Caribbean genocide

James Ferguson on A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas

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It was the Sunday before Christmas in the year 1511, almost 20 years after Christopher Columbus had first set foot on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The more Christian among the motley collection of adventurers and desperadoes who made up the population of the main settlement, Santo Domingo, were assembled in church. Spaniards to a man, they were the New World’s first colonists.

The sermon was to be delivered by a newly arrived Dominican friar, Antonio Montesinos. But what followed was not what the churchgoers expected. As the priest warmed to his theme, the congregation could scarcely believe their ears. Rounding on the faithful, he launched into a furious tirade.

“With what right,” he demanded, “and with what justice do you keep these poor Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? By what authority have you made such detestable wars against these people who lived peacefully and gently on their own lands? Are these not men?”

There was an uproar. People walked out of the church, others demanded that Montesinos be locked up or sent back to Spain. For his own safety, the cleric was persuaded to keep a low profile. His offence, of course, was to have confronted those Christian souls with the most unpalatable truth about their New World colony: that it was based on something we have come to know as genocide.

Among the congregation that Sunday was a 27-year-old Spaniard called Bartolomé de Las Casas. Born in Seville, he had joined the vast Spanish fleet that set out in 1502 to colonise Hispaniola in the aftermath of Columbus’s discovery. Like many others, he saw the New World as a tempting opportunity to make good and to escape the hopelessness of feudal Spain. Within a year he was a man of property in the colony, the master of a number of Taino Indians whom the authorities handed out to the Spanish landowners to work in gold mining or farming. In 1510 he became a priest. So it was with particular interest that the young Las Casas listened to Montesinos’s fiery sermon.

Las Casas was by then fully familiar with the brutal treatment handed out by the early conquistadors to the indigenous people of the Caribbean by the early conquistadors. He later recalled that when he first landed at Santo Domingo, he and the others were told: “You have arrived at a good moment. There is to be a war against the Indians and we will be able to take many slaves.” As a landowner, he had the right to exploit the labour of those Indians “granted” to him in what was called the encomienda system. He claimed he was a decent master, but also admitted that he did not give much thought to the matter before he heard Montesinos.

Even then, his conversion to the cause of the Indians did not happen overnight. It seems that it took the experience of witnessing the sadistic Diego Velasquez’s conquest of Cuba at first hand to confirm what he had begun to suspect. There he saw how the Spaniards killed, raped and tortured their way around the island. He must have kept silent even then, however, for he was granted another large encomienda by Velasquez himself.

Three years after the celebrated sermon, Las Casas underwent a further revelation. It was, he said, when he was reading Ecclesiasticus 34: 21-2, in preparation for his own Easter sermon, that he came across the following: “He that taketh away his neighbour’s living slayeth him, and he that defraudeth the labourer of his hire is a bloodshedder.” They were words that touched a nerve, since they seemed to describe more or less exactly what the Spanish were doing to the Tainos. He immediately told a dumbfounded Velasquez that he intended to renounce his Indians (which was probably bad luck for them, as he was a considerate master). After another year in Cuba, he set sail, with Montesinos, for Spain, where he resolved to tell King Ferdinand what was happening in his newly conquered colony.

Ferdinand, elderly and absent-minded, apparently listened politely, but referred the matter to his bureaucrats, who, says Las Casas, were unsympathetic. One, when told of the murder of thousands of indigenous children, shrugged and said, “And how does that concern me?” This merely strengthened the resolve of the priest, who by now saw himself as the divinely inspired “defender of the Indians”.

For the rest of his unusually long life (he died in 1576, at the age of 92), Las Casas devoted himself to that cause. He argued vehemently against other churchmen who claimed that the Indians had no souls because they were less than human. He campaigned tirelessly for the rights of indigenous people, not just in the Caribbean but in Mexico, where he became Bishop of Chiapas in 1542, and in South America. He also wrote voluminously, producing vast tomes of legal and theological evidence in favour of indigenous rights.

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies appeared in 1552, relatively late in Las Casas’s career. It is unapologetically a piece of propaganda, a polemic directed against the Spanish colonial bureaucracy and pitched hopefully at the future King Philip II, who, Las Casas thought, might at last take action against the abuses committed against his Indian subjects. In that sense, it is meant to shock, is probably exaggerated and is deliberately concise so as not to exhaust the royal reader. It is also extraordinarily powerful, occasionally disturbing and a masterpiece of controlled indignation.

In these 100-odd pages, Las Casas traces the bloodstained history of Spanish conquest. The natural gentleness and charity of the Indians, he writes, were repaid with aggression and violence by the conquistadors. From the first outrages committed against the Tainos of Hispaniola, the Spanish moved on to massacre the inhabitants of Cuba, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, before spreading their genocide into the Central American isthmus and the Andes. Some of this, especially in the Caribbean, he had seen for himself; the rest was based on eyewitness reports from other clerics and visitors.

Las Casas tells this chilling story with a baroque taste for the details of Spanish cruelty. Like the Nazis in our time, the Spanish conquerors seemingly enjoyed exemplary or symbolically charged violence. In a grotesque travesty of Christian liturgy:

They spared no one, erecting especially wide gibbets on which they could string their victims up with their feet just off the ground and then burn them alive 13 at a time, in honour of our Saviour and the 12 Apostles, or tie dry straw to their bodies and set fire to it.

It is the stuff of nightmares, a foretaste of Auschwitz. The engravings by the Flemish Theodor de Bry from a contemporary Dutch translation add to the unreality of the ritualised tortures and almost casual sadism that Las Casas describes.

Las Casas believed that in abusing the indigenous people they encountered, the Spanish were literally inhuman, that they forfeited their humanity and became mere beasts. He also feared that God would wreak terrible revenge on Spain if the genocide did not end. Ironically, his hopes and fears both failed to materialise, for the onslaught on indigenous America continued unabated, while divine retribution did not occur.

By the time this passionate book appeared, the Tainos of Hispaniola were all but extinct. Other entire communities would follow them, snuffed out by cruelty and European diseases. In that sense, Las Casas and his colleague Montesinos failed. But where they succeeded was in showing that human conscience and moral integrity can survive even among the cruellest of times. Las Casas’s whole life, and this book in particular, is testimony to the strength of those values.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)