Conquest And The Cross

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When Hernando Cortés and his little band of Spaniards fought their way in 1519 from the tropical shores of Mexico up to the high plateau and first saw stretched below them the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, gleaming on its lake under the morning sun, they experienced one of the truly dramatic moments in the history of America. Fortunately we have the words of a reporter worthy of the scene, the foot soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo, whose True History of the Conquest of New Spain is one of the classics of the Western world. He wrote:

“Gazing on such wonderful sights we did not know what to say or whether what appeared before us was real; for on the one hand there were great cities and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we—we did not number even four hundred soldiers!”

That was a soldier’s memory, and even today the Spanish conquest of the New World is widely believed, especially by English-speaking peoples, to have been a purely military exploit of a peculiarly ruthless nature. That the period of discovery and conquest was full of violence is certain.

But what deserves more notice is quite another aspect of this turbulent period: the great struggle among the Spaniards themselves to determine how to apply Christian precepts to relations with the natives they encountered as they crossed the rivers, plains, swamps, and mountains of the New World. The going forth together of the Spanish standard and the Roman Catholic cross is well known. But too often the cross is dismissed as merely a symbol of a national church as much bent on “conquest” as the standard-bearers. The real effort to convert the natives, which moved many Spaniards and greatly concerned the Crown of Spain, and the powerful role religious conscience played throughout the conquest have been largely overlooked. Other nations sent out bold explorers and established empires. But no other European nation plunged into the struggle for Christian justice, as she understood it, that Spain engaged in shortly after Christopher Columbus first reached the New World.

So the story deserves to be told of Bartolomé de Las Casas, perhaps the most loved and hated and certainly the most inilueiitial of many Spaniards who believed the Spanish mandate in America to be primarily an obligation to convert the Indians peacefully to the Christian faith. He gave fifty strenuous years of his life to protect the natives from the treatment his fellow countrymen accorded them.

But, to be understood, he must be seen against the background of the Spanish colonial effort as a whole. Like many others who opposed a purely military conquest, Las Casas represented the church that the Spanish Crown sent to the New World in double harness with the conquistadors. For this conquest was unique. The Spaniards, with the approval of the Pope and carrying out the commands of their King, were to claim the new lands and the tribute of their inhabitants for the Spanish Crown (a worldly purpose) and bring these inhabitants into the knowledge of Christ (a spiritual purpose). The dual motivation behind the enterprise made conflict inevitable—conflict not only between the Spanish and the natives they were dealing with, but also among the Spaniards themselves, for although practically all Spaniards accepted both purposes as good, they could never agree for long on how best to achieve them.

From our vantage point, four hundred years later, we can see the tragedy of the Spanish conquest: the Crown and the nation were attempting the impossible. On the one hand, they sought imperial dominion, prestige, and revenue; on the other, the voluntary commitment of many peoples culturally different from themselves to the new religion they offered or imposed. The tragedy of the Indians was that in order to accomplish either objective the Spaniards were bound to overthrow established Indian values and to disrupt or destroy Indian cultures and civilizations, as they did in spectacular fashion in Mexico and Peru.

But from Spanish documents alone—the voices of the conquered can be heard only through Spanish materials—we may reconstruct the extraordinary story of how Christian conscience worked as a leaven during the oiirushing conquest, insisting on judging men’s deeds and the nation’s policies. The struggle centered upon the aborigines. Influenced by the wealth of medieval legends that for centuries had circulated in Europe, the Spaniards expected to meet in America giants, pygmies, griffins, wild men, human beings adorned with tails, and other fabulous folk. When Cortes embarked from Cuba upon the conquest of Mexico, Governor Diego Velázquez instructed him to look in Aztec lands for strange beings with great flat ears and doglike faces. Francisco de Orellana was so sure that he had met warrior women on his famous voyage of 1540–41 that the mightiest river in South America was named the Amazon.