The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation

Part five: A Modern Criticism of Las Casas (1)

What the Poets of Mexico Said 

Daniel Castro’s Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights and Ecclesiastical Imperialism is a book that’s not without interest. Castro tries to take a more realistic look at his subject. Because of his tremendous campaign to force colonial Europeans to treat non-Europeans with respect (a most ambitious thing to attempt in the 16th century, or for centuries afterwards), Bartolomé de Las Casas is often sentimentalised. But it is fair to ask the question, how much real benefit did his campaigning bring to the people it was waged for? Could it be that there was something ill-conceived, or delusive, in his entire life’s work? 

However, when Castro calls him “another face of empire” one expects to be told something about a possible alternative. There should be somebody else who was not a face of empire but a face of… what? Who was there that had better ideas than Las Casas, a better grasp of what the Indians wanted and needed? And what was it that might beneficially have been done, though Las Casas didn’t do it? 

Castro eventually seems to give a kind of answer to these questions, though not the answer one might have expected. In a short preface his series editor claims that “he also addresses what few scholars have emphasised – the ways in which the Indians themselves confronted Spanish domination and abuses. Another Face of Empire highlights these strategies of resistance while showing how Spanish imperial policies undermined attempts at reform.” (1)

This claim simply is not true. Castro shows very little interest in the Indians’ resistance – either the physical resistance that went on all over Central and South America, sometimes very tenaciously, and could flare up again after decades of quiet (as in Peru), or the mental and moral resistance. And in fact, when he comes upon instances of the latter, he doesn’t show them much respect. His instinct is to sweep them into the dustbin of history.  

An example of this is his treatment of the famous encounter between the tlamatinime or poet-prophets of Mexico and the newly-arrived Spanish Franciscan missionaries in 1524. This seems to have been something like a public debate, with a crowd present. The statement made by the tlamatinime was recorded in the Nahuatl language, and the text was later discovered by the great Spanish collector Sahagún.  

“As the number of their compatriots was declining, the tlamatinime realised that this was perhaps one of the last opportunities they would have to meet face to face with the newcomers to try to convey their anguish, impotence, despair and frustration resulting from the process of forceful domination. Fully convinced that the Europeans knew nothing of their beliefs, they nevertheless wanted to impress upon them their concept of the divine and the principles they held so dear to their hearts. Although they were aware of their subordinate position as conquered people, they were neither passive nor submissive and they proceeded to present their views in the poetic manner in which they were accustomed:

Our lords, our very esteemed lords,
great hardships have you endured to reach this land.
Here before you,
we ignorant people contemplate you…
And now, what are we to say?...
Through an interpreter we reply,
we exhale the breath and the words
of the Lord of the Close Vicinity…
For this reason we place ourselves in danger…
But where are we to go now?
We are ordinary people,
we are subject to death and destruction, we are mortals;
allow us then to die,
let us perish now, since our gods are already dead
.” (2)

In the English translation by Miguel Leon-Portilla (3) this poem has 134 lines, though some omissions are indicated. Castro doesn’t quote any more than the 14 lines given above, from the opening. But even if this fragment was all that had survived, there are signals to warn us not to take too much for granted. “We ignorant people… we common people”: the speaker who begins like that and then proceeds to talk confidently about very serious subjects is not being humble, he is trying to unsettle the other party. And the statement that the gods are dead is a very un-ordinary-looking statement. It looks highly suspicious. Who is this statement being made to, in what context, and in what tone? And what comes next? 

Castro has no suspicions. He leaps right in and buries the tlamatinime under a heavy weight of Hegelian-Marxist-Macaulayan philosophy of history.  

“The Aztec wise men understood their fast-changing reality, and they were moved to speak not just out of a fatalistic sense but also as the last remaining representatives of a vanishing world. As they met, both sides were aware of the irreconcilable differences between them. The tlamatinime and the missionaries represented the two extremes of an emerging new world in which the balance of the native universe would never be restored. 

When the dialogue with the missionaries took place, the tlamatinime were fully aware that the death sentence against their gods and their traditional way of life had been decreed long before Cortés had set foot in Mexico. Thanks to their mastery of the technology of war, the newly styled Spanish conquistadors were able to defeat large armies of warriors armed with stone and wooden weapons who could not overcome the power of horses, gunpowder, the cutting edge of the Spanish swords, or the cohesiveness of their fighting forces.” (4) (Here Castro somehow omits to mention the great un-technological fact without which this neat story might have been different: disease.) 

There are people who bury 17th century Ireland under this same philosophical rubble. The ideology of progress must be able to catch its own echoes in everything, and so Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh has no more chance of being heard than the tlamatinime. The latter did not in fact believe that their gods were dead. Leon-Portilla reasonably takes this statement to refer to what the Franciscans were saying. Nothing is more likely than that some Spanish Franciscan put it to his opponents in those very words: “Your gods are dead!” The tlamatinime quote his statement and just let it hang there, merely adding that since things are so, it is time that they themselves died too.  

What they say next is that they will tell a little about their god and their gods. The Franciscans have claimed that their gods are not true gods, and these words are disturbing (because of them we are disturbed, / because of them we are troubled. (5)) It is not what their ancestors used to say. From those ancestors they have inherited their entire way of life, which involves honouring the gods. The elders taught them that it was the gods who created life, where before there was only darkness, and it is the gods who sustain life in every way. All the great peoples of Mexico have reverenced the gods; is the ancient way of life to be destroyed now?

Hear, oh Lords,
do nothing
to our people
that will bring misfortune on them,
that will cause them to perish…

Calm and amiable,
consider, oh Lords,
whatever is best.
We cannot be tranquil
and yet we certainly do not believe,
we do not accept your teachings as truth,
even though this may offend you…

That seems to be the core of the poem, not the ambiguous flourish about death of the gods. Even though a catastrophe has occurred which involves a great, inexplicable break in the continuity of life, and the tlamatinime know and acknowledge that, I don’t see how these words can be taken as their total surrender to progress. Quite the contrary, this is spiritual resistance.