Sunday, November 13, 2016
Spanish missionaries are today held in contempt by people infected with prejudice. However, such belated critics misread the role of missionaries as benefactors of and advocates for American natives.
Columbus, who may not have been Christian at all, was desperate to pay off those who invested in his voyages; in his day there was no funding for purely scientific exploration. To raise money and interest in the lands he found, he overstated the presence of gold and set off a kind of gold rush.
Columbus established what was called the encomienda (commitment), a system bound by a writ issued whenever land was assigned to a newcomer from Spain. It committed the colonist to procure, with an assigned number of natives as unpaid laborers, specified amounts of gold, spices and other goods. The natives were not pleased, and the gold was nowhere as bountiful as Columbus claimed or the commitment required. Both factors contributed to a brutal situation: the natives were worked to death to procure impossible quantities of resources and the slightest disobedience was harshly punished.
Several missionaries complained about the treatment of the natives to Columbus, then to his son Diego, who succeeded him as governor, then to the Spanish Crown. Most notable was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), son of an early colonist and the first priest ordained in the New World.
Las Casas was not a native rights’ firebrand from the start. He immigrated in 1502 to Hispaniola, where he became a rancher and slave owner, receiving a piece of land in the province of Cibao. Reputedly he participated in slave raids and attacks on the native Taíno population, who resisted conquest.
In 1510, a group of Dominican friars arrived in Santo Domingo led by Pedro de Córdoba. Appalled by the injustices they saw committed by slave owners, the friars decided to deny them the right to confession. Among those denied was Las Casas. In December 1511, a Dominican preacher, Fra Antonio de Montesinos, preached a fiery sermon that implicated the colonists in the genocide of the native peoples:
“Tell me by what right of justice do you hold these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged such detestable wars against these people who dealt quietly and peacefully on their own lands? Wars in which you have destroyed such an infinite number of them by homicides and slaughters never heard of before. Why do you keep them so oppressed and exhausted, without giving them enough to eat or curing them of the sicknesses they incur from the excessive labor you give them, and they die, or rather you kill them, in order to extract and acquire gold every day.”
Las Casas originally argued against the Dominicans in favor of the encomienda. Then, in 1513 he participated, as a chaplain, in Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar’s and Pánfilo de Narváez’ conquest of Cuba. He witnessed atrocities committed by Spaniards against the native Ciboney and Guanahatabey peoples about which he later wrote: “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”
His mountaintop conversion came in 1514 while studying a passage in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 34:18–22 for a Pentecost sermon. Found in Catholic but not Protestant Bibles, it states in part: “If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.” Las Casas came to understand that the actions of the Spanish in the New World had been illegal and constituted a great injustice. He decided to give up his slaves and the encomienda and admonished other colonists to do the same. When his words fell on deaf ears, he went to Spain to appeal to the king.
He arrived in 1515 and was able to get a letter of introduction to the king from the archbishop of Seville. On Christmas Eve, Las Casas met King Ferdinand briefly; the king agreed to hear him out in greater detail at a later date. He wrote a report for the king, but clerics who were also encomenderos blocked it. Ferdinand died on January 25, 1516, and the detailed discussion never occurred.
Undaunted, Las Casas resolved to meet instead with the successor, young King Carlos I, who appointed Las Casas and one of his powerful Flemish courtiers to write a new plan for reforming the government system of the Indies.
Las Casas recommended an end to the encomienda and organization of the natives into self-governing townships of tribute-paying vassals. When asked about the loss of Indian labor, he unwisely suggested replacing it with imported African labor. Las Casas could have set in motion a calamitous endeavor, but Spain never seriously engaged in the African slave trade—not for humanitarian or religious reasons, but because the rival kingdoms of Britain and Portugal swiftly took control of that peculiar commerce. In fact, the Spanish Crown banned the importation of slaves in 1776 in an order that also expelled Portuguese colonists.
The missionary advocate also proposed the migration of Spanish peasants to introduce small-scale farming and agriculture in a system of colonization that didn’t deplete resources or rely on native labor. He recruited a large number of peasants who were promised land to farm, cash advances and tools and resources. Unfortunately, his partner in planning, the powerful Flemish courtier, died leaving him without effective power to bring anything about. In the end, a much smaller number of peasant families were sent, but with insufficient provisions and no support on their arrival.
Next Las Casas obtained a land grant to establish a settlement in northern Venezuela at Cumaná, near two monasteries. To sell his proposal, Las Casas projected profits for the royal treasury, which he said could also fund 10 royal forts and a system of trade in gold and pearls. Those brought to live in these towns would become tribute-paying subjects of the king. He got much less than he proposed and left Spain in 1520 with a small group of peasants, paying for the venture with money borrowed from his brother-in-law. In 1522, while Las Casas was traveling in Hispaniola, the Caribs attacked the Cumaná settlement and burned it to the ground.
Devastated by the failure of this and other ventures, Las Casas entered the Dominican monastery of Santa Cruz in Santo Domingo as a novice in 1522 and took final vows in 1523. There he continued his theological studies. In 1527 he began working on his History of the Indies in order to report many of the experiences he had witnessed firsthand during the conquest and colonization of New Spain. He continued writing to various Spanish authorities complaining about the treatment of the natives.
In the 1530s, as a missionary in Guatemala, he learned Quiché, a Mayan language, and developed a new way of evangelizing that he described in De unico vocationis modo (On the Only Way of Conversion). It consisted of two principles: preach the Gospel to all people, treating them as equals, and insist that conversion be voluntary and based on knowledge and understanding of the faith.
To test his method more broadly and without interference from Spanish colonists or soldiers, Las Casas got permission to develop what was effectively a precursor of the mission establishment. He chose a colonized territory in Guatemala whose native people were deemed fierce and unconquerable. He got the governor of Guatemala to agree that if Las Casas succeeded no encomiendas would be established. His missionaries transformed the so-called Land of War into what came to be called “Verapaz” (True Peace).
Las Casas taught Christian songs to native merchants who ventured into the area and in this way reached native chiefs. He was recalled to Mexico and left for Spain in 1540.
In 1542 he obtained a hearing before Charles I, no longer a young man and now the very powerful Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Although legally abolished in 1523, the encomienda had been reinstituted in 1526, and in 1530 a general ordinance against slavery was reversed by the Crown.
Las Casas presented a narrative later published as Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies), which would support much of the criticism of Spanish colonization. It proposed removing all natives from supervision by secular Spaniards, abolishing the encomienda system and making natives royal tribute-paying subjects under the direct authority of the Crown. Later that year, Charles signed what were known as the New Laws, forbidding new encomiendas. Among other things, these prohibited the use of Indians as carriers or slaves. These laws gradually abolished existing encomiendas, which reverted to the king on the death of their holder.
Although he succeeded for a while politically, this made Las Casas many enemies. In 1544, he was appointed bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, where he refused absolution to slave owners and encomenderos even on their deathbed unless all their slaves had been set free and their property returned to them. He threatened to excommunicate anyone in his jurisdiction who mistreated Indians.
When the New Laws were enacted in 1545, riots broke out. Las Casas was shot at by angry colonists; he was so unpopular among the Spaniards that he had to leave. Summoned to a meeting of the bishops of New Spain in Mexico City in 1546, he left his diocese, never to return. He went back to Spain to face considerable criticism from newly powerful viceroys and their associates and died in Madrid in 1566.
His four notable works are Memorial de Remedios para las Indias (On Remedies for the Indies), a 1516 work proposing changes to the colonization system; A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (mentioned earlier), published in 1556; The History of the Indies, a three-volume, a mostly eye-witness account of the history of the Indies from 1492 to 1520, finished in 1561; and The Apologetic Summary History of the People of These Indies, originally a chapter of the History of the Indies, ethnographic accounts of the the Taíno, the Ciboney, and the Guanahatabey and other indigenous cultures.
Las Casas is widely regarded as an early international human rights activist and a predecessor of the Liberation Theology movement, whose founder, Gustavo Gutiérrez, acknowledged him as an inspiration. He is commemorated by the Church of England in the Calendar of Saints on July 20 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church on July 17. In the Catholic Church, the Dominicans introduced his cause for canonization in 1976; in 2000 the Church began the process for his beatification.