It is winter, 1517.
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It is winter, 1517. A priest in the prime of life, tanned into a permanent brown by his years in the sun of the Caribbean, stands before the young king of his native Spain, Charles I, also the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles is intelligent, broad-minded, unsentimental, a devout Roman Catholic committed to the good of his subjects, whether Flemish, German, Austrian, Spanish, or the Indians of the New World.
"I can hardly believe that Spanish men would be capable of such wickedness, Father," says the king, blushing.
"Your majesty, I saw it with my own eyes."
"We are bringing them the true faith, which will set them free."
"We are making slaves of them to line our furs with gold."
"Our settlers say otherwise."
"They have reason to say so."
"And you, Father Bartolomé, do you have no reason to speak ill of our settlers? They say you hate them more than you love the Indians."
"I won't justify myself," says the priest. It is his turn to blush. "Let that be between me and God. What I say is true."
The young king considers. He is not cruel. "All right, Father. What do you propose?"
A true peace
So began the lifelong quest of Bartolomé de las Casas to bring Christ to the Indians, along with means of life to protect them from the less scrupulous Spanish settlers, and from the more warlike tribes of their own lands. We shouldn't forget why Cortez with his few hundred men could conquer the Aztec empire so quickly. The Aztecs were hated by the peoples they had thrust beneath them. Think of the daily stain and stench of human blood, when a prisoner of the Aztecs would have his still-beating heart knifed out of his chest in honor of the sun god.
Las Casas' attempts to build self-sustaining agricultural centers took various forms. At first, when he saw that the Indian men could not bear the hard physical labor that farming with iron tools required, he recommended importing slaves from Africa, as prisoners of a just war. But he would change his mind about that, once he saw how badly the blacks were treated in turn. Don't make light of it when a man's conscience is wrung. People change their minds, sure, when it profits them, when it earns them a seat at the best table, or when it hurts their enemies and costs them nothing. It is rare that a man of authority will change his mind to his own harm, opening himself to scorn, slander, enmity, and isolation.
Las Casas thought that Charles might send Spanish peasants to Venezuela, furnishing them with tools for farming. There they would work with the Indians and avert the excesses of the large encomiendas — the plantations. That project fell to ruin when natives from the interior descended upon the new villages, burned them to the ground, stole the goods, and killed the Europeans. Las Casas still concluded that the Spanish were to blame.
He had his greatest success with a mission in the heart of Guatemala, what had been called the Land of War. The governor had promised not to set up any encomiendas there, if Las Casas could bring the Indians to the faith. He and his fellow Dominicans taught the Indians by means of Indians, merchants who had been baptized and who dared to enter that wilderness, singing hymns in the native tongues. With Spaniards, Las Casas was ruthless, but with the Indians he was forbearing and patient. When two notable chiefs were baptized, more Dominicans followed in Las Casas' steps, and the Land of War became known as Verapaz, True Peace. So it is known to this day.
Battle of the friars
Much of man's sorry history is the strife of bad men: Octavian and Antony, Alexander and Darius. But the strife of holy men?
Following in the wake of Cortez came Franciscan friars, led by Father Toribio de Benavente, called "Motolinía" or "Poor Man" by the natives who saw him for the first time, shoeless and in his brown cloak. "It is the first word I have learned in this language," said he, and to make sure he wouldn't forget it, he took it as his name. The Indians were astonished to see Cortez the conqueror, whom they saw as a god, kneeling before such a man. But they grew to love Motolinía profoundly. By his own testimony, he baptized four hundred thousand Indians. When he died, the Indians mobbed his bier to tear off bits of clothing as relics.
Motolinía was, like many holy men who live among the poor, patient with the rich. He was unwilling to destroy the estates they had built at great risk and expense, even if they had employed Indians as slaves. Las Casas was, like other holy men who live among the poor, impatient with the rich and eager to enforce severities to atone for their grievous sins, even at the cost of destruction. Motolinía would baptize all who desired it, even if they didn't understand more than the outlines of the faith. Las Casas would not baptize anyone unless he was sure that the conversion was of the intellect as well as of the will.
In 1555, the elderly son of Francis attacked the elderly son of Dominic, urging that his old enemy be confined to a monastery for the good of his soul. It wasn't that the Franciscan was blind to Spanish sins, or to Indian sins, for that matter. Motolinía had numbered Spanish oppression as one of the ten plagues of the New World. But he and his fellows favored baptizing as many Indians as possible, particularly when they saw them dying of smallpox and other diseases. The sacrament must come first, they thought, and needful but slow instruction must come later. So Motolinía rebuked Las Casas when he refused to baptize a certain Indian: "How is this, Father, all this zeal and love that you say you have for the Indians is exhausted in loading them down and going around writing about Spaniards, and vexing the Indians" — encouraging them in rebellion?
Las Casas had insisted that the Indians were fully rational beings, not to be baptized en masse or without proper preparation, and he had won that point with Pope Paul III in Sublimis Deus (1537). The pope wrote to uphold natural human rights, to outlaw slavery, and to ameliorate abuses in the colonies. That encyclical, and the tireless efforts of Las Casas, had prevailed with Charles and the Spanish court, resulting in the so-called New Laws (1542), laws that horrified the Spanish settlers, because in their recognition of Indian rights they put in jeopardy the whole colonial world.
The conflict was not settled in a day. It could not be, given the vast distance between Spain and the colonies, the uncertainty of the reports reaching Spain, and the lack of means to enforce the royal will. The remarkable thing is that there was such a conflict at all. We find many an American advocate for Indian rights in the 19th century, and many an abolitionist inveighing against slavery from the comfort of a Massachusetts rectory. Bartolomé de las Casas preceded them by three hundred years, and he did more than write and talk.
Man of fire
The most influential of the works of Las Casas was his Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552), which concentrates in a nearly unbearable narrative his experiences among the Spanish settlers, along with much hearsay, hotly disputed by other Spaniards both lay and clerical. Here is a typically fiery passage:
"Thus the Spaniards blinded with the luster of their gold, deserted by God, and given over to a reprobate sense, not understanding (or at least not willing to do so) that the cause of the Indians is most just, as well by the law of Nature, as the divine and human, they by force of arms destroying them, hacking them in pieces, and turning them out of their own confines and dominions, nor considering how unjust those violences and tyrannies are, wherewith they have afflicted these poor creatures, they still contrive to raise new Wars against them: Nay they conceive, and by word and writing testify, that those victories they have obtained against those innocents to their ruin are granted them by God himself."
This work was popular among the English and Dutch colonialists, and formed the basis of the so-called Black Legend, still in force when Americans spoiled for war against Spain and her satellites in Mexico and Cuba.
But it's all to the credit of Spain that her best men and women did not dismiss Las Casas as a madman. They too wanted what he wanted, to fulfill the commission of Christ, to make disciples — not slaves, but disciples just as they were — of all nations. In this enterprise, as compromised by human sin as it sometimes is, they succeeded where other conquerors never bothered to try. An uneasy conscience is far better than none.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2020 Magnificat
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