478: RED CHRISTIANS #34: BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS

“A warm welcome to Zingcreed, the blog for a post-Christian era. Ever since I read about Caribbean history while living in Trinidad and Tobago, and helped my partner prepare teaching notes on Caribs and Arawaks for use in London secondary schools, I have been fascinated by Fray Bartholomé de las Casas. It is as if he was the only man among the Spanish Conquistadors who had a conscience. Unlike his gold hunting genocidal compatriots, he tried to save the indigenous population, not slaughter them. He was a priest, a Dominican friar; but then everyone else was a Catholic too. He has even been adopted as the father of Latin American liberation theology. What made him different? Historians don’t agree, and now there is a revisionist account on the bookshelves to challenge half a millennium of hagiography. I have much enjoyed reading Daniel Castro’s “Another face of Empire. Bartolomé de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism” Duke University Press (2007).

I hope you find this as interesting as I did,
In solidarity,
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”

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Here are Parry and Sherlock (1956) in their classic work “A  Short History of the West Indies” p.23 “Most prominent among these (urging better treatment and greater liberty for Indians) was the great Dominican missionary and polemist Bartolomé de las Casas, whose Brief relation of the Destruction of the Indies is a horrifying catalogue of atrocities perpetuated during his time in Hispaniola. Las Casas devoted the rest of his long life to the cause of Indian liberty, continually urging the crown, in his sermons and writings and by personal agitation at court, to enact more humane legislation.
He himself was appointed Protector of the Indians in 1516, and over the next 10 years sponsored a whole series of social experiments designed to show that free Indians could be induced, by preaching and force of example, to form civilised Christian communities, without compulsion or enslavement. The experiments merely demonstrated, in fact, that the Spanish settlers could not live without Indian labour, or some substitute for it; and that Indians would not work without coercion.”

The Tainos dwindled in number and were replaced with stronger saves brought from Africa. (i)

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[London street art]

Augier et al (1960) give more detail about Las Casas’ life: on leaving University in Spain he took part in the conquest of Cuba, gaining land and Indians as a result. He was ordained priest. He did not at that time think enslavement of the Indians was wrong, indeed he was present during some of the worst Spanish atrocities against them. However working on a sermon in 1514, he was struck by the text “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous and the gifts of unjust man are not accepted”. Within a few days he freed his Indians and returned to Spain to join the Dominicans and to argue against Indian slavery. The Dominicans had a track record of support for more Indian freedom, but when Las Casas went back to the Caribbean with a team of Dominicans to investigate the suitability of Indians for freedom, they released only one man. Las Casas protested against this result and was threatened with arrest. He upped sticks and returned to Spain to lobby the new monarch, Emperor Charles V, who gave him a sympathetic ear. With royal backing, Las Casas set up his first experiment in the gold mines of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic). The amount of gold the Indians produced did not even cover the costs of the food they were provided with.

In the next fiasco, Spanish colonists in Panama not only sabotaged Las Casas’ attempt to set up a farming scheme, they attacked other settlers and priests as well. Las Casas retreated to a monastery in Hispaniola for 10 years where he wrote up Indian history and produced plans for future development.

A tribe of war-like Indians living in impenetrable mountainous  terrain had repulsed all Spanish attempts at colonisation. Las Casas took on the challenge of converting them, by sending in trusted traders to sing Christian ballads to them in their own tongue. It worked to a degree and in 1544, Las Casas was made their bishop! It all ended in bloodshed  when envious Indian priests staged a rebellion, killing 2 friars in church and sacrificing one before an idol. In the end the King ordered reprisals and the experiment in peaceful conversion was at an end. (ii)

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[London graffiti]

Garcia (1965) maintains that although colonisation wiped out the Antillean Arawaks (Indians on the islands), Las Casas’ Christian zeal paid off later, as his more enlightened code on the mainland saved them from extinction there; and that, “the greater part of  the population of Spanish America today is still Indian” (iii)

Murray (1971) points out that even during Las Casas’ 50 year domination of the scene, the Church still kept Indian slaves, and some missions exploited them, while some fathers of the church even took part in the slave trade. Las Casas was thwarted on all sides. (iv)

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Koning (1976) is not afraid to spell out the grisly genocidal details which the previous volumes (all used in secondary schools) all omitted. Columbus’ obsession with gold meant every man woman boy and girl had to bring in a fixed measure of gold every 3 months in return for a date stamped copper token which they had to hang round their necks on a piece of string. Any native found without an up to date token summarily had both their hands amputated as a warning to others. The chiefs had to bring in 10 times that amount. After they had given in all their gold ornaments they frantically panned the river looking without success for gold dust. Those that fled to the mountains were hunted down by dogs and killed.

More than 400 years later Brazilian entrepreneurs were still cutting off the ears of Indians who didn’t come in with enough wild rubber.

The Spaniards threw Indian children into the sea chanting “Boil in hell, children of the devil!”

Green wood was used to burn Caciques (chiefs) to death more slowly so that they would scream for longer as an example to the others. As a sign of their deeply engrained Christian faith, the Spaniards burned their victims in groups of 13 “in memory of our redeemer and his 12 apostles”. Other Indians were hacked to pieces and sold as dog food in the market place.

The Spaniards had muskets, swords, horses and dogs – unlike the Indians. The countryside was so pacified that a Spanish man or woman could go anywhere, and do anything. A man could have any native woman, and ride any Indian man like  donkey if he so chose. In 2 years half the population of Hispaniola had been slaughtered or committed suicide by drinking cassava poison (cyanide). By 1540 the entire nation had vanished from the earth, and not one Indian had converted to what Columbus called “our Holy Faith”. (v)

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Chomsky (1993) tellingly quotes from Las Casas’ will:
“I believe that because of these impious, criminal and ignominious deeds perpetrated so unjustly, tyrannically and barbarously, God will vent upon Spain his wrath and his fury for nearly all of Spain has shared in the bloody wealth usurped at the cost of so much ruin and slaughter.”

Chomsky also picks up on the sweet nature of the indigenous people whom the Christians slaughtered. Columbus himself describes them as “lovable, tractable, peaceable, gentle, decorous.” Las Casas wrote “of all the infinite universe of humanity, they are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity.” (vi)

Which side was the Christian one? Would someone kindly remind me?

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Castro (2007) calls for a  re-evaluation of Las Casas by historians: he is just another side of the same Spanish imperial project. It’s a good cop/ bad cop scenario: benevolent Bartolomé will get ’em if the thuggish colonists can’t. A difference of form rather than essence. (vii)

Spanish imperial policies undermined any real attempts at reform, and despite his strenuous efforts on the Indians’ behalf, Las Casas failed to grasp the difficulties and contradictions in imposing an alien religious belief, Christianity, on a people who already had their own highly developed religious beliefs as well as forms of social, economic, and political organisation.  Castro maintains that Las Casas’ activism seldom resulted in improving the lives of the natives, and often his main accomplishment was to keep himself in the political and social limelight.

He was a utopian, unable to hold a dialogue with the colonists and never actually empowering the people on whose behalf he claimed to be acting. No concrete analysis of events on the ground has ever been done to see if his activism actually improved things at  grass roots. Many policies were never implemented. His primary concern at all times was to convert the inhabitants of the Americas to Christianity. He always saw the dissemination of the Christian faith as his divinely ordained mission. Many of his admirers today still see this vocation as virtuous and worthy of praise instead of an act of ecclesiastical imperialism. Las Casas thought that the Spanish presence should be tolerated and welcomed as long as the Spaniards intended to preach the Christian Gospel among the indigenous infidels. Castro comments “Such a consideration is a capitulation to a form of pseudo-humanism that only partially recognizes  the humanity of the subject indigenous people.”

Castro reckons that the only thing differentiating him from the rest was his willingness to reach out to offer temporary succour to those being victimized so they could be benevolently converted, peacefully exploited, successfully incorporated as members of a new subject-colony where existence depended on the dictates of the king in the imperial capital.

Most telling of all was his failure to call for the abolition of the encomienda system, whereby conquistadors were rewarded for services rendered to the crown by having grants assigned to them of tribute paying Indians. Instead he called for the amelioration of the tasks imposed on the natives so they could survive the ordeal.

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Sources:
(i) Parry, JH; Sherlock, P “A Short history of the West Indies” Macmillan (1956)
(ii) Augier, F.R., et al “The Making of the West Indies” Longman Caribbean (1960)
(iii) Garcia, A. “History of the West Indies” Harrap (1965)
(iv) Murray, R N, “Nelson’s West Indian History” Nelson (1971)
(v)  Koning, Hans, “Columbus: His enterprise” Latin American Bureau (1976)
(vi) Chomsky, Noam “Year 501, the conquest continues” Verso (1993)
(vii) Castro, Daniel “Another face of Empire. Bartolome de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism” Duke University Press (2007)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Christian atrocities #2 The slaughter of non-Christians

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