An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies (1542)

Caciques and Indians of this Terra Firma of such-and-such a village, we do hereby give you notice that there is a God and a pope, and a king of Castile who is the lord of these lands. Come then to give him obedience, &c. For if you do not, know ye that we shall wage war upon you, and shall slay you and capture you, &c (the requerimento, in sum, 23).

Bartolomé de las Casas’ book, An Account, Much Abbreviated, of the Destruction of the Indies, is a painful read about a shameful and evil history.

To begin with, the account is much abbreviated because the earlier, more lengthy letter to the king, went unnoticed. Las Casas writes this letter to the King of Spain in hopes that the king will tell the Spaniards in the Indies to cease their atrocities.

The book itself is organized region by region, recounting some of the tortures that the Spanish committed against that region’s indigenous persons. Time and again, the Spaniards were received “like angels” by the indigenous tribes, but soon thereafter the Spanish would wipe out the entire population.

I have used “Spanish” so far, but it is interesting to note that Las Casas most often uses “Christian” or “those who call themselves Christian” to identify the European invaders. This results in all sorts of failed witness by the newly arriving Christians. At one point, while describing the events that took place on Cuba, Las Casas notes that the indigenous leaders brought the Spanish gold, as they had heard that these people worshiped gold as their god. It was also on Cuba that a priest asked a chief if he accepted the so-called Christian religion. As Las Casas tells it:

And when he was bound to the stake, . . . a holy father who was thereby, spoke some things to him concerning God and our faith, which he had never heard before . . . and the friar asked if the lord wished to believe those things that he told him, for if he did he would go to the sky (that is, heaven), where there was glory and eternal rest, but if not, he would certainly go to hell and suffer perpetual torments and sufferings. And thinking a while, the lord asked the holy father whether Christians went to the sky. The priest replied that they did, but only those who were good. And the cacique then said without thinking on it any more, that he did not desire to go to the sky, but rather down to hell, so that he would not be where they were and would not see such cruel people (19).

The list of horrors continues, even if much abbreviated. Time and again, the so-called Christians were welcomed, and time and again, the Christians repaid that welcome by annihilating entire civilizations. One gets a sense of the increasing depravity of the conquering forces through Las Casas’ repeated notations at the ends of sections that the cruelties continued, each worse than the previous.

In the Yucatan, some friars were able to distinguish themselves from the soldiers, helping the indigenous population (or, I should say, remaining indigenous population, since the Spanish had already gone through) receive the sacraments. Eventually, this moment of light was snuffed out by the warring Christians from whom the friars eventually themselves flee, leaving the indigenous people to meet the fate of so many others.

Again and again, Las Casas blames this destruction on greed, the lust for gold, and laments the fact that so many are dying without having received the sacraments of the church. The latter lamentation runs throughout and shows a man deeply disturbed by the heartlessness of his kinsfolk because he, Las Casas, wants all to receive the gospel and the sacraments of the church. He often sides with the indigenous peoples, saying that the Spaniards are the damnable ones, though he leaves all people, even the most callous, in God’s mercy should God choose to be merciful to them. Of one Spanish conquistador who dies a violent death, he asks

how much loneliness and solitude in this world and how much damnation in the other did he cause, not just of Indians, which were infinite, but of wretched Christians as well, who in association with him engaged in such great offences, the gravest sins and most execrable abominations! And pray God that upon him mercy has been visited, and that God be content with the bad end that he at last did come to (43).

Las Casas concludes his Account by reaffirming the fact that the indigenous peoples were never aggressors. They only ever were violent out of retaliation for evils done by the so-called Christian invaders. He also notes that the invaders have no concern for the spread of the gospel, saying that

the Spaniards have had no more care that faith in Jesus Christ be preached to those people and those nations, than if they were dogs or other beasts. Indeed, they have forbidden men of the cloth to carry out that attempt . . . for it seemed to the Spaniards that it would be an impediment to the taking of the gold and riches that their greed had promised them (86).

The death is unconscionable. The greed unquenchable. And Christian mission completely forfeited. At one point, Las Casas observes that the priests who are trying to evangelize are met as if they were conquerors. The indigenous peoples, understandably, could not distinguish priest from soldier. This is perhaps one of the biggest lessons that the church, especially in contemporary America, still has to learn. One thinks of the invasion of Iraq and how locals there assumed Christians were attacking them. What else are they to think? What else were the indigenous populations to think? When we try to muscle the gospel for the sake of glory and greed, the gospel light is hidden under the proverbial basket.

As Ted Lewis’ book affirmed yesterday, we must not concern ourselves with outcomes but love and trust in God’s faithfulness. This must be done nonviolently. May we turn our swords into plowshares today.

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