The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 14, 2022

Did the Catholic Church really rule that Native Americans have no soul? How propaganda can still affect us after half a millennium


You may have heard a common version of the story of the "Controversy of Valladolid." It says that during the 16th century, a court convened by the King of Spain and staffed by Catholic priests decided that the Native Americans had no soul and that, hence, could be enslaved or exterminated at will. It is one of the many legends that surround us. The Valladolid Court of 1550-1551 actually ruled in favor of the Natives, forbidding their enslavement. But they were enslaved and exterminated anyway. The ruling of the court was distorted and turned into a propaganda piece that accused the Christian Church of being the instigator of the extermination. And many people still believe this story after nearly five centuries!  But so is propaganda, one of the most powerful (and evil) technologies ever devised by humans.

Not long ago, I was taking a foreign friend to visit Piazza Signoria, in Florence, showing him the many statuary pieces lining the square. All wonderful pieces, in many ways, but also disquieting for their depiction of murder and death. Today, nobody could get away with a piece of art where a man beheads a naked woman. And yet this is exactly what one of the main pieces in the square shows to us, Perseus and Medusa, in an unbelievably cruel depiction of a murder. 

As we walked past the Perseus, I told my friend, "you see, there is an invisible wall that cuts the square in two. On one side, there are older pieces of statuary, all with Christian themes: David and Goliath, Judith and Holophernes, and more. On the other side, you have pieces inspired by classical myths from the Pagan age: Hercules, Perseus and Medusa, the rape of the Sabines, and others." 

It was at that point that something clicked in my mind: "why exactly does that invisible wall exist?" The question arrived together with the answer. The wall is related to the "Controversy of Valladolid," a debate requested by King Charles 5th of Spain in 1550 to decide the fate of the Native Americans. It is an event that still reverberates in our perception of history, but distorted and transformed into the opposite of what it was by propaganda. But let me start from the beginning

The 16th century had been a century of military triumphs for Europe, and for Spain in particular, with the conquest of Mexico and Perù. That had brought a question for the new rulers: what to do with the Native inhabitants? Were they to be given rights as citizens of the Spanish Empire? Or should they be enslaved for their own good?  King Charles 5th of Spain, an enlightened ruler, convened a court in Valladolid to discuss it. After two years of debate, the court ruled in favor of the Natives and the King duly enacted laws banning their enslavement. But the story was not going to end there. There were enormous financial interests in Europe that dictated that the Natives should have been used as expendable, cheap labor. And it the Valladolid Court had said that it was not to be done, then down with the Valladolid Court and the Christian principles at the basis of the ruling. And down with Christianity, just as well. 

It was a profound paradigm shift in European views, still reverberating in our times. Perhaps the best place to see it is just where the Perseus stands: In the Piazza della Signoria square, in Florence. In a few decades, Europe had completely switched from an art inspired by Christian principles to one inspired by Pagan ones. A reflection of the debate at Valladolid, where one of the two discussants, Juan Gines de Sepulveda cited Aristotle to argue that if civilized societies, such as the Greek and Roman ones, permitted slavery, then it could be practiced even in modern Europe. 

It was a blueprint for what was going to happen, with European society starting to model itself on what Europeans thought was the ancient Greek society. One of the results was the invisible wall in Piazza della Signoria. Cellini's piece with Perseus and Medusa, brutal as it is, acquires a specific meaning when understood in the frame of the enslavement and the extermination of the Natives. The strong survive, and the weak perish. Perseus personifies the winning Europeans, Medusa the weaker Natives.

In time, the proceedings of the Valladolid Court were turned into the legend, common nowadays, that the court was charged to decide whether the Native Americans had a soul or not. Some versions of the story say that the court had decided that, maybe, they didn't have it -- they were beasts. It was probably the result of the distorted interpretation of a book by Bartolomé the Las Casas, one of the discussants at Valladolid. He described how the decisions of the court were ignored in his "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" (1552). The book was turned into anti-Spanish propaganda by those who were actually exterminating the Natives, the British, and North European colonists. The Catholic Church received such a blow from this campaign that it never completely recovered from it. 

This is one of the most evil legends around us because it condemns the honest efforts that many people of good will expended trying to save the Natives. But we still believe this ancient propaganda, nearly half a millennium later! The evil Goddess named Propaganda still deceives us.


Below, you'll find a post by Paul Jorion that tells the true story.  

This text by Jorion was also discussed in a previous post on the collapse of science. See also this post on how the Perseus is related to Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter. 

The "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid (1550-1551)


This text will find its place in the panorama of anthropology that I am writing at the moment. As this is a subject that I am new to and where I cannot avail myself of any expertise, please be so kind as to point out to me any factual errors I make. Thank you in advance !


In 1550 and 1551 a debate took place in the city of Valladolid in Spain, which would go down in history as the “quarrel” or “controversy,” bearing the name of this city in the province of Castile and Leon.  

What was it about? It dealt with the Christian European civilization behaving like an unscrupulous invader on a continent of which it knew nothing, within populations of which it was until then unaware of the very existence, which it then discovered in real-time as it grew. advance in the territory of the New World, and the devastation that accompanied this advance.  

What all this meant as to how the victors would now treat the vanquished would be the question posed in a great debate that would cover a period of two years and where two champions of Spanish thought at the time would face off. Great intellectual and ethical problems had to be resolved in the scholastic tradition of a disputatio, before the enlightened public of what we would today call a commission, which would decide at the end of the debate which of the two speakers was right. There were basically only church people there.  

Two thinkers were on stage, both solemnly defending opposing points of view. They clashed at the level of ideas by mobilizing all the art of dialectics: that intended to convince, an art developed specifically for the speeches held in ancient Greece on an agora. To defend one of the points of view, Juan Gines de Sepulveda (1490-1573) considered, in a word, that the inhabitants of the New World were cruel savages and that the question was, basically, how to save them from themselves. To defend the opposing point of view, there was the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566) who affirmed that the Amerindians were, like the Europeans, human beings, whose differences should not be exaggerated, and that the question was about integrating them peacefully into a Christian society by conviction rather than by force.

The brutal conquest of Mexico took place from 1519 to 1521, it was no less bloody than in Peru from 1528 to 1532. We are now in 1550, almost twenty years after this last date. The situation, from the point of view of the Spaniards, is that they have won: the huge empire of New Spain has been conquered by secular Spain. It is a victory, even if internal quarrels continue, on the one hand between the colonized, as at the time of the conquest, which their incessant dissensions had fostered, and on the other hand between the colonizers themselves, manifested by a litany of palace revolutions and assassinations of conquistadors between them, in Peru as in Mexico.  

But the time has come for Charles V (1500-1558), “Emperor of the Romans”, to take a break. We must think about how to treat these conquered populations, decimated in equal parts by battles and massacres, and by the ravages of smallpox and measles, against which the local populations were helpless, having no immunity to these diseases hitherto absent from the continent. It is considered today that Mexico had some 25 million inhabitants on the eve of the first landing of the Spaniards in 1498. In 1568, the population was estimated at 3 million and it is believed that in 1620 there were only a million and a half Mexicans left.  

The phase still to come would no longer be that of Mexico or Peru, whose conquest was completed and where colonization was then carried out well, but that of Paraguay, which would begin in 1585, thirty-five years later.

Charles V, was an enlightened sovereign, like his rival François 1 st. They were contemporaries: two thinking kings, not only just kings, but men who had questions about history, knowing that they were major players. They shared a conception of the world enlightened by the same religion: Catholicism. The reign of Charles V will end a few years later: in 1555. It will then be his son Philip who will become sovereign of Spain and the Netherlands. Later, in 1580, he will also be King of Portugal. Charles V demands that any new conquest be interrupted as long as Las Casas and Sepulveda exchange their arguments on the question of the status to be recognized for the indigenous populations of the New World.  

Charles V had not, however, remained indifferent to these questions even before: already in 1526, 24 years before the Valladolid controversy, he had issued a decree prohibiting the slavery of Amerindians throughout the territory, and in 1542, he had promulgated new laws which proclaimed the natural freedom of the Amerindians and obliged to release those who had been reduced to slavery: freedom of work, freedom of residence and free ownership of property, punishing, in principle, those who were violent and aggressive towards Native Americans.  

Paul III was the pope from 1534 to 1549. In 1537, thirteen years before the beginning of the Valladolid controversy, in the papal bull Sublimis Deus and in the letter Veritas Ipsa, he had officially condemned, on behalf of the Catholic Church, the slavery of the Native Americans. The statement was "universal," that is, it was applicable wherever the Christian world could still discover populations unknown to it on the surface of the globe: it was said in Sublimis Deus: " and of all peoples that may be later discovered by Christians ”. And in both documents, so in Veritas Ipsa too: "Indians and other peoples are true human beings."

When the quarrel began, Julius III had just succeeded Paul III: he was enthroned on February 22, 1550.

The general principle, for Charles V, was that of aligning with the Church policy. In the "quarrel" or "controversy" of Valladolid, one of the moments of solemn reflection of humanity on itself, it is not the Church, but the Kingdom of Spain, which summons religious authorities , experts, to try to answer the question "What can be done so that the conquests still to come in the New World are done with justice and in security of conscience?"

It is heartbreaking that the television film “La controverse de Valladolid” (1992), by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, with Jean-Pierre Marielle in the role of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant in that of Sepulveda, as well as the novel by Jean- Claude Carrière, from whom it was inspired, took such liberties with historical truth that it was affirmed that the central question in the quarrel was to determine whether the Amerindians had a soul. No: this question had been settled by the Church without public debate thirteen years earlier. Sublimis Deus affirms that their property and their freedom must be respected, and further specifies "even if they remain outside the faith of Jesus Christ", that is to say that the same attitude must be maintained even if they are rebellious to conversion. It is written in the Papal Bull Veritas Ipsa that Native Americans are to be “invited to the said faith of Christ by the preaching of the word of God and by the example of a virtuous life. »In 1537: thirteen years before the commission met.

The question of the soul of the Amerindians was of course raised in Valladolid, but in no way to try to resolve it: on this level, the issue was closed. In reality, it had been resolved in the real world by the Spanish invaders: it would have been possible to summon young men and women of mixed race in their twenties to Valladolid, including Martin, son of Ernan Cortés and Doña Marina, “La Malinche”: living proof that the human species had recognized itself as “one and indivisible” in the field and that the question of whether these people, whom their mother could accompany if necessary, dressed in Spanish fashion, and most often militants of Christianity in their actions and in their words. Whether or not they had a soul, would have been an entirely abstract and ridiculous question, the problem having been solved in the facts: in the interbreeding which took place, in this reality that men and women have recognized themselves sufficiently similar not only to mate and immediately procreate, but to sanctify their marriage, in a sumptuous way for the richest, according to the rites of the Church. Circumstances, it must be emphasized, the opposite of the rules that were followed in North America, while in the case of Protestant settlers in their almost all - except Quebec - from the end of the 16th century.

The meetings in Valladolid were eld twice over a month, in 1550 and then in 1551, but most of the texts available to us are not transcripts of the debates: they are correspondence between the parties involved: Juan Gines de Sepulveda, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and the members of the commission.

Las Casas had first been himself an encomendero, a slave settler: he led plantations where Native American slaves were originally found, plantations in which, reacting to the Church's commands to give back their freedom to the natives enslaved, he had replaced on his own authority the labor of Amerindian slaves that he ceased to exploit with other laborers: blacks imported from Africa. This will be a great regret in his life, he will talk about it later. Most of the encomenderos were not as attentive as Las Casas to instructions from the mother country or the Vatican. Already in 1511, in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Antonio de Montesinos, who exercised a decisive influence on Las Casas, refused the sacraments and threatened with excommunication those among them whom he considered unworthy. Here is his famous sermon:

"I am the voice of the One who cries in the desert of this island and that is why you must listen to me with attention. This voice is the freshest you have ever heard, the harshest and the most tough. This voice tells you that you are all in a state of mortal sin; in sin you live and die because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you overwhelm this innocent race.

Tell me, what right and what justice authorize you to keep the Indians in such dreadful servitude? In the name of what authority have you waged such hateful wars against those peoples who lived in their lands in a gentle and peaceful way, where a considerable number of them were destroyed by you and died in yet another way? never seen as it is so atrocious? How do you keep them oppressed and overwhelmed, without giving them food, without treating them in their illnesses which come from excessive work with which you overwhelm them and from which they die? To put it more accurately, you kill them to get a little more gold every day.

And what care do you take to instruct them in our religion so that they know God our creator, so that they are baptized, that they hear Mass, that they observe Sundays and other obligations?

Are they not men? Are they not human beings? Must you not love them as yourselves?

Be certain that by doing so, you cannot save yourself any more than the Moors and Turks who refuse faith in Jesus Christ. "

Las Casas' reflection led him to give up this role of planter and he took a step back for several years. Charles V then offered him access to vast lands in Venezuela on which he could implement the policy he now advocated towards the Amerindians: no longer the use of force, but the power of conviction and conversion by example. Las Casas was a Thomist. Following the line drawn by Thomas Aquinas, he read in human society a given of nature. It is not a question of a cultural heritage, that is to say of the fruit of the deliberations of men, but of a gift from God, so that all societies are of equal dignity, and a society of Pagans is no less legitimate than a society of Christians and it is wrong to attempt to convert its members by force. The propagation of the faith must be done there in an evangelical way, namely by virtue of example.

Facing Las Casas, Sepulveda stood: an Aristotelian philosopher who found in the texts of his mentor, not a justification for slavery, absent in fact from the texts of the Stagirite, but the description and the explanation of the slave society of ancient Greece, represented as a functional set of institutions: a legitimate model of human society. Sepulveda considered slavery, obedience to orders given, to be the status that suits a people who, left to themselves, commit, as we can observe, nameless abominations. Sepulveda finds argument in the atrocities committed, in particular the uninterrupted practice of human sacrifice, for which the populations brutally enslaved by the dominant society of the moment, constitute an inexhaustible source of victims, but also their anthropophagy, as well as their practice of incest. in the European sense of the term: fraternal and sororal incest within the framework of princely families in Mexico, "incestuous promiscuity" if you will, in the pooling of women among brothers, a difficulty that the Jesuits later encountered in the case of the Guaranis of Paraguay, which they will resolve by banning the “longhouse”, the collective dwelling of siblings.

Las Casas responded to Sepulveda by stressing that Spanish civilization is no less brutal: "We do not find in the customs of the Indians of greater cruelty than that which we ourselves had in the civilizations of the old world." Very diplomatically, he draws his examples from the past and says "formerly:" "In the past, we manifested a similar cruelty", highlighting for example the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome. He also drew an argument from the monumental architecture of the Aztecs as proof of their civilization.

If the two points of view differed, and even if their positions were considered diametrically opposed, the two parties agreed on the fact that the invaders not only have rights to exercise over the Amerindians but also duties towards them, and in particular, in the context of the time and the question to be answered. There is no dispute between them as to the duty to convert: this is the dimension strictly speaking "Catholic" from the very framework of the debate. Their difference lies in their respective recommendations of the methods to be used: peaceful colonization and exemplary life for Las Casas and, for Sepulveda, institutional colonization based on coercion, given the brutal features of the very culture of the pre-Colombian populations.  

Let us remember that the context was extremely brutal texts on both sides. Las Casas, at the end of his life, will write a small book devoted only to the atrocities committed by the conquistadors, a small book that propaganda consistently used against Spain to advantage its rivals: the Netherlands, France and England, although this does not mean that these nations will not also be guilty of the same crimes in the territories that they will annex in their business colonial. Mutual surveillance therefore of European nations vis-à-vis possible abuses committed by others, from a diplomatic perspective of foreign policy.

The controversy officially ended in 1551 when Charles V, on the recommendations of the commission, formalized the position defended by Las Casas. It will therefore be by invoking the Gospels and by example that conversion will have to continue and not at the point of the sword.  

A victory which, however, will not immediately have enormous consequences on the ground, any more than the papal bulls had had before it. The encomenderos will only weakly respect the injunctions coming from the mother country. Wars between Amerindian tribes will continue despite the presence of missionaries and a small military contingent. The Bandeirantes of Sao Paulo will organize raids, supplying the encomenderos with prisoners, who will be on the plantations, as many de facto slaves. Etc.

A year after the controversy was over, in 1552, Las Casas undertook to write his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias , the very brief account of the destruction of the Indies, which will therefore be his testimony on the destructions and the atrocitie, of the colonization of New Spain by the Spaniards.  

When, from the end of the same century, missions are founded in Paraguay, called "Reductions", it will be in the exact line of the proposals of Las Casas.

It will be essentially Las Casas who will obtain, thanks to his vibrant plea in favor of the local populations, that the question of slavery would be closed once and for all in Central and South America: there will be no indigenous slaves, Amerindians will be considered as full citizens and, as an unexpected consequence, since the Church has not pronounced on the question of knowing whether Africans could be enslaved or not, the Spanish and Portuguese authorities will consider that the decision in favor of the position of Las Casas opens suddenly the possibility of a systematic exploitation of the African populations to draw from them the stock of slaves required by the plantations of the New World. It is Las Casas who will be in a way responsible for an acceleration of the slavery of Africans insofar as the authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, by discouraging the enslavement of the Amerindians, will indirectly encourage the planters to turn, as a replacement, towards the slave trade in African blacks, a situation in which Las Casas found himself at the time when he was encomendero. In his correspondence, at the end of his life, he bitterly regretted having been indirectly the cause of an aggravated enslavement of Africans.  

The sincere concern of Bartolomé de Las Casas to spare the Amerindians, will have preserved them from the even more tragic fate of their brothers and sisters of North America within the framework of an essentially English colonization at the start, made of spoliation and genocide, without any interbreeding. 



  1. Thank you for this fascinating account - I teach indigenous students and will suggest that they read this.

  2. wow, what a read. Talk about discovering basic beliefs I didn't even know I had, such as that the catholic church condoned slavery of conquered peoples. Nor did I realize that the protestants were worse. (Tho there is a story about George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement in 1650s that he stood firmly on the side of generic moral and spiritual goodness of amerindians.)
    And more generally, how the mercantilist (to put it nicely) urge overwhelmed the good and humane in the colonization of N and S America.

  3. Ugo, there is too much to say about this, but in my study of Mexican history I was fascinated to learn that the indigenous could be said to have souls if they converted...ergo...very important in Mexican history, they also could marry Spanish. And did. The famous casta paintings

  4. Opps scratch my comment please...will finish it, was looking for the links to the casta pictures...will start over result is that 19% of the population of Mexico is indigenous today and mixed race was normal from the start..even if there were 13 castes...In the US mixed race marriage was both prohibited and socially impossible...and only 5% of the population of the US is indigenous today...C.

    1. From the book I am writing:

      In genetic terms, the modern population of Mexico is highly mixed. The “Mestizos,” people of mixed Native and European ancestry, form some 60%-90% of the total population (the exact number depends on the criteria used to define them). It is reported that, on the average, their genes are nearly 80% native, the rest being “Iberian” (that is, Spanish) (44). From a cultural viewpoint, the Mesoamerican heritage is still alive and several Native languages, such as the Guaraní in Paraguay or the Nahuatl in Mexico, are still spoken by a sufficient number of speakers that their survival is not at risk. (45). It is said that the Mexican revolutionary leader, Emiliano Zapata (1879- 1919), was of Indio origin and that he could speak Nahuatl (46).

      A similar story holds for South America. The Europeans defeated the Inca Empire, but maintained some of its structures, and the two populations had the time to intermingle. The retreat of the Natives involved fights and several extermination episodes, but sometimes the Natives offered a successful resistance. In 1598, at the battle of Curalaba in Southern Chile (that the Spanish call the “Disaster of Curalaba”) the Mapuches, one of the Andean populations, soundly managed to defeat the Spanish and force them to abandon seven of their cities (Destrucción de las siete ciudades). The last phase of the fight in South America was a defeat for the Natives, with the “Conquest of the Desert” in the 1870s, carried out by the Argentine army over the Patagonian Desert. Which was not exactly a desert, since it was inhabited by the Native Mapuche population. It was a full-fledged ethnical cleansing campaign that led to the extermination and removal of the Indios, leaving space for the European settlers to move there. Yet, as an indication of the fierce resistance of the Mapuche, at least one world of their language became part of the Argentinian vocabulary. It was “Malón,” from “maleu,” meaning “to inflict damage to the enemy.” In its modern usage, the term indicates a plunder raid of the Indios.

      Although modern Argentinians see themselves as of European descent, they mostly are of mixed blood. Genetic studies have shown that the average ancestry of the Argentinians is no more than 65% Iberian (47), but the rest is from Native populations, plus a small percentage (around 4%) of Africans. A similar result holds for Chile, with an even larger (almost 50%) percentage of Native ancestry (48). The Brazilians are a little more European than both Argentinians and Chileans, but only marginally so, with an average of about 70% of European genes (49), probably the result of a recent immigration trend from Europe. Other South-American countries have similar admixtures.

      That doesn’t mean that the mixing of the European and the Native genes always took place in a friendly manner. It is perfectly possible that male European settlers enslaved or raped Native women, but also the reverse is possible, as described, for instance, in the short story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Historia del Guerrero y la cautiva" 1949. The genetic analysis cannot tell us much about that, although some data indicate that the mixing occurred mostly between European males and Native females (49). In any case, it happened.

      The case of North America is very different. Whereas for South America and Mesoamerica, the genetic data indicate extensive sexual mixing of the Natives and European population, the average fraction of Native American genes in the DNA of US citizens of European descent is less than 0.2%. (50). Mixed marriages just didn’t take place, except in the early times, when Pocahontas (1596-1617) married a British colonist. In later times, intermarriage was not just uncommon in North America, it was prohibited by law. “Anti-miscegenation laws” that made intermarriage a felony existed in the US until the 1960s.

  5. I'm distantly descended from Pocahontas. I think her life was tragic.
    Thanks for all of this. My wife is Mexican-American, so our kids are half-native, but not counted that way, since not from a recognized tribe.

  6. 💬 "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" (1522)
    ↑↑ The year published acc to Ugo makes nada sense 😉

  7. No Propaganda's outcome worth more than the finite fossil resources burned in running it.

    When one has control, to the level of ownership, over fossil resources - burning them to propaganda the masses - is a matter of insanity.

    Leave the masses alone and enjoy the resources alone...

    Set the masses free from propaganda, and keep fossil resources for your disposal - alone...

    Cannot be done?

    The masses will soon overtake control over fossil resources, for themselves, if they are set free?

    If this is the case, then all fossil fuels burned to date to run propagandas were actually to control fossil resources - and this is - insanity...

    Propaganda - no matter whether uses Mars, E=mc^2, Democracy, Renewables, Nuclear Fusion, War, etc - is a tool to control fossil resources - by burning fossil fuels - to depletion.

    Humans needed to to be above humans to deserve finite fossil resources.

    "Energy, like time, flows from past to future"


  8. This reminds me of a clip with Charles V and fray Bartolome, with Hernán Cortés and an actual saint (San Franciso de Borja, grandson of the Borgia pope Alexander VI) in supporting roles.

  9. Telegraphic summary of this fine post. All morality is will to power.