Bartolomé de Las Casas and his Defence of the Indians

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Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1576) was born in Seville, and, at age eighteen, left Spain for the New World where he took part in the colonization of Cuba. The barbarity of the Spanish conquistadores shocked him, bringing about a conversion and entry into the Dominican order. Thereafter, he devoted himself to the defence of the Indians, and the cataloguing of Spanish atrocities against them. He was not alone in this - many Jesuit priests defended the Indians in the same way, some even dying on their behalf. It is the books of Las Casas, however, which shocked and informed Europe at the time and continue to influence to this day.

The Spanish Crown had long been concerned with the morality of conquest, and employed theologians and jurists to advise on behaviour. One result of this was the Requirement (Requerimiento), a document which had to be read out to the Indians prior to an attack. (This was often read in Spanish to Indians who did not understand the language, or was even proclaimed out of earshot to them. See previous document for an example.) It also resulted in an institution known as the encomienda. By this official Spanish policy, set by Ferdinand and Isabella, land belonged to the Spanish Crown and the Indians were compelled to work it on behalf of their Spanish master or encomendero. In return, however, they were to be afforded the protection of the Crown, instruction in the Christian faith and a small wage. (Las Casas himself benefited from this system both in Hispaniola and Cuba.) In practise, however, the Indians were treated in an horrific way - enslaved, starved, tortured, hunted down and massacred in huge numbers. This experience produced a despair resulting in suicide, infanticide and induced abortion amongst the Indians. The books of Las Casas were primarily written to inform the Spanish court of what was being done in the name of Spain and Christianity, and were immediately translated into the other European languages.

Las Casas was radical but not heretical - he believed that Columbus was an instrument of God to bring the Gospel to the New World and did not advocate revolt against the Spanish Crown, whose legitimacy to rule in South America he accepted. The behaviour of its representatives, however, was not in accord with either Christianity or official Spanish policy in his view, and needed to be recorded for Europe’s education. As well as recording the brutality of colonization, his books argued against the concept of the Indian as an inferior race. Las Casas argued that they were indeed ‘fully rational beings with a culture which, though certainly “primitive” in its technology and in a large number of its practices, was equal to anything which the Old World had produced.’ (Griffin 1992: xxviii).

His ideas had little immediate effect on changing Spanish attitudes in South America - the lust for gold was stronger than the recognition of religious or moral justice amongst the conquistadores. In the longer term, however, his books and actions earned him the title ‘Defender and Apostle to the Indians’. Simon Bolivar called him ‘that friend of humanity who with such fervour and determination denounced to his government and his contemporaries the most horrific acts of that sanguineous frenzy’. Today, there are dozens of statues to him throughout Latin America, and his work has been linked with Liberation Theology.

His books include:-

The following comes from ‘A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies’ and is the section devoted to Santa Marta.

The Province of Santa Marta

  ‘The natives of the province of Santa Marta had a great deal of gold, the province and its immediate neighbours being rich in the metal and the people who lived there having the will and the know-how to extract it. And this is the reason why, from 1498 right down to today, in 1542, the region has attracted an uninterrupted series of Spanish plunderers who have done nothing but sail there, attack, murder and rob the people, steal their gold and sail back again. Each expedition in turn - and there have been many over the years - has overrun the area, causing untold harm and a monstrous death-toll, and perpetrating countless atrocities. Until 1523, it was for the most part only the coastal strip that was blighted, and the countryside for a few leagues inland; but, in that year, a number of these Spanish brigands established a permanent settlement in the area and, since the region was, as we have said, extremely rich, that settlement witnessed the arrival of one commander after another, each set on outdoing his predecessor in villainy and cruelty, as though to prove the validity of the principle we outlined earlier. The year 1529 saw the arrival of a considerable force under the command of one such Spaniard, a grimly determined individual, with no fear of God and not an ounce of compassion for his fellow-men; he proceeded to outshine all who had gone before him in the arts of terror, murder, and the most appalling cruelty. In the six or seven years he and his men were in the province, they amassed a huge fortune. After his death - and he died without the benefit of confession and in full flight from his official residence - there came other robbers and murderers who wiped out those of the local population who had survived the attentions of their predecessors. They extended their reign of terror far inland, plundering and devastating whole provinces, killing or capturing the people who lived there in much the same way as we have seen happening elsewhere, torturing chiefs and vassals alike in order to discover the whereabouts of the gold and, as we have said, far outdoing, in both quantity and quality, even the awfulness of those who had gone before them. This they did to such effect that they contrived to depopulate, between 1529 and today, an area of over four hundred leagues which was once as densely inhabited as any other.

  I must confess that if I were to set down on paper each and every unforgivable violent crime committed against God, the King and the innocent people of the province by the Spanish in Santa Marta - every murder, every injustice, every atrocity, every attempt at genocide - they would make a very lengthy chronicle indeed. But that will l be for the future, if the Lord spares me. All I can do here is to quote a few words from a letter sent by the bishop of the province to His Majesty the King. The letter bears the date 20 May 1541:

  I submit, sacred Caesar, that the remedy for the ills that beset this territory is that Your Majesty remove from positions of authority the cruel usurpers presently in control and entrust it to someone who will love and care for it as he would his own offspring and will treat is properly as it deserves, and that Your Majesty attend to this as a matter of highest priority. If nothing is done, I am certain that the whole territory will very soon simply disappear from the face of the earth, given the ways in which the cruel usurpers now maltreat and belabour it.

  Further on in this same letter, the bishop writes:

It will be clear to Your Majesty from this how vital it is that those who presently govern these regions be stripped of their stewardship, so that the cruel yoke may be removed from the whole republic. If this is not done, I can see no remedy for the ills that now beset it. Your Majesty will also now perceive that here there are no Christians but only devils; no servants of God and the Crown but only traitors to His laws and Yours. It is my considered opinion that the greatest obstacle that stands in the way of the pacification of the New World, and with it the conversion of the people to Christ, is the harshness and cruelty of the treatment meted out by “Christians” to those who surrender. This has been so harsh and so brutal that nothing is more odious nor more terrifying to the people than the name “Christian”, a word for which they use in their language the term yares, which means “demons”. And such a usage is amply justified, for what has been done to them by the Spanish commanders and by their men has been neither Christian nor indeed the work of devils; and so, when the locals find themselves on the receiving end of such merciless butchery, they assume that such actions are standard among Christians and that they derive ultimately from a Christian God and a Christian King. Any attempt to persuade them otherwise is doomed to failure and quite understandably occasions snorts of derision, jibes about Christ and jeers at him and His laws. The treatment of those who surrender only serves to confirm the belief of those who continue the struggle that it is better to die once and for all in battle than to suffer a thousand slow deaths at the hands of the Spanish. This, I know, Most Invincible Caesar, from first-hand experience, etc.

  And he goes on to say:

  T

here are more servants of the Crown in these realms than Your Majesty may realise. For there is not a single soldier in the entire territory who does not declare openly, as he robs and plunders, as he murders or burns Your Majesty’s subjects in order to get them to hand over gold, that he is doing so on Your Majesty’s behalf and with Your Majesty’s express authority. It would, therefore, be appropriate, Most christian Caesar, for Your Majesty to make it known, by the exemplary punishment of some of these culprits, that the Crown is not served by actions that are a disservice to God.

  All this comes from an official report by the Bishop of Santa Marta, and one can see clearly from it what is happening to these unfortunate territories and to their innocent inhabitants. When he speaks of those natives who “continue the struggle” he means those who have managed to flee into the hills to escape butchery by Spanish scoundrels; and by those “who surrender” he means those who, having survived the wholesale slaughter of their fellow-countrymen, now suffer the barbaric slavery to which the Spanish subject hem and which we have already described - a slavery which will, as the bishop makes clear in his report, eventually prove fatal to each and every one of them. Indeed, he understates the horrific nature of the suffering to which they are subjected.

  When they have been brought to the very edge of collapse by the labours to which they are put and begin to drop from hunger and toil as they stumble through the mountains with enormous loads on their backs, the Spanish kick them and beat them with sticks to make them get up and resume their wearisome trudge. They do not allow them to stop and gasp for breath, and even knock their teeth out with the pommel of their swords. Their only response to such treatment is: “I give up, You are evil and wicked. I cannot go on any longer. Kill me now. I do not want to live another moment.” This they say as they lie groaning and clutching their chests in what is clearly great agony. Oh, would that I could describe even one hundredth part of the afflictions and calamities wrought among these innocent people by the benighted Spanish! May god grant enlightenment to those who are in a position to do something about what has been happening.’

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