I am persuaded that, if Your Highness [the future Philip II] had been informed of even a few of the excesses which this New World has witnessed, all of them surpassing anything that men have hitherto imagined even in their wildest dreams, Your Highness would not have delayed for even one moment before entreating His Majesty [Charles V, Philip's father] to prevent any repetition of the events which go on under the name of 'conquests': excesses which, if no move is made to stop them, will be committed time and again, and which (given that the indigenous peoples of the region are naturally so gentle, so peace-loving, so humble and so docile) are of themselves iniquitous, tyrannical, contrary to natural, canon and civil law, and are deemed wicked and are condemned and proscribed by all such legal codes.
I therefore concluded that it would constitute a criminal neglect of my duty to remain silent about the enormous loss of life as well as the infinite number of human souls despatched to Hell in the course of such 'conquests', and so resolved to publish an account of a few such outrages (and they can be only a few out of the countless number of such incidents that I could relate) in order to make that account the more accessible to Your Highness.
Spanish Dominican friar Bartolomé de la Casas (1484-1576) enjoys a reputation today as something close to an activist for social justice. Both in his writing - chiefly his fierce condemnation of Spanish colonial practices, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) - and in his (moderately successful) direct advocacy for changes to the laws governing colonists' activities, las Casas appears as a tireless and strident voice of conscience. The Short Account is a catalogue of horrors, but it is also an indictment of the institutions - and to some extent the attitudes - that allowed or even fostered such horrors.
Of course, in the understandable excitement at hearing an early modern voice speak out against brutality ("the atrocities [...] and, among other horrific excesses, the ways in which towns, provinces, and whole kingdoms have been entirely cleared of their native inhabitants") there has been a tendency to exaggerate the humanism and compassion of las Casas' position. What bothers las Casas is not colonialism itself, but colonialism done badly. He decries "the despotic and diabolical behaviour of the Christians [which] has, over the last forty years, led to the unjust and totally unwarranted deaths of more than twelve millions souls, women and children among them"; he even criticises the naked land grab that had taken place at the expense, speaking with real passion of
the boldness and the unreason of those who count it as nothing to drench the Americas in human blood and to dispossess the people who are the natural masters and dwellers in those vast and marvellous kingdoms
But like his later counterpart Bernabé Cobo (1580-1657), about whom I wrote here last year, las Casas did not object to the concept of colonialism, and had no qualms about wiping out the indigenous cultures of Spain's new overseas dominions. Far from it; bringing Christianity to the benighted pagans of the Americas was, as far as las Casas was concerned, unambiguously a Good Thing:
They are innocent and pure in mind and have a lively intelligence, all of which makes them particularly receptive to learning and understanding the truths of our Catholic faith and to being instructed in virtue; indeed, God has invested them with fewer impediments in this regard than any other people on earth. Once they begin to learn of the Christian faith they become so keen to know more, to receive the Sacraments, and to worship God, that the missionaries who instruct them do truly have to be men of exceptional patience and forbearance; and over the years I have time and again met Spanish laymen who have been so struck by the natural goodness that shines through these people that they frequently can be heard to exclaim: "These would be the most blessed people on earth if only they were given the chance to convert to Christianity."
Rather, las Casas' objection to the activities of his fellow Spaniards lay in the way they carried out their mission. He discusses how the slaughter harms both victims and perpetrators. The 'Indians' - whom God, he says, has made "[t]he simplest people in the world - unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and submissive - they are without malice or guile, and are utterly faithful and obedient" - have suffered violence on a massive scale. Las Casas catalogues the incidents by region, describing how the blood-crazed conquerors hunted people with dogs or impaled them on spikes; he says,
I saw with my own eyes how the Spaniards burned countless local inhabitants alive or hacked them to pieces, or devised novel ways of torturing them [...] Indeed, they invented so many new methods of murder that it would be quite impossible to set them all down on paper
Obviously, noting that something is too vast or terrible to recount - although, with that indefatigable early modern appetite for the grotesque, las Casas nonetheless does his best - is a well-worn rhetorical trick, and it is important not to forget that this book was intended as an argument, not a disinterested record. Often las Casas is relying on hearsay, and he plays with tone and trope alike to enhance the effect of his message: the law must be changed. (His material would be used, in turn, to other propagandistic ends, notably in anti-Catholic writings in Protestant-leaning areas of Europe.) Yet las Casas was also an eyewitness to some of the events; he had travelled and lived in the Spanish possessions for himself, and had taken part in some of the military campaigns before turning against the colonial elites in moral disgust. He is careful to emphasise his authority to be producing this account; discussing incidents that took place on Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he notes, "I saw all these things myself and many others besides".
Worse than the violence, however, was the fact that the indigenous peoples were dying before they had the chance to convert to Christianity; as las Casas puts it in the quotation with which I began this post: "the enormous loss of life as well as the infinite number of human souls despatched to Hell". He sees it as "blindness of the most pernicious kind" that, even though there are regulations in place which "maintain that conversion and the saving of souls has first priority", the local peoples are instead simply being killed outright, or else forced to convert at the point of swords.
Above all, this is bad PR for Christianity:
The reader can judge for himself the reaction of the local people to such messengers, their great love of Christians, their certainty of the goodness and justice of the Lord, and how pure they must think the law and religion professed with pride by disciples such as these.
As noted above, las Casas is also concerned for the effects of the violence on the people carrying it out; in a striking passage, he says that the Spanish colonisers have "become so anaesthetized to human suffering by their own greed and ambition that they had ceased to be men in any meaningful sense of the term". They have been led to this, las Casas explains, by "insatiable greed and overweening ambition", a desire to make their fortunes in gold and land. I'm inclined to think that the aggressively ideological militarism brewed for centuries in 'reconquest' Spain, starved of an outlet since the last remnant of Muslim Iberia had been extinguished only a few decades before, must have also played a part.
In any case, these men's sins have grown so great, las Casas says, that God has abandoned them to their damnation. The fact that the invaders "have had as little concern for [the indigenous peoples'] souls as for their bodies", such that "millions have perished [...] with no knowledge of God and without the benefit of the Sacraments", is something that imperils these same invaders' souls - and, moreover, something that threatens Spain itself. If you assume that the world is run according to a divine plan, as las Casas and his contemporaries obviously did, then doing something that might be contrary to God's will was a bad idea indeed. Not for nothing had much of the historiography surrounding the Reconquista sought to find sins committed by the Spanish people or their Visigothic kings back in the eighth century. It was an essential part of understanding how the Muslim invasion and settlement of Iberia could possible have happened: the Muslim conquest of Spain had been a punishment from God, and its reconquest a reward for their repentance.
There are undoubtedly echoes of this thinking when las Casas warns that action must be taken against the colonial elites in the Americas "if God is to continue to watch over the Crown of Castile and ensure its future well-being and prosperity, both spiritual and temporal". In Guatemala, he notes with a certain thrill of fear, an unnamed city that the Spaniards built
has only recently been visited by the full force of Divine Justice and been utterly destroyed by three violent disasters, the first lashing it with heavy rain, the second burying it beneath a deluge of earth, and the third pulverizing it with hailstones the size of ten or twenty oxen.
As a record of events in Spanish America, the usefulness of las Casas' Short Account is questionable; as a window onto sensibilities, though, it is fascinating.