Strange stories

Do the Indians count as human beings?

 (Published in Grail World 61/2010)

As in the “Disputation of Valladolid” less than 500 years ago it was argued about whether Indians have a soul and whether they play a role in Christ's plan of salvation. 

who Heinrich Heine read, perhaps remembers his ballad about a disputation in medieval Spain. In his inimitable way, Heine lets a rabbi and a monk discuss the truths of their religions. There can be no real debate, because both parties are certain of the correctness of their own points of view from the outset, and neither of the discussing parties is prepared to appreciate the other's point of view.

What Heine portrayed in cynical poetry is not without a real historical background. In the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era, public disputations were quite common in Spain. At the royal court or in front of a wider audience, it was mostly about clashes between the Jewish and Christian religions, which were often carried by anti-Semitic emotions.

But the truthfulness of religions, or even the truth itself, cannot be fathomed in disputes between incorrigible parties, no matter how well they are formed. Most disputes also have very different goals. -

"Indians were treated worse than animals"
“Christians have killed so many valuable people and destroyed their souls only for the sake of gold, in order to become immeasurably rich in the shortest possible time and in order to occupy the highest positions to which they are in no way due.
They showed these humble, patient and so easily docile people neither respect nor appreciation or esteem ...
They didn't treat them like animals (God grant they treated them as good and considerate as animals); they treated her worse than the dirt. "
Bartolomé des Las Casas (2, p. 13)

A law against slavery

In the years 1550 and 1551 there was an extraordinary discussion about an explosive topic: In the Valladolid disputation (Junta de Valladolid) it was argued about whether Indians belong to the human race and have a soul.

Charles V (King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) convened a commission of lawyers and theologians to review the frequently objected actions of the conquistadors in the New World. Because there were serious problems in the Spanish colonies.

In 1542 an "Indian law" - Las Leyes Nuevas de las Indias - the enslavement of the Indians is forbidden. Also the Encomiendas should be gradually phased out. These encomiendas were large estates that were transferred from the king to the colonialists along with the natives who lived on them.

"They lust for gold like hungry pigs"

I.In the Codex Florentinus from the 16th century, an Aztec eyewitness describes the sack of Tenochtitlán: “The Spaniards are beside themselves with joy. They hurl gold into the air like monkeys. They drop down with gestures that express their exultation. [...] It is obvious that they are excited about this. Your whole body swells at the thought, you show all the signs of an insatiable desire. They lust for gold like hungry pigs. "
“For these“ hungry pigs ”, who had neither culture nor compassion, but instead black powder, horses and sharp swords, the astronomers, farmers, builders, mathematicians and botanists from the peoples of the Aztecs, Aymara, Quechua or Maya were just animals which one can proceed at will ”. (3, p. 181 f.).

The implementation of the "Indian Law" met with fierce resistance in South America, which led to outright armed revolts. Charles V had to forego the enforcement of this Indian-friendly law in the New World and was now looking for support from the theological and legal side for his point of view.

The commission he called up consisted of recognized, highly learned scientists. It met from August 15 to September 15, 1550 and from April 11 to May 4, 1551 in the Dominican monastery of San Pablo in Valladolid. There were no direct disputes between the participants, because the opponents did not compete directly against each other, but only presented their points of view to the convened college individually.

The focus of the disputes was the legal position of the Indians. One can thus see the Valladolid dispute as an early discussion on human rights.

The most important antagonists in this disputation were the Dominicans Bartolome de Las Casas (1474–1566), Bishop of Chiapas, and secular priest and humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490-1573). 

The issue was not the European expansion overseas, which was just as natural for both parties as the view that the Christian faith had to be proclaimed in the New World. However, the methods of this land conquest and how Christianity should be brought closer to the Indians and enforced in the New World were controversial.

The decisive questions were: Do the recently discovered peoples belong to the human race or not? Are they foreseen in Christ's plan of salvation? Are they creatures of the living God or a barely human subspecies of humanity? Do Indians have a soul? Did Christ die for them too? (3, p. 178).

In the assembly hall in Toledo
The fanfares ring out;
To the spiritual gymnastics
Wave the people in multicolored flocks.
This is not a worldly sting
No iron weapon flashes -
A lance is the word
The scholastically sharp point.
Not gallant paladins
Fencing here, not servants -
This battle knights are
Capuchins and Rabbis.
Instead of a helmet, they wear it
Sliding covers and hoods;
Scapular and Arbekanfeß
Are the armor, they defend.
Who is the real god?
Is it the Hebrews more rigid
Great one god, his champion
Rabbi Judah, the Navarre?
Or is it the three-fold
Christian love god,
His champion Brother José
Gardian the Franciscan?
By the power of arguments
Chain links through logic
And quotes from authors,
That one must acknowledge
Everybody wants his own fight
Taking opponents to absurdity
And true divinity
Demonstrate His God.
Heinrich Heine (1, p. 440)

"The natives are natural slaves!"

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda represented the interests of the Spanish settlers and landowners who benefited from the encomienda system. He saw the natives of America as barbarians and natural slaves and tried - building on the Aristotelian natural law thinking - to prove the "inferiority" (inferiority) of the Indians. In his opinion, they were not human beings. Enslavement and slave labor would therefore be justified by natural law, as would the associated use of force. -

Those who want to oppress or even murder people can most easily justify such crimes in front of themselves and others if they deny the dignity of the oppressed. During the colonial era, this was no different from the ideological, racist or religious-fundamentalist excesses of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Resent the cruel treatment of the Indians by the Spanish masters Bartolome de Las Casas, the "Apostle of the Indians". From his point of view, the Aristotelian idea of the “barbarians” or “natural slaves” was not applicable to the Indians. Because they would have already come to the full use of reason, while Aristotle denies the "natural slaves" the full use of reason.

Also Sepúlveda's argument that the inferiority of the Indians is due to those committed by them "Unnatural crimes of idol worship and cannibalism" is proven ", did not accept Las Casas. He said that one could not punish a people for acts of which they were not aware of criminality and underlined his arguments with reports of personal experiences with Indians. For him, the Indians were people with a soul who could partake of divine grace. In his opinion, no people should ever be compelled to submit to another people because of their alleged inferiority. Christianity should not be spread by the sword either.

The disputation finally stagnated on a theoretical level. Their outcome remained open and both parties saw each other as winners.

 The greed of the exploiters decides

As almost always in the past, a "Catholic King" also triumphed at the Spanish court[i] the mammon[ii] about Christian ethics.

Behind Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda stood the rich and the Spanish treasury; enormous economic interests were at stake. So, regardless of ethical concerns, the violent expansion of the Spanish colonies continued and the mistreatment of the Indians did not stop.

The "Indian Laws" of 1452 remained in force, but they were not enforced in the colonies. The slaves on Iberian soil were set free, while the millions of trapped Indians who toiled in the American mines or on the encomiendas continued to endure their terrible fate. (3, p. 180).

A classic example of the victory of realpolitik over morality?

Comparisons with neo-colonialism and neo-liberalism in our time come to mind ...

(1) Heine Heinrich, Works First Volume, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, Berlin, undated
(2) Las Casas Bartolomé de, Concise Report on the Devastation of the West Indian Country, Frankfurt a. M., 1990.
(3) Ziegler, Jean, The Hatred of the West, Bertelsmann, Munich, 2009
[i] "Catholic Kings" was the title that Pope Alexander V bestowed on the ruling couple Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon after the expulsion of the Moors (1492).
[ii] Mammon = possession; in the New Testament earthly possessions in the sense of the seductive (Matth. 6, 24; Luk. 16, 13) and of unjust gain (Luk. 16,9; 11).