The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation

Part five: A Modern Criticism of Las Casas (4)

Motolinía’s Denunciation 

All of this becomes clearer when we get to the Franciscan Fray Toribio de Motolinía. He was “one of the senior members of Spanish missionary efforts in New Spain and a member of the legendary ‘twelve apostles’”, (33) i.e. those Franciscans who had faced the tlamatinime in public debate in 1524. In the conflict about making the encomiendas permanent, where Las Casas and the Indian lords on the one hand faced the Peruvian colonists on the other, Motolinía supported the colonists. He was also opposed to the view that Christianity should be preached by exclusively peaceful means: if the Indians showed themselves disinclined to hear the preachers, he thought force should be used. (34)  

In January 1555 he wrote one of the fiercest attacks ever made on Las Casas, which he sent to the Emperor Charles V. Castro’s tone is remarkably sympathetic when he tells the story. 

“In essence, the dispute represented the two aspects of Spanish occupation: on one side stood the idealistic, reform-minded Las Casas, and on the other the pragmatic-minded Motolinía, who, by sharing the daily life of the colonists, had come to accept their outlook concerning the natives and the relationship of the colonies to the crown. Inevitably, as was the case in all polemics in which Las Casas was involved, the argument devolved to the question of the encomienda and the encomenderos. Motolinía argued in favour of the encomienda by shifting the onus of responsibility from the individual encomenderos to the king. He claimed that since the king was the ultimate beneficiary of the encomienda, to declare it illegal would be to go not only against the crown’s own interests but to contravene its own authority as well. Furthermore, the Franciscan argued that at the time of his writing the letter, the encomienda was subject to such legal restrictions and scrutiny as to render Las Casas’s charges of abuses null and void.” (35)

Motolinía then made specific accusations, claiming that Las Casas had personally violated some of the New Laws that he himself had drafted. Allegedly, when acting as bishop of Chiapa he had made large numbers of Indians carry his belongings without payment. He had also left Indians who were anxious to become Christians unbaptised, demanding an unreasonable level of preparation before baptism could be given.  

“The letter went on to condemn the Dominican’s inability, or implied unwillingness, to learn any native languages. It also challenged the Dominican’s claims about the peaceful conversion of Indians in Guatemala, arguing that soon after the settlement of Tuzulutlán (known to the Spaniards as “the Land of War” J.M.) Las Casas had departed for Spain without regard for the fate of his newly acquired native parishioners. 

Las Casas never responded officially to the Franciscan’s accusations, but the incident illustrates the difference in approaches to the problem of the Indian between two different missionary orders and two different individuals. In addition to Motolinía’s approach to the wholesale administering of sacraments (he boasted that on one occasion he had baptised fourteen thousand Indians in one day with the assistance of only a single companion), there were profoundly irreconcilable differences in their conception and approach to what constituted true support and affection for the natives.” (36)

And here we come to the crucial statement. It was not only the colonists that Motolinía was closer to. 

“Concretely, Motolinía was closer to the elementary reality of America and its native inhabitants than the peripatetic Dominican could ever be. As Silvio Zavala has indicated, the Franciscan lived and worked as an apostle attempting to bring the Christian Gospel to the natives of New Spain for more than thirty years. While the one was concerned with evangelising, the immediate task at hand, the other was preoccupied with the more abstract issues of liberty and justice for the same people. Unlike Motolinía, who felt compelled by his praxis to remain in America, Las Casas felt the need to be at court, close to the centres of power, even if this implied being removed from the people most affected by his acts. While Las Casas approached the question of the Indian from a theoretical and philosophical perspective, Motolinía’s contact with the everyday, commonplace reality of ministering to the downtrodden found no benefit or use for the Dominican’s lofty idealistic aspirations. These differences between the two missionaries were clearly delineated in the Franciscan’s letter to the king. He challenged Las Casas to emulate the example of those who lived every day with the contradictions present in the New World. As he expressed in his letter, he thought little of the Dominican’s praxis: ‘I would like to see the aforementioned Las Casas, persevering for fifteen or twenty years, confessing ten to twelve sick Indians covered with sores every day.’” (37)

After this clearly presented contrast, Castro needs to give his more doctrinaire readers the reassurance that “at the same time, (Motolinía and Las Casas) incarnated two different faces of sixteenth-century Spanish ecclesiastical imperialism”. (38) 

But what he has implied is this: Las Casas ought to have been a radical version of Motolinía. He should have abandoned his court campaigning, got right in close to natives and colonists alike, and worked to promote concrete changes in the natives’ interests. In fact, he should have tried to make one particular fear of Motolinía’s come true. In a part of the letter to Charles V not quoted by Castro, Motolinía says: “Since many of the Indians are now using horses, it would be no bad thing if Your Majesty issued an order that no permission to have horses shall be given except to the principal lords, because if the Indians get used to horses, many of them will make horsemen of themselves and in time they will want equality with the Spaniards.” (39)

Las Casas, then, (Castro implies) should have forgotten about Aztecs and Incas. He should have omitted the anti-genocide campaigning, since that was an obsolete issue. He should have stopped unrealistically trying to abolish the encomienda and instead worked to transform it. And rather than cooperate with Indian lords or try to restore any part of the old system, he should have tried to foster a movement demanding Indian equality within the colonial society that the Spanish had established. 

The case can be argued. Certainly it can be argued, and it’s a pity that Castro hasn’t been able to make it more clearly. Two main questions arise. The first is whether politics of this kind was a real possibility of that place (or places) and time. And the second, which overlaps with the first, is whether that is what the Indians wanted.