This investigation revolves around one central question: if Christianity became the official ideology for sixteenth-century imperial expansion, then how does a theological conception of nature undergird or undermine colonial configurations of knowledge and power? I argue that, in the wake of 1492, Iberian empires racialized religious identity and mapped hemispheric dominion by leveraging a theological geography, that is, a scholastic vision of the natural world.

In Chapter One, I examine the order of nature in late medieval cosmology. By analyzing Fra Mauro’s Mappamundi (c. 1450), I show the ways in which Aristotelian Thomism provides an intellectual framework for subsequent global designs. Mauro’s map receives consideration because it reflects how Christian empires began imagining the modern world and their central place in it. Chapter Two traces the formation of racial and spatial hierarchies in the early Iberian Atlantic. I show how purity of blood discourse (limpieza de sangre) racialized religious identity by making Muslim and Jewish heresy, and Old Christian status, a natural condition passed-on through sexual reproduction. Blood purity, therefore, was not about degrees of truth or falsity but rather about which bodies could be considered proper Christian subjects. Subsequently, I examine the accumulation of tropical space. By analyzing Columbus’ writings, royal correspondence, papal bulls, and Iberian cartography, I demonstrate how a racial imagination emerged from a theological geography that evolved, rather than diminished, throughout the sixteenth century. This chapter ultimately reveals how Christian empires envisioned their mastery over space and bodies as part of the natural order established by God.

In Chapter Three, I explore the colonial legacy of theological geography. I begin by situating the Dominican bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484–1566) within the transatlantic economy of slavery and dispossession. I show how Las Casas tries to subvert colonialist exploitation by developing a theological geography that bases indigenous sovereignty on two environmental factors: climate and latitude. I conduct a close reading of the Laws of Burgos (1512) and the Requirement (1513) to show how an ecclesial authority (plenitudo potestati), rooted in a doctrine of creation, undergirds the boundary-less desire for global dominion. Chapter Four focuses on barbarian discourse in the historic Valladolid debate (1550–1551) between Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1494–1573). I consider how place and language define conceptions of civility/barbarity. I analyze Las Casas’ discourse in conjunction with the Ebstorf mappamundi (c. 1250), a medieval World Map, to expose the geographic implications of his thought. I argue that Las Casas imbues scholastic civility with salvific power by configuring literal locution—alphabetic script deriving from Latin—as the means by which African and Amerindian barbarians reach their God-given end: the beatific vision.

My investigation exposes the theological architecture that undergirds what critical theorists call the colonial matrix of power. Scholars that overlook the implications of theology during the ‘long sixteenth century’ do so at their own peril. By revealing the implications of place in the formation of colonial subjectivities, I show how critiques of capitalism should account for the ways in which undocumented status and linguistic difference signify a racial state of expendability.

Degree Date

Spring 5-19-2018

Document Type


Degree Name



Religious Studies


Joerg Rieger

Second Advisor

Harold J. Recinos

Third Advisor

Kenneth Andrien

Fourth Advisor

Barbara E. Mundy

Fifth Advisor

Luis N. Rivera Pagán

Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License