Tracing philosophy, like I did last week, is fairly easy. Commentators build on each other and reference each other. Tracing how science moved around the world in the Middle Ages is not so easy. The idea of a copyright did not exist yet. There were no international scientific publications.
Recent historical research into this has been much like detective work. If you look at De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (go ahead, grab your copy, I’ll wait) written in 1543 by Nicholas Copernicus and compare it to Al-Tusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti (Amazon.com might carry it), you will see diagrams of Tusi’s couple that are almost identical. Maybe Copernicus arrived at this independently, but it seems unlikely to me. And even though the work and data from the 9th century Muslim, Al-Battani, is mentioned by Copernicus in that same work, that fact is rarely mentioned in history or science classes.
In case you have forgotten, Copernicus came before Galileo. He published his ideas about the earth rotating around the sun late in his life because he knew it could cause trouble for him with the Pope. He is often credited with beginning the scientific revolution. More often, I am seeing this credit come with the qualification “in the West”, but this is a recent phenomena and even when used, no mention of where else in the world scientific ideas came from. Sometimes there will be a vague reference made to translations of Greek works by Arabic scholars. The growth of the university system is also credited without mentioning where they got their books.
Why have we lost this connection? There is at least one technical reason. The Arabic language is very ornate. When written, a slightly more or less pronounced curl of a symbol can carry meaning. This does not lend itself well to being reproduced with movable type. Invented around 1439, Queen Isabella funded the increased use of the printing press. It could also have something to do with the over 1 million Arabic books that were burned after Spain was “reconquered” in 1492.
Even before gaining back the territory of Granada, the last Muslim Kingdom in Spain, rules were in place to enforce the conversion of everyone to Catholicism. The most famously brutal leader of the Spanish Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada was appointed Grand Inquisitor in 1483. It was common for Jews and Muslims to fake their conversions to Catholicism. It was the job of the inquisition to insure they were authentic and expel, torture or kill them if they did not comply.
1492 is famous of course in the Americas because that is when Columbus arrived. Whether he was the first European there or just the last one to make a big deal out of it is not my concern here. More important is that he claimed a land that was already inhabited by the Lucayans, Tainos and Arawaks for his God and his country, thinking nothing of taking seven of them back to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and having them baptized. Immediately the Spanish and Portuguese began to draw lines on the map, with their authority secured by the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI, laying claim to these new worlds that they barely understood.
Throughout, it was important that these conquerors had official authority behind them. It seems unlikely that those authorities were not aware of the mistreatment of people in the New World. They were most likely more concerned about the gold, timber and cotton flowing to them. Ferdinand and Isabella were always careful to receive a Papal Bull that authorized their claims. This idea of the rulers of the people having the blessing of the religious leaders had been fermenting for centuries. Two centuries earlier, Thomas Aquinas had revisited the work of Augustine of Hippo to create justifications for war.
Augustine had said, "The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power"
So, if it was criminal to be anything but a Christian, then killing people who refused to convert was not a problem. It is doubtful that this was Augustine’s intention, but over the centuries the Church had increased in power and figured out what they could say to their followers and what they could get away with. 900 years later, Aquinas clarified and added criteria for when killing was justified:
- First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (for example, "in the nation's interest" is not just) or as an exercise of power.
- Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state.
- Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
Again, leaving much open to interpretation. If the Pope says it is good and just to bring Christ to the New World, nearly anything is acceptable. The motive of peace can be claimed when any kind of conflict arises. Simply claim that you are the one who is going to bring peace, as soon as you kill off a few of the non-peaceful ones, and your actions are just in the eyes of the Lord. Go wherever you want, as long as you carry the right flag with you, you are justified.
With these rules in place, the acquisition of knowledge from one declining empire and the acquisition of resources from a much weaker tribal culture, the pattern for the development of the Americas was set in motion.
Regardless of what was officially stated, it seems clear that all were aware of what was happening in these far off conquests. Even after Columbus was arrested by Francisco De Bobadilla and sent back to Spain in chains for his mistreatment of the Arawaks, his punishment only lasted a couple months and he was returned. Conquest and mistreatment of natives was not limited to Columbus or the rulers of Spain. The patterns that began here would last for centuries.