Critics also seem to have discounted the devastation of Europe in the previous century brought on by the Plague. Estimates are that one third of Europeans died as a result of this epidemic that scholars believe originated in the Gobi Desert in the early 1300s.
The Black Death, as bubonic plague was known, had been brought to Europe from Asia. Much less fashionable than the moral indictment against Western nations for carrying disease to the New World is the counterclaim against Asia—and equally absurd.
No small part of the denunciation of Columbus and his successors in our times is an update of the leyenda negra—the Black Legend—that Protestant countries applied to the Catholic Spaniards. As the gifted writer G. K. Chesterton put it, many of the English histories of Spanish exploration and conquest reflected “the desire of the white man to despise the Red Indian and the flatly contradictory desire of the Englishman to despise the Spaniard for despising the Red Indian.”
Not all the Spaniards despised. Father Antonio de Montesinos addressed outraged settlers on the island of Hispaniola in 1511, barely a decade after Columbus’s last voyage:
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. This voice says that you are in mortal sin and live and die in it because of the cruelty and tyranny that you use against these innocent peoples. Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what authority do you wage such detestable wars on these peoples who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, in which you have destroyed countless numbers of them with unheard of murder and ruin? . . .Are these Indians not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?
And Montesinos was not as alone as his words would indicate.
Bartolome de Las Casas became the leading Spanish cleric opposing harsh measures against the Indians. He even went so far, in his famous Confesionario, to advise priests to deny absolution to any settlers who owned or abused aboriginal peoples.
Las Casas engaged in a lengthy debate with the leading scholar of his day, Aristotle scholar Juan Gines de Sepulveda of Vallodolid. Sepulveda argued that the Indians were what the great philosopher had termed “slaves by nature.” Las Casas disputed this and argued that the Indians, because they had been denied access to the Scriptures, were not fully morally culpable for the horrors of cannibalism and human sacrifice. For his unwavering advocacy of the cause of the Indians, Las Casas was called defensor de los indios.
Montesinos and Las Casas were not entirely voices crying in the wilderness.Both were active in pressing the Spanish monarchs to approve measures to help the Indians.
But it was a long way from Spain to the New World.
Speculation about the nature of the Indians—were they fully human?—led such Spanish thinkers as the Dominican friar Francisco de Vitoria to write extensively on the nature of human rights. He deserves to be ranked along with Suarez and Grotius as founders of modern international law. Among Vitoria’s firm principles were these:
Every Indian is a man and thus capable of attaining salvation or damnation.
The Indians may not be deprived of their goods or power on account of their social backwardness.
Every man has the right to the truth, to education . . .
By natural law, every man has the right to his own life and to physical and mental integrity.
The Indians have the right not to be baptized and not to be forced to convert against their will.
Critics have pointed out that these morally sophisticated principles were rarely honored in Latin America. That may be true, but where else were such principles even enunciated and defended? And it should be remembered that these leading thinkers were churchmen, not governors. Few of today’s critics would argue for the state to be run by the church. Still, might the criticism of Spanish conduct in Latin America be not that it was too Catholic, but that it was not Catholic enough?