The Spanish conquest and colonisation of the New World soon led to a debate over enslavement of the Indian native population decades before the rest of Europe confronted the horror and injustice of the enslavement of Africans. This was due in large part to a few prophetic priests’ fierce criticism of their fellow countrymen’s treatment of Indians. The leading defender of the Indians, Father Bartholomew De las Casas, devoted himself for fifty years to enactment of labor reform in the Spanish colonies and to proclaiming the liberty and equality of the original inhabitants.
Sent in 1502 to manage the properties of his father in the Domincan Republic, De las Casas himself owned Indian slaves before he was converted to protect and defend the Indians by some powerful preaching and by his studies of the Bible. Consecrated as a priest by the Dominicans in 1510, he heard Father Antonio de Montosinos preach in the cathedral of Santo Domingo against all forms of oppression and exploitation. Anticipating the furious response to his sermon, Father de Montosinos chose the text, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness”. His congregation included the colony’s highest officials who demanded the priest retract his views in the following Sunday’s sermon.
Prior to the next Sunday’s sermon, the Prior of the Dominican community assured the officials that Father de Montosinos spoke for all the priests serving the colony. With this backing from his superior, the indomnitable de Montosinos based his sermon on Job 36:3 the following Sunday and added to his denunciations of injustices the proclamation that the sacraments would be denied any slave holder in the colony.
It seems important to note that the views of Father De las Casas on the treatment of the colonies’ natives were slow in evolving. Father de Montesinos mentored De las Casas with the warning, “the truth has ever had many enemies and falsehood many defenders”. Consecrated a priest at age 36, his first charge was managing a property and converting Indians in Cuba. Having witnessed gruesome attacks by Spaniards on “rebellious” Indians and the routine mistreatment of their laborers by the Spanish settlers, the turning point for the middle aged priest came on Pentecost 1514.
Searching for an appropriate text for the celebration of the birthday of the church, De Las Casas came upon the words of Eccl 34: “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous, and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted. The most High is not pleased with the offerings of the wicked; neither is He pacified for sin by the multitude of sacrifices….He that taketh away his neighbor’s living, slayeth him;and he that defraudeth the laborer of his hire is a bloodshedder.” His biographer tells us of the impact of this text and his sermon on the preacher: “until then he had been zealous in protecting the Indians against massacre and pillage, but to the injustice of the servitude imposed upon them, he was insensible”.
The sermon’s effect was immediate on the preacher. De las Casas met with the Governor of Cuba to relinquish his properties and his rule over the Indians working there. He further began to make plans for his first of many trips to Spain to plea eloquently for equal rights for the Indians of the New World. The message in Spain on this first trip and all that followed included the conviction that those who ignored the rights of those created in God’s image would be condemned eternally in the court of God’s justice.
It took De las Casas a few years to extend his doctrine of justice and equality for the natives of the New World to the slaves bought on the coasts of Africa. When pressed on one of his first advocacy tours of Spain whether it would be acceptable to replace Indian laborers with African slaves working in Spain or direct from Africa, the defender of the Indians gave his approval to importing Africans as well as Spanish laborers. For nearly one hundred years Spain had bought African slaves from the Portuguese traders and they were a prominent feature of Spanish society especially in Las Casas’ hometown of Seville. De las Casas soon recanted from his support for African slave labor and extended his doctrine of equality and justice for those exploited by European rule to all the world’s colonized people.
Reading accounts of the conquest and colonization of the New World found in the Western Hemisphere one is struck by the consistent reference to conversion of the natives as the primary motive for the daring adventures. Cortes for example masterfully employed advance of the true faith in motivating his small band to enter yet another battle with the Indians. So how could their “championing of the Cross” have resulted in the near total decimation of the Indian population in the colonies of Spain?
Cortes himself explained to an Indian ally the behavior of some of his troops with the following words: “The Spaniards were troubled with a disease of the heart, for which gold was a specific remedy.” De las Casas’ biographer Francis McNutt points to the many temptations of the colonial setting as the background to the outrages of the colonizers: “Perverted as their conception of the true spirit of Christin propaganda may appear to us, it may not be doubted that many of these men were animated by honest missionary zeal and actually thought their singular methods would procure the conversion of the Indians. On the other hand, few of those who left Spain, animated by high motives, resisted the prevalent seductions of avarice and ambitions amid conditions so singularly favorable to their gratification.”
The great 19th century historian of the conquest William Prescott provided another explanation of the Spanish sins in their colonies: “Religion in that day was one of form and elaborate ceremony. In the punctilious attention to discipline, the spirit of Christianity was permitted to evaporate.” This sounds like something we need to be attentive to and avoid in our own day.
POST SCRIPT: Hatuey, an Indian chief in the first Spanish colony in the West, was urged to convert to Christianity before being burned at the stake so his soul would enter heaven. He asked if the white man would be there and when answered affirmatively, he responded, “Then I will not be a Christian, for I would not go again to a place where I must find men so cruel.”
For further reading on the era of Spanish conquest and the struggle to ameliorate the treatment of the native population:
Francis Augustus MacNutt, Bartholomew de las Casas; his life, apostolate and writings
Bartholomew de las Casas, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies
Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Memoirs of the Conquistador, a remarkable account of the conquest of Mexico by one of Cortes’ troops
William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico