The Power of Christian Conscience
Witness: The Writings of Bartolome de Las Casas
By George Sanderlin
Review Author: David Denton
This Quincentenary Year of the “Discovery” of America is a bitterly appropriate time for a re-issue of a selection of the writings, in English, of a Spanish friar who arguably may have been the single most important figure in that collision of the Old and New Worlds. This friar, Bartolome de Las Casas, has been a subject of discussion lately because his abstract of the lost Log of Christopher Columbus provides the only record extant of Columbus’s voyage and discovery. In the anthology Witness we are given another abstract from the 16th century, an abstract of the “log” of Fray Bartolome de Las Casas: his discoveries during the Spanish Conquista in America, and his impossible battles and miraculous victories against that Conquest. What Las Casas wanted his readers to confront in his accounts is always fascinating, and can often abrade even the stone of our 20th-century consciences.
Las Casas had been a part of the Conquest as a young provisioner accompanying Spanish forces conquering the Indians of Hispaniola, and then as chaplain to those conquering Cuba. He was granted the reward of a conquistador: the encomienda, a royal grant of land in the subjugated territory. These grants also conveyed the subjugated Indians on that land (“commended” them) to the conquistador, now an encomendor, a land-holding slaver.
Las Casas had witnessed and vainly tried to stop a massacre of Indians at Caonao in Cuba. As an encomendor he had treated his own Indians humanely, but he began to grow increasingly concerned about the cruelty of slaveholders around him. While preparing a sermon in 1514, he was confronted by a passage in Ecclesiasticus: “A sacrifice from ill-gotten gains is tainted and the gifts of the wicked win no approval’ (34:18).
He began to preach that “everything done to the Indians in the Indies [Americas) was unjust and tyrannical.” He gave up his own Indians and, much to official colonial consternation, started to speak against the encomienda. His listeners were singularly unmoved. Undaunted, he determined that the best chances for reform lay with the King in Spain. He sailed there and obtained an audience with Ferdinand, who promised a further hearing but died shortly thereafter. If Las Casas had any idea of the malevolent power that began to be arrayed against him, he nonetheless showed no hesitation. He was to spend almost 40 years in pilgrimages between Spain and the Indies, in controversy, in confrontation at risk of his life, and in leaden, unrelieved labors: writing and pleading for the peaceful conversion of the Indians and an end to the Conquest and the encomienda.
The last two decades of his life (he died at 93) were spent in continuous, almost frenzied work in Spain. There he produced his chief literary works — the Apologetics Historia, a cultural study of the New World natives, one of the first truly anthropological works ever produced, and his Historia de las Indias, a narrative history of Columbus’s discoveries and the early history of the Indies. In these works and others, Las Casas was to be the most important chronicler of what would come to be known as the Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty in the Americas.
It was during this period that his massive compilations, and his political and polemic efforts on behalf of the Indians, resulted in Emperor Charles V ordering conquests halted (in 1550). A commission of theologians and jurists was instructed to hear Las Casas debate the conquistadors’ apologist, the articulate and highly learned Juan Gines de Sepulveda. Sepulveda was the emperor’s chronicler and a Renaissance humanist who, like so many others embodying the best of the ideals and thought of humanism, was quite content in defending and promoting slavery.
In all too typical and familiar fashion, Sepulveda argued that the vices of some of the Indians — human sacrifice, cannibalism, indolence, suicide — rendered all Indians an inferior race, “slaves by nature” in Aristotelian terms; moreover, war, murder, and pillage were justified against them. Las Casas, steeped in medieval philosophy and theology, and armed with such concepts as natural law, argued that the humanity, rationality, and levels of culture and civilization of the Indians made their subjugation and enslavement a terrible evil, that reason, Christian doctrine, and Scripture condemned both the Conquista and the encomienda, regardless of the Indians’ former practices. Earlier in the century Pope Paul III, apparently much influenced by Las Casas, had issued the bull Sublimis Deus, which proclaimed the rationality of the Indians, that they were not “beasts that talked,” and that they were able to receive Christianity. This was to become a linchpin in Las Casas’s arguments in this debate. The encomiendas and conquests were ordered stopped.
It is practically impossible to over-emphasize Las Casas’s labors and their effects. He epically strove with elemental forces and finally held them at bay. But in a larger sense, would his efforts have succeeded in another time and culture? Strictly speaking, neither Las Casas’s arguments, his literary energies, nor his politics finally prevailed against his adversaries; his efforts were necessary but not sufficient. But it was the religious sensibilities that permeated Spain and its New World territories that ultimately prevailed. Had Las Casas’s adversaries not been wary for their very souls when dealing with a priest of Christ’s Church, Las Casas surely would not have been suffered to live. Had Charles V not had a Christian conscience, had the Spanish Catholic kings not allowed a freedom of speech and criticism almost without constraint, Las Casas would have been quickly swallowed up. If words like truth, justice, and evil expressed purely emotive flatulence, then debates and royal inquiries could have accomplished nothing. Spain was, in that era, probably the most powerful nation on earth. Her Armada and armies were a nightmare to every kingdom in Europe. But a Dominican priest, given by Christianity a place to stand, and wielding the lever of medieval values, moved this world power gradually away from conquest, subjugation, and genocide. It remains unsearchable why this man’s terrible sacrifices and efforts, so promising and initially fruitful, would obtain just so much and then no more. Why would freedom only be yielded generations later in the violence and bloodshed of the Spanish American revolutions?
There is much for us to learn from Fray Bartolome de Las Casas. The 20th century most assuredly ought not to rush to judge the Spanish conquistadors and their defenders, for Las Casas’s writings also hold up an iron mirror for our own society. Our own high-decked galleons of Medicine, Science, and Electronic Imagery bring us to the shore of new worlds of unparalleled riches in human potential. But, along with the wealth and ease and progress obtaining there, our galleons are again freighted with that which brings the destruction of culture, excites the savagery of human exploitation, and spawns genocide for those human beings who are not “meaningful.” Will Las Casas’s reason and religion successfully confront this, our Conquista? For that matter, who will be our Bartolome de Las Casas? We have our Sepulveda. His name is Legion.
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