The Salamanca School on Slavery: From Naturalism to Culture and Awareness

24 Pages Posted: 30 Jan 2020

Date Written: March 31, 2019


This article examines the reflections on slavery by a group of 16th-century scholastics considered members or followers of the so-called School of Salamanca. I show that a gradual process of critical awareness developed regarding both the concept of natural slavery and its justifications. After pointing to the fact that Native Americans and Africans were the first victims of the modern application of the concept of natural slavery, I identify the most important milestones leading up to the intellectual dismantling of the concept, effectively leaving it without a recognizable point of reference in the real world. In a further step, I point out that, despite the theory of natural slavery having been abandoned, the practices that protected legal slavery since antiquity persisted in Spanish America, especially when applied to African slaves. Some of these thinkers contributed to a first wave of accusatory pleadings against the persistent deception intentionally used by slave sellers and owners to circumvent the legal clauses dictated by the Spanish Monarchy governing the release of Africans unjustly deprived of freedom. Nevertheless, and despite the pioneering critiques offered by figures such as Bartolomé de Las Casas and Tomás de Mercado, the Salamanca scholars were not unanimous in their support of this criticism. In fact, we can identify in the writings of Francisco de Vitoria and Domingo de Soto the core of the legal and moral-theological argumentation utilized by many buyers and sellers all the way up to the 19th century. As I show, at this time, an alleged invincible ignorance about the conditions under which a slave brought to the Western Indies had been enslaved was sufficient to warrant a just title, thus granting the ownership to holders in the Americas.

Keywords: School of Salamanca, sixteenth century, natural slavery, Indian slavery, African slavery

Suggested Citation

Castilla Urbano, Francisco, The Salamanca School on Slavery: From Naturalism to Culture and Awareness (March 31, 2019). Max Planck Institute for European Legal History Research Paper Series No. 2020-02, Available at SSRN: or

Francisco Castilla Urbano (Contact Author)

University of Alcalá ( email )

Colegios, 2
Alcalá de Henares, Madrid 28801

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