The Tears of the Indians
The Chronicles of Michoacán
Gold, Glory, and the Gospel
“If I had decreed to reckon up the impieties, slaughters, cruelties, violences, rapines, murders and iniquities, and other crimes committed by the Spaniards against God, the King, and these innocent Nations, I should make too large a volume: yet I shall do my endeavour, if God grant me life.” So wrote that indomitable cleric, Bartolomé de Las Casas, the “apostle of the Indians.” God did grant him life—ninety-two years of it—and he more than fulfilled his promise. No man has ever denounced the crimes of his own compatriots at greater length, or more unequivocally, than this sixteenth-century Spanish Dominican, horrified by what he had seen and heard of his country’s methods of conquest and colonization in America.
Two books helped the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant world of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to construct its image of the bloodthirsty and papistical Spaniard, the exterminator of countless millions of Indians—an image which has lasted in some form or other down to our own times. One of these books, whose importance is at present underrated, was the Italian Girolamo Benzoni’s racy History of the New World (Venice, 1565). The other was Las Casas’s Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, first published in Spain in 1552, translated into English in 1583 as The Spanish Colonie, and then again in 1656 as The Tears of the Indians. It is this 1656 edition which is now most usefully reprinted (seventeenth-century spelling and all), together with The Life of Las Casas by Sir Arthur Helps (first published 1867) and a brief Introduction by that energetic doyen of Las Casas studies, Professor Lewis Hanke, on “the relevance of Las Casas to our contemporary world.” (Next time I hear that word “relevance” I shall reach for my bow and arrow.)
It is valuable to have an English version of Las Casas’s most famous polemical tract in circulation once again. It would have been even more valuable if some attempt had been made in an introductory note to set the translation and the translator, John Philips, in the context of the anti-Spanish hysteria of Cromwellian England. It is a pity, too, that the occasion was not seized to reproduce the famous engravings of Spanish atrocities by Theodore de Bry—those terrible pictures of ghastly tortures and dismembered limbs which did more than anything else to impress the collective Protestant consciousness with the horrors of Spanish conquest. This would have been a more useful enterprise than the republication of the biography of Las Casas by Sir Arthur Helps.
Sir Arthur’s work on the Spanish conquest of America was, in the words of an early editor, that of a “scholar and a Christian gentleman.” His abhorrence of slavery makes him a sympathetic biographer of the man who worked so hard for the freedom of the Indians. But a great deal of research has been done on Las Casas since Sir Arthur’s times, especially by Professor Hanke himself, and the biography does not now have much more than an antiquarian…
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