When Columbus set sail in 1492, he wasn’t looking for a new world. Rather, he was trying to find a new sea passage to Asia for Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. But the opportunity to conquer the vast areas Columbus found was irresistible. Spanish soldiers spent the next fifty years conquering huge territories in Central and South America, killing thousands of Native Americans in the process. Extracting fabulous riches from the New World, Spain was at its height as a world superpower.
In 1550, Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, King Charles V, summoned two prominent scholars to the country’s main university at Valladolid for a far-reaching debate about his foreign policy. The bloodshed in the Americas worried the king. Was it right to continue expanding Spain’s empire at such a cost in human lives? On one side of the debate at Valladolid was a Dominican monk named Bartolomé de las Casas. As a child in 1493, las Casas had attended the victory parade in Seville that greeted Christopher Columbus after his discovery of the Americas. In 1502, las Casas moved to America with several relatives, part of the initial wave of Spanish settlement. In the New World, las Casas was appalled by the cruelty of the Spanish conquistadors that he witnessed firsthand. In front of the king, las Casas pleaded for a more humane Spanish policy in the Americas.
On the other side of the debate was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490–1573), a humanist scholar who believed that the Spanish had a duty to “Christianize” the American Indians by whatever means necessary. To Sepúlveda, native tribes like the Aztecs were barbarians who practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism. Not only did the Spanish have a right to subjugate the natives, Sepúlveda said they had a positive obligation to spread Western civilization. “The perfect should command and rule over the imperfect,” he wrote in 1547, citing Aristotle to defend what he called the “just war” against the Indians.
Within two generations, the Spanish had destroyed the great Aztec and Inca empires. The king was sympathetic to the pleadings of las Casas, but it was too late. For better or worse, the European colonization of the Americas was under way.
- Large parts of South America remained Spanish possessions for the next three centuries until the Napoleonic wars in Europe weakened Spain’s grasp on its colonies. Mexico gained independence in 1821, and Peru followed in 1824. Spain did not lose its last colonial possessions until the Spanish-American War in 1898.
- Far more Native Americans died from the diseases introduced by European explorers than perished in war. Smallpox was one of the many “virgin soil epidemics” that killed millions of Indians.
- Spanish explorers founded the city of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, making it the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the United States.