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Conquest And The Cross
Bartolomé de Las Casas was a voice crying in the wilderness against the ruthlessness of the conquistadors. Was the “Black Legend” true?
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
Las Casas applied this doctrine even more specifically than the Pope. He declared that wars against the Indians were unjust and tyrannical; hence the gold, silver, pearls, jewels, and lands wrested from them were wrongfully gotten and must be restored. To subdue and convert the natives by force was not only unlawful, it was also unnecessary. For once the Indians accepted Christianity, their next and inevitable step would be to acknowledge the King of Spain as their sovereign.
Again and again Las Casas returned to his central y\- theme. The proper method for conversion was “bland, suave, sweet, pleasing, tranquil, modest, patiently slow, and above all peaceful and reasonable.” Moreover, following Saint Augustine, he insisted that faith depended upon belief, which presupposed understanding. This brought him into conflict with those who favored wholesale baptism of Indians without too many questions asked or catechisms learned. The friars who bore the brunt of the frontier missionary campaigns went about their work with uplifted hearts and a firm conviction that the souls of the Indians constituted the true silver to be mined in America. Indeed, the conquest presented them with a wonderful opportunity, for, though Luther was challenging the Church in Europe, they were determined to build it anew and make it unassailable in the New World. They recorded impressive baptismal statistics. The Franciscans, who believed in mass baptism and sprinkled holy water over Indian heads until their hands could no longer hold the hyssop, calculated that in Mexico alone, between 1524 and 1536, they had saved four million souls. Urged on by flaming zeal, they were exasperated by Las Casas, who wanted each Indian properly instructed in the faith before baptism.
Influenced by Las Casas’ doctrine of peaceful persuasion, his Dominican brothers actually tried to put it into effect beginning in 1537, in the spirit of one of Las Casas’ favorite authorities, St. John Chrysostom, who had declared: “Men do not consider what we say but what we do—we may philosophize interminably, but if when the occasion arises we do not demonstrate with our actions the truth of what we have been saying, our words will have done more harm than good.” For this demonstration of Las Casas’ ideas they chose the only land left unconquered in that region, the province of Tuzutlân in present-day Guatemala. It was a mountainous, rainy, tropical country filled with fierce beasts, snakes, and large monkeys. Worst of all, it lacked salt. The ferocious natives there were impossible to subjugate, or so believed the conquistadors, who had invaded the region three times and had as often returned “holding their heads.” Tierra de guerra , they named it—“Land of War.”
To this province and people Las Casas offered to go, to induce them voluntarily to become vassals of the King of Spain and pay him tribute according to their ability, to teach them and to preach the Christian faith. All this he proposed to do without arms or soldiers, his only weapon being the word of God and the “reasons of the Holy Gospel.” Governor Alonso Maldonado speedily granted his two modest requests: that Indians won over by peaceful methods should not be parceled out to serve Spaniards but should be declared direct dependents of the King, with only moderate tribute to pay; and that for five years no Spaniards except Las Casas and his brother Dominicans should enter the province, so that secular Spaniards might not disturb the Indians or “provoke scandal.”
It would be gratifying to report that the experiment in Guatemala went smoothly, but the facts are otherwise. For ten years the colonists in the nearby capital and the ecclesiastics fought stubbornly over the peaceful preaching of the faith. During this time the municipal council of Santiago informed the King that Las Casas was an unlettered friar, an envious, turbulent, most unsaintly fellow, who kept the land in an uproar and would, unless checked, destroy Spanish rule in the New World; furthermore, that the so-called “peaceful” Indians revolted every day and killed many Spaniards. But royal orders continued to flow from Spain supporting the Dominicans and—amid the sardonic laughter of the colonists—the Land of War was officially christened “the Land of True Peace.”
In 1544 Las Casas was appointed Bishop of Chiapa, a region which included Tuzutlán. His battle with the colonists grew so hot that a royal investigator was sent to that area in 1547 to look into alleged mistreatment of the Dominicans by the Spanish colonists and reported that much supporting evidence could be found. For a time the Bishop himself fled to Nicaragua to escape his irate Hock, many of whom, including the judges of the royal andiencia, he had excommunicated.
The end of the experiment is chronicled in a sad letter the friars sent to the Council of the Indies in May, 1556. Writing so that the King might clearly understand what had happened, they described the strenuous work they had done for years, despite the great heat and difficulty of the land. But always “the devil was vigilant” and finally he had stirred up the pagan priests, who called in some neighboring infidel Indians to help provoke a revolt in which the friars and their followers were burned out of their homes and some thirty were killed by arrows, one being sacrificed before a pagan idol. Among those who died was a zealous missionary able to preach in seven Indian languages. The Spaniards in Santiago, citing the royal order forbidding them to enter the territory, had unctuously declined the friars’ request for help. The story ended when the King ordered the punishment of the rebellious Indians; the Land of True Peace became even poorer, and the peaceful conversion of Indians there ceased.