I’ve been watching a repeat run of Michael Wood’s excellent Conquistadors series on UK History, detailing the Spanish conquest of Central and South America. The first Europeans coming to this strange, New World in the footsteps of Columbus found not only native Indian tribes but great civilizations that no-one had ever heard of in the Old World. The Incas and the Aztecs are only the best known. Organised cultures with cities in what had been foolishly assumed to have been a ‘barbarous’ land. But then the Spanish conception of barbarism was like that of the Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians and countless others throughout history – barbarians are those who are different from us.
The final episode followed the epic journey of Da Vacca, his expedition left for dead after a disastrous trip into the unknown Florida interior (home of the Seminole Indians, the only tribe who never surrendered to the White Man). Trying to leave on hastily built ships they were wrecked off the coast of what is now Texas. Over nearly ten years he and his by then three companions travelled on foot through the many tribes, picking up languages, following trails that were probably thousands of years old. Walking through Texas, California, New Mexico, Mexico itself until, nearly a decade after they were given up as dead they walked into a Spanish colonial town in Central America.
They were changed men – unlike most of the conquerors they now saw the natives as human beings after their time amongst them and that violent conquest was wrong. He was ruined by his enemies after his return to Spain. The argument was not forgotten however and the King’s counsellors gathered to hear a debate between one of the greatest Dominican monks and a philosopher of the time. The philosopher argued some people were simply inferior and it was right for the superior (the Spanish) to exploit them. The monk argued that conquest was immoral because it meant waging war, and war against fellow human beings was immoral. And, he went on; all the peoples of the world were human beings, all equal, with the same faculties, abilities, passions. He argued for five days. There were moves to stop the conquests but by this time it was too late and the lust for power and gold drove ever harder men to exploit the people and land of the New World.
Much later similar arguments would concern other empire builders, especially here in the British Isles. The humanist philosophies of the Enlightenment period fuelled ever more debate on the rights and wrong of Empire. In turn this lead the British to argue their Empire was, like Britain itself, conceived in liberty, that they would improve the lot of their subjects then, when they were as ‘civilised’ as us we would step aside. Still the notions of superior and inferior however, but they were trying in a way that no other imperial power in history ever had. Despite all the ills of the time there were successes such as the abolition of slavery as abhorrent and vile. In fact they British then became staunch anti-slavers, Royal navy ships hunting those who still carried out this trade. In the new republic of America it was now held that “all men are created equal” – except the slaves naturally, and women. Post World War II and one of the worst examples of a powerful people judging another type of human to be inferior prompts the new United Nations to issue the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Still today we have those who hold some people are inferior to others. It seems they will always be among us. But look back at that monk earnestly arguing for the dignity and equality of all humanity, 500 years ago and the good people who still struggle with this ideal today. There are an awful lot of miles in front of us still, but when you look back to that debate there is also cause for some hope.