“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 interest. If it was worth reprinting at all, it should at least have been reprinted with some kind of critical apparatus, although Professor Hanke’s brief bibliographical note may save the unwary from assuming that the estimable Sir Arthur has said the last word on his subject.

Even reprinted under the disguise of seventeenth-century English prose for an age accustomed to systematic violence on a scale unknown to the sixteenth century, the stories told by Las Casas are horrifying. “I do also affirme that I have seen the Spaniards for no other cause, but to satisfie their own wills, dismember the Indians both men and women, cutting off their eares, noses and hands…I have also seen the Spaniards set their dogs upon the Indians to devour them; and such a number of houses and villages burnt by them, that it would be over long to rehearse them: This is also a truth, that they would snatch young Infants out of their mothers bellies, and cast them as far as they could throw them….”

Were such stories true, or were they, as the defenders of Spain’s colonial reputation have affirmed, the patent exaggerations of an obsessive paranoiac, who had no scruple about blackening his country’s reputation in the eyes of the world? Anyone who looks with a reasonably open mind at the history of the New World in the sixteenth century can hardly fail to conclude that the Black Legend is solidly based on fact. There is too much evidence, from too many different kinds of sources, about the atrocities committed by the Spaniards during the conquest and colonization of the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru to allow us to discount them as mere occasional incidents.

Take, for instance, the conquest of Michoacán in western Mexico by Nuño de Guzmán at the end of the 1520s. This is a record of unrelieved horror, which comes poignantly through even the confused pages of The Chronicles of Michoacán, now produced in an English version, although with some infelicities (nothing could be better calculated to destroy any sense of atmosphere than to have the native ruler of Michoacán say: “Let John Doe and such and such a woman be married, because I have need of their help and efforts”). The chronicles are a compilation by a sixteenth-century Franciscan from native accounts of the history and myths of Michoacán. They are an important but difficult source for historians and anthropologists, and deserved far more editing than they here receive to be made comprehensible to the public for whom they are presumably intended.


Most readers will not make much sense of these convoluted myths about the treacherous and bloodthirsty behavior of gods and folk heroes with unpronounceable polysyllabic names. But the book includes a few precious pages in which the Indians first become aware of the Spaniards, those “strange people who did not eat the same kind of food or get drunk as the Indians did.” The reader can watch dimly, as if through a flawed glass, the entry of the Spaniards into Michoacán, preceded by that grimmest of all conquistadores, smallpox. He can watch, too, the terrible passage through the country of Nuño de Guzmán, ravaging and torturing as he went. “The Cazonci answered, saying that none of that was true, and the Spaniards told him again to tell the truth. They tied his hands, poured water in his nose, and began questioning him about gold…. Guzmán then issued the sentence that the Cazonci be tied to the tail of a horse, dragged alive, and burned.” And so the grim tale goes on.

Why did the Spaniards do it? Professor Louis B. Wright attempts to provide a clue to the answer in his Gold, Glory, and the Gospel, but he does not get us very far. One purpose of his volume, he writes, “is to try to indicate the characteristics of these adventurers in terms of their own century.” In fact, he provides little more than a bland retelling of oft-told stories about the great figures of sixteenth-century discovery and conquest. As might be expected of this distinguished author, the writing is extremely fluent, and the book offers a painless introduction to the history of European expansion. There are one or two nice remarks, as that, in Spanish practice, “baptism invariably had to precede copulation.” But although the author succeeds in illustrating the not very novel thesis of the compatibility of the search for gold and slaves with the desire to spread the gospel, his book is so innocent of any social or economic analysis of the civilization which produced the conquerors that they themselves seem like cardboard figures on an exotic stage.

A far more substantial contribution to our understanding of the course and character of sixteenth-century overseas conquest is made by Mr. John Hemming in his The Conquest of the Incas. This book is in many ways a remarkable achievement. Mr. Hemming is not a professional historian but a full-time businessman, who has devoted his spare moments in recent years to very extensive reading in the secondary and primary sources for the history of the conquest and early colonization of Peru. His other spare-time activities include exploration, so that he writes with an intimate knowledge of the terrain which he describes, and ends his book with a fascinating chapter on the search for the lost city of Vilcabamba.

Mr. Hemming is, in other ways too, a brave man. Prescott published his great History of the Conquest of Peru in 1847, and it has never been superseded. This is partly because Prescott told a gripping story with a superb sense of pace and timing, and partly because, although modern historians are in a position to correct or amplify Prescott on innumerable points of detail and interpretation, they lack the desire (and perhaps the capacity) to do so within a narrative framework. It may be precisely because he is not a professional that Mr. Hemming has dared to challenge Prescott on his own ground—and has challenged him with a high degree of success.

Mr. Hemming is not a Prescott, and would not claim to be. He writes an honest prose, which has none of the felicities of Prescott (nor his occasional lushness) but which serves the purpose well enough and succeeds in maintaining the momentum of the story. The book is long but never boring, and anyone with the remotest interest in the story of the Spanish conquest will find it a joy to read. It should be said, too, that Mr. Hemming’s interests are not those of Prescott. Where Prescott, while not neglecting the civilization of the Incas, is really more concerned with the epic deeds of the conquerors and their subsequent feuds and treacheries, Mr. Hemming is primarily interested in the Incas and in the impact of the Spaniards upon them. This means that the motivation and attitudes of the conquistadores are not examined in depth, and that their civil wars after the conquest receive only a cursory discussion.


Mr. Hemming’s choice of emphasis is perfectly legitimate, although there is a general danger that the preoccupation of the later twentieth century with the down-trodden “colonial” peoples will lead to a progressive failure to understand the motives and behavior of the “imperialists.” Acculturation is a two-way, not a one-way, process, and it is just as important to grasp how the process of conquest and colonization affects the conquerors as how it affects the conquered. Mr. Hemming by no means entirely neglects the colonists, and he makes intelligent use of Mr. James Lockhart’s Spanish Peru, 1532-1560, * which is arguably the best research monograph on Latin American colonial history written by a young American historian in recent years. But he is primarily concerned to trace the story of what happens to the Incas during and after the conquest; and he does this by a careful examination and collation of the large number of chronicle sources which are now at our disposal.

Through Mr. Hemming’s narrative we can watch the varieties of indigenous reaction to the traumatic experience of Spanish invasion and conquest. There is bewilderment and opportunism, fatalistic resignation, and the heroic gesture of defiance. The story of the flickering survival and final elimination of the old Inca state is a moving one, made all the more poignant by the treacheries and cruelties of the Spaniards.

After a long period of stalemate (caused partly by the tenacity of Inca resistance but more by the feuds among the conquerors), that great viceroy, Francisco de Toledo, determined in the early 1570s to destroy not only Inca power, but also the claims of the Incas to be the legitimate rulers of Peru. By proving that the Incas themselves were recent conquerors and usurpers, he could undermine the arguments of Las Casas that the Spaniards were dispossessing the “natural lords” of the land. Although he destroyed the last nomadic relics of the old Inca state, his success was not as complete as he would have wished. He executed the last ruling Inca, Tupac Amaru, but in so doing made a martyr who became the presiding spirit of all future indigenous revolts against Spanish domination. He confiscated all the copies he could find of the works of Las Casas, but nothing could extinguish the fame of that ferocious champion of the exploited and the oppressed.

Indignation, either against or on behalf of Las Casas, has become a singularly sterile exercise. Modern historical research has developed new techniques (and, one would hope, new sympathies) which are capable of exposing the Black Legend and its counterpart, the White Legend, as the crude and unsatisfactory half-truths which they always were. The subtitle of The Tears of the Indians reads: “An historical and true account of the cruel Massacres and Slaughters of above Twenty Millions of Innocent People.” Twenty millions? Advocates of the White Legend denounce the figure as a typical piece of hyperbole by a man who lacked even the remotest idea of statistical accuracy. Yet the now famous researches of Professors Cook and Borah into the post-conquest depopulation of central Mexico suggest a fall from around twenty-five million in 1519 to little over one million by the end of the century. With figures of this magnitude, Las Casas’s hyperbole begins to look a good deal less hyperbolic.

But to possess figures is not enough. They still have to be understood. It is only in recent years that we have really become aware of the devastating impact of European diseases on peoples and civilizations which had previously lived in isolation from them. “The people are in accord that measles and smallpox were unknown until the Spaniards brought them to the land,” says The Chronicles of Michoacán. Precisely so—that was the whole trouble. The ravages caused by European diseases were terrible—far more terrible in their extension than the numerous cruelties perpetrated by conquistadores greedy for gold.

But neither disease nor atrocity explains everything. The tragic history of the Amazon Indians of Brazil over the past few years suggests the frightening vulnerability of a civilization brought into contact with another that is overwhelmingly superior in resources and power. There are many ways in which a civilization can be destroyed, and not the least of these is demoralization and disintegration simply as the result of contact. It is enough to go to the Andes, even today, to get the impression of a shell-shocked people who have never recovered from the trauma of conquest and colonization. But the ways in which this process occurs, and its exact social and demographic consequences, still demand the most scrupulous and intensive exploration. This is work in which historians and anthropologists can, and must, combine. The pioneering research at present being conducted by Professor John V. Murra of Cornell University and his colleagues into Andean ethnohistory will one day add a whole new dimension to the story told by Mr. Hemming.

This is the setting within which the Black Legend needs to be re-examined. The story of the violence, the ruthlessness, and the cruelty is substantially true, but it is not the whole story, even as an explanation of the terrible consequences of the Spanish conquest. Nor does it begin to represent the whole story of conquest and colonization itself. Against a Nuño de Guzmán must be set a Las Casas. There were strong countercurrents, Christian and humanitarian, attempting to check the cruel tide of conquest. It is easy enough to point to the failures; and it is possible, although foolish, to be consistently cynical about the motives. The Spanish crown undoubtedly saw clear fiscal and political advantages to itself in going some of the way with Las Casas, and this helped him to accomplish some things that would otherwise have been impossible. But the crown did possess a real sense of moral obligation toward its Indian subjects; and many of its officials made serious and often heroic attempts to express this sense of moral obligation in practice, with varying degrees of success according to the time and the place.

We hear much, and rightly so, of the horrors of exploited labor in the silver and mercury mines of colonial Peru. But how often do we hear that the Spanish crown in the early seventeenth century began to close down the Huancavelica mercury mines—the very foundation of the Spanish colonial economy—because it was so concerned by reports of the appalling conditions under which the Indians labored? This is the other side of the coin, and it, too, has a history.

This Issue

November 5, 1970