28 March 2008

Fragments from Bartolomé de Las Casas

I have remarked previously that Voices of a People’s History of the United States (2004) by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove offers a generous selection from the writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas. There are extracts from The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account (1542) and In Defense of the Indians (1550). These are placed in company with extracts from the diary of Columbus and a brief passage from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire (1982) in a chapter designed to correspond with chapter one of A People’s History. Both Voices of a People’s History and A People’s History have twenty-four chapters.

Zinn and Arnove’s assertion that Columbus “is universally portrayed as a heroic figure” (29) is much harder to swallow now than when Zinn wrote the first edition of A People’s History (1980). But they are describing his portrayal for generations of Americans up through the time they were in school. Several pages later, in the headnote to the selections from Las Casas, they observe that “the idealized, romanticized picture of Columbus has begun to be reconsidered” (35).

Estimating the Dead

The passage they offer from The Devastation of the Indies focuses upon depopulation and Spanish cruelties. Bartolomé de Las Casas depicts the islands of the Caribbean as a paradise formerly heavily populated by peoples that were “docile and open to doctrine, very apt to receive our Holy Catholic faith” (36). Las Casas arrived in Hispaniola in his eighteenth year in 1502, and claims to recall such a population of Indians that “it is as though God had crowded into these lands the great majority of mankind” (36). He offers general estimates of the aboriginal population of three million on Hispaniola (36), as many as one million on San Juan and Jamaica (40), and “a countless number” on the island of Cuba (42).
We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe without trying to deceive myself that the number of the slain is more like fifteen million.
Las Casas, in Voices of A People’s History, 37.
Few scholars today accept these numbers, although Zinn advances them in A People’s History with minimal discussion and argument, as noted in “Howard Zinn on Depopulation.” Las Casas’s tendency toward hyperbole should give us pause. When Las Casas declares that Hispaniola “was perhaps the most densely populated place in the world” (35), we might take it as an effort towards census. But we find more exceptionalism on the next page: “of all the infinite universe of humanity, these people are the most guileless, the most devoid of wickedness and duplicity, the most obedient and faithful” (36). They lack only the gospel, or “they would be the most fortunate people in the world” (36). The Spanish, on the other hand, are the world’s most vile sinners: “their insatiable greed and ambition [is] the greatest ever seen in the world” (37). The most people, who are the most innocent, were abused by those with the most greed. Did Las Casas have enough experience throughout the world to render such judgment? Such comparisons come not from his breadth of knowledge, but from the ethnocentrism and cultural arrogance that he both advances and critiques.

Spanish Cruelties

Las Casas blames the killing and cruelty on the Spanish motives, and the opportunities for wealth out of proportion to individual merit.
Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold, and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.
Las Casas, in Voices of A People’s History, 37.
He illuminates Spanish greed through a story of Hatuey who fled to Cuba from Hispaniola with many of his people in hopes of escaping the cruelties. Upon learning that the Spanish were coming to Cuba, he conducted a ceremony designed to appeal to the European god.
He had a basket full of gold and jewels and he said: “You see their God here, the God of the Christians. If you agree to it, let us dance for this God, who knows, it may please the God of the Christians and then they will do us no harm.” And his followers said, all together, “Yes, that is good, that is good!” And they danced round the basket of gold until they fell down exhausted. Then their chief, the cacique Hatuey, said to them: “See there, if we keep this basket of gold they will take it from us and will end up killing us. So let us cast away the basket into the river.” They all agreed to do this, and they flung the basket of gold into the river that was nearby.
Las Casas, in Voices of A People’s History, 40-41.
Later Hatuey was burned at the stake, but was given the opportunity to convert to Catholicism when he was “tied to the stake.” When told that Heaven was populated by Christians, he declared a preference for Hell. Las Casas comments, “Such is the fame and honor that God and our Faith have earned through the Christians who have gone out of the Indies” (41). Las Casas is clear. His concern was to save the souls of the Indians. This mission was rendered more difficult by the rapid depopulation of the aboriginals at the hands of Spanish who should have been model Christians, but appeared rather to be servants of their own greed.


Anonymous said...

Who is the most influential historian in America? Could it be Pulitzer Prize winners Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. or Joseph Ellis or David McCullough, whose scholarly works have reached a broad literary public? The answer is none of the above. The accolade belongs instead to the unreconstructed, anti-American Marxist Howard Zinn, whose cartoon anti-history of the United States is still selling... zinn has more fiction than fact in his writings and is self serving in his desire for social engineering and revisionist writings of history. Plainly put he has never seen an American patriot that was not in some way self serving or corrupt. Conversely he has never seen a corrupt Marxist society that didn’t have the "Peoples best interests at heart. There is far more fabrication than fact in his writings, plainly seen by his Obfuscation of any validations of facts in the simple use of basic MLA to site any of his sources.
He has also plainly stated, "Objectivity is impossible,” Zinn once remarked, “and it is also undesirable. That is, if it were possible it would be undesirable, because if you have any kind of a social aim, if you think history should serve society in some way; should serve the progress of the human race; should serve justice in some way, then it requires that you make your selection on the basis of what you think will advance causes of humanity.” so, justifies his selective reporting of the facts to further his own political agenda and hatred for American values. Please see for background of my comments to Mr. Sinn" biased history. I am sure my view point is going to draw more hateful venom than I am interested in but, the fact I am required to read this and be tested on it later for a grade. One that evaluates my knowledge of American history before 1865 is incredibly disappointing. It is social engineering of young minds and not exactly valid true. Sorry if Im unwilling to be a socialist pupet.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the comment, James. Although Zinn's Marxist tendencies are well-known, your rant grossly distorts his politics and his scholarship. Zinn makes no pretense of being objective, as you correctly note. But he does not seek to indoctrinate in the manner that you suggest.

Your point regarding MLA documentation is both welcome and horrifying. I share you desire for better documentation in Zinn's work, but must reject your recommendation. Historians should use Chicago, never MLA. MLA eschews the footnotes that should characterize serious historical scholarship. MLA is fine for some forms of literary criticism, but wholly inappropriate for many other modes of scholarly writing. Zinn uses neither MLA nor Chicago, but a form of documentation that is common. Publishers favor his sort of loose documentation. It's what you'll find in most popular histories when they have any at all.

I make no claim to be an authority on Zinn's entire oeuvre, so he may have addressed my next point explicitly in something that I have not read. I sense from his writing that he regards nationalism and patriotism as barbaric, and it matters not whether the nation is Marxist or Capitalist, totalitarian or democratic. I do not share his animosity towards all nationalism, but I find that his analysis of certain excesses of American nationalism are trenchant. I find your criticism of his alleged "anti-Americanism" both erroneous and offensive. It has become part of the reactionary mantra in the United States to call "anti-American" all views that differ from the narrowly jingoistic point of view that sees US domination of the world as necessary and just, but this mantra is indefensible historically, politically, morally. It is time for constructive criticism of American excesses to be recognized for what it is: true patriotism. Zinn's motives may differ from that of the true patriot, but he helps point to some tendencies that deserve scrutiny. In this self-criticism, Zinn correctly highlights the work of Bartolomé de Las Casas as exemplary.

Jeff Siemers said...

Hi James,

Liked your post about Las Casas.

Are you interested in taking on any guest posts?
Feel free to view samples from my own blog:
Algonkian Church History
(Some of the posts are only recommendations or referrals to other media, but other posts have real original content. If you let me write a guest post for you, it would have original content.)

Either way, I'll keep an eye on you blog for posts of interest.

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