The Human-Animal Debate in the Colonisation of Native Americans

Keywords: Colonisation, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Amerigo Vespucci, Native Americans, Spanish

With the European ‘discovery’ of the New World, it became advantageous to see the less developed Native Americans as akin to animals to justify their colonisation and enslavement. Spiritual conquest was used to help facilitate physical colonisation, therefore, missionaries soon followed conquistadores. Spanish missionaries frequently described people in the New World as akin to animals or somewhere in between. In 1525, Dominican Tomás Oritz, for example, wrote:

They are incapable of learning […] They exercise none of the humane arts or industries […] About the age of ten or twelve years they seem to have some civilization, but later they become like real brute beasts […] the Indians are more stupid than asses and refuse to improve in anything (Tomás Oritz cited in Hanke, 1974. p. 11)*.

During the mid-1550s, another Dominican missionary, Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474-1566), wrote of the horrors that were inflicted on people of the New World by the Spanish. This treatment including burning men alive to rob them of their gold (Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1992, p. 345). Las Casas had purportedly already spoken on the cruel treatment of the natives in Venezuela by the Germans in 1535, which had been colonised between 1528-56. The German colony enslaved and tortured the local natives as they were reliant on them for survival in this foreign land and for labour in their mines. The colony’s Captain-General, Philip von Hutten (1505-1546), similarly characterised them as akin to animals by calling them ‘a mere, naked, bestial people (Philipp von Hutten, 1996, p. 56).’

Theodor de Bry, ‘Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 (as described by Hans Staden)’, illustrated in Theodor de Bry, Americae tertia pars: memorabile provinciæ Brasiliæ historiam contines, 1592, fol.179r,

As Amerigo Vespucci wrote in a 1503 letter of Native Americans: ‘they cover no part of their bodies, being in this like beasts (Amerigo Vespucci, 2010, p. 47).’ Clothing was considered outward evidence of a rational mind. While humans suffered the indignity of being born naked, unlike animals who are born with fur, scales, or feathers, humans were nonetheless superior to animals as they could craft clothing. The lack of European clothing of perceived primitive peoples separated them from the idea of the ‘civilised’ West of textiles. Lack of European clothing was not only associated with primitiveness but was also a key characteristic of the human-animal divide. As a mark of primitivism, Native Americans were also pictured hairy despite being relatively hairless compared to European men as represented in the print by Theodor de Bry, juxtaposed against the hairless chest of explorer, Hans Staden from Hess (c.1525-1579). French explorer, Jean de Léry (1536-1613) had noted that people of Brazil would pluck out all of their body hair (Jean de Léry, 1990, p. 62).

Las Casas defended Native Americans with the idea of human universalism: ‘For all the peoples of the world are men, collectively and severally, is one: that they are rational beings (Las Casas, 2009, p. 81).’ Las Cases defence of the Native Americans, however, seems to primarily come from a desire to convert them to Christianity and who held an almost paternalistic imperialist view. While Las Casas defended the Native Americans as human and should not be cruelly treated, he still considered them as barbarians for not being Christian. Of barbarians, he stated they should be enslaved ‘since they are far removed from what is best in human nature, they ought to be ruled by others so that they can be taught how to live in a civilized and human way (Las Casas, 1992, p. 38).’ Las Casas further qualified this by stating: ‘let no one conclude from this that barbarians are to be killed or loaded like beasts of burden with excessive cruel, hard, and harsh labor and that, for this purpose, they can be hunted and captured by wiser men (Las Casas, 1992, p. 40).’

Attempts were made by the Spanish to outlaw the association between the natives and animals. For example, the Laws of Burgos of 1512 prohibited the Spanish colonists from calling natives ‘dogs’ (perro). The need for such a law only confirms the practice of associating natives to dogs was a common occurrence. Partly based on early responses by Las Casas, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull in 1537 to stem the brutality and enslavement of the Native Americans. Appealing to the humanity of Native Americans, the Sublimis Deus declared that the ‘Indians are truly men.’ However, it had little impact in the colonies as it was in their interest to see the natives as sub-human as they had planned on extending their domain. Herein lies the danger of ignoring common human ancestry and cultural diversity that continues to have consequences today.


Jill Burke, The Italian Renaissance Nude, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, So You Think You’re Human?: A Brief History of Humankind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lewis Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians: A Study in Race Prejudice in the Modern World, London: Hollis & Carter, 1959.

Philipp von Hutten, Eberhard Schmitt, Friedrich Karl von Hutten, Das Gold der Neuen Welt: die Papiere des welser-Konquistadors und Generalkapitäns von Venezuela, Philipp von Hutten, 1534-1541, Hildburghausen: Verlag Frankenschwelle, 1996.

Gustav Jahoda, Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture, Hove, East Sussex: Routledge, 1999.

Stefan Lang, ‘Colonial Failure in the New World in the Sixteenth Century: A French and German Comparison, M.Phil, University of Birmingham, 2011.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, In Defense of the Indians: The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapa, Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World Discovered Across the Seas, ed. trans. Stafford Poole, DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, Apologética historia, c. 1550 cited in Jens Bartelson, Visions of World Community, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Andrea Lepage, ‘Art and Counter-Reformation’, in Alexandra Bamji, Geert H. Janssen, and Mary Laven (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to the Counter-Reformation, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013.

Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, trans. Janet Whatley, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Tomás Oritz cited in Lewis Hanke, All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation Between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.

Amerigo Vespucci, ‘Letter of Amerigo Vespucci to Lorenzo Pietro F. Di Medici,’ in Clements R. Markham (ed.), The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci and Other Documents Illustrative of His Career, Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.

Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus novus, Augsburg: Johann Otmar, 1504.

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