Bartolomé de las Casas, "El Requerimiento," and the Doctrine of Discovery

Spanish Conquest, "El Requerimiento," and the Doctrine of Discovery

As discussed in a previous post, Montesinos’ famous sermon posed two damning questions to the Spanish colonizers:

(1) "Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude?  (Last week’s blog examined the Spanish response to this question:

(2) “On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these peoples, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land?”

This week’s post will examine the Crown’s response to this second question.   As we’ll see, the Spanish response was encapsulated in a puzzling document known as “El Requerimiento,” or, “The Requirement.”

The Requirement was based on a perverted line of theological reasoning developed by Spanish conquistador and lawyer, Martín Fernández de Enciso (Hanke, 30, 31).   According to Enciso, God had given the East Indies (the Americas) to Spain in the same manner that God had given the Palestinian Promised Land to the Israelites.   Moreover, just as God had assigned Palestine to the Israelites because of the pagan idolatry of the Canaanites, so did God assign the land of the Indians to the Spaniards because of the former’s idolatry (Hanke, 32).   In other words, the Indians were the modern day Canaanites and the Spaniards were God’s chosen people.  In the words of Enciso:

“Moses sent Joshua to require the inhabitants of Jericho, the first city in the promised land of Canaan, to abandon their city because it belonged to the people of Israel inasmuch as God had given it to them; and when the people of Jericho did not give up their land Joshua surrounded them and killed them all except one woman who had protected his spies. And afterwards Joshua conquered all the land of Canaan by force of arms, and many were killed and those who were captured were given as slaves and served the people of Israel.  And all this was done by the will of God because they were idolaters” (Hanke, 32).

Enciso further derived the Spanish right of conquest from papal authority:

“…the king might very justly send men to require those idolatrous Indians to hand over their land to him, for it was given him by the pope.  If the Indians would not do this, he might justly wage war against them, kill and enslave those captured in war, precisely as Joshua treated the inhabitants of the land of Canaan” (32).

The Spanish lawyer Enciso holds the dubious distinction of sowing the theoretical seed of what would become the “Doctrine of Discovery.”  This was the idea that Europeans possessed a God-given destiny to conquer and colonize the globe in the name of Christianity and European civilization.   When historians and ethnic studies scholars claim that Christianity was used as a tool of colonization, this is what they mean.  In a variation of the Doctrine of Discovery, Anglo Americans would later wrest control of North America from Mexico and its numerous indigenous populations based upon the idea of “Manifest Destiny.”             

The “we can conquer them in order to convert them” reasoning was legally codified in El Requerimiento in 1513.   This document was required to be read, through a translator, to indigenous populations prior to Spanish military conquest. El Requerimiento presented a brief biblical account of the story of creation and then asserted the global spiritual and temporal authority of the Latin Pope based upon the religious legacy of St. Peter.  It goes on to describe the papal donation of the East Indies to the King and Queen of Spain.  Finally, based upon these claims of authority, El Requerimiento demanded submission of indigenous communities to European rule and religious instruction under penalty of military invasion, enslavement, and subjugation.

“On behalf of the king and the queen, subjugators of barbarous peoples, we, their servants, notify and make known to you as best we are able, that God, Our Lord, living and eternal, created the heavens and the earth, and a man and a woman, of whom you and we and all other people of the world were, and are, the descendants. Because of the great numbers of people who have come from the union of these two in the five thousand year, which have run their course since the world was created, it became necessary that some should go in one direction and that others should go in another. Thus they became divided into many kingdoms and many provinces, since they could not all remain or sustain themselves in one place.

Of all these people God, Our Lord, chose one, who was called Saint Peter, to be the lord and the one who was to be superior to all the other people of the world, whom all should obey. He was to be the head of the entire human race, wherever men might exist. God gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction. God also permitted him to be and establish himself in any other part of the world to judge and govern all peoples, whether Christian, Moors, Jew, Gentiles, or those of any other sects and beliefs that there might be. He was called the Pope. One of the past Popes who succeeded Saint Peter, as Lord of the Earth gave these islands and Mainland's of the Ocean Sea [the Atlantic Ocean] to the said King and Queen and to their successors, with everything that there is in them, as is set forth in certain documents which were drawn up regarding this donation in the manner described, which you may see if you so desire.

In consequence, Their Highnesses are Kings and Lords of these islands and mainland by virtue of said donation. Certain other isles and almost all [the native peoples] to whom this summons has been read have accepted Their Highnesses as such Kings and Lords, and have served, and serve, them as their subjects as they should, and must, do, with good will and without offering any resistance. You are constrained and obliged to do the same as they.

Consequently, as we best may, we beseech and demand that you understand fully this that we have said to you and ponder it, so that you may understand and deliberate upon it for a just and fair period, and that you accept the Church and Superior Organization of the whole world and recognize the Supreme Pontiff, called the Pope, and that in his name, you acknowledge the King and Queen, as the lords and superior authorities of these islands and Mainlands by virtue of the said donation.

If you do not do this, however, or resort maliciously to delay, we warn you that, with the aid of God, we will enter your land against you with force and will make war in every place and by every means we can and are able, and we will then subject you to the yoke and authority of the Church and Their Highnesses. We will take you and your wives and children and make them slaves, and as such we will sell them, and will dispose of you and them as Their Highnesses order. And we will take your property and will do to you all the harm and evil we can, as is done to vassals who will not obey their lord or who do not wish to accept him, or who resist and defy him. We avow that the deaths and harm which you will receive thereby will be your own blame, and not that of Their Highnesses, nor ours, nor of the gentlemen who come with us (Abridged).”


(See also, Ondina E. Gonzalez, Justo L. Gonzalez. Nuestra Fe:  A Latin American Church History Sourcebook).

Crazy right?

It gets even worse.

According to historian Lewis Hanke:  “…the Requirement was read to trees and empty huts when no Indians were to be found.  Captains muttered its theological phrases into their beards on the edge of sleeping Indians settlements, or even a league away before starting the formal attack, and at times some leather-lunged Spanish notary hurled its sonorous phrases after the Indians as they fled into the mountains.  Once it was read in camp before the soldiers to the beat of the drum.  Ship captains would sometimes have the document read from the deck as they approached an island, and at night would send out enslaving expeditions, whose leaders would shout the traditional Castilian war cry, ‘Santiago’!” (Hanke, 34).

El Requerimiento made a mockery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   It ran directly counter to Christ’s own vision statement expressed in Luke 4: 18-19,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Rather than sharing Christ’s freedom from oppression, the Spaniards invoked Christ’s name to “make war in every place,” “take…wives and children and make them slaves,” and “take…property and…do…all the harm and evil we can.”   Rather than bringing good news and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, they perpetrated racial genocide and gave birth to systems of racial oppression which persist to the present moment.   It makes me sick.

Thankfully many Brown Theologians eventually rose up to challenge this unthinkable hypocrisy.  One of them was Dominican Friar Bartolomé de las Casas.

In his famous book, History of the Indies, Las Casas decried El Requerimiento as “unjust, impious, scandalous, irrational, and absurd.”   He declared that it defamed the witness of Christianity and that its methods were severe departures from “the Christian means of peace and love.”  In a bold statement, Las Casas even asserted that indigenous peoples of the Americas had the right to wage war in self-defense against the Spaniards and their bold misrepresentation of Christ:

“By the same token, any war waged by such infidels against Spaniards or Christians who so treat them is justified, and this has always been the case ever since we discovered the Indies. Indians possess this right forever because their wrongs have never been righted. The ignorance of the King’s council is then manifest; I pray to God it is remissible – how unjust, impious, scandalous, irrational, and absurd this injunction was! I will now speak of the infamy it caused the Christian religion; I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of the council, who believed these people to be under more obligation to acknowledge the King as their Lord than Christ as God and Creator, since one cannot be constrained to receive the Faith, and yet, to obey the King, the council used force.

There were other falsehoods in the document, such as stating that Indians in other islands had willingly and without resistance acknowledged the King of Castile. In those days there were no notices, proclamations, information or injunctions, and Indians never served the King willingly but forced to it violently and tyrannically by cruel wars and hard slavery, and God is witness to how they perished there. They would, however, serve the King willingly and readily if they had been converted by the Christian means of peace and love.”

502 years later, I also don’t know whether I want to laugh or to cry when I read the Requirement.  Mostly I want to cry. 

I do find some solace, however, in knowing that many Brown Theologians like Las Casas stood up to the spiritual absurdity and theological perversion of “El Requerimiento.”  From them I also find inspiration to challenge the many injustices perpetrated against Latin@s in the United States and Latin America today.  In coming weeks we’ll examine, in finer detail, the biblical and theological arguments developed by Brown Theologians to challenge the conquest and colonization of the Americas.  We’ll also try to draw further application and inspiration for “la lucha” today.

Epilogue--two days after this essay was posted, an amazing thing happened.  Pope Francis apologized to the indigenous peoples of the Americas for the sins of Spanish colonization! 500 years later, Bartolomé de las Casas and the many other Brown Theologians who served as prophetic voices against the Conquest stand vindicated!

In Christ and the solidarity of Brown Theology,

Robert Chao Romero




Bartolome de las Casas, A History of the Indies.

Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America.

Ondina E. Gonzalez, Justo L. Gonzalez.  Nuestra Fe:  A Latin American Church History Sourcebook.

Doctrine of Discovery: