We have to ask ourselves when studying history: 1) Who wrote it? 2) Why did they write it? 3) Whose voice is not being heard?
For example, in Latin III we translated Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. As a straightforward military-type, his language was considered simple enough for stumbling third year Latin students.
Few would question Caesar’s account, which for obvious reasons portrays him as heroically overcoming terrible odds to bring order to the Barbarians. As it turns out, he conducted a genocide in order to obtain access to the gold mines of Galacia. The voice of those he slaughtered was silent, buried in the earth, until archaeology recently uncovered it.
The voice of regular people has seldom been heard. How did they live? What did they think? History says, “Who cares?” We hear about the “Greats” the conquerors, the leaders of armies, the “winners”-and the winners controlled written history.
But sometimes the regular people have a champion, like friar Bartolome’ de las Casas (1500’s),who went to the Spanish new world and was horrified at the barbarity of his own countrymen. We only know this because he complained to Charles V, who officially decided to consider the charges. Las Casas was opposed by Sepulvada, who vigorously justified the abuse and enslavement of the natives. It was a red hot debate.
Sepulveda cited Aristotle’s some-are-meant-to-be slaves theory and Aquinas’ Just War theory, as well as offering dehumanizing accounts of the natives: “They are naturally lazy and vicious, melancholic, cowardly, and in general, a lying, shiftless people. Their marriages are not a sacrament but a sacrilege. They are idolatrous, libidinous, and commit sodomy. Their chief desire is to eat, drink, worship heathen idols and commit bestial obscenities.”
Against this Las Casas echoed an earlier friar: “Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Must not you love them as you love yourselves?” and “Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches…It should be kept in mind that their insatiable greed and ambition, the greatest ever seen in the world, is the cause of their villainies.”
Christians who came to the new world were not all villains, by any stretch, and to claim otherwise is sheer mental laziness. It is not surprising that a Christian stood up for what was right.
But it is VERY surprising that Charles V, leader of Spain, then the most powerful nation in the world, suspended all wars of conquest until a group of intellectuals grappled with the morality of Spain’s presence and enterprises in America.
Imagine the leader of any powerful nation today saying, “Hold everything. Is what we are doing moral? We must stop until we figure that out.”
Imagine that! And then ask, “Why not?”
Dirt, Greed and Blood: Just War and the Colonization of the Americas