Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Destruction of the Indies

Perhaps it will seem like an odd choice for Christmas season reading, but then again, maybe not. This past week I took up Bartolome de Las Casas' An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies. If you're interested in history, either of the western hemisphere or of Christianity, it's an indispensible book.

Las Casas was a Dominican priest who recorded the atrocities committed by the Spaniards during the first fifty plus years of their colonization of the West Indies and surrounding regions. That behavior, if Las Casas is to be believed - and there's no reason to think, some exaggerated numbers aside, that he shouldn't be - is perhaps the most horrific account of man's inhumanity to man ever recorded in the entire course of human history. It rivals the Romans in cruelty and exceeds them in scope. It also exceeds the Nazi horror in sanguinary carnage if not in the scope of the genocide. Perhaps only the crimes of the Hutus in Rwanda and those of the Sudanese in Darfur surpass those Las Casas chronicles.

In any case, the slaughters, treacheries, torture, avarice, rapacity, and stark, numbing cruelty of the Spaniards is beyond comprehension. It can best be described, as Las Casas describes it, as demonic. Not even the Nazis at their sadistic worst equaled the viciousness of the Spaniards.

Against the hell inflicted on the Indians, whom Las Casas portrays as mostly innocent, trusting and ingenuous, stood a few Christian friars who were impotent to prevent the horrors. Cinematically, the book reads like a blend of The Mission and Avatar. Men, women, and children were slowly burned to death, dismembered, worked to death, trampled by horses, torn to pieces by dogs, starved, beaten, and subjected to every other torture the sick minds of their Spanish overlords could contrive. Although Las Casas puts the number of murdered Indians in the millions, a figure doubted by many historians, there seems no reason to think that it wasn't at least in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

Las Casas addresses his account around 1545 to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was largely ignorant of the crimes committed in his name. The hope was to persuade Charles to take action against the genocidal madness that was devastating the entire Caribbean basin.

Although the Spaniards in the Caribbean acted in the name of crown and Christ there was nothing Christian at all about their behavior, and indeed Las Casas has no trouble assuming that these men were headed straight to hell which, given the heinous nature of their crimes, was a fate far too good for them.

One Indian chief was asked by a priest as he was about to be burned to death if he wanted to be baptized and go to heaven. The chief asked the priest if there would be Christians in heaven, to which the priest answered in the affirmative. The chief replied - understandably since he believed that it was Christians who were perpetrating these terrible crimes upon him and his people - that in that case he'd rather go to hell.

Las Casas was himself partly inspired to fight on the Indians' behalf by a sermon given in 1511 in Santo Domingo by Antonio de Montesino, a fellow Dominican, which received wide circulation. Montesino was appalled at the mass murders of the Indians in what is today Haiti/Dominican Republic, and, at an Advent service 500 years ago this Christmas season, Montesino addressed the landowners and other powerful Spaniards in a prophetic voice that stated clearly the indictment against them.

Andrew Wilson writes about the sermon in the December issue of First Things (subscription required). Wilson's essay was what moved me to read the book. He says this:
As luck (or Providence) would have it, the season was Advent. The text assigned for the fourth Sunday was John the Baptist’s quintessential call to repentance: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” To “make straight the pathway of our Lord,” the Dominicans chose Antonio Montesino, not for his authority — he was not their leader — but because he was “an eloquent preacher, harsh in the reproaching of vice.” Further, lest the public presume that his message represented a minority opinion, the whole fellowship signed their spokesman’s text ahead of time.

They even advertised, calling on the island’s governor Diego Columbus (Christopher’s son), as well as all royal officials and certified jurists, informing them that Sunday’s message included a “certain thing” that they would want to hear. “The citizens conceded willingly: one for the great reverence and esteem that he had [for the friars] because of their virtue and the strictness in which they lived and the rigor of their religion; the other because each one really wanted to hear what it was that . . . would pertain to them.”

When the fateful Sunday arrived, the sermon began in no unusual fashion. In front, a well-trained mendicant preacher employed his highest rhetorical abilities to paint the frank severity of God’s judgment. Opposite, an expectant crowd of hardened sinners sat ready to be shaken from their laxity. It was classic hellfire and brimstone, and they gladly joined the ride to the emotional brink, enduring “stinging and terrifying words that made their flesh crawl.” Then, at last, Montesino revealed the mysterious “certain thing.” “All of you are in mortal sin and in it you are living and are dying because of the cruelty and tyranny with which you treat these innocent people,” he declared, and then said:
In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island; and therefore it behooves you to listen to me, not with indifference but with all your heart and senses; for this voice will be the strongest, the harshest, the most terrifying that you have ever heard or expected to hear....

Tell me: With what right and with what justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible servitude? With what authority have you waged such detestable wars against a people who were so gentle and peaceful in your lands, where you have consumed uncountable numbers of them with death and unheard-of tortures? How do you possess them so oppressed and fatigued, without giving them anything to eat, nor curing them of their illnesses, which, due to the excessive work that you give them, they incur and then die — or to put it better, you kill them by taking and acquiring gold every day?

And what care do you take over who teaches them the faith, that they know their God and creator? Are baptized? Hear mass? Keep festival days and Sundays? These [Indians], are they not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obligated to love them as you love yourselves? Do you not understand this? Do you not feel this? How is it that you are in such a deep, lethargic sleep? You can be sure that in your state you are no more able to be saved than the Moors or Turks, who lack and don’t even want the faith of Jesus Christ.
Las Casas took up the baton from Montesino and wrote and labored indefatigably on behalf of the Indians from 1520 until his death in 1566. His book is an important illustration of the depravity of which human beings are capable when they ignore God.