“From the Pope’s Hand to Indigenous Lands: Alexander VI in Spanish Imperialism”
Matthew P. Cavedon

The following is an introduction followed by an adapted excerpt from Matt Cavedon’s new book, “From the Pope’s Hand to Indigenous Lands.” With permission from Brill Academic Publishers, 2023.

In 1493, shortly after Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage to the West Indies, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull, or formal legal document, known as Inter caetera. It authorized centuries of brutal conquest, according to many Indigenous activists and scholarly critics. It was a historically insignificant “remnant,” according to some Catholic apologists.

In truth, the bull’s influence was complicated. Over the first 150 years following the bull’s issuance, Spaniards in the home country and the colonies argued intensely about the meaning of Inter caetera. Debate began as early as the 1510s. Spaniards initially took the bull as a mandate to conquer. But Dominicans (members of a preaching order) on mission in Hispaniola mightily protested Indigenous enslavement and exploitation through the colonial system known as the encomienda. In response, a Spanish Dominican named Matías de Paz developed canon law to recognize some Indigenous rights.

The leading Hispaniola Dominicans at the earliest stage in the Inter caetera dispute were the mission’s leader, Pedro de Córdoba, and chief preacher, Antonio de Montesinos. Following prayerful preparation, he started his Order’s confrontation with Spanish colonialism. His fierce words—a jeremiad, even—condemning Indigenous enslavement caused immediate outrage, but backed by his fellow friars, he doubled down. His words helped change the heart of the Hispaniola priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, who would go on to live his own legendary vocation as a Dominican advocate for Indigenous rights. The excerpt that follows details Montesinos’s charge against other colonizers and notes the impact his message had.

One important response to Montesinos came from back in Spain. There, King Ferdinand requested that a formal deliberation be held concerning the legitimacy of colonization. One of the most important participants was another Dominican, the theologian Matías de Paz. He pushed canon law toward new ideas about Indigenous human rights. Paz still allowed room for imperialism, but did contribute to humanizing reforms of the encomienda system.

Montesinos died defending Indigenous rights in Venezuela. Dominicans are often symbolized by a dog of the Lord (Domini canis) carrying a lit torch in its mouth—Montesinos lit a fire for protest that would burn bright throughout the centuries that have followed.

Section 4.1.2 – Montesinos (1511): Hispaniola Dominicans’ Prophetic Protest

The first criticism came from Dominican missionaries who arrived in Hispaniola fewer than twenty years after Columbus. They stood collectively against the enslavement of the native peoples, inspiring one conversion whose impact cannot be overstated—as well as heavy argument back in Spain. Dominicans from Salamanca (more on that highly influential university in Part 4.2 below) arrived at the nascent Hispaniola colony in 1510. They were horrified by colonists’ enslavement of the Indigenous Taínos (a system known as the encomienda).

“Led by Pedro de Córdoba and their chief preacher Antonio [de] Montesino[s], they prayed and fasted for a year.” Then came the last Sunday of Advent, 1511. Montesinos entered a straw-thatched church and preached a jeremiad: 

“In order to make your sins against the Indians known to you I have come up on this pulpit, I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island … this is going to be the strangest voice that you ever heard, the harshest and hardest and most awful and most dangerous that ever you expected to hear. … This voice says that you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land?”

From the Pope’s Hands to Indigenous Lands: Alexander VI in Spanish Imperialism (Brill Academic Publishers, 2023).

The scandalized colonial governor sent a delegation to the friary to demand Montesinos’s expulsion. Córdoba assured them that Montesinos would revisit his theme the next Sunday. He did—but only to escalate the attack. He announced the Dominicans’ unanimous decision to excommunicate slave-holders (encomenderos), saying “the friars would no more receive them for confession and absolution than if they were so many highway robbers.”. He told encomenderos they could no more be saved than Moors or Turks—Christendom’s mortal enemies and the former occupiers of many of the listeners’ Spanish homelands. And he welcomed his audience to complain to whomsoever they wanted back in Spain. Virtually nothing more is known about Montesinos’s life after this, other than that he returned to Spain to advocate for Indigenous rights and was later killed in Venezuela defending them. 

We are aware of the shockwaves his homilies caused. Influential historian Lewis Hanke understatedly suggests that Montesinos inspired further inquiry into Inter caetera.The deepest personal search we know of was undertaken by a Hispaniola priest who had been an untroubled encomendero: the epochal Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474/84–1566). He was not instantly converted; he actually underwent the Dominican excommunication at one point. But two and a half years after Montesinos’s entreaties, Las Casas had witnessed a massacre of Taínos in Cuba and, while preparing a homily of his own, read Sirach 34:21–23, which conditions sacrifices on righteousness. He pondered this in his heart for several days, then concluded that “everything done to the Indians thus far was unjust and tyrannical,” eventually becoming a Dominican himself. I will discuss Las Casas further below, as he became the most radical Spanish anti-imperialist (see Part 5).

He was not the only one troubled by Montesinos’s words. That friar asked “on what authority” the Spaniards warred against the natives. Neither he nor his brothers saw any in Inter caetera. The search would soon affect a theologian and a lawyer back in Spain. 

4.1.3 Paz (1512–13): Recognizing Indigenous Rights in Canon Law

As Montesinos had anticipated, news of his homilies quickly reached the home country. Ferdinand “held up the departure of the armada” and convened a junta, or formal consultation, at Burgos in 1512–13 to consider the plight of natives and the conquest’s legitimacy. Two of the most important participants were Dominican theologian Matías de Paz (c.1468/70–1519) and civil lawyer Palacios Rubios. I discuss Paz first. He moved canon law toward recognition of Indigenous rights to peace, property, and labor. Both Paz and Palacios Rubios relied on medieval authorities, including Innocent, Hostiensis, and the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/25–1274).This is not to say that their thinking was retrograde (as some English Protestant writers contended). Rather, Muldoon observes that medieval sources gave Spanish intellectuals “a set of moral standards against which they could measure the activities of the conquistadores before passing judgment on them, as well as a language that could articulate their views.” Neither Paz nor Palacios Rubios was a static receiver of tradition. Reading Aquinas and Innocent in light of new discoveries, they distinguished “islanders ‘discovered’ in the Western Atlantic from the condition of other infidels.”

Paz saw that Indians “could hardly be said to fit in a framework of concepts and norms constructed to support an unrestricted expansion of Christians over infidels in a context of mutually open hostility.” After all, they “happily welcomed the Christian missionaries” and were peaceable. Paz even deemed them ethically innocent of their infidelity because they had never heard of Christianity. Modern scholar José Luis Egío García goes too far when he says that Paz “cancelled” the logic for colonization. The notion that sinful infidels could be conquered as punishment was only one disputed argument, and Inter caetera itself cast Indigenous peoples as happy savages ready to become good Catholics—not criminals. But Paz’s understanding attitude did have humanizing consequences. Hanke quotes a key portion of Paz’s 1512 work: 

“It is not just for Christian Princes to make war on infidels because of a desire to dominate or for their wealth, but only to spread the faith. Therefore, if the inhabitants of those lands never before Christianized wish to listen to and receive the faith, Christian Princes may not invade their territory. … If an invitation to accept Christianity has not been made, the infidels may justly defend themselves even though the King, moved by Christian zeal and supported by papal authority, has waged just war. Such infidels may not be held as slaves unless they pertinaciously deny obedience to the prince or refuse to accept Christianity.”

Paz did not altogether reject Spanish dominance in the Americas. He wrote about the pope’s authority to sanction Castilian rule over Indigenous peoples—and, according to an attendee, the Burgos junta concluded that Alexander had given the Castilians the authority to seize Indian lands because of native idolatry. Not long after, Spain’s 1519 Compilation of the Laws of the Indies straightforwardly declared that the emperor was the perpetual “Lord of the West Indies” because of Alexander’s “donation.” 

Paz supported this conclusion because he found both Hostiensis’s and Innocent’s categorical approaches to infidel dominium inadequate—Hostiensis’s because “learned men incited Christians to a never-ending war against every kind of infidel and to commit sinful deeds such as massacres and plunders,” and Innocent’s because it made evangelization and the protection of Christian converts exceptionally difficult. Paz therefore rejected the idea that infidels had political dominion (dominio regnativo), as opposed to dominium over property and within the family. But he did agree with Innocent’s limitation of religious wars to retaking former Christian lands, protecting oppressed believers, and aiding evangelization with indirect coercion. He even excused Indigenous people’s “occasional attempts to resist the entry of Christian soldiers and preachers” as resulting from their ignorance that such men “were, in fact, the servants of the True God and the agents of their soon redemption.” Paz also wanted to curb theft, enslavement, and total political subjugation of Indigenous peoples that many “straightforwardly supported.” His efforts at Burgos contributed to new laws that tried unsuccessfully to reform the encomiendas.This effort was not purely altruistic on the Crown’s part—it helped check colonial nobility’s power. But it was at least partly humanitarian. In addition, Paz’s contemporary Dominicans Vicente de Santa María and Reginaldo de Morales promoted his opinions in Mexico; a few natives there became “landowners with European servants” and even occupied “semi-bureaucratic positions” in the colonial administration. Paz qualified whatever mandate for war Inter caetera contained and carried forward the tradition of limiting conquest, with some good effect in the colonies.

What about Palacios Rubios? He dealt with Alexander’s bull directly and raised it to a central role in Spanish colonization. ♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is the Robert Pool Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and a senior lecturer in law, at Emory University. He is a former public defender and was a law clerk for a United States district court and the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew. “From the Pope’s Hand to Indigenous Lands.” Canopy Forum, February 23, 2024. https://from-the-popes-hand-to-indigenous-lands-alexander-vi-in-spanish-imperialism/.