Conquest And The Cross

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One of his first projects, undertaken in 1521, was an attempt to colonize the northern coast of Venezuela with Spanish farmers who were to till the soil, treat the Indians kindly, and thus lay the basis for an ideal Christian community. The colony was a complete failure, largely because the Spaniards involved sought to enrich themselves rather than to put into effect the aspirations of Las Casas. Deeply discouraged, he entered the Dominican Order and for ten years, meditating and studying, remained apart from the affairs of the world. Then he took up the battle again. Until his death in 1566 at the age of ninety-two, he fought the good fight in divers ways and places; in Nicaragua he sought to block wars he considered unjust; in Mexico he engaged in bitter debates with other ecclesiastics over justice for the Indians; in Guatemala he promoted a plan for the peaceful conquest and Christianization of the Indians; before the royal court in Spain he agitated successfully on behalf of many laws to protect the American natives. He even served as bishop for awhile, at Chiapa in southern Mexico. During his last two decades, after his final return to Spain in 1547 at the age of seventy-three, he became a sort of attorney-at-large for the Indians.

It was during this last period also that he produced and published some of his most important works. Of those writings published in his own lifetime, the tract that most immediately inflamed Spaniards was the Very Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies . This thundering denunciation of Spanish cruelty and oppression, full of harsh accusations and horrifying statistics on the number of Indians killed, was printed in 1552 in Seville. Even though Las Casas believed treatment of the Indians was “less bad” in Mexico, the work is a thoroughgoing indictment of Spanish action in all parts of the “Indies.”

Translations of the Very Brief Account brought out in English, Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Latin powerfully influenced the world to believe that Spaniards were inherently cruel. The De Bry drawings that illustrated many of the texts, depicting Spaniards hunting Indians with mastiffs and butchering even women and children, graphically underlined the charges. Thus the political use the enemies of Spain made of the writings of Las Casas helped usher in the modern age of propaganda. (See the portfolio beginning on page 11.) For, ironically enough, his zeal to touch the consciences of his own king and countrymen by stressing the cruelties of the conquistadors was largely responsible for that dark picture of Spain’s work in America which has for hundreds of years borne the name, “The Black Legend”— La leyenda negra —which is still widely believed, at least in English-speaking lands.

Although Las Casas’ principal aim was to shame the Spanish conscience, he was also a historian, and his Historia de las Indias remains one of the basic documents of the discovery and early conquest of America. He has also been recognized as an important political theorist, and as one of the first anthropologists of Amerka. Although sixteenth-century Spain was a land of eminent scholars and bold thinkers, few of his contemporaries matched the wide range of Las Casas’ learning or the independence of his judgments.

Two of his major convictions show how he challenged the Christian conscience of his time to confront the great issues presented by the Spanish conquest. The first was that Christianity must be preached to the Indians by peaceful means alone. The second was that the Indians were human beings to be educated and Christianized, not half-men to be enslaved and kept down in what one sixteenth-century Englishman described as “ethnique darkness.”

To prove his first point Las Casas wrote an enormous treatise, The Only Method of Attracting All People to the True Religion; though only a portion has been preserved, that remnant is a large volume. The doctrine he enunciated in this first of his many polemical writings was simple enough. He quoted, as did Pope Paul III in the bull “Sublimis Deus,” the words of Christ, “Go ye and teach all nations,” and agreed that “nations” included the American Indians. As the Pope declared in Rome in that momentous pronouncement on June 9, 1537, at about the time that Las Casas was preaching the same doctrine in Guatemala:

The sublime God so loved the human race that he not only created man in such wise that he might participate in the good that other creatures enjoy, but also endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face … all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith … We … consider that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of undertaking the Catholic faith, but according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it … The said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen it shall be null and of no effect. … By virtue of our apostolic authority, we declare … that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.