Francisco de Vitoria and the Nature of Colonial Policy

“The first issue which Vitoria examines (part, then, of his general discussion of the rights of the Spaniards to bring the Indians under their control) concerns the property rights of the Indian. Vitoria immediately proceeds to the heart of the matter, since the question was one of “whether those barbarians in the New World were slaves,” who, on the basis of Justinian’s precepts, could own no property. On the contrary, writes Vitoria, the Indians were at the time of the Spanish conquest “in the peaceful possession of their goods, both in terms of private and of public law,” and hence were at that time not slaves.

Also, it is fallacious to argue that the Indians are not entitled to ownership of their property because they are sinners and infidels or because they appear to be insane. Vitoria writes: “mortal sin does not prevent a person from exercising his property right under civil law.” Quoting from St. Thomas, de Vitoria then says that unbelief or ignorance of the true faith does not interfere with natural or with human law, so that no Christian “may take away the property of a Saracen, a Jew, or another unbeliever solely on the grounds that they do not believe.” On this basis the Spaniards were not entitled to deprive the Indians of their property.

The Indians, furthermore, cannot have their property taken from them on the grounds that they are insane. Insanity, Vitoria admits, again referring to St. Thomas, does, indeed, prevent full exercise of property rights; but the Indians by virtue of their legal and political institutions (the state, marriage, contract, trade regulations, etc.,) clearly exhibit their ability to manage their own affairs, which in turn proves them to be sane. But, Vitoria indicates, man’s greatest possession is his power to reason. The Indians have not employed this power extensively. If they had, they would have used their reasoning capacities to come to an understanding of the true faith as most Europeans have. The Indians’ position can, according to Vitoria, best be compared to that of the ignorant and untutored peasants in Europe, who, likewise, have not had the opportunity to develop their capacities fully. But no one should deny the Indian full ownership of his rights.

…One may say that Vitoria’s theses rest upon a concept of the fundamental rights of each nation under international law, mixed with humanitarianism. Grotius would later popularize these concepts. The right of intervention in modern times seems to stem almost wholly from the philosophy of war as developed by Vitoria. Vitoria gave in his lectures on the Indies something of a patent of nobility to Spanish colonial administration. Although it seems clear that his precepts were often openly flouted, if they were known at all, at least the concept of civilizing the Indian through introduction of the Christian religion, which Vitoria fully subscribed to, lifted the Spanish colonial policy from the level of mere exploitation for its own sake. Other colonizing powers, England, France, and the Nether lands, adhered to this policy.

As one student has written: The enrichment of the mother country, which was one of the motives behind Spanish colonization, was for other colonial powers, with the possible exception of Portugal, the only motive. England and the Netherlands, which later loved to point out the horrors of “popish” Spanish colonial policy, were themselves far less able to step back and view their colonial administration objectively or inveigh against it as a las Casas or a Vitoria could in the sixteenth century. Despite the paradoxes in his writings, Vitoria was certainly the first to try to raise the level of his country’s colonial policy and ground it firmly on the twin bases of international law and Christian humanitarianism.”

van der Kroef, J. M. (1949). Francisco de Vitoria and the Nature of Colonial Policy. The Catholic Historical Review, 35(2), 129–162.