Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.
A short account of the destruction of the Indies, by Bartholome de las Casas, published in 1552, is a fascinating account. This article, it will focus on the chapter entitled ‘The mainland in the region known as Florida’, from pages 102-104. This will include a discussion of the book itself, as well as a close examination of the part of the text mentioned in particular, looking at the themes brought up, the information given and the general tone and attitude brought across by the writer. After that, there will be a contextualisation of the book in the wider spectrum of this type of writing at the time, as well as the role of Las Casas in America and similar works he also wrote. Included in this will also be some critiques of the work and as well how this book came about, the perception it had when it was written, and also the impact this work had. This includes not only in Spain but on the wider world’s perception of the Native Americans in the mid-sixteenth century. As well as that the wider ramifications for America and Europe’s involvement in the colonies in the period afterwards will also be discussed.
A short account of the destruction of the Indies was one of the first detailed accounts written about the mistreatment of Native Americans and the negative impacts of European colonisation overseas. It contains extremely detailed accounts of the atrocities occurring with eyewitness statements. It has a comprehensive list of the names of the perpetrators and the victims, as well as a detailed account of the history of the Spanish involvement in America since its discovery by Columbus in 1492. The book was written in very simple and direct fashion, which was the make sure the emphasis was placed on the facts of the crimes rather than on the writing style or the quality of the narrative. However, the work does have many problems. Alexander contends that because Las Casas spend so much of the text vilifying the Spaniards he failed to give a proper account of the behaviour of the Native Americans or their lives.
‘The mainland in the region known as Florida’ details the treatment of the Native American population of the area, by various Spanish leaders since 1513. Las Casas’ writing style in the opening of this chapter and throughout the passage, is very confrontational, as the opening line describes the Spanish leaders as “three tyrannical adventurers”. The account also contains much speculation about supposed atrocities that he believes are sure to have happened. These he believes, are occurring in areas where he knows men that he feels are ruthless killers are residing. The fact that he openly admits he is merely speculating, suggest that Las Casas was merely attempting to elicit shock value from his work. “He…has since disappeared and it is now three years since anyone has seen him or had word of him. Yet there is no doubt that he will have set about tyrannizing the people as soon as he arrived in the region…” As well as this, although the events described in this passage are gruesome, Las Casas’ clear dislike of the Spanish settlers in charge, makes the account’s validity questionable.
Las Casas does not seem very interested in giving a direct factual account of events, but rather trying to paint the Natives as entirely innocent and pure “…poor harmless natives…”, and the Spaniards as being made up entirely of ruthless killers, “…wild beasts rather than human beings…”. He shows a clear bias which affects his work. In one passage, he even begins it by describing all the Natives of one settlement as handsome and intelligent. Throughout the source, Las Casas uses a very colourful but exaggerated language to describe the Spanish, such as “the butcher-in-chief”, which takes away the impact and the seriousness of the message he is trying to get across. Although Las Casas was a preacher and so it is expected that he includes references to God, he continuously wishes for God's punishment on the people he mentions, which is distracting in an account that is meant to be just about the facts “he is now in the depths of Hell enjoying the wages of his wickedness; unless...he has been sentenced not according to his own just deserts but according to the Lord's divine mercy”. While Las Casas’ account is very striking, his choice of language and structure do not allow for an accurate account of events.
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Having said that, the publication of the book had major ramifications for Spain and the New World. The book was taken very seriously and was much revered. According to Reidy, as the public became aware of the situation in America through reading it, it led to a change in government, as laws were passed in which the rights of Native Americans were clearly demarcated and improved. Nigel Griffin, in his introduction to 1992 reprint of the book, states that the book made Las Casas the voice of Christian Europe for centuries after his death. The book gave great detail into exactly how the relationship between the Natives and the new settlers was. Before the publication, although Spain had developed a colony there since 1513, little was known in the Spanish court about the area or its people. The book led to Las Casas’ being awarded the title ‘Protector of the Indies’, which gave Las Casas’ a very powerful position at court, leading to the passing of the Repartimientos system which abolished Native slavery in Spanish colonies in America.
The book always had negative impacts, which firstly require some background into Las Casas. Las Casas, who had gone on both of the original voyages by Columbus in 1492 and 1493, would eventually settle in Hispaniola in 1502. In the late fifteenth-century, Las Casas himself owned slaves, bringing back an Native boy in 1496 whom his father had given him. This ownership would be very brief, as Queen Isabella highly disapproved of Columbus bringing back Native slaves. Upon being refused absolution from a Dominican Friar, Las Casas’ had a realisation at the feast of Pentecost, that he had profited from the Natives rather than spreading the word of God to them. The publication of his book gave him a large audience at the court. Although not the first Spaniard to defend Natives rights, Las Casa’ contribution cannot be minimalised. Touron and Charlevoix described Las Casas’ as being a “heavenly voice [of] justice and mercy for the Indians”. However, many publications afterwards would either diminish or contradict the accounts given in the book. Las Casas’ claim that the Natives were entirely innocent was largely dispelled by Cabeza de Vaca’s account where he described the Natives as very cunning and very cruel.
Las Casas’ account did indeed lead to Native American rights being at the forefront of discussion in Spain. However, while a major consequence of the publication of this book and the accounts therein, was the change in the treatment of the Natives, this then affected African slaves in Spain. Las Casas’ recommendation for the better treatment of the Native Americans, led to the passing of legislation that would allow the importation of African slaves, which paved the way for the Atlantic slave trade. In 1516, the importation of African slaves was prohibited by Cardinal Ximenes, but Las Casas’ saw this as an opportunity to improve the fortunes of the Natives. Macnutt attempts to defend Las Casas in this regard, arguing that the owning of black slaves by Spaniards was not a new concept, and that when a new colony arose it would make sense for them slaves to then be brought over, so a lack of modern-day thinking about the rights of Africans is not be expected. However, this does not tally with Las Casas’ writing calling for fair treatment of the Natives.
Ultimately, A short account of the destruction of the Indies, and ‘The mainland in the region known as Florida’ is one the most important pieces of sixteenth-century literature as Europe discovered a new world. The accounts of the atrocities are very detailed, explicit and harrowing. However, it is in his bias, that Las Casas’ account fails. He relies too heavily on trying to create an ‘us vs them’ mentality. This results in a passage full of exaggerated figures, and one-sided arguments. What could have been a genuine account of crimes, is, in reality, an attack on various figures that Las Casas dislikes. In contrast with the quality of the work, it did have major implications on sixteenth-century Europe. Ignorance turned to horror in Spain, eventually curtailing the enslavement of the Native peoples of America. However, the Repartimientos system that Las Casas was able to bring in would eventually give way to the return of the Encomienda system. Also, the account, at least inadvertently, paved the way for African slavery that would dominate America for centuries afterwards.
© 2018 Paul Barrett