Victor Nuovo: The anger of Bartolomé de las Casas
When Columbus first landed on the island of Hispaniola on October 12, 1492, he claimed the land for the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, and he gave it its name, which means “Spanish Island.” Columbus claimed all the riches of the land, including not just its material goods, but also its native people.
Whereas the land remained the possession of the Spanish monarchs, grants were made to their European subjects to work the land and for this purpose they were granted also the free use of the native people as workers or forced labor. The European settlers were called encomenderos; the grants they received were called encomienda, literally, things held in trust. But the practice was slavery in every way but in name.
Bartolomé de las Casas (1484–1576) took part in the Spanish conquest of Cuba in 1502, and he became an encomendero; but he became troubled by his livelihood, for although it brought him physical comfort and modest wealth, he was increasingly horrified by the cruelty of its methods and the suffering that it caused.
On December 12, 1511, Las Casas heard a sermon preached by the Dominican monk, Antonio Montesinos, in the Church of Santo Domingo. He was deeply moved by it, especially by these challenging words:
“Tell me by what right of justice do you [encomenderos] hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dwelt quietly and peacefully in their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as yourselves? Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of their illnesses which they incur from the excessive labor with which you burden them; they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day?”
According to one historical account, the realization began to grow in Las Casas’ mind that one could not be a Christian and also practice slavery, for all Christians are enjoined to love their neighbors as themselves, and every human being is one’s neighbor, and one must treat them as equals. But full realization took three years.
It should be noted that Las Casas had become a priest, and shortly before he heard the fateful sermon, he had himself become a Dominican monk. The Dominican order was dedicated to preaching, to the conversion of infidels and heretics by persuasion. Three years after hearing Montesinos’ sermon, while preparing to preach one himself, Las Casas, read this text from Ecclesiasticus 34:21–2:
“The bread of the needy is their life: He that defraudeth him thereof is a man of blood. He that taketh away his neighbor’s living slayeth him; and he that defraudeth the laborer of his hire is a bloodletter.”
These words reminded him of Montesinos’ sermon. He spent days agonizing over them and he emerged from his agony with this triumphal conviction: “that everything that had been done to the Indians in the Indies [that is, in the so-called new world colonies] by European colonists was unjust and tyrannical.”
It became his sole purpose in life thereafter to plead the Indian cause before the Spanish monarchs and their court. He became a self-appointed lobbyist for the Indians. He also wrote many historical works, telling the sad story of European colonization, which included a multi-volume “History of the Indies,” and “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.”
Perhaps most noteworthy is that these works not only tell a tale of European cruelty and destruction, but Las Casas takes time to describe just what was destroyed. The so-called Indians were not transient wanderers, they had settled the land and established civil societies and created a civilization. He observes that on the island of Hispaniola there were five Indian kingdoms. And he notes that the rulers of these Kingdoms quite willingly accepted the sovereignty of Spain and sought its protection. But the colonists preferred a practice of conquest, or rapine, rape, slaughter and enslavement. Thus, they destroyed not only persons, but peoples, and civilizations. It was genocide on a grand scale.
“A Short Account” is not an easy book to read. One’s mind is beset by anger, a madness that cannot be assuaged by justice, for justice would come too late, and it would be a mere matter of words.
Yet it is justice that Las Casas desired, and his efforts were not without some result, albeit of little enduring effect. He returned to Spain many times to plead the cause of the Indian before the Spanish court. And it would seem that the Spanish monarchs, who considered themselves upholders of Christian morality, were at least troubled in conscience.
The Queen, Isabella, declared that Indians were not to be enslaved, that they were her free subjects. And there were efforts at legal reform. The institution of encomienda was abolished. Instead, prospective Conquistadors were enjoined that before attempting to make a conquest of land, they were to read a declaration or rather an ultimatum, requiring the hearers to acknowledge their subjectivity to the Spanish Crown, to the Pope, and to the “One True God.” This was often done peremptorily and often out of hearing of the Indians and was followed swiftly by pillage and destruction.
Las Casas, when asked what he thought of this measure, responded that he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Las Casas was also the inspiration of the so-called Black Legend. The term referred largely to propaganda that circulated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Dutch and English Protestants, and later, depicting Spanish cruelty as unmatched as it were beyond the pale. Excessively cruel it was, but it was not unmatched. One need only consider the story of how the West was really won.
Postscript: Las Casas’ A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, has been translated into English and published by Penguin. The editor, Anthony Pagden, has written an illuminating introduction. It should be required reading in all our schools. Also, David Abulafia’s The Discovery of Mankind, mentioned in the previous essay is a readable account of the richness of the civilizations that were destroyed.
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