History Timeline 1500s

Above: Painting, entitled Discovery of the Mississippi, by William H. Powell, 1847, is located in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Right: Giovanni de Verrazzano, 1889, engraving by F. Allcarini, Tocchi, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Giovanni da Verrazzano

Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1500s


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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1550-1

    August 1550 - May 1551 - A debate over the treatment and status of Indians in the New World is held in Valladolid, Spain. The Valladolid debate pitted the Bishop of Chiapas, who stated that the American Indian was a free man deserving equal treatment to European colonists per theology. The opposite viewpoint, that Indians were natural slaves, was debated by a fellow Dominican, using claims of theology as well as natural law.

    Bishop of Chiapas

    There had been a debate brewing over the treatment of natives in the Americas since the days of Columbus. Were they free men with the same rights as Europeans, or savages meant to be enslaved and treated as less than free men, in many cases less than human? By 1550, the morality of the positions were at the forefront of Spanish intellectual and political society with the King of Spain ceasing all military expansion until the issue could be addressed. A debate would be held at the Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, Spain. There would be two sessions, the first in August or September 1550, and the second, in April or May 1551. On the side of the natives was the Bishop of the Mexican Province of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas. On the side of brutality and European dominance was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a humanist scholar. Other scholars participated as well. It was the political roundtable of the day, or a very important version of a Drop the Mic Battle with theological scholars instead of guests of James Cordon.

    Despite the seeming easy decision on who should win this battle, there were extenuating circumstances behind the debate. The Bishop of Chiapas was a controversial friar who supported the idea that the colonizers and Indians were equals despite some of the practices of the American natives; i.e cannibalism, human sacrifice. Sepúlveda could not accept that, and thought those activities by the natives had to be stopped, even at the point of a gun, and proved that they could not govern themselves. It was the Spanish obligation to intervene. Bartolomé de las Casas disagreed with forced conversion of natives to Catholicism and thought the Indians fully capable of making decisions with rational ideas and governance.

    Nobody dropped the microphone. There's no record of who or what was said or whether one side won. It became the initial full throated debate on the treatment of others, unlike your own, about colonialism and human rights. In the end, treatment of the native population improved, but Spanish conquest continued. Guess the Bishop won in the eventual, although it would take hundreds of years before the full victory could be achieved. Yes, after the Spanish would lose the colonies and after the United States won a war of Civil proportion. Even then, the treatment of Native Americans would remain beneath, in many ways, the human rights debated in 1550.

    Who was Bartolomé de las Casas?

    Born in Seville in 1484, Bartolomé de las Casas saw the parade of Columbus upon his return from the first voyage on March 31, 1493. His father and uncle joined the second Columbus voyage, returning in 1498 with wealth. Bartolome' emigrated with his father to Hispaniola, the island of today's Dominican Republic and Haiti, arriving on April 15, 1502. He became a slave owner and participated in raids against the Taino native population. By 1510, he was the first ordained priest in the Americas, traveling back and forth between Spain and Hispaniolo, but had not yet converted his thoughts on subjugation of the native population by force. The same year, he was denied confession due to being a slave owner by Dominican friars and agreed with the colonists and encomenderos that the Dominicans should be recalled to Spain. They were.

    For the next four years, Bartolomé de las Casas participated in the conquest of Cuba and forced takeover of other islands and peoples, dividing his time between colonial fortune and the priesthood. In 1514, his thoughts converted while preparing a sermon. He no longer agreed that the Indian population were to be subjugated, enslaved, and treated as less than the Europeans. He would give up his slaves and fortune, urge other encomenderos to do the same, and travel back to Spain to argue for policies that reflected his new thoughts.

    A change in the government of the islands would occur after his trip to Spain; Bartolomé de las Casas himself would be appointed the Protector of the Indians, an official post that reported to the King of Spain. Through the next decade, he would begin ventures back to the new world to establish forts and communities to foster the King's treasury while maintaining his support of the Indians plight. They failed. In 1523, he entered the monastery in Santo Domingo and became a Dominican Friar. In 1545, he became the Bishop of Chiapas.

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    Who was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda?

    Born in 1494 in the Spanish province of Cordoba, Sepúlveda was a staunch defender of Spain's right to conquest and colonization in the New World. He was educated in Italy as a disciple of Pietro Pomponazzi. A theologian and philosolpher, he believed in colonial slavery, forced conversion to Catholicism for American natives, and used the philosophy of Aristotle to promote the idea that the natives were natural slaves. Natives were no more than children to their parents or women to their men, subjects, not free, incapable of self governing.

    Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda never set foot in the Americas.

    Image above: Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, 16th Century, Unknown Painter. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons via the General Archives of the Indies. Photo below: Depiction of Wild Men on the facade of the College of San Gregorio in Valladolid, Spain. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Source info: Wikipedia; Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda on the Nature of the American Indians by Jose A. Fernandez-Santamaria, April 1975, Academy of American Franciscan History 1975, Cambridge.org; lascasas.org.

Facade of the College of San Gregorio

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