The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation

Part five: A Modern Criticism of Las Casas (3)

The possibilities for 'meaningful dialogue'

What might this “meaningful dialogue” have amounted to, taking realistic account of the time? (Opportunities to lead community projects in the manner approved for social science graduates trained in Freire’s theories were thin on the ground in 16th century America.) With one important exception to be considered shortly, the alternative figures Castro commends seem to be protégés of Las Casas, better linguists than him and more tenacious missionaries, who continued campaigning for his ideals in difficult circumstances in the decades after his death – people like Domingo de Santo Tomás. But in fact, Castro is forced to acknowledge that the best example of meaningful dialogue comes from Las Casas himself. 

In the 1550s the Peruvian colonists were seeking to have their forced labour institutions (encomiendas) made permanent and inheritable. They offered the King of Spain a great deal of money in return for permanency. Las Casas led the opposition to this at the Spanish Court, in conjunction with the caciques (the Peruvian Indian lords). These lords appointed him, along with Santo Tomás and another Dominican, as their plenipotentiary.  His culminating move was to offer, on behalf of the caciques, to substantially outbid any sum of money that the colonists offered, provided that the encomiendas were allowed to die out and the Indian system of social organisation was partially restored. Though the issue was not resolved, the colonists’ campaign, which King Philip had been favourable to, was effectively frustrated. 

Castro cannot deny that this is a spectacular example of meaningful dialogue with Indians. Unfortunately, they were the wrong Indians. “Las Casas’s inability to understand the complexity of class differentiations among the natives lent support to the creation of a dominant native class willing to continue exploiting other natives in the same way the Spanish had been doing up to then.” (17) One deduces that a true proponent of Indian liberation – a real anti-imperialist – would have set about undermining those social structures that Indian society happened to have produced. (Pedagogically, of course.) 

There are two different views in Castro’s book of what was happening in America in the decades after the Spanish invasion. One of them is stated fully and clearly, the other comes in sudden, surprising interjections. The first picture can be summarised as follows. 

“For the natives, the coming of the Spaniards signified the loss of freedom and traditional cultural identities. The wanton killing of Indians and their leaders not only brought about the precipitous decline in population; it created a state of collective depression from which the natives never recovered. The colonists never developed a coherent pattern of behaviour towards the natives despite their contributions to the invaders’ acquisition of wealth and nobility status. The lack of coherence in Spanish behaviour exacerbated the endless, unresolved contradiction obtaining in America: the Spanish understood that the labor of the Indians represented an invaluable source of wealth, but they did not hesitate to exterminate them if they offered any kind of resistance… (18)

The Amerindians had been accustomed to war and its consequences, and they had learned to adapt to life under occupation, but nothing had prepared them for the unique characteristics of these new occupying forces… The invaders assumed the role of masters and the vanquished the role of servants, an incipient proletariat in an emerging neocapitalist society still redolent of semi-feudalism. The choices available to the natives were limited to working for the occupiers and perishing – or resisting, and also perishing, while struggling to retain their own way of life… (19)

(There was) genocide perpetrated on all natives of America by the Europeans.” (20)  

However, other statements scattered throughout the book seem to imply a quite different view of what was happening, or beginning to happen, in Spanish America by the mid-16th century. 

[Las Casas] alienated the colonists, precluding meaningful dialogue with them and consequently eliminating any chance of bringing about improvement in their treatment of the Indians… (21)

[In the Short History] he fails to represent the Indians as the equals of the Europeans and thus capable of social organisation, adaptation, or rebellion. His is a myopic vision that did not look far into the historical background of some highly civilised cultures nor could he envisage a future where ethnic and racial lines could be erased in an amalgamated society emerging from the main streams conforming Indoamerica. It is as if he imagined only an irreversible present… (22)

The bishop of Chiapa once again demonstrated that he was unable to adapt to the reality of a changing, dynamic, emerging society that was developing in the New World… (23)

Despite his professed affection for the Indians, and the show of support he had received from them in his visits to their settlements, Las Casas, as usual, seemed more concerned with the behaviour of his fellow Spaniards than with becoming closer to his native parishioners or with attempting to bridge the gap between colonised and colonisers…  The Dominican tried and failed to achieve drastic changes from the top down, while remaining ignorant of the process of resistance and adaptation in which the Indians were actively participating. After decades of subjugation, the natives had discovered the advantages of reaching a modicum of understanding with the colonisers, not because they unquestioningly accepted the superiority of the invaders but because, after their military defeat, they had realised that they could retain far more of their traditional prerogatives if they collaborated or appeared to collaborate with their oppressors… (24)

During Las Casas’s lifetime, the natives, with very rare exceptions in Mexico and Peru, were never present in the process of deliberation resulting in policies affecting their lives, just as they were absent from the determination of any legal or juridical process relating to the enforcement of the laws affecting them. Despite his long experience in American territory, he never became a part of that dynamic American society so immersed in the process of creating a new world. He was always the outsider straddling two worlds, unwilling to forsake his alterity… (25)

Throughout his long career, the friar’s inability to differentiate the events and processes that had taken place in the Antilles from the particularities of the conquest of Mexico, Peru and the rest of the American mainland became increasingly evident. It was this inability to assimilate the new complex dimension of the encounter between Europe and the high civilizations of mainland America that prevented him from implementing truly effective reforms… (26)

One has only to peruse his (History of the Indies) or the (Short History of the Destruction of the Indies) to realise that despite his knowledge and experience of America, there were profound voids in his knowledge of the nuanced relationships between coloniser and colonised obtaining in the New World… (27) 

It is largely his unwillingness to change, or even retreat partially, that defines Las Casas’s existence and is greatly responsible for his inability to accomplish any unqualified victories in his struggle in favour of the Indians or, even, against his most dedicated opponents…” (28)  

Some of these criticisms are absurd. The Short History of the Destruction of the Indies was a description of genocide, the genocide which Castro himself declares to have happened. It was a highly-coloured sketch and its purpose was to impress the need to stop this genocide upon the Spanish king and court. But the massive Apologetic History of the Indies had a different aim. It was intended to make a more profound impression on thinking, and it is all about representing the Indians as the equals of the Europeans, in some ways possibly their superiors.  

To say that Las Casas shies away from looking too deeply into “the historical background of some highly civilised peoples” is ridiculous, it’s quite the reverse of the truth. As a matter of fact, he makes a point of detailing all the “barbarous” behaviour which the ancient Roman writers attributed to the Spanish. We cannot look down on the Indians for their faults and bad customs, he says near the end of his Apologetic History, “because we ourselves in our ancestors’ times were much worse, whether in our irrationality and political confusion, or in the vices and brutal customs to be found all around Spain, as has been shown in many places above.” (29) Even from a glance at the Apologetic History’s table of contents, it is clear that the skeletons are being pulled out of Europe’s closets.  

Nor is it true that Las Casas was unable to imagine a future of racial blending. As far back as 1516, in one of the first practical schemes he submitted to the Spanish regent, he proposed a kind of cooperative agriculture, which he thought would result in the sons and daughters of cooperating Indians and Spaniards marrying one another. “The land and the people would fruitfully multiply” as a result. (30) Castro has actually mentioned this himself, but he seems to forget. 

However, it is not absurd to say or to imply, as Castro does, that American colonial society had changed considerably by the mid-16th century; that forced labour in Mexico and Peru was by no means as vicious and destructive as forced labour in the Antilles; that relationships between the colonists and the Indians were changing and could have been changed still further, to the Indians’ benefit; and that Las Casas was out of touch with all of this. Here Castro seems to have a large measure of agreement with the pro-colonialist Christian writer Jean Dumont, who has made this case at length. 

The reference to “that dynamic American society so immersed in the process of creating a new world” might seem surprising. Surely, insofar as there was dynamism creating something new, it was still being exerted by the Spaniards in their own interests? And the most dynamic Indians, surely, were trying to restore their own systems, as in the great Peruvian rebellion led by the Inca Tupac Amaru in the 1570s? But that’s when you take the larger social and political picture. One can’t deny that at the micro-level there really was dynamism creating a new hybrid reality. Unlike the Puritan English and Dutch of later times, the Spanish were not thoroughgoing segregationists. They mixed with the Indians, creating a mestizo or mixed-race group. And this is the group to which Castro tells us that he himself belongs. (31) 

The modern Latin Americans can be seen as “the children of la chingada [“the raped one”], as some modern Mexican literary figures have characterised the mestizo inhabitants of America”. (32) And nonetheless… by whatever dubious or quite outrageous means, history has managed to get this far, i.e. as far as ourselves… and we’re making our way in the world, and not doing badly!… So the aversion to Las Casas becomes more understandable. For all that he foresaw a mestizo America in 1516, it seems more than doubtful whether his later ideas, if actually put into practice, would have led to something like modern Latin America four and a half centuries on.