The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation

Part five: A Modern Criticism of Las Casas (2)

The Case Against Las Casas 

The case Daniel Castro makes against Las Casas is based on three interlinked arguments. First of all, Las Casas imposed himself on the Indians as their self-appointed champion. His campaigning was done not together with them but in detachment from them, often at the other side of the ocean; he never learned any of their languages and didn’t get properly to know them; as time went on he became increasingly out of touch with the reality of their lives. Secondly, he was a missionary and an organiser of missions, committed to making all of the Indians Christians; therefore he too was a part of the “ecclesiastical imperialism” of the Catholic Church, contributing to a “cultural genocide”, (7) despite his commitment to peaceful means. And thirdly, he went into political alliance with the Spanish monarchy and thereby helped to justify its imperial claims in America, which were at the root of the Indians’ problems. 

“One of the greatest ironies concerning Las Casas’s reputation is that it is largely built around his work on behalf of the Indians, but during his long cumulative stay in America, roughly forty years, he rarely had direct contact with them… (8) (He) never hid his desire to be at the centre of power in the motherland, the familiar surroundings of the Spanish court, instead of being in America… (9) His paternalistic policies towards the Indians made Las Casas a benevolent but pragmatic agent of imperialism acting in sharp contrast to the mindless, cruel, and myopic colonists, one incapable of breaking through the invisible wall of alterity separating the natives from the Europeans.” (10)

Though he knows the biographical facts, Castro doesn’t show much sense of Las Casas as coming from a context. The context was his personal experience as one of the early Spanish colonists in Hispaniola. It was only after a number of years that he reluctantly concluded that the vast majority of his fellow-colonists were cruel (but not necessarily mindless: they were simply greedy, they wanted to profit as much and as quickly as possible from an available supply of forced labour) and destructive to the Indian peoples. The colonists were the Indians’ immediate and deadly enemies. So the great principle of politics came into play: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. If not enmity, there was certainly rivalry between the Spanish monarchy and the colonists for power in America. Las Casas set out to inflame that rivalry to the utmost and use it for the relief of the Indians. The Church also, which was interested in preaching Christianity to the Indians irrespective of whether this suited the colonists or not, could be appealed to on the basis of Christian principles, and in turn it could exert pressure on the monarchy. This was the strategy that Las Casas pursued with incredible resolution and energy, and it seems that his critics ought to propose clear alternatives. 

“Almost invariably these efforts were unimplemented and in most cases ended in failure; they rarely translated into tangible gains for the natives.” (11) The New Laws of 1542, however admirable they were, “would have necessitated a legion of bureaucrats backed by a military army to enforce all of their provisions… In practice they were unenforceable because the crown had neither the economic nor the human resources to create an efficient apparatus to execute them.” (12)

But even if we feel that we know all this with our hindsight, it was not so clear at the time. The Spanish monarchy, in fact, had more bureaucrats than most, and it did have armies at its disposal. In the aftermath of the New Laws an army was sent to Peru rather than lose it to rebel colonists. And Juan Friede showed that by the time of the New Laws Las Casas was well aware of the problem of legislation not being enforced because of the colonists’ resistance. (13) With this in mind, he made practical proposals which were sufficiently drastic to have given the New Laws a chance of working. His proposals were not adopted, but he did try. 

However, all this is rather at a tangent to what really interests Castro. He quotes the doctrine of Paolo Freire, who was active in the second half of the 20th century, as follows: “Political action on the side of the oppressed must be pedagogical action in the authentic sense of the words, and therefore, action with the oppressed.” Projecting this principle back four centuries and a bit, we find that Las Casas doesn’t measure up. “From this perspective, Las Casas’s work develops not with the oppressed, the indigenous people, but within the context of Spanish letrados, the imperial hegemonic culture, working to maintain the oppressive edifice represented by the occupiers.” (14) All through the book, this insight is hovering over everything that is said: if he really believed in the liberation of the Indians, Las Casas should have been in America constantly, on the ground, being prepared “to learn native languages in order to more fully understand the natives’ individual and collective problems, aspirations and expectations” (15) and working together with them to develop some sort of political movement on the basis of what they aspired to and expected.  

So then, Las Casas should have become an anti-imperialist facilitator, using his knowledge of the empire to undermine the empire, encouraging and promoting efforts to restore the Aztecs and the Incas? Well, … no! Actually, in his later years Las Casas was saying, loud and clear, that the Aztecs and the Incas must be restored under Spain’s overall sovereignty, and that the Spanish King, on pain of the loss of his immortal soul, must take all the necessary steps to bring this about. But this isn’t a goal Daniel Castro can approve of.  

“By establishing Spain’s relationship with the Indies within the dichotomous context of destruction-restoration and perpetrator-victim, Las Casas ultimately failed to bring about any measurable restoration of the New World. From the perspective of this absolute dichotomy, the answer to destruction was total restoration, and nothing less was acceptable. Even within the structure of the perpetrator-victim dichotomy, Las Casas’s efforts at restoration were carried out independently of the aspirations of the natives in the absence of a meaningful dialogue between Las Casas, in Spain and America, and the “victims” he was supposed to represent.” (16)