The Moral Life of Barbarians

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology by Anthony Pagden
    Cambridge, 256 pp, £24.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 22202 8

Spain was in doubt about its new dominion in the Antilles. In 1493, the Pope Alexander VI had granted Ferdinand and Isabel the right to conquer and also to enslave the inhabitants of the islands. But only two years later, Isabel was intervening to stop the sale of some that Columbus had sent back to Seville. It was not that she or anyone else objected to slavery itself. There was no moral problem, for instance, about buying Africans from the Portuguese. It was rather that she regarded the American Indians as vassals of her own crown and was clear, as she reminded the governor of Hispaniola in 1501, that they should be treated as well as the inhabitants of Castile itself. But she died, the Pope had decreed otherwise, and despite some revived resentment at his again presuming a temporal power, a junta of advisers called by Ferdinand in 1504 upheld the Pope’s view.

The question seems not to have been raised again for the next few years. But then, on the Sunday before Christmas 1511, a Dominican, Antonio de Montesinos, delivered a sermon to the Spanish population of Hispaniola, denouncing them for their treatment of the Indians and warning them that if they didn’t mend their ways they would ‘no more be saved than the Moors or the Turks’. Montesinos was objecting to the ‘cruel and horrible servitude’ to which his compatriots had reduced the natives. He was objecting to the encomienda. This institution had been introduced by Columbus in 1499 to provide ‘protection’ and religious instruction in return for labour, and it was being abused. In principle free, the Indians were in practice enslaved. Ferdinand was sensitive to the Dominicans’ opinions and still uneasy about the Pope’s authority in relation to his own. He accordingly called a second junta in Burgos in 1512 to try to get a fresh decision on the legitimacy of his conquest and the use of the natives. This precipitated Spain’s intellectuals, the theologians, canon lawyers and civil lawyers who were customarily asked to join such juntas and advise the Crown, into an argument that lasted for more than sixty years. And as Anthony Pagden explains, this argument can also be read as the start of what one can retrospectively recognise as anthropological thinking in Europe. Indeed, Pagden’s subtle account of it is a model for the history of anthropology altogether. It shows, too, how constant some of the subject’s central conceptions have been in the succeeding four hundred years.

The impulse to anthropology in Spain came in the doubt about the more straightforwardly juridical case for dominion. The Crown’s authority could lie in custom and precedent, but none such served for the Antilles. The Crown could accept the authority of the Pope, but that had its price, and it was not at all clear that the Pope himself could claim authority over people who had neither been part of the Roman Empire nor could plausibly be supposed, like the Jews and the Turks, to be living in vincible ignorance of Christ. If an acceptable answer to the question of dominion could be provided in some other way, such difficulties would be avoided. This is what the members of the Burgos junta did. They rested their case on the Indians’ own nature.

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