Week 7 â€“ 16th-18th Centuries
The Age of Exploitation
BartolomÃ© de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies
BartolomÃ© de las Casas was a wealthy Spaniard and priest who settled in Hispaniola with
the intent to colonize the land and indigenous peoples for gain. In 1515, however, he
relinquished his lands and his enslaved peoples and shortly became a Dominican friar. He
spent the rest of his life advocating against the atrocities that the Spanish continued to
commit against the indigenous peoples and attempted to convert the native peoples to
How does de las Casas describe the indigenous peoples before the Spanish enslaved them?
How do his descriptions contribute to the myth of the â€œnoble savageâ€ that became a staple
of the Europeansâ€™ conceptualization of native peoples, and how do they contradict it? What
do his descriptions of the Spanish reveal about their colonial methods and intent? What do
you think de las Casas sees as most important to convey to his readers with this passage?
The Americas were discovered in 1492, and the first Christian settlements established by the
Spanish the following year. It is accordingly forty-nine years now since Spaniards began arriving
in numbers in this part of the world. They first settled the large and fertile island of Hispaniola,
which boasts six hundred leagues of coastline and is surrounded by a great many other large
islands, all of them, as I saw for myself, with as high a native population as anywhere on earth.
Of the coast of the mainland, which, at its nearest point, is a little over two hundred and fifty
leagues from Hispaniola, more than ten thousand leagues had been explored by 1541, and more
are being discovered every day. This coastline, too, was swarming with people and it would
seem, if we are to judge by those areas so far explored, that the Almighty selected this part of the
world as home to the greater part of the human race.
God made all the peoples of this area, many and varied as they are, as open and as innocent as
can be imagined. The simplest people in the world – unassuming, long-suffering, unassertive, and
submissive – they are without malice or guile, and are utterly faithful and obedient both to their
own native lords and to the Spaniards in whose service they now find themselves. Never
quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous, they harbor no grudges and do not seek to settle old
scores; indeed, the notions of revenge, rancor, and hatred are quite foreign to them. At the same
time, they are among the least robust of human beings: their delicate constitutions make them
unable to withstand hard work or suffering and render them liable to succumb to almost any
illness, no matter how mild. Even the common people are no tougher than princes or than other
Europeans born with a silver spoon in their mouths and who spend their lives shielded from the
rigors of the outside world. They are also among the poorest people on the face of the earth; they
own next to nothing and have no urge to acquire material possessions. As a result they are
neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally uninterested in worldly power. Their diet is every
bit as poor and as monotonous, in quantity and in kind, as that enjoyed by the Desert Fathers.
Most of them go naked, save for a loincloth to cover their modesty; at best they may wrap
themselves in a piece of cotton material a yard or two square. Most sleep on matting, although a
few possess a kind of hanging net, known in the language of Hispaniola as a hammock. They are
innocent and pure in mind and have a lively intelligence, all of which makes them particularly
receptive to learning and understanding the truths of our Catholic faith and to being instructed in
virtue; indeed, God has invested them with fewer impediments in this regard than any other
people on earth. Once they begin to learn of the Christian faith they become so keen to know
more, to receive the Sacraments, and to worship God, that the missionaries who instruct them do
truly have to be men of exceptional patience and forbearance; and over the years I have time and
again met Spanish laymen who have been so struck by the natural goodness that shines through
these people that they frequently can be heard to exclaim: ‘These would be the most blessed
people on earth if only they were given the chance to convert to Christianity.’
It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned,
that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon
the fold, or like tigers and savage lions who have not eaten meat for days. The pattern established
at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the
natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress,
tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly. We shall in due course describe some of
the many ingenious methods of torture they have invented and refined for this purpose, but one
can get some idea of the effectiveness of their methods from the figures alone. When the Spanish
first journeyed there, the indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola stood at some three
million; today only two hundred survive. The island of Cuba, which extends for a distance
almost as great as that separating Valladolid from Rome, is now to all intents and purposes
uninhabited; and two other large, beautiful and fertile islands, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, have
been similarly devastated. Not a living soul remains today on any of the islands of the Bahamas,
which lie to the north of Hispaniola and Cuba, even though every single one of the sixty or so
islands in the group, as well as those known as the Isles of Giants and others in the area, both
large and small, is more fertile and more beautiful than the Royal Gardens in Seville and the
climate is as healthy as anywhere on earth. The native population, which once numbered some
five hundred thousand, was wiped out by forcible expatriation to the island of Hispaniola, a
policy adopted by the Spaniards in an endeavor to make up losses among the indigenous
population of that island. One God-fearing individual was moved to mount an expedition to seek
out those who had escaped the Spanish trawl and were still living in the Bahamas and to save
their souls by converting them to Christianity, but, by the end of a search lasting three whole
years, they had found only the eleven survivors I saw with my own eyes. A further thirty or so
islands in the region of Puerto Rico are also now uninhabited and left to go to rack and ruin as a
direct result of the same practices. All these islands, which together must run to over two
thousand leagues, are now abandoned and desolate.
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