Valladolid Debate for APUSH

Valladolid Debate for APUSH2018-11-28T09:54:25+00:00

Valladolid Debate for APUSH

Do you know who won the first morality debate about European colonization in the New World? Let’s take to look the Valladolid Debate of 1550, the first ethics debate of European colonization.

The Encomienda System

In the beginning of the 16th century, Spain begin the colonized many parts of the New World. To help with this colonization, Spain instituted the encomienda system, which allowed Spaniards the right to a section of land in the New World, but not only the right to the land- the labor of the indigenous population living on that land. So essentially, the Spaniard got the land and the people living on the land, and Spain said, “This is yours to own.” What was the result of this system? The result was widespread abuse and neglect of large population of endogenous people. And while the encomienda system did encourage colonization, not everyone involved thought was a good thing. Men like Bartolome de las Casas began to speak out against the encomienda system and its abuses. In fact, Casas was so successful in his public campaign against the encomienda system, that the king of Spain begin to take notice.

The Valladolid Debate

And by the mid-16th century, the king of Spain instituted reform laws which reformed the encomienda system to try to curve and end it’s most notorious abuses. However, just as people spoke out against the encomienda system, there were people speaking for it. A notable advocate for the encomienda system was Juan Sepulveda. The debate over the encomienda system became a very hot topic. And this debate raged on in Spain and in the New World. In fact, by 1550, the king of Spain began an investigation into the morality of Spanish colonization and the encomienda system itself. The king charged Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Sepulveda to debate in the Spanish court. And this debate would guide Spanish policy going forward. If the advocates for the encomienda system won, then that system would continue to be reinforced, but if people who spoke out against it won, then the encomienda system would start to be dismantled. It was a very important debate and the whole country watched it.

So what was Sepulveda’s argument for the encomienda system since its abuses were so well documented? Sepulveda sited the indigenous people’s history of cannibalism and human sacrifice as savage behaviors. And he said that this behavior was unfit for humans and that they needed a European master to rule over the them and show them the proper and ethical way to live. Essentially, Sepulveda was saying that the indigenous populations, because of their barbaric practices, were unfit to govern themselves and they needed a European government to rule over them. Bartolome on the other hand, argued that the native Americans were free men deserving of equal treatment. So who won the debate, and how did this influence Spain’s policy of colonization going forward? Both Bartolome and Sepulveda presented their arguments before a Spanish court. The court, after spending many months in deliberation, rendered an inconclusive verdict, meaning nobody won. This allowed both Bartolome and Sepulveda to claim victory in the debate, even though neither side was officially acknowledged as the winner. Bartolome saw no end of Spanish colonization of the New World, and Sepulveda didn’t see a resending of the new laws and to reform the encomienda system.


Essentially, neither side won nor lost and not much changed after the debate. The current situation remained as is. While the outcome of the debate was inconclusive, it did established two important legacies. The first was that Bartolome de las Casas was officially recognized as protector of the Indians. And second, and more important to the context of world in U.S. history, the Valladolid debate was the first European debate about the morality of European colonization of new lands, and not only the colonization of those lands, but how the populations in those new lands should be treated.

What do you think of both sides of Sepulveda and Bartolome’s arguments? Let us know in the comments below.

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