Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494 - 1573)Another Great Dickhead of History
In 1518 the Spanish colonists in the Carribean wrote to their King, Charles, asking him to allow more black slaves to make up for the loss of the native population of the Carribean islands, who had been worked to extinction. They were supported by the four Jeronymite priors who governed the islands for Spain and by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, self-appointed defender of the native Americans. Like any enlightened man of the Sixteenth Century he believed that an African enslaved by Christians was better off than one left in Africa. He was less trusting of his compatriots and co-relionists when it came to the natives of the New World.
Around 1524, Las Casas conceived a development scheme for the north coast of South America. Forty Spanish colonists were to set off with ten African slaves each, to remove the temptation of misusing the Indians. The enterprise was a failure. Most of the settlers were dispersed in the Carribean before they reached the site of the new colony. Those who did arrive were slaughtered by Indians "who had not yet learned to distinguish between good and bad Spaniards" (Thomas).
In 1535, Las Casas wrote to the king saying:
the remedy of the Christians is this, that His Majesty should think it right to send to each of the islands 500 or 600 blacks or whatever other number seems appropriate.
I expect you're wondering why Bartolomé de Las Casas isn't named at the top of this post. After all, he does sound a lot like a dickhead. The answer is simple; while I was doing the research, I found a bigger dickhead, the Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda of the title.
While Bartolomé de Las Casas was advocating the interests of the Indians - admittedly at the expense of the interests of the Africans - a controversy was going on, in Spain, about the treatment of the American Indians. The argument began in 1511 when the Dominican Fray Antonio de Montesinos gave the colonists a serve from his pulpit in Santo Domingo. This set off an argument that culminated in the Valladolid Controversy of 1550 which pitted Bartolomé de Las Casas, apostle of the Indians, in the red corner against our protagonist, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, the colonist's friend, in the Blue corner. In front of a judging panel of 15 notables they debated whether the Indians of the New World were Aristotle's "slaves by nature". Nothing was said about the Africans. The judges awarded the debate to Las Casas. Whether thishad any effect in the real world is questionable.
In the 1550s, when writing his Historia de Las Indias, Las Casas explained that he had realised that it was wrong to replace one form of slavery with another. His book wasn't published for another 350 years.
Special Bonus Dickhead: In the 1570s the subject of African slavery finally did become controversial in Spain and one or two people spoke out against it. On the pro-slavery side, Fray Francisco de la Cruz, a Dominican Friar, told the Inquisition in Lima that an angel had told him:
... the blacks are justly captives by reason of the sins of their forefathers and that becasue of that sin God gave them that colour.
Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade