The Spanish Polemic on Colonisation

Part five: A Modern Criticism of Las Casas (5)

What Did The Indians Want? 

What did the Indians want? Castro himself has posed that question of “the natives’ individual and collective problems, aspirations, and expectations.” He has raised it as an issue for Las Casas. He doesn’t seem to appreciate that it’s an issue for him as a historian.  

One thing that people usually want is not to be forced to do what they don’t want. That’s universal. But because he will not think concretely, Castro regards Las Casas’s peaceful Christianity as just part of the atrocity of cultural destruction. The issue of exclusively peaceful means, which separated Las Casas from Sepúlveda, Motolinía and others, is reduced to a secondary issue, if not a triviality. Here the modern historian manages to have his cake and eat it. In his non-doctrinaire mode he can scorn Las Casas for not being an assiduous missionary, unlike the admirable Motolinía, while in doctrinaire mode he condemns Las Casas for being any kind of missionary at all.  

“Essentially, his disagreements with the others were more concerned with form while leaving the essence of the cultural onslaught untouched. It was simply a case of peaceful versus forceful conversion to Christianity, and his proposals offered a different form of implementing the same goal of converting the natives to attain the ultimate objective of the colonisation of consciousness.” (40)

What a formulation: “simply” a case of peaceful versus forceful conversion! The point is that peaceful adoption of Christianity would not imply “a colonisation of consciousness”, if that means destruction of the pre-Christian culture. The natives were capable of transforming Christianity too. There’s a good example of that from elsewhere: Ireland. 

Saint Patrick, Ireland’s most charismatic missionary, was a Roman Briton. His writings do not show any signs of him having gone native, and there’s harsh Roman-imperial Christian thinking in a poem by his outstanding convert Dubhthach maccu Lugair. However, within a few centuries Patrick was the central figure in an official account of how Christianity had been fused with the pre-Christian culture, retaining most of that culture, by agreement with the major kings and poets of the time. This account was placed as an introduction to the main collection of Irish laws, the Senchas Már. Modern academics with suitably doctored brains refer to it as “the pseudo-historical prologue to the Senchas Már”. But while they are correct in thinking that it isn’t the kind of history Professor Ranke told them should be written, it is actually more authentic history than any one of them will ever write themselves. It records a great fact: that Christianity was assimilated, went native, in Ireland, that it didn’t just destroy what went before. (41) 

Because of this assimilation, after another thousand years of Christianity Geoffrey Keating was still singing the praises of the great pre-Christian kings. But Keating does not write more warmly about Cormac Mac Airt than Las Casas writes about Pachacútec Inca. (42)

Was there scope for such an assimilative act, or series of acts, in America? What did the Indians want? Could they have made their own of Christianity? Did they show any interest in it as people free to choose? 

To discover what people want, one should try to find them in the free condition and spend some time among them. There was a Spaniard who did precisely that, though not by his own will. When an expedition to conquer Florida went wrong and led to a series of shipwrecks and disasters, this man, whose name was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, became lost with a handful of companions. They roamed through southern parts of the present-day United States, living with one group of free Indians after another, for the next eight years. 

Afterwards Cabeza de Vaca wrote an account of his adventures, which was published in Seville in 1542. Like so many of the Spanish colonists, he was a fine story-teller. His account is no doubt embroidered, but it seems a more innocent kind of embroidery. On the whole, he gives credible pictures of the relatively poor and unsophisticated Indian communities that he lived with.