“Bartolomé de Las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas”
Author: Lawrence A. Clayton
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (Viewpoints)
Price: $24.95 (Paper)
Bartolomé de Las Casas is one of those historical figures that, one must sadly admit, one knew nothing about. But this concise, informative book by UA history professor Lawrence Clayton can fix that.
Las Casas was one of the most important figures in the Spanish conquest of, or to put it on more equal terms, encounter with, the New World. An ordained Dominican friar and eventually a bishop, Las Casas was a figure as important as, but in his way in opposition to, conquistadores like Pizarro or Cortez. Only Christopher Columbus himself is a more important historical figure.
Born in 1485 in Seville, Spain, Las Casas made his first trip to the Indies with his merchant father in 1502. During his lifetime he would make eight transatlantic trips, an astonishing number equaled by few.
During this period the Portuguese and then the Spaniards were pushing out the mental, geographical and commercial boundaries of the European world, sailing down the west coast of Africa, exploring the Atlantic islands and visiting and settling first the islands of the Caribbean, and then Mexico, Central and South America. They did not exactly “discover” the New World—the Indians who lived there already knew it existed—but they did make Europeans aware of the greater Atlantic World.
The Spanish conquistadores were passionately interested in the treasure of the Indies, of course, but with varying degrees of sincerity and hypocrisy professed to be bringing the natives Christianity, saving their souls from “the deceptions of the devil” and endowing them with eternal salvation. This was done almost entirely by force, with Spanish steel and Spanish war horses, against Indians on foot armed with wooden clubs.
Las Casas wrote “I can attest that neither then nor in subsequent years was there any more effort to bring Christianity to these people than there was to teach the Faith to the mares and horses and other beasts of the field.”
The indigenous people were slaughtered, starved or enslaved, worked to death in mines and fields or sent in slavery back to Spain.
Many Spaniards insisted they needed the Indians’ labor to work the mines and fields. Las Casas said: “If you want fields to bear, work them yourselves” and “If you want to get rich on gold, pick up the tools and dig yourself.”
At first Las Casas had been unaware. His family even benefited from the system of forced labor, but as he witnessed the spreading atrocities with his own eyes, he was disgusted and outraged. He saw and reported the Spaniards showing off “their cutting skills, some showing off their reverse strokes, opening the Tainos [Indians] from chest to groin, their entrails spilling out.” Three Tainos were tied together and slowly strangled “in honor of Christ, our Redeemer, and of his twelve Apostles.” Some Indians were lashed to death with whips dipped in tar.
Las Casas also passes on the testimony of others. A Franciscan friar in Panama wrote: “I saw with my own eyes forty thousand Indians put to the sword and set upon by fierce war dogs.”
Las Casas wrote book after book, letter after letter, attempting to stop these abuses: “I shudder to tell it. Perhaps it was a nightmare. I can hardly believe it myself.”
The Tainos were the Indians of what we now call Hispaniola. “A Brief History of the Destruction of the Indies” (1552) is essentially their story. In this book, Las Casas became the spokesman for the Indians and a kind of modern Jeremiah. Needless to say, he became a most controversial figure among the Spanish.
For a while he advocated importing African slaves to alleviate the catastrophe for the Indians, but soon recanted this position.
He worked all his life to persuade the kings of Spain that Indians were persons, fully human, with souls, whose rights must be respected. They had constructed huge cities, and developed sophisticated social and political organizations. (It must be noted that the Aztec practice of killing, purportedly, 20,000 per year in human sacrifice did not help his argument.)
Clayton admits Las Casas sometimes exaggerated, but the truth was horrible. Las Casas is acknowledged to be the prime source of the “Black Legend” of Spanish conquest, which holds that “The Spaniard” in Renaissance Europe was synonymous with greed, brutality and cruelty.
The Spaniards learned early that the Indies were indeed rich in gold and silver, as well as potential slaves.
In what Clayton calls “an error of judgment” the Aztec Montezuma had attempted to turn the Spaniards back with a huge gift of treasure. Included were two massive wheels “as large as the wheels of a carriage, as thick as a man’s arm,” one made of gold, one of silver. The Spaniards wanted more.
In Peru, Pizarro captured the chief Atahualpa. Held as hostage, the chief “sent for enough gold and silver…to fill a room.”
All of this served to inflame the Spanish to greater conquest. With what must be acknowledged as enormous courage, aided by European diseases and some Indian allies, they would conquer much of the New World and make Spain the most powerful nation on the globe
Although he never ceased lobbying hard and debating tirelessly, both in the Americas and in Spain, Las Casas, as advocate for the rights of the Indians, might be considered unsuccessful. Except in Peru, a majority of the natives were killed or died of diseases such as measles and smallpox. But Las Casas is now seen by many as the father of Liberation Theology, which would spring up again in many of these same territories in the 1960s.