Conquest And The Cross

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The plumed and painted peoples actually encountered soon perplexed the Spanish nation, from King to common citizen. Who were they ami where did they come from? What was their nature, especially their capacity for European civilization and Christianity, and how should they be dealt with? Few significant figures of the conquest failed to deliver opinions, and the Council of the Indies held long formal inquiries on the subject. The voices of dogmatic and troubled individuals—ecclesiastics, soldiers, colonists, and royal officials in America as well as men of action and thought in Spain—rose continually in a dissident chorus of advice to Crown and Council.

Against this background of national excitement Bartolomé de Las Casas arose to devote his life to the Indians. His contemporaries saw him variously as a saintly leader, a dangerous fanatic, or a sincere fool; and, because his reputation is bound up with judgments on the conquest as a whole, his memory is kept green even today by support and attack. Of Las Casas the man, despite his powerful role, we know little. Neither friend nor enemy described his appearance, and no painter recorded it during his life. He wrote no autobiography; we must depend largely upon his historical and polemical writings for knowledge ol his life and ideas.

We do know that he was born in Seville in 1474 and was there when Columbus, returning from his first voyage in 1493, triumphantly exhibited through the streets natives and parrots from the New World. His father accompanied Columbus on the second voyage and is supposed to have given the boy an Indian slave to serve as a page during his student days. Bartolomé went to America, probably with Nicolás de Ovanclo in 1502, and, even though he had already received minor orders, he was little better than the rest of the gentlemen-adventurers who rushed to the New World, bent on speedily acquiring fortunes. He obtained Indian slaves, worked them in mines, and attended to the cultivation of his estates. While he did not mistreat his Indians, their lowly lot seems not to have disturbed him. In 1512 he participated in the conquest of Cuba and was rewarded with both land and the service of some Indians.

It was against such men as Las Casas that a young Dominican friar named Antonio de Montesinos delivered two indignant sermons in Hispaniola in 1511. This first public cry on behalf of human liberty in the New World, whose texts were “I am a voice crying in the wilderness” and “Suffer me a little and I will show thce that I have yet to speak on God’s behalf,” stunned and then enraged the colonists, for Montesinos declared they were in mortal sin by reason of their cruelty to the Indians. Of Montesinos, whom the King shortly commanded to be silent, we know little except this brave moment of protest, which has been called one of the great events in the spiritual history of mankind. Las Casas shared the resistance of the other colonists to the cry. Like them, he took no steps to change his way of life, and for more than two years after the sermons he continued as a gentleman-ecclesiastic, although on one occasion a priest refused him the sacraments because he held slaves. The ensuing dispute disturbed without convincing him.

But the seed of a great decision was growing within this obstinate man, as yet unaware that he was destined to become the greatest Indian champion of them all. One day in the spring of 1514, while he was preparing a sermon for Whitsunday at the newly established Cuban settlement of Sancti Espiritus, his eye fell upon this verse in Ecclesiasticus: “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous, and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted.”

Pondering on this text and on the doctrines preached by the Dominicans, he became increasingly convinced “that everything done to the Indians thus far was unjust and tyrannical.” The scales fell from his eyes. He saw at last what was to be forever after the truth for him, and experienced as complete a change of life as did Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.

Characteristically, he entered upon the new life immediately. He freed his Indians and preached a sermon at Sancti Espiritus against his fellow Spaniards. It shocked them as much as Montesinos had shocked his congregation. The path thus chosen in his fortieth year Las Casas was to follow for the more than fifty years that remained to him; the energy and skill hitherto employed for his own comfort and enrichment led him to far places, and many times across the Ocean Sea, to attack and astonish generations of his countrymen.

As one of the dominating personalities of Spain’s most glorious age, he wrote more copiously, spoke more vigorously, and lived longer than any other prominent figure of the conquest. He was no ivory-tower scholar but a tenacious fighter always eager to put into practice the doctrines he preached. And, though he insisted that all dealings with Indians should be peaceful, those of his fellow Spaniards who opposed his views found him an aggressive and unrelenting opponent.