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Cultural Collision

The Spaniards on Hispaniola

From: Urs Bitterli, Cultures in Conflict: Encounters Between European and Non-European Cultures, 1492-1800, (Stanford UP, 1989)

The European intrusion into the transatlantic world can best be understood, along with its implications, by taking the island of Hispaniola, which now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as a model. As Pierre Chaunu has said, Hispaniola is a 'microcosm of the entire history of America'.1 It was the original setting for the sequence of events which was later to be repeated in Mexico, Peru and Chile. Thanks to favourable currents and winds, sailing-ships had easy access to the island. It occupies a key position in the curve formed by the Greater Antilles, and its pleasantly warm climate encourages luxuriant tropical vegetation and permits the cultivation of useful crops. All these factors gave Hispaniola considerable strategic and economic importance until the end of the eighteenth century.

On 6 December 1492 Christopher Columbus became the first European to reach the island, arriving at its north-west coast. Two months earlier, his flotilla had touched on American territory for the first time, at the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas, which its Arawak inhabitants called Guanahani. Hoping and believing that he was near the Chinese mainland and within reach of the Far Eastern treasures celebrated by Marco Polo, Columbus had then followed the northern coastline of Cuba. On reaching Hispaniola, he gave it this name in order to emphasize a certain resemblance to Spain and, more importantly, to underline the importance of his discovery. He identified Hispaniola with Japan, and this conjecture seemed to be supported by the fact that part of the island was called 'Cibao', which sounded not unlike Marco Polo's 'Zipangu'.2

At this time Hispaniola was inhabited by an Arawak tribe, the Tainos. This ethnic group led the settled existence of an early planting and hunting culture, far less advanced than the high cultures of the Mexican mainland. These Indians — a term of Spanish origin which, as is well known, perpetuates Columbus's mistake - had left the north coast of the South American mainland a few centuries before Columbus's arrival, perhaps driven out by the military superiority of the Caribs. They lived chiefly on manioc, sweet potatoes and maize, fished with nets, lines and spears, and practised hunting on a more modest scale. They had no domestic animals except a species of dog. The islanders had no conception of clothing as such; only the women, after puberty, wore a kind of loincloth. Both sexes liked to paint their bodies: in their ears and noses, and round their necks, they wore rings fashioned from gold. Although they were skilled and artistically gifted craftsmen, especially in wood-carving, the Tainos had few weapons; they relied chiefly on flint-tipped spears. For water transport they used canoes made from tree-trunks, moved by oars, since they had no sails. The Tainos lived in villages of various sizes amid well-cultivated fields. The population of the island appears to have been divided into five provinces. Each of these had its own chieftain or cacique, with almost unlimited powers extending to matters of life and death. Below the caciques came the heads of smaller districts and villages, and they in turn were assisted by counsellors. Those islanders who did not belong to any of the ruling families tilled the fields and worked as craftsmen in the villages. There were also slaves.

The Tainos were a peaceable and hospitable people. Visitors whose intentions were clearly unwarlike were received as personal guests of the caciques and village headmen, and entertained by the community: the guest was invited to enjoy sexual intercourse with native women, and feasts were held in his honour. However, the islanders lived in fear of attacks by the Caribs from the neighbouring islands. These attacks generally took place at night and sometimes ended in the destruction of entire villages, the massacre of the male inhabitants, and orgies of cannibalism.

Most of the early encounters between the Spaniards and the Tainos were notable for their peaceful character. The islanders' behaviour was not, of course, uniform: at the beginning of contact some tribal groups were fearful and timid, others bold and inquisitive; and young people tended to be forthcoming, while older ones were reserved or unfriendly. For their part, the Europeans at first had no desire for conflict. Although Columbus clearly did not trouble himself about a coherent policy towards the natives, and later was often hesitant and inept in handling such matters, in the early stage of their encounters he advised his countrymen to treat the Indians considerately. Immediately after the landing on Hispaniola, armed soldiers were sent into the interior with instructions to secure the goodwill of the inhabitants by distributing glass beads, bells and coloured caps. A young woman who had been abducted and taken on board ship was given presents and sent home. News of this friendly behaviour spread, gaining the Indians' confidence. Only a few days after Columbus's arrival, the Tainos thronged to his ships, and the local chieftain sent a messenger to enquire when he could receive the seafarers.4

Unfortunately, it is possible to reconstruct only sketchily how the inhabitants of Hispaniola felt when they first saw the sails of the Spanish ships appearing on the horizon like heavenly bodies. There is no written record of this event, and the Tainos' oral tradition perished with them, half a century later, without being written down. Their reactions can be inferred only from the Spaniards' writings, and especially from Col­umbus's own journal. These suggest that the Tainos must have felt their visitors to be fundamentally different from themselves, and were profoundly disturbed by this discovery. What was crucial was the impossibility of comparing the Spaniards with any human beings with which they were acquainted, even with the Caribs. The latter's manner of life was familiar, even if some customs and skills had developed differently; but the strangers' beards, their white skin, the clothes covering their bodies, and the completely unintelligible sounds by which they conversed - for the Tainos, none of these things could be fitted into a meaningful relation with any historical experience. The same also applied to the instruments used by the newcomers. It was impossible to see the sailing-ship as a more highly developed canoe, and it was a long time before the Indians grasped the power by which it moved. Still more inexplicable, indeed positively uncanny, were the firearms and the ship's artillery, whose report alone, it seemed, could rip distant trees apart and, as the Indians found out soon enough, strike people dead. And what were they to make of the dignified Spanish notaries, who recorded the appropriation of their territory by painting strange black signs on a piece of parchment with a pointed quill?

Was it not the most obvious conclusion to regard these beings, so unfamiliar in their appearance, their behaviour and their powers, as supernatural? In the introductory chapter we noted that the civilized peoples of the Central and South American mainland, the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas, saw the advancing conquistadors as gods.5 Similarly, the Spanish documents predating the occupation of Hispaniola repeatedly relate how the Arawaks called the voyagers gods and firmly rejected all attempts to correct this mistake. It is thus that Columbus himself describes his first encounter with a 'native king':

Afterwards, in the evening, the king came to the ship; the admiral [Columbus] showed him due honour and caused him to be told that he came from the Sovereigns of Castile who were the greatest princes in the world. Neither the Indians whom the admiral carried with him, and who

were the interpreters, nor the king either, believed anything of this, but they
were convinced that they came from heaven and that the realms of the
Sovereigns of Castile were in heaven and not in this world.6

On Hispaniola, too, the arrival of bearded and fully clad strangers seems to have been prophesied, and, according to the historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara, interpreted as an evil omen.7 At all events, there is no doubt - even if the Spaniards maintained the contrary - that the Tainos were familiar with the conception of a supernatural being dwelling in heaven, and hence had at least some means of integrating the strangers' arrival into their own picture of the world.

Gods are to be welcomed with every sign of awe and with demonstrations of willingness to serve them. During Columbus's stay, accordingly, the Tainos vied with one another to show kindness to their visitors. They gave prompt answers to all enquiries, especially to the incessant questions about the whereabouts of gold; they hastened to supply their guests' every wish, whether for drinking water, fruit, precious metals or women; local rulers begged to receive the Spaniards or be received by them; and when Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground, the Indians showed deep distress and helped to unload the cargo. 'Finally [the journal tells us], the admiral says that it is impossible to believe that any one has seen a people with such kind hearts and so ready to give and so timorous, that they deprive themselves of everything in order to give the Christians all that they possess, and when the Christians arrive, they run at once to bring them everything.'8 Such was their brotherly love that Columbus decided that he must have encoun­tered a people predestined to accept the Christian message. Their obliging behaviour seemed completely unselfish, though it may have been influenced by the calculation that they had gained a powerful ally in their struggle against the Caribs.

On 26 December 1492, with the eager help of the cacique Guacanagari and his subjects, the Spaniards began building a fort, which they called Villa de la Navidad in commemoration of Christmas. Over forty men, many of them volunteers, stayed behind in this, the first settlement in the 'New World'. Columbus did not anticipate any danger from the islanders, for he judged the Tainos' military strength to be negligible and was convinced that a few armed men would be sufficient to control the entire island. His principal reason for building an observation tower and fortifications was to bring home to the Indians the technical capacities of Spanish carpentry. On 4 January 1493, at daybreak, Columbus weighed anchor and set out on his homeward voyage; on 15 March he arrived in the Spanish port of Palos.

Columbus had made great promises to the Catholic monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, on whose orders he had set sail; and he had asked a great deal of them. In the 'Capitulations of Santa Fe', the treaties regulating the rights of sovereignty over whatever lands he might discover, he received very extensive benefits: he was raised to the rank of Admiral, Viceroy, and Governor-General, with the appropriate author­ity, and he was promised 10 per cent of the profit on all goods and products acquired in trade. The 'Capitulations' speak of the overseas territories - islas y tierras ftrmas - with such confidence and such visionary optimism that Columbus could not have afforded to return without accomplishing his mission. Having placed himself under such pressure to succeed, Columbus was no sooner back from his first voyage than he began energetically advertising his discoveries, though at that time, after such a brief examination, he was in no position to estimate their importance. In his famous letter to the Chancellor Luis de Santangel he writes:

Espanola [Hispaniola] is a marvel. The sierras and mountains, the plains and arable lands and pastures, are so lovely and rich for planting and sowing, for breeding cattle of every kind, for building towns and villages. The harbours of the sea here are such as cannot be believed to exist unless they have been seen, and so with the rivers, many and great, and good waters, the majority of which contain gold.9


Columbus's notes on his first voyage contain several landscape descriptions that reveal him as a lover of nature and an accurate observer. Although these idylls are touched by a yearning for Paradise, they are not all that remote from the reality of the Caribbean archipelago. However, the Spaniards' desire for gold remains unpleasantly dominant: this theme and its variations appear undisguised throughout. 'It is true', writes the Admiral frankly in his journal, 'that if I arrive anywhere where there is gold and spices in quantity, I shall wait until I have collected as much as I am able. Accordingly I do nothing but go forward in the hope of finding these.'10 Was that all he was doing? The reader cannot but suspect as much. Wherever Columbus and his followers made their appearance, their first thoughts were about precious metal. The simple gold ornaments sometimes worn by the Tainos gave rise to persistent questioning, conjectures and greedy bargaining. The Indians, obviously astonished to find gods displaying such unbridled cupidity, gave ready answers, saying that they had found gold accidentally in the interior or in a river, for it would never have occurred to them to mine systematically for gold. They soon learnt to carry on their dealings with the Europeans more artfully, by cutting their gold into chips and offering them individually in exchange for European goods. It seems, too, that many islanders, gradually tiring of the Spaniards' presence, exploited their obsession by directing them to distant sources of gold and thus encouraging them to travel onwards. At all events, the Spaniards' vivid imaginations transformed the slightest, vaguest hint about gold into a certainty: gold-mines, rivers of gold, even whole islands of pure gold, seemed to be within easy reach. This immoderate greed for riches took precedence over all the other objectives of their voyage, such as the desire for geographical knowledge or the aim of making Christian converts. They sought salvation in gold alone. The blasphemous undertones of this sentence, far from being an exaggeration, may be found in Columbus's own writings. On 23 December 1492, off the coast of Hispaniola, he writes: 'Our Lord in His goodness guide me that I may find this gold.'11 And in a letter about his fourth voyage, again referring to Hispaniola, he says: 'Gold is most excellent. Gold constitutes treasure, and he who possesses it may do what he will in the world, and may so attain as to bring souls to paradise.'12

Historians, particularly those chiefly concerned with Columbus's achievements as an explorer, have registered this greed with discomfort. It is strongly reminiscent of the collective psychosis that seized upon Californian gold-diggers in the mid-nineteenth century. In defence of Columbus and his companions it may be pointed out that subsequent conquistadors thought exactly the same, whether they appeared in Mexico, Panama or Peru. Even in the somewhat disillusioned Historia general y natural de las Indias by the chronicler Fernandez de Oviedo, which was published in many volumes around 1540, the word 'gold' figures on almost every page. 'To many colonists', pronounces Georg Friederici, 'it never occurred to do anything but look for gold, and this frantic search for precious metals, jewels, and pearls prevented them from engaging in any productive economic activity.'13

There is no disputing that the Spaniards were primarily interested in the Arawak Indians as sources of information about where to find gold and of labour in extracting it. Columbus keeps emphasizing how ready the Indians were to supply information and to provide goods of every kind, even those that Europeans considered most valuable, in return for trifles. Similar criteria lie behind the stress on the Arawaks' peaceful and inoffensive character, which implied that any resistance by the Indians to the conquest and exploitation of their territory would be ineffectual. Columbus draws the logical conclusion in his diary: 'They are also fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary.'14

Secondly, the Spaniards were interested in the Indians, or rather in the Indian women, as sources of gratification. The early travellers unite in praising their unfamiliar nakedness and the beauty of their unhampered bodies. Not only did their nakedness confirm the Tainos' inoffensiveness, but it was the ultimate reason for the bewildering ambiguity in European opinion, which alternated between placing the Indians just above the beasts and regarding them virtually as inhabitants of Eden. In the travel narratives their absence of clothing is not condemned; it was seen, rather, as an entirely acceptable invitation to sexual intercourse. The brutality with which the Spaniards treated Indian women and children in order to gratify their lust is one of the most sombre episodes in the history of the encounter between these cultures.

Thirdly, the Indians ranked as objects of missionary activity. Col­umbus was a man of profound, medieval piety, who saw himself as the representative of the Orbis Christianus, just as the Crusaders had done.15 He was familiar with the idea that the heathens overseas must be converted, to ensure their salvation and that of the proselytizer, and he often called himself the 'bringer of Christ', alluding to his Christian name. It is true that missionary concerns seem not to have been at the forefront of his mind when he was planning his first voyage. Salvador de Madariaga has rightly drawn attention to the extraordinary fact that there were no priests on the 1492 expedition.16 However, Columbus frequently refers to his missionary ambition in his diaries and letters, and this project comes naturally to mind when he comments on the Indians' peaceable and inoffensive nature:

I saw, as I recognise, that these people have no creed and they are not idolaters, but they are very gentle and do not know what it is to be wicked. [.. . ] So your Highnesses should resolve to make them Christians, for I believe that, if you begin, in a little while you will achieve the conversion of a great number of peoples to our holy faith.17

In the instructions for Columbus's second voyage, the Crown clearly emphasized the Spaniards' obligation to convert the Indians; and the Papal Bulls which Isabella and Ferdinand had procured from Alexander VI in 1493 stated that the newly discovered territories should belong to Spain only on condition that missionary work was performed there. It is remarkable that in the image of the Indians formed by Columbus and his men, the conception of them as potential suppliers of gold never clashed with the conception of them as potential Christians. As will be shown, it would be left to the missionaries to make people aware of the repulsive double standard of morality implicit in such an evaluation of non-Europeans.

In sum, the Spanish seafarers' ideas about the inhabitants of Hispaniola concerned only their ability to satisfy the Europeans' material, sexual and religious expectations and requirements. There are no traces of any interest in the Indians for their own sake. Even external singularities, like the Indians' way of painting their bodies or arranging their hair, are neither described in detail nor interpreted. Far less do we find any observations about the Indians' social and political system, their economic life and religious cults, or their language. The extreme poverty I /



of the ethnographical information cannot be explained or excused by the fact that communication with the Tainos was mainly conducted through expression and gesture. Nor can one blame the state of contemporary intellectual life, since the abundant European travel literature of the period shows a lively interest in anthropological peculiarities. No matter how one reads the sources, the scholarly balance sheet of these early contacts between Europeans and Indians in the Caribbean shows an alarming deficit. One must agree with the judgement of the French linguist Tzvetan Todorov, whose careful analysis of all the relevant documents leads him to the conclusion that Columbus had 'discovered America, but not the Americans.'18

When Columbus revisited La Navidad on 27 November 1493, during his second voyage, he found that the fortress had been completely destroyed and its garrison killed. The Tainos' behaviour was timorous and distrustful, and what little information could be got out of them revealed that the Spanish colonists had brought about their own downfall through their brutal treatment of the Indians, especially of the native women. The idyll of the first encounter had changed abruptly into the catastrophe of warlike collision - a process which can be observed in colonial history all over the globe. In the eyes of the Tainos, the Europeans did not behave like gods, but like exceptionally malicious demons; and as soon as these demons proved to be vulnerable and mortal, their supposed invincibility vanished. In attacking the garrison of La Navidad, the Tainos were following the logic of this discovery. Unlike conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro, Columbus was unable to take decisions promptly and confidently, and so he found himself at a loss. This favoured the ascendancy of those people around him who wanted to bring Hispaniola under complete control as soon as possible and to lay hands on the gold of the interior, the quantity of which they grossly overestimated.

Thus began the period of extermination campaigns directed against the population of the island. First, small reconnoitering expeditions were undertaken from newly erected forts; then, in March 1495, a combat force including two hundred of the best soldiers, twenty horsemen and twenty bloodhounds was dispatched into the interior with instructions to reduce the Tainos to obedience. The Spaniards were thereafter to practise every imaginable form of aggression: deception and naked force were used to capture, blackmail and kill the native chieftains; entire settlements were conquered, pillaged and destroyed; commandos, practically out of control, roamed the island, looting, raping and murdering. The stirrings of Indian resistance provoked by such terrorism were suppressed with the utmost brutality, sparing neither women nor children. The Dominican monk Bartolome de Las Casas later said that some 100,000 Tainos lost their lives in these campaigns. By 1496 active resistance was at an end. The 'pacification' of the island was complete.19

The direct extermination campaigns were followed by measures which were in the long run still more devastating because they were intended indirectly to destroy the basis of the Tainos' existence. These measures were linked with the settlement policy pursued by the Spanish Crown, which assumed ownership of all territories discovered overseas. This settlement policy began immediately after the pacification of Hispaniola and assumed definite outlines when Nicolas de Ovando took office as governor in 1501. First, a series of fortified towns was founded at points of strategic and commercial importance: by 1509 there were already fifteen of these bases on Hispaniola. After this urbanization, modelled on the Iberian reconquista of the late Middle Ages, land was allotted to tenant farmers by the Governor or his appointed representative on behalf of the Crown. Plots of land outside the towns, sometimes far inland, were assigned to each Spanish citizen according to social status, family connections or military record. Legally, at least, the traditional posses­sions of the Indians were excluded from the allocation. However, since, at least in this early phase of overseas colonization, the Spanish colonists had usually come to America in order to enrich themselves by finding gold, not to till the soil, Ovando was obliged to use the natives as a labour force. An edict, issued in 1503 by Queen Isabella at the Governor's urging, introduced forced labour for the Arawaks, since, to quote the document, 'the Spaniards can find nobody else to work in their enterprises and to supply them with food, and to help them find the gold that is on the island.'20

Thus, the system of repartitnientos, the allocation of Indian labour to Spanish immigrants, was introduced reluctantly and faute de tnieux, in view of the colonists' refusal to do agricultural work. Yet this system must bear much of the blame for the extermination of the Tainos on Hispaniola.21 Before Columbus arrived, the islanders had supported themselves with a modest subsistence economy based on cultivating a few plants by traditional methods and on the natural abundance which the island owed to its favourable climate and the waters surrounding it. They were now confronted with an agricultural system that not only included new elements like cattle, sugar-cane and tropical fruit, but was achievement-oriented and assigned a precise role to the wage-labourer, as the Indian was legally viewed. The change of outlook which the Indians were suddenly required to accomplish proved too much for them, both physically and mentally. This applied especially to the work involved in finding gold, for the Tainos were unaccustomed to digging for gold and washing the river sand, and could not see the point of doing so. Hence this work exacted the highest toll of victims.22

The Tainos employed in forced labour, men and women, were separated from their families for eight months in the year and often taken to remote places, which was itself a monstrous demand to make on members of a settled archaic culture with very slight mobility. They were ravaged by diseases, some of which, like smallpox, had been introduced by the Europeans. The high mortality rate among young and middle-aged men and women was accompanied by a sharp decline in the birth rate, which was all the more serious since Arawak women were less fertile than Spanish female immigrants. The break-up of the family when its members were sent to do forced labour led to an extraordinary increase in infant mortality, mainly because the Arawaks did not use animal milk and kept their infants at the breast for a long time, but also because the disintegration of the family destroyed the social space necessary for children's healthy physical and mental development. The social uproot­ing of so many people explains the periodical epidemics of suicide which are attested by trustworthy documents.23

The situation of the islanders was exacerbated by the death of Queen Isabella of Castile in 1504 and the replacement of the cautious governor Nicolas de Ovando with the arrogant Diego Colon, son of the discoverer. Isabella had agreed with the Vatican in seeing a close link between Spain's right to acquire possessions in the New World and its duty to convert the Indian heathen. On several occasions she had demanded that the potential converts should be treated humanely. Colon's assumption of the governorship gave an even freer rein than before to the unscrupulous conquistador types among the colonists. Moreover, the island's gold reserves were becoming exhausted: between 1503 and 1510 a steadily increasing quantity of gold, totalling 19 tons, had been sent to Spain, but after 1510 the quantity began to decline. The first people to be affected by this change were the Taíno, who were recruited in greater numbers and forced to work harder. Slavery was now also permitted in those cases where Indians were supposed, often wrongly, to be guilty of cannibalism or armed resistance. The growing importation of more robust slaves from West Africa did nothing to relieve the Indians' burdens.

The mainland Indians could escape the conquistadors' aggression, partly at least, by fleeing into the jungle or into rough mountain areas, but the Tainos had no such resource. As early as 1520 impartial observers recognized that the extinction of the islanders was only a, matter of time. Hence, a Spanish envoy wrote home in 1518 that the Indians were in the state of a dying man, 'given up by the physicians, with the candle placed in his hand.'24

For the historian trying to assess the consequences of the collision between Europeans and Indians on Hispaniola, it is important to know

the population of the island before Columbus's arrival. Even at the end of the fifteenth century, contemporary commentators offered widely differ­ing estimates. Referring to a remark by Columbus, Las Casas spoke of 1,100,000 inhabitants; elsewhere he suggested that they might have numbered three million. Since the chronicler Oviedo, an opponent of Las Casas who represented the Spanish treatment of the Indians in the best possible light, likewise estimated the island's population at one million, and since almost all reports speak of the island's great population density, a figure of over a million in 1492 has been generally accepted.25 However, by demonstrating the fertility of the low-lying areas of the island and the simple diet of the islanders, the American historian C. O. Sauer has suggested that Hispaniola could have supported well over three million inhabitants.26

After the island had been completely subjugated in 1502-4 and the Arawaks subjected to forced labour on instructions from Spain, administrators were asked to supply demographic information about the native population. Even Columbus, during his fourth and last voyage, is said by Las Casas to have uttered the doubtless exaggerated statement that six out of every seven Tainos had died since the discovery of the island.27 In 1508 the royal treasurer was sent to Hispaniola and declared that after a careful count 60,000 surviving Indians had been found. Finally, Oviedo reported in 1548 that of the original inhabitants only 500 now survived, and soon afterwards the extermination of the Arawak Indians was complete. At least a million, perhaps several million people of another race with their own culture, had been annihilated within half a century: in the perspective of world history this must be described as the first genocide perpetrated by Europeans, and one which we are well informed about thanks to relatively good documentation.

Inexcusable as this genocide is, it is nevertheless important to point out that the Spaniards' dispossession, exploitation, oppression and final liquidation of the Indians on Hispaniola met with forceful opposition and protests from humane contemporaries. Protests occurred on two levels: among the eye-witnesses who knew about conditions overseas at first hand, and among Spain's leading theologians and lawyers. It is worth pursuing these early stirrings of anti-colonialism and examining the arguments from theology and international law which formed the intellectual context of colonization at that time.

The first voice to be raised in public in support of humane treatment for the population of Hispaniola was that of the Dominican monk Antonio de Montesinos. In a sermon delivered in 1511 before the Governor, highly placed officials and influential settlers, he made an impassioned appeal to the Christian consciences of all those responsible for Spain's policy towards the Indians:

In order to make your sins against the Indians known to you I have come up on this pulpit, I who am a voice of Christ crying in the wilderness of this island, and therefore it behooves you to listen. [ . . . ] This voice says that you are in mortal sin, that you live and die in it, for the cruelty and tyranny you use in dealing with these innocent people. Tell me, by what right or justice do you keep these Indians in such a cruel and horrible servitude? On what authority have you waged a detestable war against these people, who dwelt quietly and peacefully on their own land? [. . . ] Why do you keep them so oppressed and weary, not giving them enough to eat nor taking care of them in their illness? For in the excessive work you demand of them they fall ill and die, or rather you kill them with your desire to extract and acquire gold every day.28

Montesinos's speech produced startled incredulity followed by immense excitement. Both the passionate tones of his indictment and the violence of the public reaction suggest that Montesinos had raised a topic that had long been ripe for discussion but repeatedly suppressed. The Dominicans, who showed remarkable solidarity with Montesinos, sent him to Spain to give a report to King Ferdinand. Montesinos's account, combined with news of the dwindling of the native population, made a sufficient impression on Ferdinand to make him summon a number of leading theologians and legal scholars to discussions in Burgos in 1512. In December of the same year the Leyes de Burgos were passed, the first attempt at general legislation on behalf of the Indians.

The Laws of Burgos did not encroach on the Crown's right to acquire possessions overseas, nor on the system of forced repartimientos. They did, however, provide a series of measures directed against abuses in the treatment of the Indians. It was laid down that the Indians must be well fed and clothed and suitably paid; they must also be instructed in Christian doctrine and converted to the true faith. These rules were intended to apply not only to the Arawaks of Hispaniola but to the entire area of the West Indies. However, this legislation raised more questions than it could answer. It did not solve the problem of the legality of Spanish conquests overseas, as later became apparent. The belief in Spain's mission to convert the heathen was based on premisses that had received too little analysis. There remained the question whether the Indians were willing and able to accept Christianity; and if they offered resistance, what gave European colonists the right to convert them by force? If missionary work could only be accomplished through violence, was it still that apostolic mission which the Papal Bulls of 1593 had declared to be the precondition for acquiring overseas territories? Was there not, rather, a danger that the obduracy of the savages might be cited as a retrospective justification for the violent seizure of their land?

Between 1512 and 1542 this cluster of questions was to be passionately debated and pursued into its furthest ramifications.29 The leading spokesman in this discussion was Bartolome de Las Casas.30 The 'Apostle to the Indians' had emigrated to Hispaniola in 1502, had later settled on Cuba, and had himself employed Indians to search for gold and work on his estate. It was not until 1515 that he began to support the Indians' cause, but he did so with an impassioned persistence that he retained during the following fifty years of his long life. In 1515 he struggled to persuade the Spanish court that the Laws of Burgos should be more strictly observed. As a result of his, efforts a commission of inspection, consisting of three Jeronimite monks, was sent to Hispaniola, while he himself was charged with supreme responsibility for Indian affairs. The commission of inspection and inquiry took evidence from Spanish colonists on the island - not from the Tainos - which led to the conclusion that the Indians, unable to live in freedom, were vegetating in a barbaric fashion, and that the missionaries' efforts were wasted on them. The commission's negative and prejudiced report did not deter Las Casas from continuing to advocate the abolition of the repartitniento system; in its place he recommended the founding of mixed settlements including both Spaniards and Indians, in the hope of preparing the Indians for the inevitable transition to agriculture, helping them to assimilate, and reducing racial prejudice. In his campaign Las Casas received support from the Crown. However, his first such project, established on the coast of Venezuela, was a failure. The Spanish settlers, who had been reluctant to take part in such an enterprise, did not understand how to run it. Besides, the mainland was already infested by slave-hunters, so that the basis of mutual trust on which Las Casas had hoped to found co-operation between cultures had been destroyed.

A later settlement project, promoted between 1537 and 1550 among the warlike inhabitants of the Guatemalan jungle, likewise proved a failure in the long run. Here Las Casas had laid down the condition that only Dominican monks should have access to the settlement. Peaceful conversion was its principal aim, and at first the monks, who had been remarkably quick to familiarize themselves with the local language, managed to arouse not only the Indians' curiosity but also their sympathy. The final collapse of this second experiment in colonization occurred for reasons similar to those which had earlier frustrated Portuguese missionary work in West Africa. In both places the missionaries failed to realize that their arrival put the complex ethnic structure of archaic peoples under considerable strain, altered the balance of power, and thus released latent aggression.

Besides his attempts at colonization, which anticipate the seventeenth-century Jesuit settlements in South America, Las Casas devoted intense effort to a theoretical understanding of the problem of colonialism. After entering the Dominican monastery on Hispaniola he spent thirty-five years, from 1527 until shortly before his death, labouring on his main work, the Historia de las Indias. This rich and copious work is a major source for the history of Spanish colonization: its author's indefatigable support for the native population permits insights denied to other contemporary chroniclers, whose purpose was mainly apologetic.31

This book, however, did not become nearly as famous as the Short Account of the Destruction of the Indians which appeared in 1552, after its author had finally returned to Spain. The Account is a fiery pamphlet directed against the conquistadors' dealings with the Indians, a 'hair-raising catalogue of atrocities',32 which circulated widely outside Spain and, especially in the eighteenth century, was translated into most European languages. 'I think', concluded Voltaire, 'that Las Casas' account exaggerates at several points; but even assuming that he says ten times too much, what is left suffices to fill one with horror.'33 Modern historians, too, have repeatedly enquired into the veracity of the treatise, and not only the author's credibility but even his sanity has been questioned. The general view nowadays is that Las Casas's criticism was justified, even if the Dominican is still considered sensationalist in highlighting certain abuses.34

The Account is arranged chronologically and geographically, follow­ing the sequence of Spanish discoveries and the territories discovered: Hispaniola, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Florida, Colombia. It has little to say about landscape, history, colonial administration; the Historia de las Indias, after all, supplies all the information one might want about such matters. Las Casas confines himself to the Spaniards' policy towards the natives, if indeed it can be called a 'policy' at all. He places an obvious emphasis on the conquistadors' atrocities, especially those committed without any discernible motive but seemingly from a mere excess of sadistic energy. We read of children being killed and mutilated, of old men chased by bloodhounds, of innocent people roasted over slow fires, of women being raped and murdered. In Las Casas's account all this appears completely wanton; for Indians as the author sees them, in their child-like innocence and docility, can give no occasion for such brutal punishments. The central passage in Las Casas's account deals with Hispaniola and runs as follows:

These gentle lambs, endowed by their Maker and Creator with the qualities mentioned above, no sooner became known to the Spaniards than the latter fell upon them like ravenous wolves, tigers and lions. For forty years they have done nothing to them, and even today they do nothing to them, save maim, strangle, afflict, torment, torture, and destroy them through a thousand new and strange agonies, such as were never before seen, heard or read of and of which I shall cite some examples below. Thus they have brought it about that of the over three million people, whom I formerly saw with my own eyes on the island of Hispaniola, only two hundred natives still survive.35

This text was of little help in coming to grips intellectually with the problem of colonialism. More important for this purpose was a treatise published by Las Casas in 1537 under the title The Sole Method of Converting all Nations to the True Faith.36 Here he argues the necessity of peaceful missionary work among the Indians. All people on earth, declares Las Casas in his introduction, are God's creatures, and as such equipped and summoned by God to accept faith as a free gift. Hence, it is wrong to deprive the Indians of their freedom or their possessions, even if they have not yet adopted the Christian faith. Missionaries, the author goes on, must employ more gentleness and patience and rely much more on persuasion and on setting an example than on force and intimidation. In his arguments Las Casas appeals to a bull issued by Pope Paul III in that same year, which stressed that non-European peoples were capable of conversion, but warned against trying to convert them by force under the pretext of a 'just war'.

In rejecting forcible conversion, Las Casas found himself in opposition to the Court lawyer Juan Gines de Sepiilveda, a cultivated and much-respected man, who had adopted Aristotle's notion that barbarous peoples should be regarded as natural slaves.37 In his treatise The Just Reasons for War against the Indians, Sepulveda appealed to the charter of 1493 granted by Pope Alexander VI, in which Columbus's discovery was sanctioned on condition that efforts were made to convert the new-found peoples.38 Sepulveda argued that the Church could only fulfil the Christian duty to spread the gospel if the unbelievers had first been subjected to political authority. 'As may clearly be seen from the bull', writes the lawyer, 'it was Pope Alexander's will that the barbarians should first be made subject to the Crown of Castile and that the gospel should be preached to them only afterwards.'39 Unlike Las Casas, who knew conditions overseas at first hand, Charles V's lawyer did not see that such an interpretation risked providing a legal basis for the wanton savagery of the Spanish colonists. Hence, Las Casas replied sharply that such a 'godless and Mahometan' method of conversion must be rejected out of hand, because it was wholly contrary to Christianity.40

This debate over the 'just war' was extended by the reflections on the Spanish claim to property overseas put forward by Francisco de Vitoria, a lawyer at the University of Salamanca.41 The Spaniards' right to conquer and settle new territories rested, as stated earlier, on three main supports: the right of the discoverer or finder; papal approval subject to missionary work; and an agreement of 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas, in which Portugal and Spain had divided up the world between them. Vitoria queried the validity of these legal titles by referring to Aquinas's ideas on natural law and maintaining that the formation of political bodies was as natural as the right to personal property, both being part of the organic harmony of creation. The relations between states, like those between individuals, were accordingly based on reciprocity acknow­ledged by all authorities concerned. Dealings between sovereign states and independent individuals might extend to trade, peaceful political contacts, and the possibility of conversion by missionaries; but for any spiritual or secular power to assume world dominion was contrary to nature and impermissible. Vitoria did concede that in certain special cases Spain had the right to conquer a territory: for example, if a newly discovered territory proved to be uninhabited, or if a non-European nation itself violated natural law, as was the case, in Vitoria's opinion, when cannibalism could be proved to have taken place. Vitoria denied any possibility of a 'just war' against the Indians, though he left room for interpretations that fundamentally contradicted his thinking by saying that if a war served the interests of the non-Europeans themselves - for instance, if it meant protecting the Arawaks by fighting the Caribs - it could be tolerated in a moderate and suitable form. Vitoria had very little contact with Las Casas, and did his best to avoid disputes about the actuai fate of the West Indies. His reflections, however, helped to guide later debates on colonialism, when the Dutch, French and English began to claim territories overseas.

In 1542 Las Casas and his associates managed to induce Charles V to issue the Leyes Nuevas to safeguard the Indians. These laws forbade the extension of the repartimiento system and directed the local courts overseas, the audiencias, to ensure that the Indians doing forced labour were humanely treated. However, when the 'New Laws' became known across the Atlantic, they aroused such resistance among officials, landowners, and even clerics that three years later Charles V was obliged to repeal the important provision of the legal package forbidding the creation of new repartimientos.42

By now the fate of the Tainos on Hispaniola was already sealed. The laws came too late; and even if they had come thirty years earlier, the colonists would scarcely have obeyed them, nor could Spain have monitored their operation. It is beyond question that Spain as a colonial power completely ignored its human responsibility towards the Indians of Hispaniola, both passively and actively. The Indians were granted no freedom, such as a reservation might have provided, to preserve their own way of life; nor were they integrated into the colonists' cultural and social life in any ethically defensible manner. The most trenchant formulation of this sad fact is probably that by the eighteenth-century German writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: 'The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery.'43



Are we to conclude, then, that the debate about legal rights and the treatment of the Indians, which the discovery of Hispaniola set in motion, merely testifies to the helplessness of all intellectual and ethical endeavours when faced with historical action? Such a view would focus on only one aspect of the debate, that is, its power to bring about concrete change. In other ways, however, the Spanish discussion of colonialism has its special importance and value. There is no other colonial power, neither Portugal nor at a later stage Holland, England or France, which accompanied its early overseas expansion with such efforts to subject the fact of cultural contact to theoretical analysis and bring it under legal control. Yet it was difficult to conduct this analysis on the basis of late-medieval legal concepts and a Christocentric world view, and its results failed to achieve the general moral authority on which effective political action must be based.






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