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Witness to villainy

An excerpt from Bartolomé de las Casas’ documentation of Spanish conquest in the Americas

       If you want to read about a European pioneer on Columbus Day, learn about Bartolomé de las Casas. His story is one of unfolding repentance over the course of his life in regard to treatment of the indigenous population of the Spanish conquest of the “New World.”

        Born in 1484, Las Casas first traveled to the island of Hispaniola in 1502 along with his father, a Spanish merchant. Initially he participated in and profited from Spain’s enslavement of the population. In 1510 he was the first priest to be ordained in the Americas.

Right: Statue of Bartolomé de las Casas in San Cristóbal, Chiapas, Mexico.

        That same year a group of Spanish Dominicans arrived in Santo Domingo, and they were appalled at the injustices. Specifically, the Dominican Fray Antonio de Montesinos expressed public outrage, which had a significant effect on Las Casas and, in time, prompted him to become an equally outspoken opponent of the conquest.

        Initially, one of the strategies Las Casas employed was to argue in favor of the African slave trade as a means of protecting the indigenous population of the Americas. He later regretted this course of action, writing in his History of the Indies, “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery... and I was not sure that my ignorance and good faith would secure me in the eyes of God." (Vol II, p. 257)

       The following is a grisly account of the Spanish atrocities from Las Casas’ book A Short Account of the Devastation of the Indies (written in 1542, published in Seville, Spain, in 1552):

        “And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them.

        “They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.

        “They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.

        “They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them head first against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, 'Boil there, you offspring of the devil!' Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby.

        “They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victims, feet almost touching the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.

Left: Depiction of Spanish atrocities committed in the conquest of Cuba in Las Casas's "Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias". The rendering was by Joos van Winghe and the Flemish Protestant artist Theodor de Bry.

        “To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim’s neck, saying, 'Go now, carry the message,' meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains.

        “They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them….”

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