International Law and the Conquest of the Americas


A review of International Law and the Conquest of the Americas: A Critical Reconstruction of the Ideas of Francisco de Vitoria, by Amaya Amell

In this dissertation (Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University), Amaya Amell offers a critical interpretation of the history of international law in the context of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. After briefly reviewing the importance of Francisco de Vitoria (1492 – 1546), especially in relation to his presence at the School of Salamanca, Amell offers an extensive review of the main arguments of his seminal work De Indis (on the Indies), a lecture published by his students in 1532. Rather than place Vitoria’s work within the broader context of second scholasticism or the political context of state formation, and thereby explore how the work not only addresses issues in the Americas but also reflects ongoing issues within sixteenth-century Europe, she chooses to narrow her focus to Vitoria’s arguments against Spanish dominium and conquest in the hopes of shedding new light on different historical approaches to the subject of human rights. Following her summary of Vitoria, she attempts to make textual connections and theoretical links between the works of Vitoria, Hugo Grotius (1583 – 1645), and John Locke (1632 – 1704). By linking Vitoria to Grotius and Locke, as well as contemporary human rights, she sets forth sweeping claims as to how the early discussions of natural rights and the laws of war essentially anticipated and set the groundwork for modern international law and the United Nations.

Chapter 1 focuses primarily on Vitoria’s early life and education, especially his place within the Dominican Order in Paris as well as emphasizing the importance and influence of works by St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) as well as Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) and Juan Luis Vives (1493 – 1540) on Vitoria’s intellectual development. Amell suggests that it is only by understanding these influences that one is able to grasp how revolutionary Vitoria’s ideas were, whether in his position as chair of theology at the School of Salamanca or in his very public role in the debates concerning the just title and conduct of the Spanish in the Americas.

Chapter 2 offers a detailed review of Vitoria’s conception and interpretation of different kinds of law in an attempt to disentangle his ideas from those of St Augustine and St. Aquinas so as to draw out a better understanding of Vitoria’s conception of rights, just war, and the law of nations. In this chapter Amell explores Vitoria’s understanding of divine law, natural law, human law, the political community and its laws, civil power, the state, and the power of the Roman Church so as to better understand the thought process behind Vitoria’s arguments and conclusions presented not only in De Indis but also his De iure belli (On the Laws of War) bound with his 1532 edition of De Indis.

Chapter 3 presents a summary of the major arguments in Vitoria’s De Indis. In so doing, Amell attempts to show how Vitoria’s fundamental notions of law, church, and state come together into a concept of human rights. It is in this discussion that Amell claims that Vitoria offers his ideas on human rights and mutual obligations on the one hand and his ideas concerning barbarians and colonial paternalism on the other. To show this, in addition to how Vitoria’s ideas of natural rights and the rights of war and peace might be equivocal to human rights, Amell reviews Vitoria’s arguments that delegitimize the Spanish claim for dominion over the Amerinds as well as Vitoria’s arguments by which Spanish might claim a just title over the Americas. Here Amell argues that Vitoria did not significantly alter the argument that the Spanish had for dominion, even as he essentially changed it from an argument derived from divine and canon law to one based in natural and civil law. In other words, it was the grounds of the argument—and therefore its source of legitimacy—that shifted, not the argument itself.

Chapter 4 presents a summary of Vitoria’s ideas on just war and international law. The majority of this chapter is concerned with reconstructing his theory, which follows, for the most part, the traditional just war theory of St. Augustine. After exploring Vitoria’s discussion of just and unjust causes of war, Amell then shifts her attention to Vitoria’s discussion of ius gentium or the law of nations. Here Amell argues that Vitoria’s most significant contribution to modern just war theory as well as modern international law was his conception of an international community and structure whereby nations could seek peace instead of war, an institution not so unlike or distant from the United Nations.

Chapter 5 presents several aspects Grotius’ seminal work De jure belli ac pacis (On the Laws of War and Peace) published in 1625, as well as his equally famous but shorter tract Mare Librum (Freedom of the Seas),published in 1609, to show Vitoria’s fundamental influence on Grotius’ theories of just war and civil peace. Abstracting the works from the broader context of European wars within and beyond Europe, this chapter takes a detailed look at Grotius’ theory (as he presented it) to suggest continuities with and the influence of Vitoria’s theories, especially Vitoria’s grounding of just war theory in natural, rather than divine law.

Chapter 6 consists of a review and summary of central elements of John Locke’s conception of natural law and natural rights as well as an afterward or conclusion that makes a tentative and conceptual link between the ideas of Vitoria, Grotius, and Locke to contemporary conceptions of human rights and the international rule of law that exists to promote and protect them. Amell focuses on the Second Treatise of Government (1690) to suggest that, even in light of the difference between Vitoria and Locke, there remain striking similarities. Amell then extends this same comparison and contrast to Locke’s thoughts on just war to further her claim. To draw out these similarities, Amell treats Locke’s work in the context of her own argument about Vitoria, leaving the historical context in which it was written and published aside.

This chapter concludes with an afterward that suggests Vitoria’s ideas, although contradictory and inconsistent in some cases, nevertheless were revolutionary and as such had a lasting and significant impact on the history of political thought as well as the history of international law. Attention to Vitoria’s works on international law in historical context, she concludes, will enable us to better understand that influence and that history and perhaps even better understand ourselves. The latter might be enhanced, she suggests, by turning our attention to theories of human rights, just war, and international law that extend back to the early modern and even medieval era of European history.

Amaya Amell’s dissertation seeks to shed light on our understanding of the history and development of human rights by focusing on Francisco de Vitoria’s De Indis, which has been long recognized as a canonical text in western legal tradition, and whose influence on the history and development of international law has placed him among the so-called fathers of international law, a distinction he shares with Hugo Grotius due in large part to Grotius’ veneration of him in the seventeenth century. Although Amell’s dissertation is not an attempt to engage with or contribute to the extensive interdisciplinary scholarship or the robust and growing historiography focused on Vitoria and his place within the history and development of international law or early modern jurisprudence more generally, it does offer non-historians an opportunity to become familiar with some of the key components of Vitoria’s theories and arguments as he presented them in the context of sixteenth-century European expansion into the Atlantic world. It also offers an introduction to some of Vitoria’s most notable contributions to the history of political thought, especially in relation to his ideas concerning just war.

Susan Longfield Karr
Department of History
University of Cincinnati

Primary Sources
St. Augustine
St. Thomas Aquinas
Francisco de Vitoria
Hugo Grotius
John Locke

Dissertation Information
New York University 2012. 310pp. Primary advisor: Eduardo Subirats.

Image: Aztec warriors as depicted in the Codex Mendoza, Wikimedia Commons.

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