Conquest: Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, Bartolomé de las Casas, and the Native Question
Mentor:Michaela Reaves, Professor of History, California Lutheran University
For many historians, the Valladolid Debates of 1550 and 1551 highlighted the main issues of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. One man, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, justified what came to be known as the Black Legend of the Spanish in his work Democrates Alter, while the other, a Catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas, argued in favor of the Natives in the Americas in his work In Defense of the Indians. In the debate, neither man portrayed indigenous groups like the Aztecs as “actors”, but rather as the “conquered.” However, using Spanish survey sources, modern historians can offer a more accurate third alternative view of cultural fusion in Mexico. By studying the land surveys, maps, and land distribution patterns of Pre-and-Post-Conquest Aztecs, it becomes apparent that the Spanish used the Aztec patterns of land organization on which to super-impose their governmental infrastructure. The Spanish recognized that the Aztec infrastructure was as sophisticated as anything the conquistadores could devise, so instead of following a European pattern in land division, they simply adapted the Aztec pattern and technology. In other words, Sepulveda and Las Casas regarded the Natives as either renegades or victims, when, in fact, the Post-Cortez period was defined by the fusion of the two cultures, rather than the strict imposition of one over the other, thus creating a unique culture in the New World that was a hybrid of both Spanish and Native customs.