spanish Empire.  By 1492, Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand of Aragón had set the foundations for the unification of the several kingdoms that would later conform Spain.  That year, they successfully ended their campaign to conquer the Emirate of Granada in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. In October, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and a year later, the Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull that granted the Spanish crown sovereignty over all the lands inhabited by non-Christians that they might continue discovering in the Atlantic. Isabel and Ferdinand’s grandson Charles was the heir to three of European dynasties and by 1519 he ruled over several territories in Central, Western, and Southern Europe, and all the Spanish Colonies in the Caribbean, America and Asia.  

The Emperor often consulted theologians and jurists on several matters related to the Empire’s policy.  Historian Anthony Pagden states that the Hapsburg court had appointed itself as the guardian of universal Christendom. Then it was very important that the crown acted--or was seen to act--according to Christian ethico-political principles established by the consulted experts. As soon as the Spaniards discovered the New world and realized that is was inhabited by non-Christian people that they considered to be barbarians, they began to debate the use of military force to control the new land, and the conversion of the indigenous population. The legitimacy of the conquests was at stake in the debates between figures like Las Casas, Sepúlveda, and Vitoria.

In 1503, the Spaniards established the encomienda (from the Spanish encomendar ‘to entrust’), a system to organize the Indian population to meet the needs of the early colonial economy.  To pay for his service, the Spanish crown granted a conquistador, soldier, or official a piece of land and number of Indians living in a particular area. The Indians acted as serfs and paid the encomendero tribute in gold, kind, or labor in exchange of protection and evangelization. Many Spaniard missionaries sent to the New World, including Las Casas, noticed and denounced the brutal exploitation of Indians by encomenderos, and their lack of commitment in evangelization.  In fact, the indigenous population of Hispaniola, the island where Columbus landed, reduced from 250,000 to 15,000 in two decades due to the war and forced labor.  This genocide called the attention of those theologians like Vitoria and Las Casas who were concerned with the morality of the conquest. Nonetheless, as Brian Tierney states:  “In the end, all the writings on behalf of the Indians did little or nothing to ameliorate their plight.  The battles that were sometimes won in the debating halls of Salamanca and Madrid were nearly always lost among the hard realities of life in Mexico and Peru.”

Sources consulted:

Anthony Pagden, “Dispossessing the Barbarism: The Language of Spanish Thomism and the Debate over the Property Rights of the Americas” in David Armitage, ed., Theories of Empire, 1450-1800: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 20.  Brookfield, Vt: Ashgate/Variorum, 1998, 159-178.

Brian Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150-1625.  Grand Rapids, Mi:  William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Margaret Kohn  "Colonialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, ed., at

Other Resources:

Bartolome de Las Casas

Benjamin Keen, The Legacy of Bartolomé de Las Casas

Simón Calle  Department of Music, Columbia University