Las Casas was a Spanish priest who came to the New World in the early years of the conquest. He was so horrified by the cruelty of the Spaniards’ treatment of the indigenous people that he spent the rest of his life trying to stop the carnage. He was not the first or the only Spaniard to advocate for the indigenous but his writings on the subject were so voluminous, and he made such a strong legal argument in defense of the indigenous that his work had the greatest impact.
Unfortunately, Las Casas was a really shitty writer. He was a fantasist, and he peppered the witness accounts he collected with the most ridiculous stories of his own invention.
Here is one example. Las Casas was trying to narrate the story of his personal awakening to the injustice of the Spaniards’ way of treating the indigenous and he described the day when he and a group of Spanish conquerors came upon an unexplored area. The Indians were stunned to see the Spaniards but we’re still very friendly. They gaped at the horses, the beards, and the weird clothing of the visitors but they were very hospitable.
But then something horrible happened.
One of the Spaniards had spent a lot of time on the way there sharpening his sword. So the bastard decided to see if the sword was sharp enough and started hacking into a completely peaceful Indian. Mass hysteria started, and Spaniards began to hack at the horrified, unarmed Indians left and right.
This is a true story, and both Las Casas and the civilization that produced him must be commended for this pretty exceptional (at the time, and often even today) capacity to see that this was beyond wrong.
But then Las Casas just had to go and spoil the story by integrating his fantasies into it. He tells of an Indian whose belly was slashed by a Spaniard to the point where his guts were spilling out. The Indian supposedly approached Las Casas and asked to be baptized into the Catholic faith. He survived for as long as it took to baptize him, and died immediately after, happy in the knowledge that his soul would be saved.
The story is major BS. How could an Indian who just saw Spaniards for the first time know about the meaning of baptism? How could he understand the concept well enough to care about baptism more than anything while his guts were spilling out? What language was the conversation conducted in? This is all crap on steroids. Las Casas was trying to make the point that the indigenous were desperate to convert and killing them was wrong because it would create lots of unsaved souls. He was setting the foundations for a legal argument he was preparing to make. But in the process, he didn’t just fudge the truth. He created the image of Indians as simple-minded to the point of congenital idiocy, childlike, and quite inferior.
The whole enterprise of the Spanish conquest was done without a whiff of racial superiority. The Spanish crown promoted intermarriage between the Indians and the Spanish with a maniacal singularity of purpose. But Las Casas – who was motivated by compassion and did achieve crucial improvements in the status of the indigenous people – actually laid a foundation for a narrative of racial inferiority.
The Las Casas vision is the one we have adopted for teaching today. We don’t teach the conquest as a fight between equally fierce, sophisticated, powerful civilizations – which the indigenous were except for a couple primitive tribes – where one won because it had better weapons and a more seasoned immune system. Las Casas was the definition of a white savior, and yet the approach we take to his writings is often that of an unquestioning deference.
P.S. I’m writing this because there seemed to be a lot of interest in the subject of Spanish history. There’s a lot more where this came from, so let me know if I should go on.