The Las Casas affair (II)

Pio Moa

The fabulous virtues of the Indians added to the horror of the Hispanic atrocities: “And to these meek sheep and of the qualities mentioned by their Maker and Creator thus endowed, the Spaniards came in (…) like wolves and tigers and most cruel lions (…) And they have done nothing else from forty years to this part (…) but tear them to pieces, kill them, distress them, afflict them, afflict them (…). ) but tear them to pieces, kill them, distress them, afflict them, torment them and destroy them by strange and new and various and various and never before seen or read or heard of such cruelty, of which a few will be mentioned below”.

In New Spain they would have killed “with knives, and by throwing and burning them alive, women and children and young men and old men, more than four hundred [million] souls (…) And this without those who have died and are killed every day in the aforementioned tyrannical servitude”. In Nicaragua, “fifty men on horseback were spearing a whole province larger than the county of Roussillon, leaving neither man nor woman, old man nor child alive”. But in 400 leagues around Santa Marta (present-day Colombia) the crimes of conquistadores and encomenderos would have exceeded the above, the friar warns us, although it is difficult to imagine how. Las Casas puts the total number of Indians exterminated at up to fifteen million and more, surely three or four times more than the admissible pre-discovery population. In addition to being incredibly bloodthirsty, the Spaniards would be no less incredibly stupid, for they would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, that is, exterminating those on whose labour they intended to live. The only thing that can be deduced from such parables is the friar’s blind hatred of his compatriots, for he slanders them with real fury, a fury that is also somewhat stupid if rationally analysed.

Nevertheless, this systematic falsehood by exaggeration has been inexhaustibly successful. In a history of the world written for children, the Austro-English art historian Ernst Gombrich summarises: “The first Spanish ships with Columbus and his companions had only discovered islands with a population of peaceful, poor and simple Indians. The only thing the Spanish adventurers wanted to know was where they had got their gold ornaments (…) The men who marched from Spain into the undiscovered countries in order to conquer them for the king of Spain were ferocious individuals, cruel bandit captains, incredibly ruthless and of unheard-of falsehood and malice towards the natives, driven by wild greed towards more and more fantastic adventures. None seemed impossible to them, no means seemed too bad for them when it came to getting gold. They were incredibly courageous and incredibly inhuman. The saddest thing is that these people not only called themselves Christians, but they continually claimed that they committed all these cruelties to the heathen for the sake of Christianity”. These sentences condense the black legend born of Las Casas, whose echoes live on strongly to this day, being reborn every time it seemed to have been overcome.

Moon Valley, Atacama, Chile

Moon Valley, Atacama, Chile

Gombrich is somewhat correct in mentioning “the most fantastic adventures” and “none of them seemed impossible”, as they surpassed any novel of the genre, and their protagonists understood this: “There are some things that our Spaniards have done in our days and in these parts, in their conquests and encounters with the Indians, which as deeds worthy of admiration surpass not only the books [of chivalry] but also those that have been written about the twelve Peers of France”. The reference to the books of chivalry indicates how popular they were among the conquistadores, and to them, precisely, California owes its name. The adventures caused the most varied personal destinies: wanderings like those of Cabeza de Vaca, abandonment of earnings to become monks, “robinsons” like Pedro Serrano, who survived for eight years on a sandy islet 300 kilometres east of Nicaragua, shipwrecks like that of Gonzalo Guerrero, who became a Mayan military chief and married the daughter of a cacique; or Gonzalo Calvo, the first European in Chile after fleeing from his companions with his Inca wife and overcoming the terrible Atacama Desert to adopt the Araucanian way of life; many ended up tortured and devoured by cannibals, or their triumph turned into disgrace because of internal quarrels or court intrigues… What is important about Las Casas and difficult to explain is how he has enjoyed so much attention. Because nothing proves his falsehood better than the balance sheet of the conquest, known from very early on.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Moa, P. (2021) ‘Similitudes y diferencias / Hijos del orate / El caso Las Casas (II) Un odio profundo’, 11 August. Available at: http://www.piomoa.es/?p=16825 (Accessed: 21 August 2021).

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1534 Sebastián de Belalcázar founded the city of Quito (Ecuador), with the name of San Francisco de Quito.

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