The Valladolid debate

The Valladolid debate Benjamin Lay

Picture the scene: two men face each other in debate in a stunningly ornate hall. A jury of experts listens intently. They are in Valladolid, the year is 1550, and the debate concerns the moral and legal status of the newly conquered ‘savages’ in Spanish territories. The two men: Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, and humanist scholar, Juan de Sepulveda.

For Sepulveda, the whole question of the enslavement of Amerindians was largely academic. He had never been to the Western hemisphere. He was a bookish man, a man of the Renaissance, and it was precisely as a man of the Renaissance that he appealed to ancient Greek authorities.

Aristotle, the great Athenian philosopher, had argued that certain groups of humans were “natural slaves”, and Sepulveda, outlining some of the shocking practices of the Amerindians, and exaggerating many more, argued that these peoples had no natural right to freedom, or dominion over their own lands. They should, according to Sepulveda, be enslaved and forcibly converted to Christianity.

For las Casas, the whole thing was a lot more personal. Some 50 years earlier, while still a teenager, he had taken part in slave raids on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

As a young adult he had been a slave owner. He was ordained a priest, but he continued to own slaves and to defend slavery.

When the Dominican community in Hispaniola, led by Antonio de Montesinos, launched a stinging attack against slave ownership (“Are the Indians not men? Do they not have rational souls?”), las Casas had argued against the friars.

Even when he was shocked by atrocities against the indigenous peoples of Cuba, as he accompanied conquistadores invading that island, he was not moved to change his mind. It was only a year later, when he was meditating on a passage from Ecclesiasticus about the rights of the vulnerable, that las Casas finally had a change of heart, and became a convinced defender of the Amerindians and a dogged critic of slavery and aggressive colonising.

Las Casas knew, though, that moral outrage and solo activism weren’t enough. He knew that his cause needed solid arguments, based on the unshakeable foundations of the Christian Faith, and he knew he needed collaborators. This conviction led him to join the Dominican friars in Spain.

His attempted demolition of institutional slavery was completed centuries later by William Wilberforce”

For the rest of his life, las Casas campaigned against forced conversions, against slavery, against unjust military campaigns, and he did so with the intellectual and spiritual support of his Dominican brothers.

They might not have seen the horrors that he had seen, but they were prepared to think through the political, economic, and moral dimensions of these questions, and to propose laws and practices that would favour the indigenous victims of Spanish colonialism.

When las Casas faced up to Sepulveda in Valladolid, he did so as a man of experience, as a man inspired by the Word of God, as a thinker, as a man supported by a network of prayer, study, and action.

The concessions he won at Valladolid were modest, but the integrity of his position was evident to all, and his attempted demolition of institutional slavery was completed centuries later by William Wilberforce and his movement.

As we Christians struggle to find the right words and actions with which to oppose the injustices of our day, the example of Bartolomé de las Casas shows us the virtues we need to get beyond virtue-signalling.

Benjamin Lay

Reading Tom Holland’s new book, Dominion, introduced me to the fascinating figure of Benjamin Lay. He was born into a Quaker family in 1682, and grew to just over four foot tall.

His diminutive height didn’t prevent him from becoming a sailor and eventually a merchant in the Caribbean. Like Las Casas, he had his eyes opened to the cruelty of the slave trade there, and with his wife, Sarah Smith, he undertook deliberately to educate himself on the situation of the slaves.


He began to invite the slaves of his neighbours to dine at his house, to tell him their stories. This simple act of listening led him to become a radical – and radically unpopular – opponent of slavery.

His abolitionism led to his being ostracised by his peers, but he would in no way be daunted. He was dismissed as a fanatic, as a single-issue campaigner, as impractical and unrealistic.

But, much like the committed pro-life activists of today, he had little interest in pleasing the mainstream: he knew his cause was just.