Early modern Europe’s most eloquent apologist fr Native American rights, Bartolomé de las Casas first heard of the new “discoveries” as a student in Seville in 1493, when Columbus triumphantly entered that Spanish city. (N6AmA 38)
The Very Brief Relation of the Devastation of the Indies is a fairly early political tract—scarcely more than a pamphlet—written about America. Hardly the first political writing published in Spain, but one of the first and perhaps the first important one written about the then-New World.
Casas was motivated to help alleviate the suffering of natives an America, and for this (admirable) reason, it’s hard to take his lists of atrocities seriously. Europeans are just too perfectly evil in Casas’ writing for me to really believe it. Call it a DFW-style framing of cynicism and mistrust of the politically-motivated written word, but I read all of his assertions of the truth of what he writes to do the opposite of their intent: I read “I once saw this…” and “I saw all these things I have described, and countless others” (40) before and after (respectively) a gruesome anecdote about the screams of Indians being burned alive as meaning “You’re not going to believe this.”
There’s an interesting wrap-around, or book-ending, to the imagery in the passage included in the Norton. Note the bolded (by me) text in this passage from the beginning:
The Spaniards did not content themselves with what the Indians gave them of their own free will, according to their ability, which was always too little to satisfy enormous appetites, for a Christian eats and consumes in one day an amount of food that would suffice to feed three houses inhabited by ten Indians for one month. (39)
And compare it with this, at the end of the first extract, from Hispaniola:
And because on few and far between occasions, the Indians justifiably killed some Crhistians, the Spaniards made a rule among themselves that for every Christian slain by the Indians, they would slay a hundred Indians. (40)
According to Casas, Europeans appetites and consumption is far greater than that of the Indian, whether it be food or blood that the European is after.
Of course, this last passage has some degree of naïvité about how Indians only killed Christians “on few and far between occasions,” which is reflected elsewhere in this extract, too. “Because (the weapons of Indians were weak and of little service in offense), the wars of the Indians against each other are little more than games played by children,” (39). Of course this is pure silliness—even without written records we know of wars between different tribes in the Americas. Take the Aztecs, the Sioux, and the Apache. Even before the era in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, when marauding violence was the only way to survive, there was distinctly fierce warfare amongst indigenous people in the Americas.
Also note in the above passages how Casas refers to Europeans as “Christians.” It may have been chosen as the most convenient way of separating the natives from the Europeans, but I have to wonder if it wasn’t also due to the sardonic appeal of calling the perpetrators of such violence “Christians” to emphasize the hypocrisy of slaughtering natives for money and then going home to pray.
The second section is on pearl divers, and it’s the section I remember being discussed in lecture when I was taught this text. Once again I would be remiss not to point out the difficulty in believing Casas’ narrative entirely, but I would also like to call attention to the dehumanizing effect of the descriptions:
The hair of these pearl divers, naturally black, is as if burnished by the saltpeter in the water, and hangs down their backs making them look like sea dogs or monsters of another species. And in this extraordinary labor, or, better put, in this infernal labor, the Lucayan Indians are finally consumed, as are captive Indians from other provinces. (41)
The effect of describing the Indians like this is to give the impression that being forced to dive for pearls all day strips the natives of their humanity by causing them to appear deformed, but another interpretation begs consideration. By presenting them as less than human, Casas achieves more than if they were only suffering internally. His narrative is more emotionally swaying, more pathetically persuasive, since he can allow his readers to see the victims’ suffering in their faces and bodies. He’s using them the same way that their slavers are using them to collect pearls, which brings up the topic of the worthwhileness of martyrdom.
Too big an issue for this little blog, but worth thinking about.