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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
The law decreed particularly that, instead of “conquest” the term “pacification” should henceforth be used. The vices of the Indians were to be dealt with very gently at first “so as not to scandalize them or prejudice them against Christianity.” If, after all the explanations, natives still opposed a Spanish settlement and the preaching of Christianity, the Spaniards might use force but were to do “as little harm as possible,” a measure that Las Casas would never have approved. No license was given to enslave the captives. In theory this general order governed conquests as long as Spain ruled her American colonies, although some Spaniards could always be found who thought that the Indians should be subjugated by arms because they were not Christians.
What if Spain had followed the precepts of Las Casas to the letter? Would every friar eventually have been enslaved or killed, and Spanish America overrun by other, less squeamish Europeans? We shall never know, for the history of the expansion of Europe includes no examples of the wholly peaceful penetration of new lands. We do know, however, that for generations the Dominican attempt to preach the faith peacefully in Guatemala influenced Spaniards throughout Spain’s vast American empire to use persuasion rather than a “fire and sword” policy in bringing Catholicism to the Indians.
In the end, no simplification of the Valladolid controversy is satisfactory. For in this struggle between learned, bitterly divided men of the same nation, other considerations besides theories on the nature of the Indians—economic striving, personality clashes, and the Crown’s interest—all played a part. But it was significant that the Crown permitted fundamental disputes in those tumultuous years in which its policies were evolving. To Spain’s everlasting credit she allowed men to insist that all her actions in America be just, and at times she listened to those voices.
The attempt in 1573 to regulate all future conquests and the many other laws on behalf of the Indians would never have been promulgated if Sep#8217;fclveda’s ideas on just war against the Indians had triumphed. Nor would this passage have appeared in the fundamental code, the Laws of the Indies, printed in 1681: “War cannot and shall not be made on the Indians of any province to the end that they may receive the Holy Catholic Faith or yield obedience to us, or for any other reason.”
But the Valladolid dispute lives on principally because of the ideas on the nature of man which Las Casas enunciated there. One fine passage shows the great eloquence of which he was sometimes capable:
Thus mankind is one, and all men are alike in that which concerns their creation and all natural things, and no one is born enlightened. … All of us must be guided and aided at first by those who were born before us. And the savage peoples of the earth may be compared to uncultivated soil that readily brings forth weeds and useless thorns, but has within itself such natural virtue that by labor and cultivation it may be made to yield sound and beneficial fruits.
No single individual completely typifies the nation which established Spanish power in the New World. Rather, the sixteenth-century Spanish character may be likened to a medal stamped on each of its sides with a resolute face. One is that of an imperialistic conquistador; the other, that of a friar devoted to God. Both were imprisoned within the thinking of their own kind and their own time. Neither, when he was most himself, could wholly understand or forgive the other. Yet they were sent yoked together into a new world and together were responsible for the action and the achievement of Spain in America. Even to begin to understand the extremely complex movement of men and ideas which is called the Spanish conquest, we must see that both these bold faces were truly Spanish.
The struggle which Montesinos started in Cuba and Las Casas and many others carried forward throughout the Spanish empire in America is not yet over. The dust on centuries-old manuscripts that recount the Spanish struggle for Christian justice cannot obscure the vitality of the issues, which still disturb the world today. The cry of Montesinos denouncing the enslavement of Indians and the loud voice of Las Casas proclaiming that all the peoples of the world are men are valid today and will still be valid tomorrow, for they are timeless. And in the perspective of centuries the decision of the Spaniards not to stigmatize the Indians as natural slaves may be seen as a milestone on the long road, still under construction, which winds slowly toward civilizations based on the dignity of all men.