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The Controversy of Valladolid, by Jean-Claude Carrière

September 11, 2010 11 comments

The Controversy of Valladolid by Jean-Claude Carrière.

The Controversy of Valladolid is a novel based on historical facts. According to Wikipedia: “The Valladolid debate (1550–1551) concerned the treatment of natives of the New World. Held in the Spanish city of Valladolid, it opposed two main attitudes towards the conquests of the Americas. Dominican friar and Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas argued that the Amerindians were free men in the natural order and deserved the same treatment as others, according to Catholic theology. Opposing him was fellow Dominican Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, who insisted the Indians were natural slaves, and therefore reducing them to slavery or serfdom was in accordance with Catholic theology and natural law. Las Casas and Sepúlveda each later claimed to have won the debate, but no record supporting either claim exists. The debate had no clear effect on the treatment of the natives, it did ensure that the 1542 New Laws, which were initially designed to abolish the encomienda system, were to remain in effect.”

The encomienda system consisted in giving lands with all their resources (forests, water, peasants, mines) to soldiers. Natives became slaves.

 In the foreword, Jean-Claude Carrière explains that Las Casas and Sepúlveda may not have had their argument face to face. The controversy was probably lead through letters, which were actually publicly discussed. As a novelist, Jean-Claude Carrière decided to create this physical confrontation of ideas to enforce the drama. However, the reasoning is accurate and come from historical documentation. In the novel, the verbal fight takes place in a monastery. Las Casas and Sepúlveda are there with their assistants and their documentation. The Cardinal Roncieri was sent by the Pope to act as an arbitrator and will decide of the position the Roman Catholic Church will officially have on that matter.

 There were 20 millions people in the New World. Many of them were killed by Spanish or died because of the new diseases brought from Europe. Las Casas gives details on the maltreatments of Indians. Slaughter and torture are the appropriate words for the treatment of them by Spanish conquistadores.

I will not describe here all the ideas each opponent puts forward to win the fight. The argument is interesting but it is even more fascinating to read how literally narrow-minded they are. Their thoughts are limited by certitudes. Some fixed points cannot be moved without shaking the foundations of their lives. Christianity is the Truth. There is only one God. It is more important to save the Indians’ soul than provide them with decent living conditions. Jean-Claude Carrière describes the Cardinal Roncieri thinking after he has heard the two rivals:

“As educated and trained as his mind may be, as adroit his intelligence, as alert his conscience, all these precious qualities have a limit, which is precisely the truth. On Cardinal Roncieri, this truth works as a cage where he is born and in which he grew up, without ever seeing it was a cage. Outside of it, in the darkness, are the territories of ignorance and errors, which are reluctant to enter into the cage to such a point that one must force them in. Only in the cage, hold by the benevolent hand of the Creator, prevails the peace and tranquillity of certitude. In the cage only is the world properly laid down” (sorry for the poor translation)

That passage says everything and applies both to Sepúlveda and Las Casas. The first, who has never left Europe, is certain that Indians are not human, of if they are, they can only be of lower category, which authorizes slavery. If they were men equal to Europeans, he cannot imagine that these people could refuse to become Christians. He judges them as idolatrous and sinners. God has abandoned them and he wants the Spanish to punish them, just as he wanted them to push the Moors out of Spain. Their condition is the will of God. Las Casas, who has spent most of his life in the New World, feels that Indians are humans but lacks the words to conclusively prove it. His vision of Indians, tolerant and kind, would demand a “relativity” of belief, the idea that several religions can coexist. But admitting this would go too far and oblige him to break his cage. So his demonstration has always embarrassing flaws. Their thinking evolves in a restricted playing field. Expanding it is unconceivable. When Galileo will expose his theories fifty years later, the Church will prove her incapacity to accept changes.

The idea of two worlds growing apart, ignoring one another and finally meeting struck me. Of course I knew it had happened but I had never paused for a moment or tried to visualize the scene. I realized how astonishing and unthinkable it must have been. How can we imagine that? It must have been as if we discovered the existence of other men on another planet, except that we are probably more prepared to this idea than the people of 1492 were.

In fact, the theological debate was just a pretext, religion was used for more earthly and greedy aims. Spain needed the Church to confirm that God was on her side, that she was entitled to possess these countries and all their wealth. Accepting Las Casas’ theory would have required to pay the Indians for their work. It would have reduced the profits made of the encomienda  and less gold and wealth to be sent back home.  The justification of Spanish military and economical domination on the New World was more at stake than the moral quest on humanity.

 The Controversy of Valladolid is well written. Jean-Claude Carrière succeeds in bringing serious ideas in a lively debate and in providing just the appropriate level of historical details. The theological part is easy to understand for a modern reader and the description of the historical context is really interesting. Of course, as Carrière is a scenarist, he is skilled at creating an atmosphere and bringing new developments to keep the attention of the reader. 

I had a nice time reading The Controversy of Valladolid and learnt many things.  A film adaptation was shot in 1992 and Jean-Pierre Marielle played the part of Las Casas and Jean-Louis Trintignant of Sepúlveda

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